Stealing Little Ideas from Big Business 2/2

The rest of those bits and pieces that don’t justify a whole post but might still be useful…


Humans are crap at multi-tasking. No, really, we are. When we say we’re multi-tasking it usually means we’re doing several things slowly and badly. What we need to be good at – and this applies to many other professions as well as teaching – is prioritising jobs and switching between them at useful intervals. Call it singletasking. The reason you want to avoid (unnecessary) interruptions and constant checking of email is that they stop you effectively focussing on a particular job.

So don’t so through the hassle of starting up your email system six times a day, sending one email each time. When you think of it, write it down on your jobs list, marking it with ‘@email’ and then forget about it. If it’s urgent, phone instead of emailing. At some point, spend half an hour on all the emails. Apart from anything else, there’s a fair chance you can combine several issues into a single email, for example to a year head.

When I’m putting a post together, I’ve pretty much stopped putting the links in as I go. That’s because each time I add a link I need to start a new tab, then either trawl through my bookmarks or spend time on Google. This makes me forget what I was saying. Instead I put LINK as part of the text, possibly with a couple of key words if I know I had a specific page in mind. Then when I’m finished typing I scan through for typos before I start going back to substitute in the real links.

The idea here is to group together similar jobs so you can get in the right mindset. Computers do this by ‘batch processing’, apparently. I wouldn’t expect to plan one day of lessons, then come back and do another day. Instead I get my schemes of work and plan a week or a fortnight. Yes, of course it means they get modified, but then I only have to get my folders of resources off the shelf once. It also means I’ve only got to find the lab techs’ clipboard once, and making fewer late requests means they’re more likely to help me out when I do mess up.

Keep it Simple

Last year I tried really hard to keep my form organised. I had a spreadsheet (Excel – don’t judge me!) and all their names, and the best of intentions to record their reply slips, lates, homework diaries, green and red slips… Nice idea. Failed miserably, but a nice idea all the same. This year I’ve got a different approach.

I’ve got some envelopes.

Each time they have a letter that means a reply needs to come in, I start a new envelope. Each day I total up the slips as they go in. The day before the deadline I read out the names. Everyone who hasn’t got them in yet writes their own reminder while I add their names to the envelope. I then cross off the names as they come in. If I can be bothered, I’ll save the envelopes to give me an idea of who’s regularly late. (I can already predict who it’ll be.)

It doesn’t have the same air of efficiency. It won’t give me running totals, order of efficiency or percentage completion. But it will be easy to do, requires nothing more than a pen and so is more likely to be kept up as the term goes on. I do feel like somewhat of a Luddite but at least I’m not yet getting behind. Sometimes using computers really does offer an advantage – electronic markbooks can be synchronised with calenders, you can show progression and improvement and all that kind of thing. Setting them up takes time and for me, at least, I’m not sure they yet justify that hassle. When there is more than one way to solve a problem, you need to be sure that more complex solutions justify the inevitable problems compared to simple ones – perhaps this should be formalised as a collory to Occam’s Razor.

And Finally…

It’s easy to get into the habit of taking work home with you as a teacher. A lot of the time it’s unavoidable – and the long holidays do mean it’s hard to justify complaints. But there are ways to make it easier, so teaching doesn’t have to mean your whole life.

Firstly, try to take home specific jobs – one set of marking, or one worksheet to put together. Taking home your whole file often means you never feel like your weekend is your own, because there’s too much in there to do. And that sort of looming enemy is just what makes it more likely you’ll procrastinate. (I’m speaking from experience here.)

Something else that helps me is to have a specific routine which I try to follow in the evenings before I head home. I don’t just mean cleaning the board and returning worksheets, but setting myself a first job for the next day or scribbling a list of the resources I’ll need. Then when I get in the next morning, instead of putting the kettle on and chatting with colleagues, I can get a few things done and be into the swing of another set of lessons. Putting that post-it on my desk also means I don’t have to remember that list of things, so it’s that little bit easier for me to relax as I head out.

Any little tips you have to offer? Please share them in the comments…


Stealing Little Ideas From Big Business 1/2

So the term is properly underway and everything is going well. Hopefully. To be honest I feel like I’ve made a really constructive start to the year and hopefully my mythical readers have too. Of course, because I’m working well, getting my marking done and staying on top of the various projects I seem to have volunteered for, I’ve not posted for much too long. Bad teacher. No apple.

