Workflows & Teacher Task Management
tl;dr summary: as a teacher I’ve used a number of task management systems including Eat the Frog, The 7 Habits, Getting Things Done and Bullet Journal. I now use Omnifocus (with Outlook).
One of the challenges teachers face is workload. When we’re in training it’s made explicitly clear that there’s always too much to do. My PGCE mentor, who was an amazing teacher and Head of Year, told me it was a productive day if he managed to complete three things out of ten on his todo list. His task management approach was to choose what the most important things he needed to do that day were and make sure they were carried out. His task management was always focused on the Now – but he managed to keep incredibly well organised. Like almost every other teacher, he used a planner where he kept his diary, markbook and brief lesson planning. It would be the centrepiece of his office desk and carried with him to meetings. He’d worked that way for 20 years and was very successful in both state secondaries and independent schools.
It’s over 20 years since I trained and workload has at least trebled as a response to the accountability agenda that has been imposed on the profession. Lessons have to be planned and delivered with greater detail, work has to be marked in greater detail, progress data has to be continually analysed and presented, there are more assessments, more interventions that have to be planned, more recording of behavioural incidents, there’s been an exponential growth in email communication, more “mocksted”-type reviews – that’s just for classroom teachers. If you’ve taken on any form of responsibility there’s a concomitant increase in workload. The common experience of anyone working in a school is that we’re working at a constant “fever pitch” of activity. Certainly gone are the days I could sit in the staff room at lunchtime and have a chat or read the paper. It’s usually a flying visit to make a coffee on the way to do something else.
It’s been my experience that we don’t teach task management at any point in the education system. Professionals working in Business have courses, online training and lots of books devoted to productivity and time management. I have yet to find a book specifically devoted to teacher task management (or even one for students). I also find it hard to understand why PCGE courses don’t seem to include any training in this area. It’s left to teachers to work out their own means of coping with a huge workload by jumping in the deep end and splashing about until they keep their head above water.
The challenge I’ve struggled with throughout my career has been ensuring that I’ve managed to keep a strategic focus while managing a day-to-day workload. How do you genuinely move your classroom teaching, your department, your Year/House forward when you’re only managing to keep on top of the basics? Equally, when you line manage other staff who are middle leaders, how is it possible to ensure that you fulfil your quality assurance role adequately. As an English teacher it’s always been the quantity of marking that has been the factor in my workload that has always dogged me. Lots of other stuff crops up that often needs immediate attention which means marking gets pushed down the list of todos to the point I end up marking in big batches late at night or early in the morning
It’s half-term and I’m reflecting on my workflow as there are aspects (yes, marking again) that I need to improve. Over my 20+ year teaching career I’ve practised different productivity systems that have eventually evolved into the one I’m using now – which is centred around the Omnifocus app.
I’ve used a variety of task management systems throughout my career. At first it was the haphazard teacher planner, memory and the occasional post-it note. It was virtual crisis management all the time with my Head of Department constantly chasing me for things that I was late with. My stress levels were constantly high and I never felt on top of what I was doing. Somehow I used this approach when I was a Head of Year – but it was tough going.
EAT THAT FROG
Things got better after I read Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. It was the first time I was introduced to the idea of proctastination and the Eisenhower Box approach to task management. Tracy draws on Mark Twain’s famous saying about eating frogs: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” I realised that I ended up doing mostly tasks I wanted to do (and often didn’t need doing) and avoided tasks I didn’t want to do (which often needed to be done).
What I learned from Eat That Frog was – and it seems so obvious – that it’s important to do the most important tasks first, especially the ones I didn’t want to do. I remember drawing up a list of 5 things I had to do each morning and moving the one I really didn’t want to do to the top of the list. (Even now I know I’m procrastinating when I start doing things I enjoy first!)
THE 7 HABITS
When I became Head of English I knew that I needed to improve my organisational skills and, after reading a lot of productivity books, discovered Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. At the time it was revelatory, especially in terms of aligning my workflow with what I believed to be my pedagogic principles. It made me realise the importance of strategic thinking (which I believe also includes vision and leadership values) and (what was called at the time) “quality control”. The 7 Habits effectively force you to be positive, prioritise what is important and urgent, to be proactive with strategic vision and encourage positive teamwork. The other aspect was that it also emphasise the need to ensure that you developed yourself in a sustainable way (not just professionally, but also in terms of character development).
Covey also provided a weekly planning template for managing tasks which I liked because it was goal-oriented and broke down into my different roles at the time (teacher/Head of English/form tutor). What I learned most from this was to set goals for the week, prioritise and – when I didn’t complete a task on a day – move it over to the next day. It also got me to plan out my time during the day. I found it revolutionary. Other staff, when they saw me photocopying my weekly planning sheet, no doubt thought I was some sort of OCD nut. I probably was.
As an aside: I’m convinced that a lot of the methodology coming from PiXL, the (for want of a better way of describing it) school networking organisation, is based on Covey’s 7 Habits. The register used in PiXL conferences and literature is heavily drawn from (if not Covey, then) the early 2000s business/self-help literature.
