This is the first in a new series of posts in which Adam Simpson offers simple solutions to the most common problems for newly qualified language teachers.
In your new career as a teacher, a key skill you’ll need to acquire – or enhance, or even develop – is proficiency in time management. One thing that teachers need to do is maintain some kind of balance between the long-term goals of the particular course, the immediate educational needs of the learners and the large amount of bureaucracy and paperwork that comes with being a teacher. Between grading exams, writing lesson plans, as well as actually teaching, you’ll often feel like it’s impossible to fit everything into the amount of time available.
Coming off the back of your initial teacher training course, you probably have bags of enthusiasm and may also have plenty of ideas for amazing, engaging activities to wow your learners with, but you must make sure you have sufficient time to do everything you need to do. With this in mind, I’m going to split the rest of today’s post into two sections: managing time inside and outside the classroom.
1) Inside the classroom
How much time do you have to teach?
Let’s start with the most obvious of questions: Do you have an hour and a half with your learners… or only 40 minutes? How much time you have for each lesson is your number one priority. With a time limit in mind, then think about your objective, i.e. what you hope your learners will have achieved by the end of the class.
What I find helps me is to plan activities that will directly enable your learners to achieve this end goal, whilst trying to keep within a time limit for each. If you’re planning a drilling session, for example, you might not want to take more than five minutes for it. Here are a couple of things that see me right most of the time!
Always give your class a time limit for an activity and an indication of how much time has passed (‘start time’, ‘half way point and ‘1 minute to go’, for instance).
Aim for an ‘average finishing time’. In other words, don’t end as soon as the quickest learner has finished, nor wait until that last straggler has ambled their way to the end. If about half to two-thirds of the class have completed the task, you can start to wrap things up.
Don’t spend too long on warmers at the start of class.
Have short review activities ready if you find yourself with five minutes to spare at the end of a lesson (recapping recently learned vocabulary is always a winner).
Despite this advice, it’s nevertheless important to be flexible. If your activity is resulting in very productive output, you might want to give them a few more minutes to wrap it up instead of ending it abruptly.
Can you make it homework?
The truth is, I’m a big fan of negotiated tasks that supplement and enhance what has been achieved in class, and someone who loathes busy work that is assigned for the sake of it. Obviously, I suggest you follow a similar mantra!
Both teachers and learners may find that assignments that require repetitive practice is better suited for the home environment. Although in-class practice undoubtedly helps when framing and structuring new language, repetitive practice during class may not be the best use of time. Assignments that simply ask learners to fill in the gaps – a grammar gap fill, for example – for practice unnecessarily consume valuable class time.
Look at what you have planned and what other materials are available to you and ask the following questions:
- Can they do this on their own?
- Does this build on what we did in class?
- Does it provide meaningful practice?
2) Outside the classroom
Organize your day according to priorities
You won’t have time to do everything you want as a teacher, so you must start with setting priorities and organizing your day around the most important tasks. Naturally, most days will revolve around getting ready and actually being in class, but it’s the other things you need to keep an eye on.
Setting priorities can help keep you on track throughout the day, even when the unexpected happens and the workload can seem overwhelming (just to let you know, this type of situation is the norm!).
Effective prioritizing is about arranging your workload around both the importance of the tasks as well the resulting impact of the completed tasks. Teachers must be able to assess whether projects can be put on hold if the outcomes are not as ‘impactful’ as others. Here are some general rules of thumb:
If you assign homework, you probably have at most a week to grade it and return it. Any longer and the task will be deemed to have been pointless, or your effectiveness as a teacher may start to be questioned. Consider using class time to go through the answers: this is a justifiable use of time if the task was meaningful on the first place.
If you give some form of assessment, learners will expect to know the results within minutes of it having finished. This is even more important than homework, so definitely plan ahead in terms of having enough time to grade exams and the like.
Don’t over-elaborate with designing your own materials when you’re starting out. It will be tempting to go all out for that inspiring lesson the learners will never forget, but if you can, stick with the course book as much as possible (with occasional excursions permitted of course).
Even though I’ve suggested following course materials as much as you can, priorities are not as black and white as “putting the grammar point on page 51 first and getting to fancy group projects if time allows.” This kind of thinking can often lead to burnout, for both teachers and learners. Within certain contexts, a freer creative activity can be more stimulating and productive than grammar-based lesson plans.
Please join me again in the coming weeks for more advice on how to survive the post-CELTA teaching world.