This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: How teachers can create flexible routines within structure.

In this episode, I’m talking with a graduate of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club named Amy. We’ll talk about what happens when you create routines for your planning/prep time which can’t be carried out consistently because of schedule changes.

Then, we discuss what happens when you create effective routines and habits for yourself, but grow tired of them or find yourself unable to follow through anymore.

We end by talking about being in touch with what works for you from one day to the next, and being really intentional about what you’re saying yes to and why you’re saying yes.

Flexible teacher routine

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When you can’t stick to routines because of unexpected interruptions at school 

Amy: I think overall, I have good ideas and I’ve improved in a lot of things from just this past year with the club. Even though I feel like it’s been very hectic and the whole first month of school has been intense, I’ve been working about 10 hours less than I did last year.

And last year, one thing that I did off and on was setting aside a day for my planning period of what I wanted to do. On Monday, I focused on communications and emails. And then Tuesday, I tried to plan one content area for the next long-term timeframe. Then on Wednesday, I tried to make some copies for the upcoming week, and on Thursday, we had our team meeting. And then Friday, I tried to wrap up paperwork for the week, clean out my inbox, and get ready for the week ahead.

And this year, I can’t do those days the way I wanted to. I just feel like I haven’t gotten into a rhythm. This year, it feels like everything has been urgent. We just got this new system for inputting all of our reading data and that had to get done kind of soon, but the whole system keeps breaking. So, it’s like there are all these little things that keep interrupting me from deciding what I’m going to do each day.

I feel like if I could just set that ahead of time, then I could follow my to-do list and make that progress. But it doesn’t seem like that’s happening, and I don’t know what to set aside each day for. Friday is now our team meeting day, and on Friday, I really like to close out the week, but I don’t want to stay super late at school because I’m really tired. So, it’s just not productive.  

Angela: For all of these urgent things that just keep coming up every single week, do they need to be done during your planning period? Could you maybe keep your planning period the same and then do those things either before school or after school? 

For some things, yes. And some other things have been a lot of people have been coming into my room during my planning period, like special education teachers that I need to communicate with during the day. So I can’t really set those times differently, so it feels hard to work out those things.  

I totally understand all that. I always felt like I couldn’t rely on my planning time, because it seemed like we either had a meeting or there was no sub for whatever reason, so I wasn’t going to get my planning time. It was just always something. So, I stopped trying to get any meaningful work done during my planning time. That was sort of like the catch-up time. That was all these little things that keep popping up that need to be handled. It was miscellaneous tasks. It was meeting with other teachers. And I just sort of thought about it that way.  

It was almost like bonus time. Like if I actually am able to get important work done during my planning time, that’s great. I will take that. I have tasks ready to go. I’m not going to be sitting there twiddling my thumbs trying to figure out that I should be working on. I’ll know what to do. But I’m not going to depend on it, because it would just make me really frustrated. And honestly, it would put me in a bad mood. I would get really resentful of it because it’s like I needed those times, I’m depending on this, and then next thing I know, the kids are back in the room again and I didn’t get done the things I wanted to get done.  

So, thinking about my planning time as a time that I should be able to get these things done actually just created more stress for me. So, I started thinking of it as bonus time and then chose other times of the day to use for the things that I really wanted to get done — either early morning, like before contractual hours so you know there’s not going to be a meeting there, or evenings. Sometimes a Sunday afternoon. But for me, that just felt a little bit better than trying to make the planning time be something that it just wasn’t going to be because of all of these factors outside of my control.  

Considering the seasons and time of year when trying to create routines 

Yeah. I’m probably making an unfair comparison, as well, because I’m thinking about how I implemented this in a very different time of year last year, when my planning period was much more open and I did kind of have that — it wasn’t protected more, but it was easier to work with. It was a little more reliable in that time between winter and spring. And I really could rely on having the first couple days of the week where the planning period was good. And so for this beginning of the year, when there are so many other things going on, you’re right — I feel that same way and I’m getting frustrated with myself even more than others. Like, “Why wasn’t I able to get this done during my planning?” 

That’s a really good observation because it is different at different times of the year. January through March-ish, maybe, things do tend to be a little bit more settled. And at the beginning of the year, there’s just always so many little things cropping up and it’s very hard to get into routines. So, maybe just being mindful of that and having a different routine now, and then if you can utilize your planning time in a different way later in the year, once things are more settled, that could work.  

Yeah — I’m thinking about the sheet that you have in October where you’re really planning out, like, “I’m going to work at this time on this day and this time on this day.” This month has been really busy for me and I’m taking a couple of classes and stuff. So, I think that I do need to be more mindful of actually planning ahead where I’m going to work and not just letting things fill in or assuming that I’ll have time, and then getting frustrated when that time seemingly is taken away. 

