I Will Survive! Managing Your Workload As An NQT #3

Surviving the Summer Term

At the beginning of this academic year I posted a short article each day in the first week of the autumn term.  These were basically an expanded form of a list of pointers I would give to Newly Qualified Teachers in my department as they were starting off.  It’s very easy to feel overloaded with information when starting in a new school (let alone a new career), and the daily lists were intended to guide them a bit, by saying ‘Don’t worry about anything else, today just concentrate on this, and tomorrow we’ll add a bit to it’.

So if this was you in September, I wonder how are you getting on now as you start the third term of the year?  Like the previous two, this term has its own set of challenges to keep you tired!  As exam classes get ready for their big day, the pressure is on.  The thought that they leave soon and that the timetable will then ease up a bit switches a light on at the end of the tunnel, but it’s also quite deceptive.  You can bet that at least one of your non-teacher friends will say to you in June, ‘Ah, I guess you’re winding down now for the last month’.  Quite the opposite.  This really is the term of deadlines and there will be no shortage of demands on your time and attention as you wrap up one school year and get ready for the next.

In this post I’m going to look at a number of things I always had my NQTs think about early in the summer term to avoid any deadline crises later on.  I’ll set them out as questions to ask yourself or to talk through with your Subject Leader if you’re an NQT yourself.   It’s quite probable that some of the answers to these questions won’t be available at this stage of term, but the more you can foresee, the better.  The deadline crises usually arise because the demands of preparing pupils for public exams often coincide with marking internal exams, writing end-of-year reports, the last parents’ evenings of the year and all the planning and admin involved in getting ready for September.  And then there are the school trips either within or outside the department, sixth-form induction programmes and normal teaching and marking to add to the mix.  In one school I taught in, they began the September timetable and classes immediately after the half-term holiday at the end of May, which had its advantages, but also it added to the admin load.  So if you know what’s coming up in the term, you’re better placed to get ahead on some things or to know how much time you will need to allow a few weeks down the line.

  • What will be the reporting requirements this term?  Estimate how much time you will need to write each class set based on how long it took you earlier on in the year and schedule each class in your diary, allowing a spare day for the unforeseen to happen… (At this end of the year, it only takes one teacher to be late with a set of reports to unleash a bit of stress somewhere else in the chain of checking!).  It’s worth finding out early whether the end of year reports follow the same format/content guidelines as previous ones before you get going on marking end-of-year exams – you can save yourself a lot of time and write better reports if you know that in advance.  I would usually make very brief notes (4-5 words per pupil in a sort of shorthand) as I marked papers so that I could comment on them in the reports.  By the time you get to the end of even one set of exams, you’ll have forgotten who did what to any useful level of detail, and the report-writing schedule may still be a couple of weeks away.
  • When are your department’s end-of-year exams and how long will you have to mark them?  For a few days there may be no time at all to plan lessons and yet pupils will be back with you in class.  In some lessons you may be able to go over the papers, depending on how your school does these things, but they may not all be marked and some absent pupils may still need to catch up.  It’s a good idea to plan two or three lessons now that you can use with different groups and ages so that you can pull them out of your cupboard and do them with no hassle, to get you over those days.  If pupils go from lesson to lesson with not much to do for a few days while teachers mark exams but don’t plan their lessons, it doesn’t usually take long before discipline problems begin, especially when everyone is tired.  If you team up with someone else in your department, you could perhaps plan a few more between you to get you through report-writing days, too.  However long it’s expected to take (you can probably estimate this based on other exams earlier in the year), it’s worth plotting this in your diary too.
  • What are the expectations regarding homework in this term?  Some schools do away with all homework beyond revision in this term, some don’t.  If homework is revision-based, it’s worth structuring it at least to some extent so pupils learn how to go about it, and in the most helpful order.  If homework is expected at the same rate as earlier in the year, it’s worth thinking about what you can set which doesn’t generate much marking or which can be marked in class.  If you’ve still got some exams to mark, the report-writing schedule has started and you’ve lumbered yourself with a couple of class sets of books to mark, you’re heading for a bad couple of nights…!
  • Will you be expected to teach any extra over these weeks?  By that I mean extra-curricular revision classes, Year 7 induction classes, Year 12 induction classes, that sort of thing.  These events fall pretty flat if they’re prepared at the last-minute and as such they don’t inspire the in-coming students in the way they are intended to.  But if you’re up to your neck in reports and exams, what else can you do?  It’s more than likely that at this stage of the term, these things lie in the distant future for detailed planning, but I think it’s reasonable to ask your Subject Leader to give you a good idea now of whether you need to allow time for this in your schedule and how much, especially as the reason for clarifying now is that you can meet all of your commitments.
  • Is there an ‘activity week’ or several trips planned which will take out half or all of your class?  Trips sometimes get cancelled at the last minute, so you’ll still need something you can pick up and do at short notice, but it’s worth assuming they will run.  Often the most reliable way of finding out how your classes will be affected by trips is, strangely, from the pupils themselves.  It’s a (sometimes maddening) fact of school life that you won’t always be informed of who is going to be out on trips.  In terms of planning, the most I’ve ever really needed to know is a rough proportion of the class that will be out.  If I’ve got all the trips that could affect my lessons in my diary, it’s a quick job to do a show of hands in a lesson with each group to find out who thinks they will be out on a particular day.  And of course, there’s every reason why this should be done in the target language just as much as any activity in my lesson plan.  Knowing how many lessons I’ve got, however few they may be, helps me to make sure I get to the end by the end of term.

