In this episode of the Truth for Teachers podcast, we’re talking about how to let go of the good so you can make time for the great. So many teachers who feel like there’s nothing they can eliminate from their schedule are only looking for things that are obviously bad and a total waste of time.
But fewer things better is about realizing you won’t have time for all the good things, and some of those will have to be eliminated, too. Read on (or listen) to learn how you can take control of your instructional time in every way possible in order to feel less rushed and have time for the things that really move the needle for kids.
A cautionary tale of NOT prioritizing the great stuff
I remember a truly awesome cross-curricular project that I did one year with my third graders. I created it for our animal adaptations unit in which the kids had to design an animal that had specific characteristics for surviving in its habitat. They had to write and present about it, and create a physical model of the animal.
It was a fantastic culminating project and checked all the innovative teaching boxes (student choice, technology integration, higher level thinking, student self-evaluation). It was great. What I neglected to do, however, was carve out enough time in our schedule for students to complete it.
I made time for the more academic portion, but the designing a model part was taking a LONG time, and it was making a big mess in the classroom, and frankly, I was kinda tired of it after awhile. I dedicated two class periods to it up front and figured anyone who wasn’t done could just work on it for bell work or whatever. To be honest, I didn’t have a plan. And when over 60 percent of the class wasn’t anywhere near finished at the end of the second class period, I didn’t know what to do.
So, my brilliant idea was to procrastinate on trying to figure out a situation and just keep putting it off. I sort of forgot about the project and I hoped the kids would, too.
The problem is, they didn’t forget. This was one of the most engaging activities they’d done all year, and they were very attached to their animals, whom they’d named and created plans for introducing to their pets at home once the model was done and they could keep it. That’s the thing with innovative learning experiences, right? Sometimes the kids get SO into it that it’s really hard to rein them in and keep them focused.
So every day the kids were asking me, “When do we get to work on our animals some more? When do we get to finish them? When can we take them home?” And I kept putting them off, “Well, if we can finish XYZ, we’re going to do it Friday afternoon,” and of course, Friday would come and we’d run out of time.
Eventually, most of the kids just stopped asking, but there was that one kid who would have persisted all the way up through the last day of school, “How come we never finished making our animals?” So I just tossed out a lesson I was planning to teach one day and gave them a much longer period of time than I could afford to allocate for this, and then whatever wasn’t done they had to finish at home, which means it never really happened.
That’s the worst feeling, right? To know that you got the kids all excited about starting something that you’re never going to have time for them to finish. To introduce an idea and just let it fizzle out because you didn’t prioritize it in your schedule.
You see, I knew when I designed this activity that it was going to be powerful. It was going to be a much better use of students’ time than watching another video about animal adaptations, or filing in a worksheet on it, or giving them a quiz about it. And yet I didn’t prioritize the project. It was too much trouble to figure out what I should cut out, and all my colleagues were doing the complete set of worksheet pages, and so I just left all that in the unit.
I tried to do too much.
Stop planning according to an ideal day
My friends, if you take one thing away from my message today, it’s this: Stop spending hours creating lessons that you know you’re not going to have time to implement. If you never have enough time to get through everything in your lesson plans, you can change your approach to lesson planning.
Now it goes without saying that you won’t get through everything you’d planned every day. But if you feel like you’re always days or weeks behind in your lessons, you’re probably over planning, and that means you’re creating unnecessary work and frustration. Do fewer things, better.
I planned my animal adaptations unit the way most teachers plan: according to an ideal day. If things go well and there are no interruptions, we should have time to get through all this. Well, when was the last time you had an ideal day? When was the last time you got through an entire class period without a fire drill or intercom interruption? We need to get real!
All of those unexpected interruptions aren’t actually unexpected. They happen every single day. So plan for them!
How to build in buffer time
Don’t schedule yourself down to the minute so there’s no margin to spare. Build in buffer time so you can respond to teachable moments and be present with your kids.
Think about a piece of notebook paper. The margins are there to keep you from writing all the way to the edge and running out of room for any notes that need to be added later. You need margin in your instructional day, and margin in your life. Have some of that white space around the edges. Don’t pack in so much.
Creating this margin in your day is simple: You just add buffer time to your schedule.
Now, we’re not talking about leaving big gaping holes in your lesson plans where the kids are sitting there idly for 15 minutes.
For my animal adaptations unit, it might have meant creating more structure around the creation of the animal models so kids didn’t spend 30 minutes trying to figure out how much playdough was needed in the legs in order to support the weight of the animal’s body. It would be lovely to let them investigate that at their leisure, but in the real world of limited class time, I needed to set better guidelines for that portion of the project so we’d have some buffer time.
Building in buffer time for you might mean turning part of a unit into a lesson, or a lesson into a quick 10-minute read-aloud or video to expose students to the concept.
It might mean eliminating the second half of a project the next day or cutting out a review activity.
It might mean looking for ways to build spiral review into your schedule — giving students just a brief lesson on a concept and then providing more opportunities for mastery throughout the year using centers, games, online programs, morning work, review activities, test prep, etc.