Yes, exactly! So, figuring out a different system for now, and it will probably change from week to week, or month to month, and that’s okay. As long as when you’re thinking about it on Sunday night or Monday morning, you’re thinking about, “Okay, what’s going to actually work for this week given the obligations I have in my personal life, given the things that are happening at school … what’s realistic for this week?” Rather than, “Let’s create a schedule and it has to work like this every single week.” Because it’s just not going to, and having that flexibility can really help.  

When you rebel against your own systems and routines stop working for you

 You also mentioned that sometimes you feel like you rebel against your own systems, like you figure out what you want to do and then you kind of ditch it because you just get tired of it or something.  

Sometimes I do just kind of get tired of things, but I also like the structure. It’s a difficult feeling. Like for instance, the long-term to do list stuff, I really liked using that, but then I kind of got tired of … this is so silly, but I got tired of flipping to it in a different spot in my planner. So, I wanted it to be on the same page. So, I have this long list now of long-term things that’s just behind my … I have my planner, I have the to-do list taped inside my planner. On the left, it has my day each day and it lists out all of my time commitments and meetings, that kind of stuff. And then on the right side of the planner, it’s just a blank sheet. And that’s where I’ve been listing out all of the stuff that I need to do. But I think that it’s been making me kind of anxious, looking at the long list.  

I’m moving that stuff to my to-do list, which is taped inside. It’s just taped on top of that, so it’s just like a flap in the notebook. But it’s still kind of making me anxious whenever I look at my to-do list because now I’m seeing all this other stuff. And I thought that it would help me, but it’s not helping my mental bandwidth.  

I think it’s really good that you experimented with that, because I think that productivity really is just all a giant experiment — there’s no one right way to do something, there’s no one thing that’s going to work for everyone. And if you’re feeling like, “I don’t like having this separate list over here, let me experiment with putting it over here,” that’s worth a try, because that just tells you more about what works for you and what doesn’t. So, now you know you don’t want to have the list in a place that is inconvenient and that requires a lot of flipping around. But you also don’t like having it right in front of you.  

So, that gives you a lot of information about your preferences and your needs, and that makes it easier to find systems that will work for you later. And the other thing about it being a big experiment is that the same thing doesn’t necessarily work all the time. I’m actually a lot like you in that I really like the structure and the routine, but I also like a lot of novelty. I don’t want things to be the same forever. I can’t stick to the same routine every week for the rest of my life. I just can’t do that. I’m going to get really bored with it and then I’m not going to want to do it anymore.

So, I’ve had to really embrace this idea of productivity as an experiment and thinking, “Okay, so what’s working for right now? I like this for right now, and then hmm … I find myself not really using this system anymore.” It used to be very helpful for me to get up early and do this thing, and now I’m finding I don’t want to do that. So, how can I sort of embrace that and work with what my natural body rhythms are, and when I’m feeling most productive and when I’m feeling like I can get things done. What’s a different structure that I can have?  

It doesn’t have to be the same thing all the time. It’s just about what is working for right now, especially when you’re dealing with a profession like teaching, which is so seasonal and the workloads and the demands are so different from quarter to quarter, sometimes even from month to month. Thinking about it in a really flexible way is just like, “Okay, what do I need right now? Let’s just find something that works for now.” And then when I find that doesn’t work, I can do something else. And that will kind of keep things fresh for me, too, and not make me feel like I’m locked into this routine now, or that I don’t have any choice in and I’m stuck with. Does any of that resonate with you?  

Definitely. One of the self-care things that I implemented a long time ago was getting up every morning and doing yoga and my sun salutations, because I really like starting the day that way. But then just over the past couple weeks, I’m like, “I don’t like this anymore.” 

But I still love yoga and sun salutations, so I started doing some in the evening and I was like, “You know, it’s okay. I don’t need to be upset.” Just because it was working for me then doesn’t mean that it has to work for me now.  

Yes, exactly. It doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong or that you fell out of this routine … you had this routine and now you’re not sticking to it. I’m actually the same way with yoga. When I first started doing yoga, I was like, “This is so good. I should start my day like this.” And then there’s just a lot of days when I just don’t want to. It’s cold or I just don’t want to.

I’ve had to do the same thing as you, to just realize, “Okay, this can still be part of my life, but I don’t have to be that person who gets up at 6:00 AM and does yoga every single morning for 45 years.” That doesn’t have to be me. Sometimes now, I do it in the afternoon. Sometimes, it’s for five minutes. Sometimes, it’s 45 minutes. Sometimes, I go to a class. If you know you’re a person who likes to switch it up, then you can kind of embrace that and not make yourself feel bad about it.  

