Last week lasted three months.
Every day felt incredibly long, and because it’s all new for me as a teacher having to lead a team and teach my students virtually, I was exhausted every evening.
After work I wanted to spend time with my daughter and wife, watching telly, playing games, video calling friends and trying to keep the most important part of my life (relationships) going. But the constant availability (yes I’m home, always, there’s a pandemic) led to a couple of bad habits that really negatively affected my work.
My sleep patterns were shot to hell
I stopped sticking to my bed times and waking routines. This meant I became cumulatively more knackered as the days wore on. It also meant that my infant daughters sleep patterns got messed up (because everything got pushed back an hour) so she wasn’t sleeping properly either. By Sunday I was done in, and feeling guilty because I’d been at home all week. What right did I have to be so tired?
I was king of the tangents
Ask any teachers, and particularly senior leaders, and they’ll understand that the madcap high pace work environment of a school is difficult to deal with. But it does give you a laser focus on specific tasks, because you might only get 8 minutes between other lessons/jobs/duties/meetings. The lockdown, leading to me working some days at home, took away the constant time pressures of face to face lessons and meetings and suddenly I was completely responsible for my own time. No school timetable. I was a bit lost, heading off on tangents, not finishing anything.
The problem was not that there is lots of work to do, the problem was that I was like a headless chicken. I was definitely getting bogged down in Teams chats that could have been a single instructional email, doing little bits of long term planning at random and getting frustrated, uploading daily lessons and stressing about when I would make new ones, calling staff and students to check welfare, all at once. Then getting annoyed/frustrated that I wasn’t finishing anything properly. Also with some days where I was looking after my child too, it was just a perfect storm.
What made this situation ridiculous was that the week before the lock down I led a training session for Federation staff about effective project management, and gave practical tips about how to use software like Trello and Slack to help streamline things. Then as soon as I was in a position to actually implement them properly (working from home) I just drifted off into lots of random jobs. I wasn’t following my own advice.
My turning point was on Monday afternoon of the second week. By 7pm on Monday something had clicked.
I realised that a little bit of planning, and being realistic with my outcomes for the day meant that the work I did was of high quality and done on time. It also meant some jobs wouldn’t get done as quickly as others might expect, because I reassessed my priorities.
I was looking after my daughter and trying to work while my wife was holed up in the home office all day – we share as much as we can, but there was no way we could share this day for all sorts of reasons. I set apart some time to work when I knew I could. It looked something like this:
06.30 – wake, coffee, check emails. Sat down in the kitchen for 10 minutes and thought what questions were keeping my mind spinning and screwing up my sleep. Wrote them down on my personal Trello board. I logged into my schools virtual homework service and checked all the work I’d set my students had automatically loaded as I’d scheduled it.
07.00 – get baby up and start parenting!
07.45 – she’s in her groove, fed, comfortable and settled. I put some cartoons on to take my first 30 minute sprint on my jobs. I open my Trello and quickly sort two questions (and their underlining little jobs) into what’s called a Sprint (in Agile PM Scrum) and started emailing out, talking to people on Microsoft Teams and then just connecting my laptop to Remote Desktop, opening up data software etc (I couldn’t use it now, I didn’t have enough time, but it was open for a later slot of time I allocated myself). Quickly checked the virtual homework page, all my teams had uploaded their work. I ticked off the sub-sections of the tasks that I’d done.
08.15 – play time! I get the paints out.
10.30 – I’ve organised some puzzles and Lego on the living room floor. I reckon I’ve got 15 minutes before she demands I join in. I load up Trello on my phone and open the Leadership Meeting agenda for the following day. I’d allocated this time as a ‘check in’ to see if I needed to add anything else to my list, so I thought of questions I needed to answer and wrote them as tasks. I had 6 minutes left of my self-allocated time, so made a call to one of my Faculty leads – a quick chat to see how she was getting on. That call gave me some answers to another task, so when I closed the call I ticked them off my sprint list.
10.50 – snack time! I cut up fruit and load up the Lo-Fi playlist on Spotify, it’s chilled and me and my daughter ate, and read one of her books.
12.40 – nap time! Not for me unfortunately. This is the big block I’ve got in the day, a full hour and change to focus and get the jobs done.
I make some calls to parents to check how students are, and if they need anything from us. The calls go well and parents and kids seem happy with the work and support we’re giving, even if they’re generally a bit bored and fed up. I Teams chat with colleagues about resources we’re using for planning, and load them up on my screen. I give myself 18 minutes and type up a section on a curriculum map that I wanted to change (arbitrary, but the 18 minute rule is something I made up and has always helped me get stuff done quickly – work as fast as possible, and stop at 18. Then go back and review/refine later).
I check the systems for running the school when I’m on rota to go in and look after students/staff on-site – just reading it for the fifth time so I’m conversant.
10 minutes to go and I check Trello and tick off the jobs on the sprint. I’ve answered most of the questions I set myself at 6.30am so rather than just starting other jobs I go back over all the stuff I’ve done and review/quality assure it. I edit some stuff, send an email to clarify something, and then I’m happy with it, so I move them from the ‘QA’ column on my Trello board to ‘Done’. Now I wont look at them again.
Last 3 minutes before getting the littlun up and I read over the other question I want answers to before tomorrow’s Leadership Meeting. I set a reminder for the task for 3pm and stop working.
15.00 – my wife stopped working for 20 minutes to have a coffee. I handed over the littlun and shut myself in the kitchen with one single task to do. It needed full concentration because it was all creation – making new planning documents for this year/next year. It’s going to take me at least 12 hours to make in total, but I’ve broken it into (at last check) thirty-six sub-tasks. I wanted to get just one of those tasks done.
15.50 – worked longer than expected, and went back to parenting mode. Got two tasks done completely. The whole thing isn’t finished, something that would have irritated me last week, but now I can see it laid out on my Trello board I’m not worried and feeling pretty good about it.
18.00 – my wife took over and I went back into ‘work’ for an hour. I originally planned 18 minutes, but then did three 18 minute focus sessions, on three different tasks, one after the other.
19.00 – tired but happy. Feel more accomplished than all of last week. No more ‘unknown unknowns’ to worry about.
Note: I don’t advocate working longer than your usual hours. Most days I start work at 07.30 and finish by 17.30, but this day also had me parenting in it so it’s not a ‘normal’ day.
The time I spent working on Monday was around four hours. But I accomplished a lot. On days where my daughter is with my wife or childcare I’m using the above methods to efficiently plough through everything that I’ve put onto my backlog/daily sprint, and it feels amazing. I have energy to exercise in the mornings/evenings, and still have time to organise my home gym each night ready for the next day, cook all our meals, and do house jobs. Conversations with my wife that may have led to stress, such as the myriad tasks we have to complete are basically gone – it goes on the Trello board, and I assign tasks to myself each day.
I’m really hoping that this terrible time sparks a sea-change in the way people in my industry do business. We’re always going to (want to) be needed in classrooms, stood in front of children, guiding and teaching them, but maybe some of the other extraneous work can be done more systematically. Like we’re working now. More action, less reaction.