With some answers to these questions you can have a pretty good stab at planning your admin workload.  The purpose is two-fold: One is that you get your admin done well and on time, and the other is that you know how much time you have for planning your teaching.  Plotting it all out on a grid for the half-term or term will show up where you will have no time at all because the day or week is already full.  That’s what makes this exercise useful – if you reach that already-full week and you haven’t got your lessons planned (and you didn’t know beforehand that it was going to be so full), it’s going to be a pig of a week.  Getting some planning done in advance before the term gets too overwhelming can get you through, and next year you should be able to use again at least some of what you’ve done this year.  Just remember to plan lessons which can stand on their own – if they are too dependent on what pupils did in the lesson before and you are not up to that point in your teaching by the time you get to them, you will have wasted your time.  While you’ve got your diary out, think about when you will mark the books for the last time for each class before they are passed on to another teacher for the next academic year – that’s something else to find out: what happens to equipment at the end of the year?  Do pupils take text/exercise books home?  Do they return them?

It would be a shame if the last term of the year was limited to exam-marking, report-writing and admin.  It’s also worth stopping and thinking back over the year, particularly if your timetable gets lighter when your exam classes leave.  Hopefully these questions for reflection will be useful:

  • What are you most proud of in your teaching and in your working relationship with your pupils and colleagues?
  • In terms of authority and classroom control, how do you think pupils see you now? Is it any different to how they saw you earlier in the year?
  • How have you changed as a teacher since last September?
  • Is there anything you would do differently next year?  (Both in terms of how you teach and how you establish yourself with a new class).
  • Would you organise your workload any differently next year?
  • Have you made plans to relax and enjoy yourself over the summer holiday?  Don’t leave it too late, this is important!  And if you’re going on holiday with another teacher, whatever you do, … don’t talk about school!

Happy New Term!

I Will Survive – Managing the workload as an NQT 2

So here we go with Round 2, starting where we left off having mapped out a half-term.  If you haven’t read the first post in this category, I suggest you read that first – this article will make much more sense if you do!  This article is not so much about lesson-planning as managing your workload as you plan your lessons.

Now you can start your lesson-planning!

There is little point in getting too far ahead with lesson planning, because in the complex life of a school, all sorts of things will crop up, things that are decided late, things that should have been communicated but haven’t been, which will affect what you are able to do.  You may have a day off sick, or the school is closed because of snow (you never know your luck!) and you will have to change your plans.  Nevertheless, it can be useful to do a similar exercise for each of your classes as you have done for the whole half-term in drawing up your table.  For example if you are planning to do a wonderful activity which involves lots of preparation, with cards which you need to design, photocopy, cut up, etc., you’re heading for a work crisis if you plan that lesson to take place the day after parents’ evening, or the day after you are due to take in a time-consuming homework, unless you have seen it coming and planned accordingly.

