Teaching With Evernote 2/2 The Software of Everything

If you already use Evernote and can already see how it might be useful in teaching, read on. If you’re less familiar, it means you didn’t read my previous post. Go now, I’ll wait.

Is everybody sitting comfortably?

Then I’ll begin

Evernote is a great way to organise resources and commentary on them. The note can include your thoughts about the lesson, while attached files contain a formal plan, printable resources, presentations, even audio files. What I find powerful is that everything for the lesson is in one place, and stays there. If – or more accurately, when – the specification changes again, you simply put a new contents page together, with links to your new running order of lessons.

Like so much in life, you get more out if you put more in. In the case of Evernote, this is literal; the more information you add to your notebooks, the more useful links you can make and the more material you have access to. I use it as an external memory for my brain, and these are some of the approaches which have helped me to make it work.

A note can have lots of Tags, and the tags can be put in ‘families’. So aqa has subtags P1, P2, ISA and so on. I could tag relevant lessons with the appropriate unit for another exam board too, and probably will in the future.

It’s really only recently that I’ve made the most of being able to have distinct Notebooks. A note can only be in one at a time, but you can move them freely. So a note might get moved from freelance to old projects when I finish a piece of work. I find that tags for lessons work better than notebooks, because the same resources might be helpful with two year groups.

You can set up custom searching very easily and saving these searches will make it easy to find what you need. This might be for recent notes, or a combination of tags, or either of two tags in a particular notebook. Along with creating your own contents pages (one of several ideas in this Lifehacker post) this means information is where you expect it to be with a minimum of fuss.

One Place For Everything…

I try to use bits and pieces of David Allen’s Getting Things Done; this is practically a religion in some parts of the internet, mainly those that spell colour without the u. (A simplified version is explained by ZenHabits here.) Some aspects aren’t useful for me, but I really like the idea of ubiquitous capture. Put simply, this means that if you’ll need something, anything,  later then you record it in one place. It might be a notebook – I’m a Moleskine fan myself, I must admit – but for many online things you need an electronic destination.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly by recording ideas and jobs as they come to mind you can stop worrying about them. Reducing those background thoughts reduces stress. Secondly, it means you can spend time going through everything in one go, when it’s convenient. Each item then gets deleted, finished, added to your jobs list, saved for later, turned into a reminder on your calendar… you get the idea.

A lot of notes will be saved for reference – addresses and dates for example. You won’t need them on a regular basis and you don’t need to do anything with them. But many of the others will need to be tagged #action, or merged with other notes as jobs lists for individual projects. How fast you make progress on these will be, if you’re anything like me, highly variable.

Churchill: "Action This Day"
Churchill: “Action This Day” from Lateral Works


…And Everything in Its Place

To make this easier I’m slowly turning everything I do into a ‘funnel’ for Evernote. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a note on my phone, or snapping a picture. If in doubt, these go to the default folder, Inbox. (This is actually _Inbox for me so it shows up at the top of the list, as explained in this productivity post.)

There are several ways to link with your browser so you can share directly, adjusting tags and destination notebook as you prefer. Often you can choose whether the whole page, a selection or just the address is saved. You will need admin rights so unfortunately this may not be practical on work machines.

evernote tips

Download the above flowchart as a .pdf

I use Gmail which means I can use labels and filters. These are rules which act, for example, on any email I label as ‘work’ by forwarding it to another account. Your Evernote account comes with a dedicated email address which leads to your notes.

For mailing lists which I know will produce work items, I can use a dedicated alias (eg yourname+work@gmail.com) which your filters can be set to recognise and forward without you ever seeing it. When you move workplace, the filter gets changed but you don’t have a dozen mailing lists to alter.

A final powerful tool is IFTTT (If This Then That) which links different online tools. A trigger in one account will cause a response leading to another. So if I add a star to one of the blog items in my RSS reader, IFTTT notices this and sends a copy to my Evernote. Because the categories are matched with my notebooks, it arrives already organised.