Okay. Yeah, that’s good to remember.  

When you give yourself flexibility and downtime but still fill up every free moment with more work

You mentioned also that when you free up time, and you have these other things that you want to do, that sometimes it doesn’t end up happening because you find yourself filling the time with more work.  

Yes! Like this fall, I decided that I would say yes to tutoring this one kid. Because it’s a really nice family, I accepted doing that again and then I’m taking three classes right now, which I enjoy. I like taking classes. But it kind of worries me sometimes that my natural inclination is to not necessarily focus on some of those longer-term goals. I really would like to write and there are things and creative projects that I like to do at home. I like to paint. I like to volunteer with different stuff. There are certain things that I have let go of or not ever really started.  

When I first started teaching, I thought, “I don’t have time for this,” and then I kept thinking I would have more time, and I do, but I fill it with more things.  

So, I guess that’s just something that concerns me. Like, why do I feel like I have to fill it up with more things related to school? When can I say it’s okay that I don’t have to keep learning everything for now?  

No, that sounds very normal, very relatable, and I’ve heard that from a lot of club members. “I never had all of this extra time before and I literally don’t know what to do with it,” because when you’re used to just kind of being on a hamster wheel all the time and feeling like there’s always more you should be doing, that’s the habit, is to look for more things to add in there. And in addition to that, I think there’s also sort of the default way that most of us go through life which is just handling whatever is around us, whatever opportunity comes up. “Oh, this family wants me to tutor. Okay, sure. I can fit that in. I’ll do it.”  

“Oh, this thing came up? Okay. Sure, I can do that.” Rather than thinking about really intentionally about how do I really want to be spending my time? That’s not a question that a lot of us are taught to think about, and I think it’s especially true for women.

We don’t really necessarily have that model to think about, “What do I want from my life? What do I want my life to be? What kind of person do I want to be? What goals do I have for myself?” It’s just so much centered around caring for other people: being there for a partner, being there for kids. As a teacher, that’s the ultimate caregiver role, just constantly thinking about, “There are all these kids who would benefit if I did this, this, and this, so let me just fill all of my time with those things.” 

So, there’s just not any space, not even any mental bandwidth to step back and think, “Wait a second, what do I want from my life? How do I want to be spending this extra time?” I think that’s really normal. I think a lot of people go through that and it’s a matter of changing your habits, because before you didn’t have enough time that it really would make sense to start. Like, if you’re only going to be able to write for maybe like once every other week, you’re not going to get anywhere. It’s not going to feel good to you and you’re just going to feel like, “I might as well not even try.”  

Those kinds of things were never even on your radar as something that you could be blocking off time for. And now that you have freed up some time and you could be blocking off time for this, it’s a matter of just changing your habits and thinking, “Okay, when I look at this week ahead, I know that I want to write, or I want to paint, or whatever. How can I schedule some of those things and first so that when 7 PM rolls around, I don’t just start looking for more lesson ideas online or start filling my time with something else, but I actually get into something that I wanted to do because I’ve scheduled it in? I’ve set aside time in my schedule for doing this thing.” 

Yeah. I mean, now that I have these evening classes that I’ve been doing, perhaps as soon as one of those ends, I can just replace that block of time. It’s already in my schedule, so as soon as it’s gone, I can just kind of say, “Now this time, I’m going to be working on it.” 

Yeah. And be flexible with yourself, because you will probably be the type of person like I would be where that time, now it’s Tuesday at 7 PM, I say, “I don’t want to write. I don’t want to paint.” And that’s okay, too, because then you can do something else. Then you can say, “Well, I also need to get the laundry done,” or whatever, something else that needs to be done. So, do that and then in the time that you had set aside on Saturday for running those errands or doing that laundry, well now you have that free space to write. You can kind of switch things out.

The idea is that you’re just having more blocks of time there that are open for the things that you want to do. And not just necessarily filled. And that will require saying no to some good things, like tutoring. It’s a good thing — it makes extra money, it’s a nice family, you enjoy working with the student. But when you look at the big picture of your life, how do you want to be spending your time? You won’t have time for all the best things if you say yes to all of the good things.  

So, it sounds like you’ve eliminated a lot of the kind of “bad things,”. The stuff that you don’t want in your life is out. But in order to have enough time for the stuff that is really meaningful to you, it’s going to require saying no to some things that you have previously said yes to that are good, that are nice, that makes you a little extra money. They’re nice and they’re helpful to people. But it’s just not necessarily how you want to be spending your time right now. And reminding yourself that none of this is permanent can be really helpful.  