I like to draw up a table, as I do for the whole half-term, write in potential tensions (such as parents’ evenings, speaking tests for another year group, report deadlines, etc.) and then plot out very simply when I want to do what in the scheme of work for that half-term.  These would just be key words for each day: e.g., clothes (masculine nouns), colours, materials, etc., but very importantly, I don’t fill up all the squares with things to do.  If I fill every square, it doesn’t leave me time for the unexpected to crop up (days off, trips out, exams, etc.), or for some things to take longer to teach than others, or at least differently to how I planned them.  Particularly at the beginning of the year, things will take much longer than you would expect, and allowing for that time will allow you to be calmer in front of your class.  The surest thing to set up chaos in the classroom is where the teacher is under time pressure and, in the rush to get through things, explanations and instructions become mangled, pupils don’t understand and react, either by everyone putting their hand up wanting help, or, more likely, with misbehaviour or poor work which you then have to deal with or mark.  If you pretend you have got less time than you actually have, and plan your lessons to fit the reduced time, you are more likely to succeed.  Most importantly, you need to leave yourself time to devote to routines, which will be much more fruitful linguistically in the long run than content language. Unless you allow for this in your plan, you can find routines get squeezed out of the week.  I usually leave at least a week blank at the end of the half-term and 3 or 4 lessons during the half-term so that I have some slack.  This always gets used up!

And how about trying these ideas?