Actually Doing Stuff

Of course, organising everything is a waste of time if nothing happens. Going through the Inbox is when I finish small jobs, or start the bigger ones. Sometimes it’s about ticking off the next step in a process. My earlier post talked about how I’m using Evernote to save all the resources for each individual lesson. The lesson itself is planned back to front, starting with how I’ll evaluate the kids’ understanding of the ideas, then thinking how to engage them, then considering ways for us to explore the concepts. Regular readers will recognise these as shuffled steps in the 5/7Es process. Of course your own planning process will vary but can easily be converted into a template for comprehensive notes.

Fine Print
  1. All the above links for Evernote are referrals, which means if you use them to start your own account I get a free month of Premium access and extra upload space (as do you, FWIW). It doesn’t cost you anything extra but if you’d prefer not to, follow this unaffiliated link instead.
  2. As usual, if this post has helped your professional practice I’d appreciate a brief comment via this GoogleForm; you do not need to leave your name and there is no chance of a cash reward, but it’s good karma.



Teaching With Evernote 1/2 Getting Started

I was really pleased with myself. Then it all went horribly wrong.
Those paired statements could apply to many aspects of my life, but most of them wouldn’t interest you. The time I’m thinking of, however, is definitely teaching related – and it sets the scene for today’s post.It was the summer term and we were putting the finishing touches on a new scheme of work, for the (then) latest GCSE science specification. The resources were done, possible homework was listed, everything. And so I decided to make life just a little easier for myself and colleagues by hotlinking the files to our master scheme in Publisher. One click, I reasoned, and everything we needed would appear as if by magic.

As If By Magic...
As If By Magic…

Original artwork by David McKee, from Aubergine Art&Framing

It took several hours, and for about a week it worked beautifully. Then our IT support migrated curriculum data between servers and every single link stopped working. Fortunately, I discovered this first thing in the morning so there were no students around to hear my frustration turning the air blue.



I still think that writing a good scheme of work is only half the battle. You need to be able to find everything the next day, week or year. The way I organise my resources – and in fact my whole life – is Evernote, and it seems to me that it’s a good time to tell you about it (again – a lot of this will be developed from ideas in a previous post, the eighth E). Because right now in schools everywhere colleagues are looking at schemes of work knowing they need tidying up, but that as usual a new specification looming makes it feel like wasted time.

The Quick Version

  1. Sign up for Evernote.
  2. Type a few words about a lesson that’s part of your scheme.
  3. Add links to websites, YouTube etc.
  4. Attach lesson resources such as presentations, worksheets, homework, sample data…
  5. Add tags for the topic (eg P1heat) and year group (eg yr10).
  6. Repeat from step 1 as many times as you like.
What this makes is a huge dumping ground, in no particular order, of all the lessons you teach. The search bar checks in the notes as well as tags and titles, so finding what you’re looking for is easy. To be honest, if you’re not sure about what you’re reading I’d suggest trying this for a week then coming back to read the second half of this post.

Next Steps (in no particular order)
You can run Evernote from your web browser without too much hassle, but the real power of any cloud service is Sync. It won’t take long to install the desktop version, and there are mobile equivalents for each platform (although precise functions vary). All let you see your notes wherever you are, although you’ll need Premium access to open attached files when you’re offline.
You can create a ‘contents’ note with a numbered list. Right click on the first lesson in the topic, chose ‘copy note link to clipboard’ then paste it in to your list. Rinse and repeat. You can create as many of these as you like, linking to different mixtures of notes, and the links will keep working as long as that note exists. If the scheme changes, you don’t need to move files between directories – just create a new contents page, with a different order and any additional notes where needed.A note can have as many tags as you like. If you want to organise them in a non-overlapping way, create separate notebooks. I might use the tag blog on lots of different kinds of notes. Recipes, however, are all in one notebook of their own, away from Ed-research and Schemes.You can share a note – or a whole notebook – with a colleague – they don’t need to be using Evernote themselves. This is a really nice way to create a portfolio of lessons to show off. Alternatively, have your students set up their own accounts and save their work to notes that are shared with you. You have easy access to their portfolio, but for them nothing extra needs to happen once set up. They simply add completed pieces to their Ready for sharing notebook, which you can see.
I use the tag action to remind me that there something in a tag I need to change, fix or act on. I’ve saved a link to all notes with this tag: instant to do list. If you want to add a specific date, you can turn a note into a Reminder eg for exam dates or report deadlines.
Creating a Templates notebook might be a good way to keep ‘blank’ copies, effectively starting points, of all the things you know you’ll be producing. Most teachers have a preferred format for lesson planning (or their school does), meeting minutes, seating plans and so on. Put each of these in their own note, along with letterheads, an empty Powerpoint presentation with your preferred colours and fonts etc.
I find using Evernote this way helps me to keep my resources, lesson plans and everything else organised and available. Because the notes are editable, I’ll add any thoughts during the lesson so each plan is constantly evolving. If I need to change the attached resources, I’ll just add my thoughts and the action tag, then come back later. Over time it’s become part of how I organise pretty much everything, for work and home, and I’ll be blogging details of this in the vague near future. Please add comments or questions below and I’ll try and address them in that later post.
Fine Print
  1. All the above links for Evernote are referrals, which means if you use them to start your own account I get a free month of Premium access and extra upload space (as do you, FWIW). It doesn’t cost you anything extra but if you’d prefer not to, follow this unaffiliated link instead.
  2. As usual, if this post has helped your professional practice I’d appreciate a brief comment via this GoogleForm; you do not need to leave your name and there is no chance of a cash reward, but it’s good karma.

