Do less but do it well

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment. There is just so much to do and not enough hours in the school day to do them. I’m sure I’m not alone.

As I drove in this morning, I juggled in my head all the things I planned to do today. I need to catch up on my one-to-one reading. If I’m focused, I can try to do at least three pupils before morning break, that way I can do book changes after break and maybe squeeze in another pupil to read with. Once I’ve cleared the backlog of reading, then I’ll have time in the afternoon for interventions. Oh, hang on a minute, there’s a meeting I have to attend at 13:30 to sort out the appointment slots for parents’ evening. Scotch that, won’t have time for interventions today. And my stress levels start to rise.

At this point, a dose of common sense takes over. I take a deep breath and resign myself to the fact that not everything that needs to be done will get done, and it won’t be the end of the world. I try my best every day, but short of cloning myself, there is only so much I can do and I need to be fine with that. As it happens, not even my plan to catch up on my reading came to pass today. There’s some eggs in an incubator just by the school office, and a few chicks have hatched. I’m asked to take all the children in small groups to visit the chicks, take some pictures and record their reactions. By the time that’s done, there’s only time to read with one pupil before break time. Despite my best intentions, I am once again behind in the work I’m supposed to do, and even though common sense tells me that it’s not my fault, still I feel a sense of guilt and responsibility for coming up short.

I pondered this conundrum during my lunch and felt there was a blog that needed to be written, and I could already picture the title: “Do less but do it well”. I tweeted my thoughts and was directed to this fabulous blog by Solomon Kingsnorth. Well, what can I say? That just blew my own meagre blog right out of the water. If you haven’t read his blog, it’s a wonderful exploration of what could be achieved if we stripped back much of what we do and just focused on the core things that matter. My own ideas are far less radical, but indulge me nevertheless.

Here’s what I think.

We are at full capacity. There is no slack, no margin for delays or overflows. Every minute of our school day is packed to the rafters. I’ve heard those chants that every single minute counts, that no time can be wasted in our quest to educate our children. To a certain extent, I agree with this view. School time is precious and should not be wasted. However, this doesn’t mean that we should load our days so heavily. Sometimes, less is more.

In the rail industry, slack time is built into the train timetables. It doesn’t always work, of course, as many of us have experienced delays. Nevertheless, there is an understanding that it’s impossible to run a reliable service if there is no margin built in for little delays here and there. As someone who lives in South London, I’m familiar with the Southern Trains service that runs from Victoria to London Bridge (taking a circular route). When the train arrives at Crystal Palace, it pauses there for five minutes. It can be a bit annoying, sitting on a stationary train when all you want to do is to get moving. These five minutes are there to give the service extra slack, just in case it’s needed.

It’s not just the rail industry that does this. Aeroplane journey times take into account possible delays waiting to get clearance to land, as well as the possibility of adverse wind that could slow down the aircraft. The journey time given is never just the average time required to fly from A to B. There is always some time added for padding. And even then, countless passengers experience delays. Imagine how much more delay there would be if services operated at full capacity without any slack time built in.

Actually, you don’t need to imagine it, because that’s what schools are like these days. We run at full capacity, so anything that knocks us slightly off course can cause a massive backlog of work to be done. Take my own case for instance. What caused my recent bout of stress? Well, yesterday we had an open morning, so I wasn’t able to get my usual work done. Today I had to escort the pupils to see the chicks that had hatched, so I couldn’t get on with what I had planned to do. Last week, we had World Book Day. That too, knocked my schedule off course. The week before that, we had a school trip, oh and there was the poetry show too. There’s always something extra going on, whether it’s a fire drill or Black History Month. Don’t even get me started on how much time was eaten up by the Christmas nativity show!

Compounding all this, is a new intervention programme which I’m supposed to implement. We had a day’s CPD on it last term, and now I’m having to do three sessions a week of the programme. That’s on top of what I was already doing. Now, I’m a pragmatic individual. I have tried to accommodate this extra work by organising my time as efficiently as possible, but I can’t afford any interruptions to the service. There is no slack time. I am officially at full capacity.

The net result of this is that, quite apart from the stress it causes me, the work that needs doing doesn’t always get done. Not all children get to be read with. Not all interventions can take place. Sometimes, I even find myself looking at the clock and feeling a sense of impatience with a pupil for taking too long with a task. I try, of course, not to let it get to me, but I am human. And I can’t help but think that there is a problem here with how we organise our time in school. We should be scheduling less, and doing things more thoroughly. I know there is this intense need to squeeze as much as possible into the day, but I think this is a mistake. Unlike the slack time in a train timetable, where the train stands uselessly for five minutes, schools can always use up slack time productively. If, as a teacher, you find you have an extra 20-30 minutes one morning, pick up a book and read to the class. Wouldn’t this be better than to feel you were constantly having to rush to keep up with everything?

So here it is, my little plea to any school leader that might be reading this blog. Let’s try to pack less into our day, and do the remaining things really well. If you’re going to add little extras to the schedule, make sure there is enough slack to cope with it. Do a poll of your teaching staff. Are they working at full capacity? If so, you may need to reduce some of the things they do. Just remember, slack time is not necessarily wasted time.

2 thoughts on “Do less but do it well”

  1. I have just had a music teacher knocking at my window demanding I attend rehearsals for the Easter production…..Computer says NO!

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