Instead of a long post about something – and I have several I’m thinking through, hopefully soon to appear – I thought I’d share some of the little things, ideas and strategies I realised I took for granted after a conversation with a colleague. Most of these, as the title suggests, are things I’ve pinched from the corporate world. I’ve never really done the ‘office thing’ but somehow I’ve picked these up over the years.

Interruptions Log

For an open-plan office drone or overworked division head, this strategy can be highly effective. That doesn’t mean we should ignore it – we just change it to suit us. The idea is that by recording a few basic facts about each interruption to their workflow, somebody can see who is breaking their chain of thought and why. The articles you can find about it quote all kinds of statistics about how often interruptions happen and how much time they waste. In teaching the problem is just as real, but students (let’s ignore the boss breaking up your marking with extra jobs) often have valid reasons for asking their questions.

You can do this for your whole day, or choose a specific class where you feel you never really get momentum going because of constant interruptions. Keep a record of each interruption, listing who it was, what they asked, and how important it was. You can review the sheet after the lesson or at the end of the day, but leaving it longer will give you more reliable data. This should show you where the issues are:

  • Do you need to give clearer information?
  • Do resources or support material (e.g. dictionaries) need to be made more accessible to students?
  • Are there pupils who are needier than you had realised, or are some of them simply procrastinating?

This can then lead you into teaching students some useful study skills, starting by outlining the 4Bs (Brain, Book, Buddy, and only then Boss). Getting them to see you as one of several ways to solve an impasse can be useful in getting students to work more independently. For able pupils who ask interesting but only tangentially relevant questions, ask them to write down what they want to figure out. At a more convenient point, they can ask you for some suggestions in starting off their own research, working from their key words or scribbled query.

Setting Personal Aims

I know we’re all supposed to write an objective (or two) on the board for each lesson. I do tend to share the lesson objectives with my students, even though it’s more likely to be verbal than written. But here I’m talking about setting yourself particular targets so you can feel like you’ve achieved something.

This might be in lessons – to give personalised praise to every student in the class over a week, perhaps. It might be to provide extension links for each of your classes on your VLE, updated each fortnight. Perhaps you want to choose a topic that interests you and do a decent revamp of the scheme of work, just because it desperately needs it. It doesn’t matter what the aim is. Just set one.

The other thing I’ve started to do is write myself a couple of aims before a meeting or phone call. It’s amazing how easy it is to get off topic, especially when you spend ages waiting for other points to be sorted out or for the voice menus to stop playing you bad music. Having that aim recorded at the top of your agenda, so you know exactly what you personally want to get out of this, can really help.

Email Is Not Your Boss

I’m a big fan of email used effectively in schools. In fact, I would love for more material to be distributed electronically rather than shoved in my pigeonhole. It is, however, important to realise that email can usually wait. If it’s really that important, I know that someone will phone the prep room next to my lab, or actually visit. I’m not that hard to find (except when I’m hiding because reports are due – another valuable strategy!) so why should I interrupt what I’m doing to check an email?

The best way to handle email is to find a time, ideally towards the end of a day, and do the lot. Read them through in turn and follow your standard rules for dealing with them. Mine are here. A good rule is to file them (possibly after answering) if you need to be able to see them again. I know that good email systems are supposed to be searchable, but the one my workplace isn’t, so I have about a dozen archive folders (year team, department, etc etc) where I move emails after reading. Consider aiming for ‘Inbox Zero’, where everything is either dealt with, filed or added to your Actions list rather than left to fester in your Inbox.

I try not to check my email every time I get a new one. I’d switch off the notification if I could. This means I can spend a concentrated period of time on emails at a convenient time, rather than stopping a lesson plan or research to read an email telling me something I don’t need to know. This is much more efficient and, as a bonus, means that half the time a problem has been resolved by someone else.

Never check your email last thing in the evening either. Either dealing with new mail will delay you, or you’ll be worrying about it over night. There are better things to do with the last few minutes of your working day than be setting yourself up to worry about the next one.

Another 3 to follow in a couple of days…

Babies and Bathwater

I’m sure many of us have read about the planned closure of many government quangos (this weird word means a group set up by the government which has some delegated power, see Wikipedia) with delight. The loss of some of the more annoying functions of, for example, the GTCE, is hardly a problem. It is, however, worth looking at the list (see the Telegraph for their leaked list) with reference to education. Many of them have positive as well as negative effects, so we can only hope that the more useful functions will be preserved.

The following list is the result of my quick scan of the Telegraph’s article. Apologies for any mistakes, omissions or over-simplifications – please let me know if you spot any.