Automagical Organisation

I am not – as my friends can confirm – naturally organised. The reason I use some of these tips and tricks is to try to counteract my natural tendancy to be ten minutes late for everything, with the important stuff still at home on the diining room table. Originally, my blog was going to be a place for teaching-specific ways to stay organised, and I still mention some now and again. This is one of those times.

The Problems

Staying organised is about having what you need handy and getting jobs done on time. That’s it. Put like this, it sounds simple. If you’re wondering why anyone would write a blogpost explaining how they try to do it, then you probably don’t need it! I think the reason I sometimes struggle with deadlines is because I take on too much, or because ‘real life’ gets in the way. And with two kids, there’s a lot of unexpected events. The best way to make sure these issues don’t cause problems is to stop thinking about them. Let your extelligence do it for you instead.

Meeting Deadlines

Use a good calender, probably electronic. I like google calender, which combines with my preferred jobs list software (Astrid). I can add jobs using my phone or android device, or by email, and it reminds me when they’re getting close. Put work and home things on the calender – different colours might help – and make sure your partner/kids can see it too. This will probably involve some duplication, but obviously you’ll negotiate whose job it is to add items to a central place, whether that’s electronic (and therefore automagic) or paper (kitchen family planner or similar).

What will help get the jobs done on time? Knowing you’ve got them, to start with. I take minutes in meetings with my android, using Evernote. Any jobs for me are highlighted and the note is tagged as ‘next action’, which means it shows up on my front page. I also tag them as ‘work’ – more about tags in a moment.

I’m trying hard to make sure that I’ve got a headstart with regular jobs, by improving my organisation and staying longer at work before heading home. You may find setting a marking schedule, based around your PPA time, helps too. Effective peer marking, sensible policies and time savers like stickers or stamps with frequent corrections will all help. Depending on how you use AfL, you can probably tweak this to help with parents’ evening and reports preparation.

Summary: electronic calenders have lots of advantages, especially automagic reminders on mobile devices or to email.

Everything in the Right Place

Paper stuff is easy to sort out – check your timetable, just like we tell the kids. I try to put resources, marked work and so on (including lost pencil cases) on a shelf in my lab, one space marked out for each group. I’ve been using an electronic timetable (A+ on Android), so I can check it anywhere. If you produce a version on Excel, or the Google equivalent, you could include links to electronic markbooks, saved resources online or add reminders for extra materials or stacks of folders.

This brings us to electronic stuff, and in some ways it’s the most variable. There are lots of solutions, and which works for you will depend on how much you move around your school, how confident you are with computers and how obstinate your setting is with firewalls. Once more the aim is for everything to magically appear in the right place, already organised, so you don’t have to think about making it happen. Combining a common set of tags or labels with the web application IFTTT (IF This, Then That) is a huge help. I got the idea when I set up my Gmail so anything tagged as ‘work’ is forwarded to my work email.

