Fitting everything in is tough, and that goes for everyone, whether you’re new to a job or you’ve been in it for years. But what if we thought harder about our time management and took a deliberate approach to the waking day, not just the working day? What would the impact be on our practice and on ourselves?
These are questions that all of us in the faculty at the Institute for Teaching (IfT) spend our time thinking about. We were keen to develop our understanding of the research into these questions so that we could, in turn, help teachers to be more strategic when it comes to planning for both work time and downtime. We found that the following three approaches can really help us to use our time more effectively.
Get to grips with the fundamentals of the science of learning
Really understanding how learning happens can help you to have the impact you want in the classroom. Being clear about how memory works, and how people actually learn, makes it much easier to plan worthwhile activities – but the science of learning and memory is not routinely part of initial teacher training or CPD.
For example, in the early stages of a teaching career, it’s all too easy to get bogged down in building practical resources, or to plough hours of hard work into lesson planning, but if you’re not building in strategies for learning retention alongside that, much of your effort can be wasted. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve (Murre and Dros, 2015) see Figure 1, illustrates the importance of understanding the science and limitations of human memory. Ebbinghaus’ curve shows that retention of newly learnt knowledge decreases hugely with time – falling below 60% even within 20 minutes of learning.
Without understanding this to be the case, it is all too easy to devote your precious time and energy to teaching exercises that don’t elicit good results. Doing what works, and only what works, will allow you to reduce your workload and focus on the most impactful areas.
This is just one example of how understanding research into learning and memory can help us in our teaching; it’s worth taking some time to explore a summary of the evidence in this area and how else it can help you. You could start with The Science of Learning (Deans for Impact, 2015) or keep your eyes peeled for IfT’s own upcoming paper – Learning: What is it, and how might we catalyse it.
Set yourself manageable weekly development targets
Once again, it is all too easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of improvements to your practice that you might want to make.
Aiming to ‘work on managing student behaviour’ might feel like a mountain to climb, but by breaking that down into small, bite-sized targets, we can quickly start to see a real impact. We use this principle every day in our classrooms, but it’s important to think about how we can use it to transform our own work. Teresa Amabile, professor of business administration at Harvard, and Steven Kramer explore the positive effect that small, regular achievements can have on our motivation and creativity at work in their paper The Power of Small Wins (Amabile and Kramer, 2011).
So instead of aiming to tackle student behaviour as a whole, you might set yourself a smaller target for the first week – such as establishing clear entry and exit routines for lessons.
Focus only on this element of your teaching – planning your approach thoroughly, working on it deliberately and repetitively throughout the week, and embedding new techniques into your practice – before moving on to the following week’s target, for example, to focus on managing the transitions between lesson components. In this way, small and achievable changes can start to have an impact on a scale that initially seemed overwhelming.
This is exactly the approach we take on our courses at the IfT: aiming to first identify ‘high leverage’ areas in which changes will make the biggest difference to pupil learning in the following week.
So, set yourself tiny markers for improvement – just one small thing every week rather than focusing on the big picture issues. Try to pick the things that you think will have the biggest impact and, once you have mastered them, repeat them!
Build in time for yourself
Allocating time to completely switch off might seem like a luxury, but research shows that you will be a better teacher for it, and less likely to burn out or become disengaged from your work (Trépanier et al., 2014).
In our day-to-day work as teachers, we experience significant demands on both our psychological and physical resources. Emotional and cognitive resources are needed throughout the day, as well as physical resources that we need to stay on our feet all day. Psychology shows us that we need to give ourselves plenty of opportunities to replenish these stores, and the best way to do that is by not deploying the resources we use at work in our downtime.
Recovery time can be anything from a long summer holiday to tiny micro-breaks during the school day. However, good strategies for daily recovery protect people against burnout in a way that waiting for weekends and holidays just doesn’t. It’s vital for our wellbeing that we think about the little rituals we go through on a daily basis, and how we can use them them to build in recovery – whether they are moments in the working day or activities that we engage in outside of school.
Which activities are best for supporting recovery?
- Sport – Research shows that sport is a great way of supporting the recovery of the resources we use at work (Sylvester et al., 2016) – no surprises there.
- Relaxation – Activities that promote relaxation, such as yoga, mindfulness and meditation, are also shown to be powerful. The ‘Headspace’ app is a popular and accessible tool that can aid deep relaxation. If you’re interested in finding out a little more, organisations such as the ‘Mindfulness In Schools Project’ run courses for teachers in this area.
- Getting out and about – According to recent research from Finland, engaging in physical activity in natural environments is among the most effective ways of rebuilding your reserves. A short walk at lunchtime or in the evening not only restores the resources you’ve been using up at work, but can also help you to enjoy your work even more (Kinnunen et al., 2011); (Pasanen et al., 2014).
Of course, it’s not the same for everyone; for some, an evening with friends can really help to support their all-important recovery. For others, it depends on what they talk about, who they’re with or how energising or draining they find social interaction.
We might think that low-energy activities such as watching TV in the evening would help. In fact, in the field of recovery time, they are much less effective than more engaging activities like meditation, doing something creative or listening to music.
Whatever your chosen downtime, it’s just as important to plan the time into your day for this as it is for your work!
We think that following these three examples of small but deliberate changes to your approach to your work and free time can have a big impact – not only on your effectiveness as a teacher, but also on your sense of purpose, achievement and wellbeing.
We can’t promise that you’ll suddenly have more time on your hands, and teaching is always going to be full-on, but we hope that by carefully considering how you divide your time, and how you can approach your work most effectively, you’ll be able to thrive, despite challenges, to enjoy a rewarding career as a teacher – the best job in the world!
Have a look at the Deans for Impact Science of Learning report: deansforimpact.org/resources/the-science-of-learning/.
Marie Hamer is co-founder and Dean of the Institute for Teaching. She is a former English teacher, school leader, National Curriculum Leader for the Teach First programme at Canterbury Christ Church University, and Head of Teacher Training at Ark.