Sunday, February 21, 2010

Getting Things Done as a Teacher

A teacher is basically an acrobat, performing for a crowd while trying to juggle a dozen things at once. Unlike an acrobat, most of the things a teacher juggles are not visible but abstract and thus, much harder to keep track of.

How do schools ensure that their teachers don’t “drop the ball”? How can teachers keep track themselves? Like any professional, many teachers use agendas, to-do lists, and calendars to keep track of their tasks, appointments, responsibilities and goals. But as far as my experience goes, the industry has a long way to go before “best practices” for productivity and task/time/energy management are established system wide for the principle managers of our children’s education.

A few thoughts, inspired by two books I’ve read in the past year or so:

-David Allen’s Getting Things Done-
Written more for the executive and corporate type, Allen’s procedures for creating and managing inboxes, outboxes, archives and to-do lists are on the money for anyone interested in productivity, including teachers. Since reading the book about a year ago, I have much more effectively managed my workflow/load. I have inboxes and filing systems at work, home, on the computer and in my email accounts. My favorite organizing innovations have to do with the division between action items and archival items.

Action items vs. Archive
Especially with my email, I try to clear my inbox as mail comes in, putting emails that need attention in the “Action items” folder, and everything else in the “Archive.” With my gmail account, I have labels that automatically apply to many items, making it even easier to sort the archive, but the best part is being able to have a clear inbox, and a separate folder clear of clutter, devoted just to action items. I make separate time to clear the inbox and to attend to the action item list. When I visit the action items folder I then attack them right there (if they are below the 2 min threshold) or I move the actions to my to do list.

I also maintain a separate folder titled “upcoming events/appointments” which serves as a reference until items get put in my calendar (and in case the calendar entry needs clarification). Every few days I visit this folder and delete or archive old and irrelevant items. This procedure confirms that I am on top of my commitments.

-Tim Ferris’ The Four Hour Workweek-
This book is great for the teacher who is always swamped with work (except in the summer) and needs a glimpse of the big picture, particularly how to be more efficient. Ferris has 4 rules and while a teacher can’t follow them completely, they can guide the teacher to greater effectiveness. The four rules are:


This book is all about putting things in context of what really matters, what really works, and what you really need to do (and what can be done by others/not at all). Ferris encourages putting limits on work, to preserve sanity and balance; for the teacher, this can mean instituting a rule that no work will take place after 9PM, for a 24 hours block on the weekend, or during their lunch break. Email and phone calls too—rather than checking constantly or not at all, check every day at the same time (say, 4PM), and “chunk” it, that is, get them all out of the way at once.

An interesting thing I’ve tried is one of Ferris’ most compelling and controversial suggestions—that of the “virtual assistant.” Throughout last year I experimented with three virtual assistants: a well educated professor of education in the Philippines ($6 per hour), a large outsourcing firm in India ($4.5 per hour) and a stay at home mom in the Midwest who had a Master in Education ($11 an hour). Far and away the best deal was the American woman, who I could talk to on the phone, had a better understanding of American culture and education, and produced more quality given the higher wages. The experience of delegating, especially remotely, was good management experience for me—and that turns out to be the best take away from this experiment. Outcomes on individual assignments were mixed, but a few things are for sure:

-the longer one works with a VA, the better the results over time
-the more work that can take place remotely and which is straightforward to explain and perform (data entry, for example), the more promising the relationship
-hourly wages are hard to negotiate across cultures, ocean and time-zones, so expectations need to be extremely clear from the get go.

I think it would be a great idea for a school to pioneer a program where teachers received a small budget—say, $500 per year—to hire an assistant, virtual or otherwise. Teaching should really be a team based job, and teachers should be able to delegate certain tasks in order to focus more on planning, assessing, guiding, etc.

The last big take away from Ferris’ book worth noting at this time is his application of the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule. Applied to business, the benefits are clear—focus attention on the 20 percent of clients who give you 80 percent of your business, and eliminate the 20 percent of your clients who give you 80 percent of your headaches. Taking a similar approach to education could produce interesting results: intervene with the 20% of students who give you 80% of your challenges; coach students on the 20% of the skills that will give them 80% of a boost in performance, etc. Obviously some real scientific study should go towards investigating the potential of this approach in teaching and learning, but there is definitely a range of intriguing application of the rule to education, which I have rarely, if ever, heard spoken about.

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