Basically, once you’ve signed up for IFTTT you can set a load of conditional commands which link your various tools together. Following these recipes lets all kinds of things happen, effectively ‘behind the scenes’. Anything I tag as ‘work’ in GReader (I follow blogs etc by RSS) gets copied both to Evernote and my work email. I use ‘next action’ for setting myself jobs in the same way. Other similar rules let me save items that will be useful for my blog, or for home. I can also save items direct from each web browser I use, at home, work and mobile. All tweets that I favourite are archived too. As Evernote synchronizes automatically, I can get at these bookmarks, reminders and ideas wherever I am.

Files are a little harder. They can be attached to Evernote, but Dropbox and similar services (Google Drive, SkyDrive, SugarSync and so on) are easier. Find one that works for you, meshes easily with email and isn’t blocked at work. Add shortcuts to your desktop and make sure you have a lesson planning or resources folder, so everything you need is always to hand. You may even find that it’s easier to use your school VLE, uploading resources from home to use in lessons.

This kind of post makes me realise how badly the term ‘digital natives’ describes my students. Although they happily use social networking, it’s rare to hear them discuss any of these strategies to make their lives easier. Imagine if they could save everything they did, at school and home, to one searchable archive. Maybe we need to model this for them, as well as all the other skills we’d like them to learn.

What electronic shortcuts help you stay organised?

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…

Responsibility and Authority

“…and other duties as directed by the Head Teacher.”

Teaching is a very open-ended profession, when you think about it. Don’t get me wrong; I love the variety of my job and I think if I had a standard desk job, I’d go absolutely nuts. But in our role as a teacher we end up playing many parts, some of which are more productive than others.

It’s very easy to find yourself gaining extra responsibilities and it can happen in several different ways. The difficulty comes when you have acquired so many extra jobs it’s hard to find the time to plan, mark and teach your lessons. At the same time, it can be very hard to say ‘No’. Partly, of course, it depends on how the extra jobs are assigned.

Jobs shared between everyone

Writing schemes of work, updating resources and managing their photocopying is a regular job that can often seem thankless. The thing is that clearly this job needs to be done, and equally clearly it would be unreasonable for one person to do it all (although this does, I’m told, still happen in some workplaces). Trying to avoid this kind of task is not only irresponsible but you’ll end up being resented by the rest of your department. Instead prioritise the jobs and do them well. Don’t aim for perfect, because it’s unachievable and nobody will notice anyway. But if you do just a little more than you’ve been asked, it will get noticed – possibly by colleagues rather than the boss. For example, last time I had to sort out copying for a topic, I first spent an hour assembling a set of masters. Those are now stored with the topic and will make life easier next year. This brings up another way to soften the blow of this kind of job; if you are asked to choose which part you do, sign up early to get the best choice. Always selecting the shortest topic makes you unpopular but there’s nothing wrong with choosing your specialism, or the topic you did the masters for last year.

‘Opportunities’ and delegated jobs

If you’re a chemist, you’re clearly a good person to be helping out the head of chemistry by producing a homework booklet and set of markschemes. If you’re a biologist, then it would make sense for you to do the INSET course on managing microbiology experiments safely. These are the jobs you get asked to do, or may have the chance to ‘volunteer’ for, and can be hard to turn down. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as anything which takes more than an hour can probably be turned into an item on your CV. They can end up involving more time than expected, so try to keep track of ongoing commitments and use what you already do as a reason – not an excuse – not to take on more jobs. The good news about this sort of task is that a responsibility, if it is going to mean anything, will almost always be matched by some kind of authority. (Thanks to Robert Heinlein for neatly formulating this and many other ideas.) Having a measure of control means that you can decide how some things are done. I ended up volunteering to set up our department pages on the VLE. It’s not a huge job and I won’t be the only person to maintain them, but for me there are two pay-offs. Firstly, I hope to get a warm glow when students use it (and maybe even appreciate the links, if not the work that went into them.) Secondly, they’re set up just the way I want them. They suit the way I teach and so I know I’ll reap the benefits when I use them with my classes.

