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Protecting Your Prep Time

Prep time is precious to teachers. In fact, it's dang near sacred. Between lesson planning, grading assignments, parent-teacher conferences, and chaperoning field trips, some admin thinks tossing teachers one 45-minute period will help. It's about as helpful as tossing a deck chair off the Titanic.

Prep time becomes break time, a chance to simply breathe amongst your busy day, and that doesn't even include your night job of being a parent, spouse, or church leader when you go home. Prep time can make or break your day. So here's how you can stave off distractions and keep your prep time intact.

Discuss with Colleagues in Advance

Take the bull by the horns and boldly talk about the sanctity of your prep time. Do so in advance, whether with your administration, department, team, or other staff. The Rhode Island elementary school does a comprehensive set of role plays centered on teacher interactions. It does this whenever the school year commences. The entire teaching staff meets at these times to discuss actions teachers can take whenever others interrupt prep.

Take the initiative and broach the subject with your grade or departmental head to set the precedence. Face the monster now or allow it to devour you later. Setting boundaries is not rude. You must look out for yourself and make the most of your day. Chances are that your colleagues will understand, respect, and ultimately admire the changes you're implementing.

Post a Sign to Your Door

An Austin middle school teacher uses a different but humorous tactic. She occasionally posts a sign on the office door to "ward off intruders." The sign makes it clear she's busy with grading, intense planning, or other work. The teacher posts this sign whenever she's busy and must focus exclusively on the task at hand.

The best part? Her colleagues understand! They know she isn't merely making herself unavailable; they know she isn't anti-social or uncooperative. Instead, she's trying to complete her work. If you've already told your colleagues, post a sign on your door to remind them before entering. I know teachers that keep their doors locked and the light off to fend off students and coworkers. And it works like a charm.

Here's a sample of what your sign may include: 

[Name] is busy planning/grading/phoning parents. Kindly come back at [time].

Create a Respectful but Defensive Message

Craft an arsenal of phrases you can unleash whenever an unwelcome guest interrupts your prep time. No one wants to take work home, so go ahead and write those snappy sentences.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • "Unfortunately, I'm trying to complete these progress reports. Can I stop by your office on my way out?"
  • "I'm in the zone with these unit plans. Can you drop it in my mailbox?"
  • "I'd love to help, but my prep time is reserved for my work. Send me an email, and I'd be happy to take a look in the morning."

If someone- somehow- pulls you into a conversation, gently remind them your schedule's run by a clock- and the kids. Consider Stephanie, a teacher based in Washington DC, who says, "Before any meeting starts, I tell everyone that I'll need to leave by XYZ time to prepare for my next class, period!"

Defending your turf doesn't mean you don't care. It's the exact opposite.

Discuss Lost Time's Impact with Your Supervisor

If your school's administration team often serves you and your colleagues with short notices for impromptu meetings, emergencies, or deadlines, it's time to have a conversation. Of course, we're occasionally duty-bound to deal with some emergencies. An admin might ask you to cover for an absent teacher at the last minute. Or you may have to attend an impromptu student discipline meeting. And we're all for being team players! But when it's a regular occurrence, it becomes an unsustainable expectation.

Schedule a time to chat with your supervisor about the burdens placed on your shoulders and press to establish set boundaries or protocols to lighten the load. Keep things professional, and it helps to come prepared. Document occurrences you're noticing and suggest ways to deal with them. Inform them of frequency, duration, and explain its impact on your workload. Often supervisors aren't oblivious; they're just unaware. As they realize the impact they're making, they'll take action to help protect your prep time.

Written by John O. Ndar
Education World Contributor
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