  • The British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (BECTA) has for years promoted the use of new technology in an educational context. As usual with something like this, it offers economies of scale at the expense of wide choice. In many ways it could be argued that now schools have ‘in-house’ expertise.
  • The General Teaching Council of England (GTCE) administers a list of those teachers able to work in state schools. They have been fairly unpopular with teachers since the start.
  • The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) coordinates the qualifications offered with what is taught in schools. (It is perhaps interesting that reversing the effective privatisation of the exams themselves has not been suggested.)
  • The School Food Trust is theoretically responsible for the use or avoidance of Turkey Twizzlers. How this will affect the provision of school lunches is yet to be seen.
  • The School Support Staff Negotiating Body does what it says on the tin. As well as whole-school staff (admin, teaching assistants etc) this is particularly relevant to science departments who have lab technicians as part of the team.
  • The demise of the Teachers TV Board was a logical step since they moved from a broadcast to a web-only service. Presumably the website will continue – perhaps I should do my bit by trying to use it more…

Other groups are still ‘under review’:

  • The National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services (NCSL as was) coordinates the Headship qualifications among others. Although I haven’t seen anything online about this I wonder if it means universities will be asked to take on some version of the qualifications – perhaps as some variant of a Masters in Education degree?
  • The main role of the Partnership for Schools seems to be BSF, so it’s hardly surprising they are under threat.
  • Remploy offers support and guidance, as well as some advocacy, to those in employment with complex disabilities including learning difficulties. They fulfil a similar role to the Shaw Trust, and like several of the organisations here we may see charities taking over some of the more pressing functions of deceased quangos.
  • Seeing the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) on the list is quite a surprise. Their main role – organising and overseeing teacher training and recruitment – is growing rather than diminishing, as we work harder to recruit ‘good graduates’ to the profession.
  • The Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) coordinates post-16 provision, as well as academies and EMA. Much as I would love to believe that academies will be no more I suspect it is more that the DofE will just take over that responsibility, seeing them as the norm rather than the horrendous aberration they really represent.

As well as these, several of the science groups listed seem to me to fill very necessary roles. The Health Protection Agency is an obvious example. I don’t want to make a political point as I’ve stayed away from those kinds of posts, but the groups I have listed above don’t strike me as exclusively ones we won’t miss. Let’s not get rid of useful features in our happiness to wave goodbye to the GTCE.

Classroom Rules

I’m sure most people have quite clear rules for their classrooms, but one of my new (school) year’s resolutions is to build a more constructive relationship with some of my more challenging students. Don’t worry, I will not be describing specific difficulties, as I feel it would be unprofessional (as well as potentially being stupid – see the case of Elizabeth Collins for more detail). Instead, here’s my planned solution.

Over the past few years I’ve used a set of five rules which I gave to my students, and most agreed that they could follow them.

  • Listen
  • Attempt
  • Contribute
  • Ask for help
  • Follow instructions

This year I’ll be spending my first lesson asking them to help me write a set of rules we can all follow. Admittedly, I plan to ‘steer’ them a little (my own expectations can be seen here as a pdf: class rules), but they will still be doing most of the work. I will start by asking them to consider what we will all need to do so that we can:

  • enjoy the lessons
  • understand the ideas
  • succeed in the exams

I have a blank table (saved as pdf: classroom rules blank 2010) that they will add their ideas to, perhaps with post-it notes. I’ll refer back to a more permanent version during the year.

I have some thoughts myself about the rules we might eventually end up with, and some will not be negotiable (for example ‘attempt HW’ will be in there somewhere) but the idea here is that by having a greater input they will be more likely to follow them – or at least realise why they receive sanctions if they persist in breaking them. Partly this is for me as well as them. Although I feel that most of the time I have a reasonable rapport with most of my students, I’d like to improve this. I don’t want to be popular, necessarily – but I don’t want to be unpopular, either. At least partly because it makes my job harder!

Number one prediction for the rules they will suggest for me: ‘less sarcasm’.

I’ll follow up this post with some of their suggested classroom rules, and how it works for me. I know this isn’t a new idea, but I felt more enthusiasm for it having read the ideas of Geoff Petty. I picked up his book Evidence-Based Teaching over the summer and am going to be trying out a lot of the ideas from it. After all, it’s nice as a scientist to know that some of the suggestions actually have supporting data! I’ll try to post a proper review when I’ve read some more of it.