GETTING THINGS DONE
Around 2007 I became aware of Steve Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) and, when I changed jobs, shifted quite fervently to the GTD approach. GTD was attractive because it relies on a “trusted system” of task management. Everything that you need to deal with is, effectively, considered as a task and immediately transferred into the “trusted system”, which for me was a Moleskine notebook. By moving everything you need to do out of your head into the “trusted system” you focus only on the task at hand and, in theory, the stress of deciding what to do is incredibly reduced. Where my 7 Habits approach had emphasised weekly goals based on my perceptions of what I felt was important to do, my GTD approach emphasised collecting tasks, clarifying the response to the task and organising them. Then actually getting them done. (Full implementation of GTD is actually quite complex and takes time. I never really did everything Allen insists, just the things that helped me. There were aspects of GTD that I tried – like the “Tickler File” that just caused me more problems.)
The most valuable aspectS of GTD for me were the Weekly Review and the concept of the “Next Action”. The Weekly Review enabled me to take a the longer-term strategic view of what I needed to do. Spending 30 minutes to an hour a week looking over where I was and what I needed to keep on top of helped me out no end. Each morning I would do a Daily Review, which was more of a tracking and prioritisation of my tasks for the day. “Next Action” taught me that everything had something that needed to happen (even if it was deferred at that point in time).
GTD helped me out immensely. Things did go wrong though for three main reasons. One, that I didn’t put everything into the “trusted system” and I’d get caught out at the last moment with things that would unexpectedly crop up (this happens anyhow – but there were times I forgot to put things into my Moleskine). Two, that I would forget to do my Weekly Review and, after a term or two, would be back to feeling a bit lost at sea. Three, that I couldn’t manage marking effectively within the “trusted system”.
About 3 years ago the Bullet Journal system took off on the net (even lifestyle magazines like Marie Claire have devoted pages to extolling its virtues). Bullet Journal has a fabulous web site. I used it for over a year in reaction to the challenges I had with GTD. What I liked about Bullet Journal was the simplicity of its system. You use a notebook with numbered pages and add notes using a small set of bullet icons to identify what to do with the notes.
What I got from Bullet Journal is the monthly calendar view (I also added a trembly calendar). I would write out the days of the month, adding key events and deadlines. It could be argued that this could simply go into the main calendar – but I found writing it out actually made me focus more on what was cropping up over the next 4-6 weeks. Also, it reactivated the 7 Habits approach of migrating tasks (or “stuff”) from month to month.
Where Bullet Journalling didn’t work for me was that I’d already moved considerably to keeping my notes, todos and planning digitally. Bullet Journalling is an analogue system based around a paper notebook. I tried keeping both digital notes (at that point using Evernote) and a Moleskine – but it was awkward and I ended up losing notes and tasks in between both. I just couldn’t blend the two at all as much as I tried.
I would recommend Bullet Journal as a system for teachers who are still paper-based and looking for ways to improve their workflow/task management organisation. The bullet icons really do help out in making you mindful of what you need to do with “stuff” and how your plan your time. When I’ve shown Bullet Journal to teachers, they’ve often gone on to look at the site and to try it out.
Being paperless (as much as I possibly can in a profession that seems to generate ever more paper) has led me to try out software to support my task management. I’m in the Apple ecosystem and use a mac, ipad and iphone which all keep in sync. I’ve tried out a number of task management apps including Apple’s Reminders, Things, Wunderlist, Evernote‘s todos and 2Do. All have their merits (especially 2do which is incredibly inexpensive) – but I’d recommend Reminders and the tick-box list feature of Apple’s Notes for sheer simplicity over the others.
I use Omnifocus (with Outlook as my calendar) now and have built my workflows pretty much around it. Essentially, Omnifocus offers a GTD approach to task management. What I like about it is that it enables me to define “Projects” which are, essentially, like the 7 Habit’s “Roles”, GTD-like “Contexts” which let me see what tasks are available for me to do in certain situations and, above all, a means of “Viewing” what tasks are available. It’s incredibly powerful and flexible and has become my “Trusted System” over the last two years. Although there’s no web version – so doesn’t work with my school’s computers – it syncs across my phone and ipad (and now, geekily, my watch).
Everything I need to do (or even need to think about doing) goes straight into Omnifocus. I distinguish between “Hard Tasks” which are things I need to do at a specific time. These would include lessons, meetings or duties. “Hard Tasks” go straight into my Outlook calendar. I would include my “Daily Review” and my “Weekly Review” as “Hard Tasks”. Anything else I count as a “Soft Task” these would be tasks that are in Omnifocus that I prioritise based on context, importance and deadline.
Marking, my bête noire, is something I still struggle to get right. I’ve tried making it a “Hard Task” and planning time in my calendar for marking – but it just doesn’t work. Equally, having it as a “Soft Task” hasn’t really been much better. I end up procrastinating. Sometimes I have too much marking and at other times not so much (at the moment this is because my department has a marking policy which is at odds with my marking workflow and I struggle to keep up). At the moment I’m trying out setting marking as a “Hard” and “Soft” task: I’m setting planned times for marking and then using it as an Omnifocus Context. If I ever have times there’s no marking (ha!) then I’d look at my other tasks.
A last point. I’m ALWAYS looking at ways of improving my workflows. Jobs and roles change, schools change circumstances, different challenges and pressures appear. Task management systems end up being quite personal and have to keep altering to keep up with the demands of modern teaching. I don’t think there is an “off the peg” solution to creating an effective system, it’s something you have to keep working at.