By June Feder, Ph.D.
“A teacher’s work is never done.” How many times have you heard that or said it yourself? While there are so many rewards to classroom work, those who have taught also know that it’s one of the toughest jobs around. The sheer volume of work, the tug and pull of competing demands, the difficulties balancing long-term goals with needs of the moment – all contribute to intense feelings of burden and pressure. Teachers will often say that they feel overwhelmed and stressed. Developing time management skills can help them build a framework for functioning in a more organized and effective way while, at the same time, reducing feelings of stress about the job and, for many, enhancing the sense of mastery and control.
To begin, set priorities. This is not as easy as it sounds since most teachers have an enormous range of responsibilities both in the classroom and school-wide. In addition, pressures in the moment such as those related to classroom management are omnipresent and frequently threaten the focus on overall purpose and plans. Teachers describe how constant interruptions and other-than classroom demands derail their ability to get the work done in a timely and effective fashion. In these cases, the ability to be guided by one’s commitment to meaningful goals and priorities helps move the work forward, no matter what else is going on.
Setting meaningful goals requires identifying those things that teachers view as having high value and which they feel committed to achieving. One mistake that people make is to confuse goals and activities. A goal is a "big-picture” objective. For example, when I was a high school English teacher, I aimed for my junior classes to write full, coherent essays. Not only did I have a compelling interest in seeing them learn this skill, I also knew that they could benefit greatly, particularly for their college application process, in learning this. Once I set the goal, I was then able to develop and plan appropriate pedagogical activities to meet it. Obviously, in setting goals, teachers must be guided by school-wide curriculum requirements. However, the presence of external demands does not preclude the possibility or importance of teachers setting goals that are meaningful to them as well as relevant to their students.
In line with the emphasis on organizing time by prioritizing tasks, teachers should learn to distinguish between urgent and important. Steven Covey, in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes the process of evaluating activities along these dimensions. He points out that while most of us spend the majority of our time on things having high urgency value like crises or pressing problems and then find ourselves hijacked by immediate concerns, we would do better to focus on foundational activities like planning, prevention and relationship building which can fortify the march to meet longer term goals. Think of handling a disruptive child. Catching problem behavior at an early stage – or even better - taking preventive measures to forestall difficulties like learning about the child, understanding her triggers and developing a tailored action plan can reduce the likelihood of costly eruption. This allows educators to remain focused on their broader purpose.
Another important time management strategy is to put aside time for your own needs. As a group, teachers tend to devote considerable energy to caring for others. In general, this works well for students and others in their charge who can flourish with appropriate attention and care. It also benefits teachers who can see results of their labor and experience feelings of accomplishment; however, serious problems can arise when caretakers provide for others at expense to themselves. It is often difficult for educators to feel that they are not giving their students – especially the particularly needy ones- everything they possibly can. Unfortunately, such admirable intentions, when carried too far, can exact a cost in significant ways. When educators experience on-going feelings of depletion and exhaustion, it can seriously interfere with their ability to effectively execute and implement their plans. Taking care of their own needs helps them maintain the inner resources to manage challenging demands and significant pressures.
In summary, developing a capacity for good time management can enhance the valuable work teachers do, reduce the discomforting sense of urgency and burden and allow them to more fully enjoy the fruits of their “hard labor.”