If you’re saying no to the family for next semester, it’s not no forever, or saying, “I’m never tutoring again,” it’s just right now I’m doing whatever this other thing is, or I just don’t have the availability in my schedule right now. But you can always come back to it. So, you don’t ever have to feel like, “I’m closing the door and saying no longer will I ever do this thing that I used to do.”

For this season, I’m going to say no. And once you’ve done that, then you’ve freed yourself up and people aren’t expecting you to do that thing anymore. And then it’s kind of on your terms. Then the next block of time comes around and you’re like, “Oh, do I want to do that this year? Do I want to say yes to this?” And you have the freedom to decide rather than just defaulting into, “Okay, this is how I’ve always done it and everyone’s expecting me to do it, and I’ll just do what I’ve always done.” You’re kind of freeing yourself up to make more conscious decisions about your time.  

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When part of teaching is a hobby and it crowds out all your other hobbies

What do you think would make it harder for you to do that? Is there anything running through your head right now where you’re like, “I think I could do that, but I’m not really sure about this one piece?”  

It’s funny that you mentioned the lesson planning example because that is definitely kind of my go-to thing. It’s like, “Oh, let me think about how I could change this, or adapt this, or look up a new idea,” or “Let me make a new math center game,” or “How can I make more stations?”  

And I do enjoy those things, so it’s not something that I’m forcing upon myself and then I resent later. I don’t resent my time spent on that. I think that that’s the other thing, too, is that even though I have these goals for myself of things that I want to accomplish personally, I don’t resent spending my time taking classes or tutoring, and I don’t have a negative attitude about any of that stuff. I don’t have a negative attitude about looking on Pinterest and creating new activities. Those are all positive things.  

It’s more about if I could get into a habit of writing and getting that same feeling from that, of “I’m accomplishing something. I’m getting there, and this also makes me feel good.” If I could just remind myself that I get that same feeling from other things that are for me and not just that I get that feeling from things that are for other people, too.  

I feel like that’s what I need, to remind myself that this also makes me feel good, this also helps me feel productive and creative and enriched in my life.  

Right. Because part of teaching is a hobby. For most teachers, there are things that you just enjoy doing. I would spend hours making center materials in the evenings. I’d just have the TV on, I’d be hanging out, and that’s just what I loved doing. It was fun for me. But it doesn’t have to be the only thing that you do. Exactly as you just said, it’s a matter of kind of becoming more well rounded in your hobbies. Sometimes, you’ll make new lesson materials and learning games for your kids, and look up fun stuff online. And other times, you’ll paint. And other times you’ll do yoga. And other times, you’ll write. And you’re leaving space in your life for all of that.  

It’s just interesting because the only times this past year that I’ve written or that I’ve painted was because I knew someone who was having triplets and I painted a bunch of different things for their nursery, and I knew someone who was having some other celebration, so I decorated stuff for them. And a friend of mine is writing a children’s book. So we swapped things — I had to prepare stuff to be able to send to her, and then I looked at all of her writing and edited it. I only was doing it when I knew that somebody else was going to reciprocate and kind of benefit from this as opposed to just benefiting me.  

Do you think that that’s part of it, where it feels maybe a little selfish to just be doing something, like it feels kind of self-indulgent to only be doing something that is enjoyable for you and doesn’t produce an end product for someone else?  

Yeah, a little bit. I didn’t really think about it that way before, though.  

That’s good to know about yourself, too, that it feels like your time feels better spent when it’s benefiting other people. And in some ways, that can drive your decision making, like “I feel most fulfilled when I’m using my time in ways that produce something for someone else.” So, that’s good to know about your choices.

And on the flip side, it can also help you think about, “What are the things that really nourish me and enable me to show up? Because eight hours a day, I’m on for the kids and I’m doing all these things for other people, and in order to do my best at that, I need to be physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually healthy. So, what are the practices in my life that are sort of self-care, that are things that enable me to do all these other things for other people better?”  

Yeah. It’s just kind of interesting because I think of myself as I actually have gotten so much better at self-care, like over the past year or two, especially with the club. And I’ve always been someone who loves to cook, so I cook at home. I take care of things: I really care about what I eat. I do take care of myself. I just don’t function if I don’t get enough sleep — at all. So, it always baffles me when people cut sleep, and that’s what they sacrifice.

Me, too. I literally could not function.  