The idea here is not to skip topics, skills, or standards altogether, but to be more realistic in the amount of experiences you plan for each one. I know you want to do everything, but writing it down in your lesson plans doesn’t make it possible. Build in buffer time to create margin: You will spend less time planning, and you (and your students) won’t feel rushed all day long.
I know some of you are just cringing thinking about this. “I can’t skip an entire lesson! The kids HAVE to do this activity!”
But see, here’s what happens when we insist on planning more than we will actually have time to teach: We get more attached to what’s written down than to what’s happening with kids right in front of us. We can’t eliminate anything from The Plan because we spent the entire day Sunday writing it and everything is equally important and it all HAS to get done.
Don’t give away your power to make instructional decisions
I want to clarify here that much of this IS within your control. Please don’t make excuses to yourself that you have no choice other than to teach the way that you are teaching. Unless you are being handed a script that’s telling you to say this exact sentence at 9:18 AM, you have a little bit of freedom in the activities that you choose, the order that you do things, the amount of time you spend on activities, the structure of certain activities, etc.
Please don’t write this whole thing off by telling yourself, “I can’t change anything … I can’t control any of this.” You are a professional educator. You have a degree in teaching. You know how to teach. You need to step into whatever power you have, and don’t give that over to someone else at the district level. If you have ANY kind of flexibility or choice that you have in the way that you teach, you need to grab onto that tightly and use these principles that I’m teaching to help you take control.
Sure – there are going to be elements in your day that you HAVE to do even though they are a waste of time. But think about the elements that you DON’T have to do. And, think about the way that you’re structuring the things that you have to do. Is there a more efficient way? Could you trim something down a bit? Could you shave five minutes off of a routine which isn’t a good use of your students’ time to create some buffer time or to allow for something that matters more?
Step into your power. Think about the things that you can change instead of the things that you can’t.
“Kill your darlings”
One unlikely person we can learn from in this area is the horror writer Stephen King, who’s talked a lot about how editing his writing is a ruthless process.
He’s known for quoting William Faulkner on this, and calling the elimination of things you love from your writing as the necessity of “killing your darlings.” These words and ideas an author’s written, they are your darlings, you’re greatly attached to them, but if it doesn’t all fit, if it’s not the most important information that needs to be conveyed to keep that forward momentum going, you have to kill them off. It’s painful.
As teachers, we’re the same way with our lessons. They are our darlings. We stayed up until 2 AM gluing wiggly eyes onto construction paper or reworking a PBL experience based on some idea we saw on Pinterest, and we are going to fit in that aspect of the lesson the next day if it kills us! We’d rather kill ourselves than kill our darlings. And before this analogy gets even more morbid, let’s just head this whole problem off at the pass by eliminating some of this over-planning.
Only include the activities that are the BEST and HIGHEST use of your class time. Grant yourself permission to plan less. Do fewer things so you can do the things that remain better.
Practice staying in that mindset all the time. When there’s an unplanned assembly or you have to call out sick or there’s a snow day, don’t just keep pressing forward with your original lesson plans afterward. You’re not going to have time for all of that now, and you have to eliminate, otherwise, you’ll be weeks behind in your pacing.
Only keep activities that are the best and highest use of class time
When you’re really far behind in your plans, you may need to say to yourself, “I’m just not going to be able to teach this as well as I would have liked” and start going through your plans ruthlessly finding things to cut. I encourage you to do that right away rather than just continuing to get further and further behind.
You must ask yourself daily: What’s the best and highest use of our class time? And eliminate the good to make time for the best.
In doing this, you are shifting your mindset from that of the frazzled, rushed, over-scheduled teacher to the truly productive one. People who struggle with productivity tend to add new tasks and responsibilities to what they’re already doing, and ask themselves, “How can I fit all of this in? How can I possibly have time for all of this?”
Truly productive people look at a new responsibility and ask themselves, “Is this the best and highest use of my time? And if so, what can I eliminate today in order to make time for this?” Productive people are always analyzing whether something is really necessary and whether it’s really necessary right now. They’re always reevaluating their priorities and shifting tasks around.
Take the free challenge: “Goodbye, Teacher Tired Challenge: 5 Days to Doing Fewer Things, Better”
I have a free resource that might be helpful to you as you figure out what this looks like in your life. Though it’s not focused specifically on instructional time (but rather your life as a teacher in general), I think you’ll find that it’s a really simple way to start figuring out how to let go of the good to make time for the great.
If you know you need to take some things off your plate but you’re just not sure what to eliminate, this challenge will help. You can take it anytime by signing up below.
Consider joining the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club
And of course, the ultimate tool for streamlining is the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. I want you to go to 40htw.com and get some sample materials sent to you so you can decide whether you want to join us for this January’s cohort.
We’ll be accepting new members from December 10th – January 10th, and if you join before the cohort begins — during the month of December as an early bird — you’ll be able to take advantage of the current 2018 pricing. So head over to 40htw.com to learn more and get notified as soon as you can join.
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!