textbooksAs someone who worked in education for several years, I can tell you that one of my biggest obstacles was time — as in, there was never enough of it. But rather than turn my teaching job into a 24/7 endeavor, I learned to work smarter. I analyzed every moment of my work day, and identified ways I could get things done faster while improving efficiency. Here are 10 things I learned along the way. Hopefully you can benefit from them and improve your productivity as an educator.

1. Keep a clean desk
If your desk is filled with old papers, office memos and general clutter, it’s time to get organized. The surface of your desk should only house the items you’re currently working on. Everything else should be filed, trashed or stored away.

2. Sell or donate old books
A bookshelf filled with old reference materials makes it more difficult for you to find the books you actually need. Even if it only saves you a few minutes, that’s a few minutes you can dedicate to other tasks. Sell your old books online to make some cash, or simply donate them to your local library.

3. Use a to-do list
Using a to-do list is a major time-saver for teachers. By writing down all your daily tasks, you’ll be more productive and you won’t waste time trying to figure out what to work on when you have a few free minutes. Take time at the beginning of each day to write out your list in three categories: essential tasks, important tasks and non-essential tasks. Tackle what you can, when you can, then transfer the remaining items to the next day’s list.

4. Take advantage of down time
You may have more free time than you think, even if it comes in fits and spurts. Take advantage of the time between classes or the time you have while administering a test to get other things done. Answer emails, organize assignments or start grading papers. Even if you only answer one email or grade one paper, that’s one extra email or paper you won’t have to deal with at home.

5. Use your assistant
If you’re lucky enough to have a teacher’s assistant, put him to good use. Put together a task list for your assistant each day, much like your own to-do list, and go over the list together each morning. This way, you cut down on interruptions and supervisory time by answering questions first thing in the morning. Just be sure you keep the lines of communication open to ensure you’re not overloading your TA.

6. Know what you can control
There were times during my teaching career when I felt helpless. I wanted to free up more time, but I felt constrained by the business structure I worked in. This changed when I realized I had more freedom to impact the things that were impeding my productivity.

After consulting with the principal, I found out I could limit the number of school day intercom announcements I received, and I could reduce the number of unscheduled visitors to my classroom. These changes reduced the number of interruptions experienced in class, and improved productivity for myself and my students.

You can also control the transition period between one focus of study to the next. Have your materials and references ready to cut down on transition time. And rethink your restroom break policy to cut down on interruptions.

7. Make long-term plans
Take time to set goals for each week, month and year. Identify areas where you want to improve and put your goals in writing. For example, you could commit to learning new instructional strategies to enhance classroom performance. Inform your administrator of your goals and check your progress often to make sure you stay on track. When you’re working toward a goal, you’re more likely to be focused and productive.

8. Don’t take work home
There’s nothing worse than trudging home with a pile of papers in tow. Your home life should be spent doing things you enjoy. Schedule a day or two each week to grade assignments, and stay late at the office, if necessary. This delineates the difference between your professional and personal life, enabling you to enjoy your free time more.

9. Don’t formally grade everything
Although it’s a good plan in theory, it’s unnecessary to grade everything your students turn in. Check with your school regarding minimum guidelines, then adjust your strategy accordingly. Continue to recognize students for high-quality work and provide feedback on sub-par assignments, but don’t feel the need to painstakingly grade everything you receive.

10. Learn to say “no”
Are you constantly being asked to help with school events or extracurricular activities? While it’s important to pitch in, don’t allow yourself to be stretched too thin. Commit to one or two projects or activities each semester, sticking with the tasks you enjoy, and respectfully say “no” to everything else.

Final thoughts
While you can’t shorten your class periods or send students home early, there’s no reason you can’t free up more time in your day. Take a hard, objective look at your work schedule and identify ways to save time — even if it’s just five minutes here and there. No one is going to manage your time for you. It’s your responsibility to make adjustments.

Are you a teacher? How do you manage your time effectively?

Benjamin Schrage is a math teacher in the Boston, Mass. area. He holds a masters in education in High School Mathematics from UMass-Boston.

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