Tuesday Tips: How to Get Work Done at Work

Full disclosure: I’m not sure if this is really a tip.  It might be more of a request for tips from you, my loyal readers.

Here’s the deal:  I need to know how to have time to get my work done at work.

Or at least some of it. I know that it’s probably unrealistic to think that an English teacher could ever get all of her work done at school.  But really.  In what other profession are people expected to take so much work home?

Okay, don’t answer that.  From much of what I’ve read, we Americans have an unhealthy obsession with working long hours and expecting others to do the same.

One of the biggest issues I face in my teaching day is that I do not have enough uninterrupted time to do my work.  I have a lunch period (48 minutes) and a conference period (48 minutes).  The rest of the day I am, shockingly, teaching. During my lunch period, I . . . eat lunch. And sometimes I feel guilty about taking time to eat my lunch.

During my conference period, I often have tutorials for students who missed class because of Stuco/drill team/band/clubs/baseball/college visits/dentist appointments/staying home to play video games.  This is also the time when I have a student aide and try to accomplish many of my department chair duties. So not much grading or planning gets done there.

That having been said, I am always on the lookout for ways to recover some of my time at work to do my actual work.  These aren’t fool-proof, but here are some of my strategies:

Arrive at school early.

I am a morning person; or at least, I have trained myself to be. I generally wake up between 4:15 and 4:30, and I try to arrive at school no later than 7:30. 7:00 or 7:15 would be ideal, but I’m doing my best here.

School begins at 8:30, and most teenagers do not want to be roaming the hallways of their high school at 7:30.  This gives me, usually, about 30 minutes to work, maybe 45 if I have no tutorials. I know some teachers do the same thing by staying late at school in the afternoons, but I find that I’m just too exhausted at that time of day to do much except stare at my computer screen or look dumbfounded when a student walks in to ask a question.

Being tired in the afternoon also makes me far too hungry, so it’s much better for my health if I just go home and eat something wholesome rather than all the chocolate from students that’s sitting in my cabinets.

Shut down the email.

This is a big one for me. I’m not always good at this, but when I need to work, I cannot have my email open. It’s too tempting.  I will quickly end up on everyone’s agenda but my own. The Pavlovian call of the ding that occurs when I receive an email and the little notification box that springs up in the corner of my screen is too much for me to resist.  So, I just close the program down.

I try to have only certain times when I will check and respond to email. I check before school starts, during my off periods, and then after school.

Have you ever noticed that an issue raised in email can often be resolved before you ever need to chime in?  I have.  I will respond within 24 hours to an email that someone has sent me, but I try hard not to get involved in the multiple-emails-back-and-forth conversations.  If it’s taking this much work, it’s probably faster to just pick up the phone.  If you want to ask me multiple questions and we work in the same building, just come find me after school.

Lock the Cell Phone in the Cabinet.

I count myself lucky that I’ve never really suffered from techno-lust; gadgets don’t really tempt me that much.  I myself have only a very basic phone for several reasons. One of these reasons is that I’m not really trying to make it easier for people to contact me whenever they want to.  I’m not saying I’ll never give in to the phenomenon of the smart phone, but I’m happy having only basic communication abilities. If I need the Internet or a cool app, I have a computer in my classroom (I’m within 10 feet of this at all times.) and an ipad.

I’ve always believed that I am under no obligation to always pick up my phone. Anyone who would truly need to contact me in case of emergency can always find me. I’m going to be at school all day: we have direct lines to our classrooms, and we have an intercom system where anyone can page me quite efficiently should I happen to be wandering around the building.

Even if you aren’t as austere as I am about this, you can always keep your phone in your purse and check it on the same schedule as you check your email.

Schedule tutorials like appointments.

I have written about this before. Of course I don’t turn students away if they need to talk to me and they have not scheduled a tutorial, but I also don’t feel bad about saying, “I’m really sorry, but I need to make some copies before class starts. I do want to talk to you. Do you want to try to come see me at a different time today?  What about after school?”

Schedule certain types of work for certain times of the day.

I know that I will have the most mental energy in the morning, so I try to do more difficult tasks, like grading, in the hour or so after I wake up and the 30-45 minutes after I arrive at school.  After I eat my lunch, I will have 20 or so minutes in which I can do some small tasks, like entering grades or checking email.  My conference period is in the afternoon, and I’m pretty wiped out by then.  At that point, I try to focus on more mindless tasks: making copies, filling out forms, cleaning off my desk (I really should do that more), filing, etc.


Friends, I’m not above this.  I will not disclose my hiding places on the Internet, but please know that I have them.

Take a day off.

This is a last resort, but I have done it multiple times.  Technically, I suppose I’m not at work if I do this, but I am using the resources of my employment to accomplish my responsibilities. Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of having enough sick and personal time to spare for this strategy; but if you can save your time for a few years, you can build up a nice bank to allow yourself some days off to, you know, do your work.

Fellow educators (or anyone feeling the same way, really), what are your strategies for getting more done in a limited amount of time?  How can we leverage the resources we do have to alleviate stress from too much work and too few hours in the day?


  1. Shut down the email (and communicator)! How simple! I’m starting that one tomorrow for sure…also maybe unplugging my office phone (shhh!) I am a notorious list-maker. I like to re-visit my lists every morning and at the end of the day to revise and re-priotize. There’s something about writing it down that makes me want to get it done; therefore, any available time that pops up I go to the list. And, rewards. I find that I am motivated by chocolate and reading. This helps me be more efficient with my time. I get 3 tasks knocked off my list, I get to read for a few minutes…also helps to avoid burnout.


  2. Grading is a whole topic in itself, but I’ve learned to save time by allowing for a lot more peer and self assessment. For example, so much formative work in a writing class is a mess anyway, so having students look at models and then assess their own work saves me time that I can use for conferencing. I love you ideas here, Jennifer.


    1. Thanks Amy! I try to do some peer and self-assessment, but that’s something I want to be better about. I try to make sure that I’m only giving feedback on summative assessments, and that I’ve given them days to work in response groups. This is a great reminder–thanks!


  3. Hi Jen…Mrs. Isgitt…
    Old habits and all that.
    Wow. I have been baffled this year by this conundrum of doing work at work. Small confession: as a student I thought you pretty much had everything perfectly together. But now that I have a little experience, it’s not all that surprising that as teachers we struggle with the same things. I too, feel like a zombie who has just finished a spelling bee in the afternoons.

    4:30? Two Questions: How did you train yourself to get up that early? And what time do you usually go to bed?


    1. Hey Josh! Oh man, isn’t it funny? I think my students all think they have SO MUCH WORK, and I just shake my head. Yes, I trained myself to get up at 4:30, mostly after I read this article: http://www.dailygood.org/view.php?sid=159. I go to bed around 9 or 9:30. I find that I’m pretty wiped out in the evenings. Like just now, I picked up a stack of essays, made it through one, and then thought, “Nah, I’ll be better at this in the morning.” I think that when I’m tired, I might not be that fair at my grading. The morning is great because no one else wants to get up that early, and so I can be assured of not being interrupted. I have kids, so that’s a bigger deal for me.


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