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Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and author of Meditation in the College Classroom: A Pedagogical Tool to Help Students De-Stress, Focus,...
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Applying the 80/20 Rule to Teaching

As a teacher, have you ever felt like you were running in circles? Like you were working as hard as possible but then not getting the results, whether in the form of student engagement, test scores, and/or learning gains. It might be time to reconsider your approach to work and time.

The Pareto Principle, named after economist Vilfredo Pareto, states that there is an inverse relationship to input and output. In simplest terms, about 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of activities. Just a small number of tasks account for the majority of progress. The key then is to identify those key areas and focus energy there. This 80/20 rule has permeated time management literature and talks; it’s honestly not a new idea. However, in my quest to better manage my time, I have never really heard it applied directly to teacher professional development. Think of the value of focusing on the top 20 percent of your activities—the high value, high impact tasks—when lesson planning and delivering instruction. The results can be powerful.

What might this look like in the classroom? Let’s run through an example.

Suppose you are planning your day. The first step would be to list everything you have to do in the course of the school day. For instance:

  • Write learning objectives on the white board
  • Set up science materials for a lesson
  • Make copies of a math assessment
  • Facilitate a parent/teacher conference after school
  • Participate in a grade-level team planning meeting
  • Hand out field trip permission forms
  • Examine reading assessment results/determine areas of focus
  • Teach math, ELA, science, social studies classes

Now, the secret is to identify the tasks that will have the biggest impact on student learning, on helping you reach your goals. You must separate what you have to do from what is truly valuable and impactful.

You realize that a few actions really stand out, such as studying assessment results and planning instruction. You then focus your attention on those areas. You still have to get the other things done, but don’t start your day, don’t waste your most alert, productive hours on passing out permission forms or setting up materials. Your mental energy needs to be spent on analyzing assessment results and strategically planning instruction that will meet student needs. This task will help you improve student learning and get the results you desire. Also, think of how you can delegate some of the lower-impact tasks—ask students to come in early and help you set up materials, write on the white board, etc.

Completing high-impact tasks will also do wonders for your confidence and energy. Rather than feel like you’re spinning your wheels, you’ll feel focused and accomplished. You will have a great feeling of moving ahead. If you practice the 80/20 rule in everything you do, you will start accomplishing twice as much as normal; this has been my experience.


Steve Haberlin is a graduate assistant and Ph.D. student at the University of South Florida and an educator with 10 years of experience.