7 ways teachers keep it together — that the rest of us can use too

photo-136I’ve been enjoying reading through Maia Heyck-Merlin’s book, The Together Teacher — a time management tome aimed at the chalkboard set. Good teaching is all about how you manage your time. It’s also about how you manage your students’ time so they can learn a lot in the 180-ish school days that comprise a year.

Heyck-Merlin defines this Together Teacher as one “who never scrambles to make copies at the last minute, has lessons planned a week or more in advance, gets her progress reports in early, makes time for positive parent phone calls, conducts remedial tutoring after school, and packs healthy homemade lunches.” She’s probably running marathons too, because why not? But “Don’t stress,” Heyck-Merlin tells us. “This teacher was not born that way.” Chances are, she learned how to create good systems and routines that ensure the important stuff happens.

The same is true for the rest of us as well. Here are some tips from The Together Teacher, and straight from Maia Heyck-Merlin to us via email, on how to be better about our 168 hours, no matter what we do for a living:

1. Picture your ideal week. OK, maybe not your completely ideal week, since this is a week you’ll be working (and not in the Bahamas). But it’s still a fun exercise. What would you spend your time doing during such a week? How would you spend your work hours, and how would you spend your personal time? Go ahead and create a calendar with this ideal on it. “To be clear, this plan is not meant to be followed to the letter each week,” Heyck-Merlin writes. But understanding how we’d like to be spending our time is key to using time better.

2. Set weekly objectives and priorities. Teaching is all about planning. Sure, interesting diversions might come up along the way. But you need to know what you’ll cover in any given week, and how you’ll cover it, and what your students will take away, and you need to know this before you’re “on” in front of the kids. Indeed, teacher contracts often allow for a planning period precisely because planning is so important. It’s important for others, too. We just forget to give ourselves a planning period. To be sure, plans evolve. But knowing your priorities means “you can pivot, or not pivot, when things change,” says Heyck-Merlin. “Like the dang root canal I have to get tomorrow.” (We hope it went OK!)

3. Find ways to capture your thoughts. Heyck-Merlin recommends having some sort of “Thought Catcher” in your life, “which is designed to help you capture your thoughts so you can return to them at the appropriate time without creating unnecessary urgent matters for others, firing off a half-baked e-mail that may or may not come back to you, or  forgetting your good idea.” This system can be high tech (something on your phone) or a little notebook, but have something to make sure you’re not relying just on your brain. Brains are slippery places. That explains why I went to the store partly for hummus, and didn’t get hummus. It wasn’t on the list.

4. Make the most of transitions and routines. Great teachers know that even small moments can be an opportunity for learning. Greeting students as they come into class can be a way to teach and model “soft skills.” As students take their seats, a problem or question on the board can get them thinking. Anything that happens repeatedly is ripe for building positive habits. If you grab coffee at Starbucks each morning, why not grab fruit, too, while you’re there?

5. Plot out flexible time. Teachers have a lot of set time: you teach 10th grade honors English from 9:30-10:20 every morning. That makes flexible time all the more valuable. Heyck-Merlin recommends plotting this out in advance of the week. “What are you going to do on that plane ride?” she asks. “With that two hours of work time?” Anyone with a lot of set things in her schedule (e.g. many meetings) should be extra careful with time that is not spoken for.

6. Waste not, want not. “Be prepared and able to use ‘small pockets’ of time by having the right materials, phone numbers at the ready,” says Heyck-Merlin. You can make a doctor’s appointment while in the cab to the airport. Here’s my list of 17 productive things you can do in 5 minutes.

7. Do the right things at the right time. “Monitor your energy levels and mental bandwidth and do the heavier work when you have more focus,” says Heyck-Merlin. For many of us that means doing tough stuff in the morning, when our willpower is at its peak. Turn off the phone and check it at times when you don’t need 100 percent of your energy or concentration.



8 Responses to 7 ways teachers keep it together — that the rest of us can use too


  1. Ana says:

    These are awesome tips for anyone…I’m tempted to read the book! #7 is a big one I’m working on. Trying to do something involving intense focus during my afternoon slump always ends in disaster and discouragement. Better to plan meetings then, or even active tasks like going to my mailbox in the next building, or sorting/organizing papers in my office.

    • Meghan says:

      No. 7 is one I’m working on, too. It makes such common sense, but I’ve gotten into habitual routines that don’t make the most of my energy levels. Retraining my wandering brain is not easy! A corollary halfway between 6 and 7 that I’m working on is productive multi-tasking — listening to audiobooks while doing the dishes, for example.

      An active task during the afternoon slump is such a good idea. I just got back in from a run, and instead of listening to a book like I usually do, I just let my mind wander, and I came back in full of ideas and energy for my current project — that I immediately wrote down in my little notebook so I didn’t forget them :)

      • Laura says:

        @Meghan – this is one reason I try to run in the afternoon (or will, now that it’s not going to be icy in like 24 hours!) It’s a great break and gives me more energy. I do like to run in the morning, but that is much harder to make work in my life, and since I am self-employed, I don’t have to do it first thing.

    • Laura says:

      @Ana- I’m trying to figure out which of my tasks are low energy. Phone calls and answering emails, I suppose. Actually cranking out drafts of things takes quite a bit of focus and energy, and it’s pretty hard to do later in the day.

  2. As a former teacher, I definitely did a lot of the things that are laid out here.

    In addition to point #2, I would add that it’s a great idea to keep note of things that you did not accomplish or the things that you’d like to do differently the next time. If you don’t build in that reflection time, it’s difficult to make the improvements.

    I taught for 8 years at 3 different schools and only had a planning period at one of the schools! So, a lot of my planning time took place after the school day where I reflected on the lessons for the following day!

    Thanks for the reminder because these ideas are very relevant to people in their daily lives!

    • Laura says:

      @Jennifer- oh yes, reflection time. It’s a good idea. I’m trying to build it into my planning time on Friday. How do I feel about the way things are going? What worked and what didn’t? If something didn’t work the week before, I should probably plan it differently…

  3. NS says:

    Thank you for sharing this book! I am a teacher and so many of the things she was saying I was thinking – that is me! Most of the teachers i know say to give up on being organised, but I don’t want to, and hopefully with the help of this book I won’t have to

  4. O/T: I bet you could interview Glenn Ellison (Hard math guy) for the Gifted Exchange blog after your kid has had a go-round with it. (You could interview the Bedtime math person too.. :) )