I would just pass out at school! So, I do think that there are quite a few things — my faith is very important to me, so I’m part of small groups and I read books through that, and reading is a big form of self-care for me. It’s just kind of interesting because actually, until that conversation, thinking about that and prioritizing my own desires, I really did think that I was doing okay with self-care, because there were things that I had set in place that were going well.  

That’s just kind of a shift in thinking, thinking about how maybe I’m not doing everything the way that I thought I was, and I’m not prioritizing certain self-care things. I don’t think about those creative outlets so much as self-care, but they are a form of that.  

Yeah. I think it’s sort of releasing yourself from these habits and these default ways of thinking, and just being open to new habits, and new priorities. Going back to the whole thing about routines — it’s not that there’s something wrong with you if something is working and it stops working, or you like it or you don’t like it, or you’re spending too much time doing things for other people, or maybe your self-care practice isn’t right.

I think rather than seeing it as like there’s something that you need to change or there’s some outside expectation that you need to conform to, I think just knowing these things about yourself, knowing that you like the flexibility, knowing that you feel good when you’re creating things that help other people, knowing that your primary self-care is sleeping and eating well, and those sorts of things.  

All of that gives you a lot of insight as to how you want to spend your time. The goal, more than anything else, is just being really conscious about your choices and not just falling into, “I’m working just because I would normally be working,” or “I’m saying yes to this thing because I would normally say yes to this thing.” And always kind of keeping in mind, “What is helping me move towards my goals? How do I want to spend my life? When I look back on this time in my life, how do I want to feel like I had focused my energy and time? Who were the people that I want to look back and feel like I gave time and attention to? What are the practices that I did that made me into the person that I am today? Did I prioritize those kinds of things?” And just keep coming back to that.  

And not every day is going to align with that perfectly, but when you’re making your choices and when you’re setting your habits, just to be mindful of it. And the fact that you already are, that sets you miles ahead of most people who just don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to even think about what they need or what they want. Or what’s really satisfying for them.  

I think you are already doing quite a bit of wonderful things, and you’re just feeling like maybe it should look like something else because it looks like something else for another person. And just figuring out what works for you and being willing to adapt that over time and not locking yourself into, “This is how it has to be,” or “I need to stick with something.” Letting yourself be sort of free and flexible, and being really in tune with what your body needs right now, and what you need emotionally right now, or spiritually right now. And going with that: giving yourself permission and giving yourself the space in your schedule to be able to go with that … that’s huge.  

Because a lot of folks, even when they do figure it out, they still don’t have the bandwidth to do it. It’s like, “Oh, I know I really need to stay in and sleep and I need to eat a healthier meal tomorrow,” but they’re run ragged. They can’t. So, the fact that you have even created space in your life where you can make some of these choices intentionally, it’s really, really good.  

What are your thoughts here as we wrap up? What’s your big takeaway here? What’s the main thing that you want to try to remember going forward?  

Kind of what you just said — that I should let myself be more flexible. I can fall into being fairly rigid, or wanting to be that way, like I see that as sort of a goal. You know, like I want to be the person that does yoga every day at this time for this amount of minutes every day. Wouldn’t that be nice? But that’s not necessarily the best thing. It doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be a goal, by any means. So, I think allowing myself that flexibility.  

The other thing about thinking of planning more as bonus time, especially at different times of the year, would be a healthy way for me to think about it, when I could draw from a separate list and that I need to plan my main thing to be at a separate time of day. It doesn’t necessarily have to be at the same time every day, but planning it for a separate time of day so that way, if it doesn’t get done during planning, I don’t have to feel like I didn’t accomplish my goal for the day.  

Yep, exactly. That’s a permissions thing, too. It’s letting go of this idea of how you should be using your time, how planning time should go, and letting it be what it actually is in your life and your school. The way it is … is okay. And that’s great that some teachers are able to really stick with it and do that same exact thing every single day. And it’s okay that your situation doesn’t really work for that. Given that you like novelty and everything anyways, the fact that being able to stick to a plan only works for a couple months is probably a good thing.  

Yeah. And that’s one thing that I tell people about teaching all the time — I love teaching because it’s never boring, it’s constantly changing. Every year you get to build off of what you learned before, and you also get the opportunity to do new things and have a new experience every year.

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!

This episode is brought to you in part by, Peergrade, a platform that makes it easy to facilitate peer review in your classroom. Students review each other’s work, while Peergrade takes care of anonymously assigning reviewers and delivering all the relevant insights to teachers. With Peergrade, students learn to think critically and take ownership of their learning. They also learn to write kind and useful feedback for their peers. The best part? Peergrade is free to use for teachers and students. To learn more, visit thecornerstoneforteachers.com/peergrade.

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