  • Favourite Lesson Formats which fulfil different objectives.  Once you’ve hit on a sequence of activities you enjoy teaching and pupils enjoy engaging in, and, most importantly, which will enable pupils to achieve particular outcomes, you’re well on your way to reducing your workload.  Then, the next time you want, for example, to present 9 new items of vocabulary, have pupils repeat them in pairs and get them in their books using VAK strategies, with challenge, pace, paraphrase, intensity and so on, before going on to a more open-ended practice activity, you already have a format within which to do it.  You will probably have to set the context differently, and there may be other minor differences here and there, but your overall work is reduced when you know that you need, say, one slide/OHT/visualiser sheet of pictures, one overlay of the language, A5 copies of the pictures for pupils to stick in their books, the language typed up (in the wrong order, perhaps) and copied, etc.  And the more you do this, the more confidently the lesson is delivered and the more successful it will be, because you know that it will achieve the end you have in mind, and you will convey a greater sense of confidence in what you are doing.
  • Activity of the Week. This is linked to the last point.  It is well worth taking a particular activity and doing it with all of your classes, or as many as possible, in the same week, albeit with different language.  By the end of the week, you will have a much better sense of what makes it work because you have done it so often within a short space of time.  It will also cut down your preparation time.  Make sure, of course, that you think about what precisely pupils learn from doing that particular activity so that your teaching remains objectives-focused rather than activity-based.  Then, on another occasion when you need an activity which will fulfil a particular aim, and that activity fits the bill, you can put it in your lesson with confidence.
  • Easy-on-yourself lessons for difficult days. We all have days when we are so tired we can hardly move!  These are days when it is helpful to have a few lesson formats up your sleeve, where you can ditch your lesson at a moment’s notice and run with a different one, which may have little to do with the topic the class is currently working on, but it will keep them usefully busy.  Sometimes, by trying determinedly to push ahead with a lesson we have planned when we are exhausted, we can cause extra problems for ourselves: it feels like it matters more to us on those days that the activity we spent ages preparing works perfectly, and if it doesn’t, we can over-react in a way that we wouldn’t normally.  It may be better to accept that we will save that lesson for the next day, when we will probably teach it better and pupils will learn more from it, and today we will switch to the “fall-back lesson”.  A particular favourite of mine starts with a ball game where I spell words for pupils to guess and then sit down.  It continues with Countdown, both the letters game and the numbers game, and finishes with a spelling game.  Pupils work together in pairs against all the other pairs in the class.  Each pair has an envelope containing small letter cards (the alphabet is repeated 3 times in each pack, with extra accents).  I call out words, or mime them if I know they will guess them, and they race to choose the right letters and spell them on the table.  While they’re searching, I put some music on (the Benny Hill theme – Yakkity Sax – is perfect for this), then count down from 10 to 0, and stop the music, by which time all have to put their hands on their heads while I go round and check.  Anyone who touches a card a card after that is eliminated from the round.  Everyone who has the word correctly spelt wins a point (a thumbs-up card).  The points are totalled at the end to decide the winning pair.  This is a lesson which involves no preparation at all (once you have made your letters packs) and is always ready to go.  The pupils are very busy all the way through, but it requires little of me apart from leading it.  The fast pace of the music saves me from “driving” them to work fast and it adds humour to proceedings.  If a class is really not in the mood for a quiet lesson and are likely to misbehave if I impose one, but I haven’t got the energy for the usual, this lesson works really well, with any age group. 
  • A filing system. There is little worse than spending a long time making good resources and then not being able to find them.  The only thing worse is re-making them, only to find the original when you have finished!  Having tried several different systems, the one I have used happily for several years now is to get a large archive box for each half-term, and smaller “transfer boxes” for each year group to fit inside.  The only resources which go in these boxes are card games in A5 envelopes.  For a long time I kept OHTs in box files, one box per half-term per year group.  This worked well, but it encouraged me to keep more than I needed, so now I used a good old filing cabinet, one folder per half-term per year group.  Flipcharts and Powerpoints are of course much easier to file, but beware of preparing Powerpoints simply because they are easier to file and retrieve quickly.  That would not be a good educational reason for using any resource!
  • A file of photocopy masters. Every time you go to a photocopier, make sure you put the original in a folder so that, as the year progresses, you build up a bank of photocopy masters.  I’m happy to share ideas and resources with colleagues, but I don’t lend out sets of card games (a jumbled set is a real pain the next time you try to play the same game with your own class!).  If your school has a shared area on the computer network, that will help, but I never find time to scan in hand-written OHTs or visualiser sheets, although I do photocopy them for pupils to stick in their books.  This means that you can give out your resources for others to use and /or adapt, but you’re not left in a position where an OHT/visualiser sheet doesn’t come back to you, and you only realise the next time you want to use it, or you end up making card games for everyone else to use after you’ve done all the hard work!
  • Decide how you will use your frees.  Frees are very easily frittered away.  Remember that in your NQT year you have a slightly reduced timetable.  However busy you feel, you will never have such a light (?!) timetable until you take on extra responsibilities, which will then fill up the frees you have just gained!  Use this time to observe colleagues, as it will help you with ideas as well as make you reflect on your own teaching as you see both successes and mistakes around the department.  If there is something in particular that you want to try in your teaching but you never seem to get round to trying it, make an appointment with yourself in one of your frees to sit down and do the thinking or preparation for it.
  • A “to do” list. Whether you use a diary, a notebook, or some whizzy technological thingy, a “to do” list is essential and, if you make a habit of drawing one up each day, you will feel much more on top of your work.  Contrast that with someone having to come to you to remind you that you are late with something and you have to do it quickly.  It will also help you to switch off at the end of the day because you don’t have to remember anything.  Probably the most useful advice I was ever give on paperwork was, “If you touch it, deal with it”.  (Thank you, Wendy).  Your colleagues will appreciate your efficiency (it means they can get on with whatever they need to do with your paperwork after you’ve finished), and it means you can forget it once it’s done.  And it’s another task ticked off your “to do” list!
  • Stick to your plan.  Making all these plans is good, but only if you stick to them.  If you don’t, you’ll have wasted your time!  Although I love going off on tangents in lessons, I have learned not to change plans about homework-setting/deadlines on the hoof, if I made the initial plans at home when all was calm!

And finally, …

Don’t be tempted to work all through half-term, however much there is to do!  Resolve not to do any more work than you would normally do in a weekend.  If you don’t get a break, you will wear out much sooner in the second half-term than would otherwise have been the case.