Using Planning Time in School

The end of the school year is a great time to test out these 5 tips for productively using your in-school planning time.

By Rachel Wilser

Greetings, intrepid teachers! I want to start today with an anecdote. Raise your hand if this has ever been you: you walk  your class to their special, you head to the office to check your box on the way back to your room, run into a co-worker and chat, head up to see your math coach, but they’re not there, write them a quick note; head back to your own classroom to make some copies, run into another co-worker; pick up whatever you need to copy, run to the copy room, wait in line. Head back to your room, and notice you only have five minutes left before you have to pick up your kids! So you run to the bathroom, and then pick up those nuggets. You just ran around like a nut for 45 minutes, but basically accomplished nothing!

I actually thought that this was essentially the only way you could utilize your planning period until I left my traditional public school for a charter school. At the charter school, there were more demands on teachers’ time, and the culture of the school was definitely one that valued working harder and being at school early and staying late. For me, this isn’t tenable. Teaching is an important part of my life, but it’s definitely not my entire life. And I don’t think it should be anyone’s entire life; it’s not viable over time. So when I was confronted with this culture of work, work, work and that the measure was quantity over quality I had a hard time figuring out how to keep up, in the sense that co-workers knew I was doing the work, even if I wasn’t staying until dinnertime. One of the switches I turned was becoming incredibly possessive of my planning time.

Here are my top 5 tips on how to use your planning time to ACTUALLY get things done.

  1. Be realistic. No matter how much you guard your planning time, it’s unlikely you’re going to plan an entire unit in a 45-minute planning period. (You might be able to do this if you blocked your planning for a whole week with that goal, but not in one period.) You can batch work so that you accomplish the same tasks each week during planning. For example, maybe every Monday you make your copies for the week (Tuesday through next Monday), on Tuesday and Wednesday you grade and file, and on Thursday and Friday you plan your small groups. Obviously that’s not the only way you can batch your work, but if you set the routine and stick to it, you’ll develop the habit of always using your planning time productively.
  2. Be focused. This was the hardest for me; I’m pretty outgoing and social, and I like to hang out and chat with colleagues when we have some free time. But at the end of the day, that’s 45 minutes that I could spend at night with my husband, pup, and kids, so the trade off is worth it. To be honest, when I had deadlines or I really needed to get something done I would make my classroom look like I wasn’t there – lights out, door mostly closed. This also means staying focused on whatever your task for the day is, so if your daily goal doesn’t involve your email, don’t check it. If it doesn’t involve parent communication, don’t call them.
  3. Be productive. Don’t get distracted by making things perfect; this was especially true for me when I was working on making anchor charts or bulletin boards. If I gave myself 45 minutes for the task I know that’s enough, unless I get swept up trying to make everything 100% perfect (which totally isn’t an achievable goal, anyway).
  4. Set a timer to wrap up. This is an important step, because you don’t want to be constantly checking the clock while you’re working. It will really make you less productive in the long run. I set my timers for about 3 minutes before I had to pick up my class; that was generally enough time for me to clean up//wrap up what I was doing, use the bathroom, and get my kids. Knowing that I had an alarm set let me focus on my task and work the entire time.
  5. Guard your time. Don’t be afraid to tell colleagues that you don’t have time right now to chat. If they need something actual (for example, a document or some data) let them know you can get it to them later that day. If they have a question or a need, set up a time to meet. It seems a little harsh, and it was hard for me, at first, but over time people came to respect what I was doing and honestly other people started doing the same.

The end of the school year is a great time to test out these tips, with data cycles and report cards coming up. You can save yourself time outside of school, by using your planning time during school!

Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle schools. Now, she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.