How to Make Time: tips for stressed teachers
In another life, I was an English teacher who spent Saturday and most of Sunday planning and great swathes of the year sat on my sofa marking piles of 3000 word coursework essays. It’s one of those old chestnuts, isn’t it: you complain about not having any time to do this or that and some smart Alec always says ‘then find time’. For years I loathed this response to my woes and had come to think of it as a profoundly unhelpful – and impossible – suggestion. ‘What do you mean find time?’ would run the indignant soliloquy in my head. ‘I just told you all my time is taken up, and all you can say is ‘look down the back of the sofa’ or something and – boom – there you’ll find an extra hour or two!’
It took me some time to work out that it is possible to ‘find time’. You just have to change your attitude to your current weekly routine and evaluate it with a cold, objective eye. When I ran that cold, objective eye over what used to be my typical week I discovered that my reaction to the sheer volume of work my job entailed was to crash; if I had an hour spare then I thought it was best to rest and switch off in front of some mindless telly. Another mistake I was making was that my job was taking up more of my time than it should have because I wasn’t ‘claiming’ my time as my own in any way. Because I was living in fear that I wouldn’t get the marking done on time, or I wouldn’t get a lesson or resource done on time, I wouldn’t dare arrange an outing or an activity in the evenings.
This reflex response was borne of the PGCE and NQT days (for those of you reading this who aren’t teachers – those translate as the two years in training before you are deemed a fully qualified teacher). During those two years, both Saturday AND Sunday were working days. I no longer work weekends – so how did I make time? I changed my attitude towards my time: Eventually I banned work on Saturdays and worked only on Sundays. Then I banned work all day Sunday and worked only Sunday morning. Eventually, only during the coursework marking period, did I work over the weekend.
Of course, any seasoned teacher will know that if you manage to make time over the course of a year or two, because you are teaching the same specification and have a few classes of the same subject, you will lose that time when the specification changes or, if you are an English teacher, the set texts change. What do you do then? Well – accept that you have to re-evaluate how you use your time. When you have a demanding job, and it creates a work/life balance crisis, then you have to approach the apportionment of time in your life the same way you would your finances.
So, for those of you currently struggling with the notion of ‘finding’ time that you feel just isn’t there, here are a few tips on how to change your attitude towards your routine:
1. Control: a key in changing your attitude towards your work/life balance is realising you have control over your life. In a demanding job which requires a great deal of work outside your paid hours and in your evenings and weekends, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the workload and to feel very much as though your working life dominates the way you approach your life beyond work. Ban yourself from saying ‘I can’t do that because I have to finish this resource or make this presentation’. Instead, change the way you perceive your control of the situation. Answer instead with ‘I need to finish this presentation and I’m not sure how long it will take me but I’ll ring you when I’m done’. It’s a subtle change: in the first response you are allowing work to dominate and, so, the job inevitably will take longer because you’ve allowed it to. In the second response, you are creating a possibility that the work could be completed more quickly and you are giving yourself a goal to work towards which will force you to limit the time spent on a work-related task. Remembering that life is for living and work is something to facilitate that is a potent rule to regain control over your work/life balance.
2. Set clear limits and boundaries: you have to define at least one day that is work free: a day or days that you simply refuse to do anything work-related in no matter what. If you don’t set a boundary between work and home life then work will assimilate potential free time and condition you to believe you haven’t got any. In the days of creating new resources and lesson plans for the new A Level specifications some years back, I defined Saturday as my free day. My rationale was that it would give my mind a break before doing work on Sunday.
3. Be organised: once you’ve cast that objective eye over your routine, organise your time. Apportion it as you would your finances. If you don’t allot yourself time to do things and define time in the week to do something for yourself, then what’s going to stop your working life from taking up that time? An example of organisation from my own routine was that Wednesday became my circuits class from 6pm-7pm. That was immovable: I booked it at the beginning of the week and I cancelled it for no-one. Start with alloting yourself an hour in which you do something solely for yourself and make it an immovable feature every week. Another example from my own life was that I apportioned one of my free periods each week as the period in which I planned for the following week. Organsing your time each week may seem clinical, but you’ll be amazed how much time is freed up by simply defining when certain tasks can be done and sticking strictly to it. For work-a-holics like myself, organisation is key in not allowing work to spill over into what should be your free time.
4. Know your limits: I’ll start with an example here from my ex-profession: marking, as any teacher will tell you, is the bain of their life. Spending their own time planning lessons is actually the bit teachers really enjoy; they'd love to have more time to do it! But marking is a whole different creature: it takes as long as it takes. It is a mathmatical inevitability. So, what do you do with something which is inevitably going to take a lot of your time up no matter what you do? Well, I experiemented with this a great deal during my teaching career. One solution I found was to divide the number of essays I had to mark across the working week and do only 5 a night or ten one night and 10 another. Spreading the workload like this ensures that you give work an hour or two a night and that’s it – the couple of hours you get left over are all yours.
5. Be creative: years ago, in an attempt to ensure I did what I needed to do for work AND felt like I’d actually got out of the house and done something I enjoyed, I used to take my marking to a gig at a pub. It worked fairly well; I got through my marking and got to listen to some lovely acoustic music and meet people at the same time. An old friend and colleague does this too: she walks to the local pub, takes her marking with her, sits and does it whilst sipping a few drinks and soaking up the atmosphere, and then walks home. Sometimes finding time is about doing work in a different or unusual environment so it doesn’t feel so much like work.