Make sure you know the difference between jobs that have been delegated (passed on to the person best suited/qualified to do them) and dumped (a job they don’t want to do that they have the power to pass on). Not that this necessarily means you can do anything about it, of course. A real opportunity will offer you some benefits, either interesting in the short term or career-enhancing in the long term. I’m now in the habit of keeping a list of all the extra jobs I do. Some of them I’m asked (or told) to do. Others I’ve volunteered for, or have simply decided to do without necessarily mentioning it. This last approach can be useful – if you don’t tell anyone that you’re attempting something, (1) no-one will notice if you change your mind and (2)you won’t be publicly volunteering to do it forever. You can still refer to the list when it’s time to fill in achievement forms, contribute to governers’ reports, select performance management criteria, update your CV or tick off items on a person specification for your next role.  It’s only by attempting (hopefully with guidance) the jobs that make up part of your boss’s role that you’ll find out if you’re capable of it, and if you actually want to do it.


Don’t say ‘yes’ every time you’re asked if you can help out. As above, always have a good reason when you have to say no. On the other hand, saying yes on a fairly regular basis will make you more popular. Offering to help out with specific jobs makes you especially popular, with the added benefits that you choose the extra work and the time when you’ll be doing it. In particular, offering to help support staff (lab technicians and reprographics) pays off in the long run. Not only do you get a nice warm glow but fetching everyone’s copying, or setting up your own equipment on a particularly busy day, is remembered when you need something at short notice.

Some people are a lot better at asking for favours than doing them for other people. You do not want to be (or be seen) as one of those people. If someone helps you out, especially if it’s because of a mistake you’ve made, try to make sure you offer to repay it sooner rather than later. The offer will be remembered, even if it’s not taken up.

Paid Roles

These days most of the extra duties in schools which are paid involve significant additional responsibility. It’s amazing how many roles can be shoe-horned into one job description. In general, the more successful the school and the nicer the environment, the more you will be expected to do before extra pay is considered. In ‘difficult’ schools management are much more likely to offer to make these extra jobs both formal and profitable. When on INSET days or training sessions be aware that some of the staff present will effectively be promoted for what they are learning while for others it will just be another item on the list of what they already do.

If any promotion is on offer at your school, or if there are roles you would like to be considered for if/when they come up, you have several options. Which ones you take will depend on how happy you are for people to know about your interest. Have a look at job descriptions and person specifications; these may be freely available on part of the school network. Remember that each time a role is readvertised, as previous holders of the post move onwards or upwards, the responsibilites tend to grow. If staff have not been invited to apply for a post at this moment then there’s a fair chance extra items will be on the list by the time they are. If you meet the description already, think about how you will demonstrate that. If you don’t, see what you can do about it now – gain experience, volunteer for particular aspects or try to do relevant courses. This assumes, of course, that reading the job description didn’t make you realise that it wasn’t right for you after all.

If it’s currently advertised an alternative is to ask the person currently doing the job. They obviously know that they’ll be replaced, and are likely to be honest about the level and kind of work involved. Listen to the reasons (if offered) for givign it up, or for the difficuties they may admit went along with it. You may find it’s worth asking who they were responsible to. Any job where the entire SMT can delegate to you can end up fairly hellish. Even a role where you set your own priorities will be tricky if the head can ‘suggest’ a new target or initiative to you. The flow of work may make a difference, as some jobs are easy to fit in to the working week while others will mean significant amounts of time spent at home, late evenings or at the weekend,

In the End

One of the best ways to approach any single task is to specify how people will tell that it’s been done. Some are obvious, other are more subtle (or will only affect you).

  1. Other people notice how well something has been done (they care if it was sloppy or, much more rarely, they will be impressed or grateful if it’s been done well).
  2. If it’s not done at all, people will notice and care (e.g. photocopying worksheets for a topic).
  3. Only you will notice if this has been done particuarly well (e.g. personal planning).
  4. Only you will notice if it has been done at all.

In these later kinds of situations, you need to think about how much time really needs to be spent. There’s nothing wrong with being painstaking or perfectionist, as long as (1) you know that you’re doing it at the expense of other jobs or sleep and (2)you don’t expect anyone to notice or appreciate it. You may still choose to do it – but it’s for you, not for your colleagues or the boss. In the end, teaching is one of those jobs where a whole range of successes are possible. If it’s the kids, we call this differentiation by outcome. If it’s us – well, it’s hader to give it a name.


