After organizing all the things you have to manage during a school day — homework, attendance, lesson plans — it’s no wonder that managing your own time can seem like an insurmountable challenge.
“One of the best reasons to choose teaching as a profession is that it presumably gives people the opportunity to balance work and personal lives,” says time management guru Julie Morgenstern, author of such books as Organizing from the Inside Out and Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life. Of course, tell that to the teacher who has spent all day managing 30 kids only to come home to his or her own — and the homework, mealtimes, soccer games, and paperwork that accompany them.
There are many great online resources that help teachers organize their classrooms, but not so many devoted to helping educators bridge the gap between school and home. We asked Morgenstern about how to make it easier.
Q: How can organizing physical spaces help teachers to manage their time better?
A: The way I teach people to organize any space is based on a kindergarten classroom. There are activity zones that hold everything you need for that zone. Say that a fashion designer mother donated a bunch of wonderful fabric to the classroom. You’d never find that in the music corner; you’d find it in the arts and crafts zone.
It’s critical for [teachers] to organize at school because they have to do it every year. Teachers have to have systems that are packed and repacked, shut down for the summer and moved.
The same organizational principles go for your home. Just as your classroom might have a homework “in and out” zone, you should have a bills “in-and-out” zone; avoid “all purpose” spaces (like the junk drawer) and keep everything stored in the zone where it’s used, whether it’s for work, eating, playing outside, or cleaning.
Q: Teachers will inevitably have to take work home with them. How can they separate “work” work from “personal” work…or is that important?
A: Always separate the kids’ homework from your own. Don’t mingle it with your own homework, such as mail or bills to pay or letters to write.
And importantly, know when you’re going to be doing your homework. Don’t just tell yourself that you’ll do it in your spare time or when you have two minutes. Plan out when you have those two minutes. Is it when your kids are doing their own homework, or when they’ve gone to sleep? If you don’t have kids, is it when you first come home from school or right before you start dinner? Then on Saturday, you can actually take free time and not be haunted by what you haven’t done.
Q: Is there an ideal time of day to do your classroom organizing?
A: There’s no ideal time of day to organize work materials in the classroom; it’s a personal choice based on when you can get it done. The trick is figuring out when you function best and make a conscious choice about when you’ll be doing it. Just pick times when you’ll be unlikely to be interrupted: in the morning before kids arrive, during the day when there are quiet activities like naps or writing hours, during self-contained activities that don’t require your interaction, or right after school before you go home.
Q: Do master “To Do” lists help juggle classroom work and personal errands?
A: I know it’s scary, but you should let go of master lists. They are like junk drawers. A list is like a mental inventory; you write it all down and then ignore it. Growing “to-dos” are demoralizing because you’re mingling all your work on one list just so you won’t forget it…and it’s not actually an action plan. You need to make an action plan – not a list.
Q: What’s the best way to make that action plan?
A: Once you’ve cut lists out of your life, keep on track by asking yourself, “How long is it going to take, and when am I going to do it?” Then scroll to the day on your calendar, and write it down. DO have a master planner, where all your schoolwork, personal work – and even fun – get scheduled. Containerize errand and chore time. A planner will help you ultimately take the time to relax and be with your family or your significant other. It can even help you establish rituals, such as “Friday night is movie night. “ Then you will streamline your chores to reach those goals.
Q: If I put my whole life in a planner, does being organized mean that I have to stick to every scheduled activity? Is there any wiggle room?
A: Always look at your planner in a three-day arc. This gives you the freedom to rearrange your schedule in the context of your life. If you find that it doesn’t need to be on your schedule anymore, delete it. If you need to reprioritize and put something else first, delay it. (This doesn’t mean you procrastinate; it means that you are putting something that’s a higher priority first.) If it’s not that important – but still needs to get done – diminish it. Finally, if you’re too busy and someone else could do it, delegate it.