Photo credit: STIL

The Gift of Schedule

By Christina Torres

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There are plenty of weeks where I take stock of everything that needs to get done — the planning, grading, preparing — and feel, frankly, overwhelmed.

Most teachers feel this crunch. Like many educators, I have multiple jobs I try to balance with maintaining my relationships, as well as a penchant for saying yes to too many things. There are some teachers who are impeccable at keeping their schedules on track — they are detailed-oriented, plan out things in advance, and somehow remember birthdays or that they need to buy milk on the way home.

I am not one of those teachers. Planning has always been a huge struggle for me. I’m a big-picture thinker who has a tendency to improvise and execute on the fly. This can work for some, but when things start getting busy, it becomes easy to drop the ball. I often forget the milk.

I struggled with planning and organization until my second year of teaching. I’d often find myself double- or triple-booked, forgetting what I had agreed to do until it was too late. Then I showed up late to yet another meeting with my mentor (who was one of those aforementioned, detail-oriented people). She was patient and gracious and asked me how I was managing my time.

“Um . . . I try to remember things? Sometimes I write to-do lists . . .?” I sighed. “I just feel like I don’t even have time to do everything I need to, much less plan it all out.”

What followed was a crash-course in scheduling. My mentor had me track my estimated time on a task with what I actually spent. She also showed me how she used a planner to start planning out her day. When did she need to wake up? When was she going to plan for the day or week? The calendar didn’t just have work-based tasks though. It allowed her to ensure she scheduled in time to make meals, follow up with friends, or go to the gym.

While I still occasionally forget things (no one is perfect), I learned that taking the time to plan actually saved me time in the long run. Even better, it actually allowed me to look at the big picture by taking what felt like a million tasks and seeing how they would all fit into the big picture of a week or month.

As a new teacher, it was especially hard to see the forest for the trees. Now, when I coach teacher candidates, I encourage them to create a routine that will help set them up for success. Here are questions to ask when figuring out a schedule that works for you:

  • When are you most productive? Taking time to reflect is important for many teachers, but we tend to focus on performance instead of feeling. Take some time to figure out what times of day you work your best.

Teachers lack the scheduling flexibility of other professions, but it’s still good practice to reflect and plan accordingly. I used to plan on getting a big chunk of planning done in my afternoon prep period, but after reflecting, I realized that my brain was so fried by the end of the day I just wasn’t able to focus, and that I was much more creative in the evening. Instead, I saved that time to grade some assignments, follow up on emails, or clean my classroom. This freed up time later in the evening or the next morning to plan.

  • What big goals do I have for the week? We do this often for our students, but it’s good practice to backward plan for ourselves as well. Try to find some time at the end of the week to figure out what goals you want to hit in the upcoming week (I like Sunday evenings, as planning things out helps me deal with the “Sunday Scaries”).

Know those project instruction sheets need to be finished? Want to work out at least three times that week? Great! Now figure out what smaller steps need to happen. For example, if I need to finish grading sixty essays at the end of my week, I’ll figure out what the best times are to plan some uninterrupted time and how many I should try to finish in each chunk of time. This helps you determine what other things you may need to reschedule or pass on so you can meet your goals.

This is what my actual schedule looks like

What do I need to take care of myself?

Truly. When I’m feeling really overwhelmed, ensuring I have time to do everything I need — particularly sleep — is really helpful. Beyond ensuring I schedule in work tasks and meetings, I’ll get nitty-gritty and fully schedule my day, including when I will

  • eat (including cooking time)
  • take breaks (I have put “watch Catfish” on my calendar and feel no shame!)
  • run or work out
  • call loved ones
  • schedule date night with my partner
  • drive
  • sleep, including a reminder to actually go to bed instead of laying down and looking at Instagram for an hour.

What do I really need to do, and where can I ask for help?

One week, when I was particularly stressed, my therapist encouraged me to write a list of everything I “needed” to do, look at the list, and take three things off my plate. I looked at her, appalled. How could I take anything off? Didn’t she know how busy and important I was and that all these things relied on me alone?

The answer, of course, is that no one is so busy and important that they have to do everything alone or can’t admit when they are struggling. Whether it’s asking for help, asking for an extension, or just letting something go (maybe my students won’t get their essays back this week, and that’s okay), taking a second to “triage” my schedule can help put things in perspective.

It’s okay to take time to gift ourselves a schedule that makes sure we take care of ourselves, and it’s important to accept when that schedule has to be rearranged. I try to stop judging myself when the plan has to fly out the window. This is why I plan digitally, as it makes it easy to just drag and drop tasks to another time.

Life happens. Teachers are magicians, wizards, and heroes — but we’re also human. Accepting that will help our students see our humanity and make us all happier in the long run.

Christina Torres is an English teacher at Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. A graduate of the University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount University, she previously taught for two years in Los Angeles. She loves laughing and learning with her students, living in Hawai‘i, running marathons, reading books and eating cheeseburgers. She can be found at christinatorres.org or @biblio_phile.

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