A final note – I started this piece over a week ago but so many things cropped up that I haven’t been able to finish it until now. Those other things needed to be done (although in my judgement, sadly not significant, not all of them needed to be done then) but it means my personal goals, like this blog, have had to wait. Hopefully now I’ll be able to get back on to a regular posting schedule. In the next few days: making classroom discussions more productive.

Actions in Context

This isn’t a post about How Science Works, and how as teachers we need to ensure that all our little darlings always understand the relevance of the material to their lives. I mean, we should. But that’s not what this is about. This post grew out of a conversation I had with a colleague about how I try to keep myself organised. Some of it duplicates ideas to be found on the Organisation pages, as well as many other places online.

Actions flowchart

During the course of a day I tend to get half a rainforest’s worth of paper. Verbally, by email or in briefings I also get jobs to do, some of which are quick and easy while others are clearly going to be very time consuming. I’ve modified some of the ideas of David Allen (via summaries such as this one on Lifehacker) to suit the way I work and teach. Hopefully, the flowchart above makes sense and I’m not going to try and explain it in text – the whole point of a flow chart is that I shouldn’t have to! I will explain a little about the Inbox and the different kinds of Actions.

Absolutely everything should go through the Inbox. Jobs get forgotten when you’ve been told about them, but it doesn’t really register. His ideas about Getting Things Done revolve around the idea of ‘ubiquitious capture’, which is a fancy way of saying everything must be recorded in the same place. Like most, I struggle with this and effectively run two parallel Inboxes, one electronic and one on paper. I’ve found it works well to have an A4 plastic folder, attached to my planner, so I’ve got somewhere to put all the various bits of paper until I can deal with them. Anything not on paper either gets written down and stuffed in the folder, or written straight on my weekly To Do list. In the interests of work-life balance I have a separate notebook that I use for non-school stuff (like this blog), which has it’s own weekly lists. But anyway.

Allen is very specific about Actions but what it boils down to is that it must be a single action (one job) that doesn’t require much in the way of thinking. There will be a concrete result and ideally they should be phrased as something which has been completed (e.g. ‘Year 7 book numbers copied to database’). I tend to write them as active verbs (e.g. ‘copy Year 7 book numbers to database’) but I agree with his reasoning that being as specific as possible makes it easier to get them done – they then require time, but not judgement. The idea is that ambiguity (e.g. ‘book numbers’) leads to confusion and/or procrastination.

If it turns out the job needs more than one Action he then calls it a Project. This will have a series of simpler jobs, each of which will need to be added to the To Do list separately. Completing them individually still gets the whole thing done but makes it much more achievable. Keeping track of ongoing progress is important because otherwise I’ve found that Projects end up drifting. Think about students doing coursework; if they don’t have a series of interim targets then they won’t have anything worth handing in the day before the deadline.

At opposite ends of the spectrum are the items which can be done in a couple of minutes (i.e. less time than writing them on the list would take) and things which are ideas, rather than concrete objectives. These last should be reviewed regularly (I go through mine each term, for example) but not on a daily or weekly basis.


The end result is that new items get added to my To Do list each day. To help keep myself productive I use another of his ideas, which is effectively the same as tags in Twitter. Most items will have a key word next to them, one of several specific contexts that tell me where I will need to be to get them done. Instead of jumping from one place to another, I can save them up until I’ve got enough work to fill the time available. These will be different for everyone, but for what it’s worth:

  • @PC for things to do when I’ve access to the school network.
  • @phone for things that are best done verbally.
  • @home for anything I’ll need to take with me at the end of the day.
  • @lab marks jobs for my own teaching area and the neighbouring technicians.

To be complete, I’ll add that the notebook I try to use to keep my non-teaching life in order (a vain hope – I have two kids) has a couple of extra ones:

  • @work for things I need to take from home.
  • @town for jobs to do while out and about
  • @study for the room with my desk in.

Once a week (and more often if I get the chance) I clear out my Inbox, add a bunch of items to my To Do list and make sure I’m not getting behind. I check my Calender for the week ahead and move one job from each Project on to my To Do list.

Or that’s the theory, anyway…

printable: Actions as a pdf