Accounting for the Unaccountable

Teaching in public education is a truly unique profession – it’s a bit like being self-employed. No one tells you when your product is finished. No one tells you how to manage your time. It is the land of the unaccountable.

And while such a job description might prick up the artificially sculptured ears of an aspiring Instagram influencer, all teachers know that this ‘freedom’ is deceptively superficial, due to the following axioms:

EVERYONE is naturally terrible at managing their time.


The amount of work a teacher can do is INFINITE. 

This does not make for pleasant reading, because no one wants to feel that their work is endless and everyone wants to feel a sense of accomplishment at the day’s end.

So, as a teacher, how do you happily and competently traverse the infinite road that is children’s education?

  1. Keep a to-do List.

A huge portion of our time is lost by deciding what to do next. If, instead, we have a planned sequence of tasks, we can cut out wasteful moments of decision making and let the good times roll.

For teachers, this means keeping a list of everything we need to do. While this seems trivial, it is something few of us do and even fewer maintain.

At the end of each day, make a list of what needs to be done the following day. Once you get through all of these tasks, you can go home, knowing that you’ve actually finished your day’s work:

A to-do List for one one of my work days

How do I go about ordering this list?

Start by ordering according to when the tasks are due (i.e. urgency). Then, if some tasks are more important than others (e.g. planning a lesson vs responding to an email), this might elevate them in your list (check out the ‘Urgent-Important Matrix’).

What should I use as a list?

The most important thing is to record it somehow. This will free up your brain’s RAM (I don’t have a degree in neuroscience), which you can direct towards the tasks themselves (see David Allen’s Getting Things Done).

I started with a handwritten list, which gives you nearly all the benefits. Then I moved electronically, to Google Keep. Now I use Todoist (displayed above), as it automatically orders your list, schedules tasks to repeat and allows you to group tasks by project.

OK, but isn’t a to-do List just an extra thing that takes time and effort?

Yes, but it is far outweighed by the time and effort you would otherwise spend deciding what to do next.

Sure, but even so, what if something comes up during the day, like a parent or colleague asking for help?

If it can be done quickly (i.e. less than 2 minutes), smash it right away (again, Getting Things Done by David Allen). If it can’t, add it to your to-do list and prioritise it at the end of the day.

Once you get good at to-do lists, you’ll feel like your time is managing itself.

  1. Keep a Rolling Document for Each of Your Classes.

So, let’s say you have your to-do list and the next task on your list is to plan your first class for the day. If you’re like me at all, your internal narrative might look something like this:

OK, what did we do last lesson? Ughhhhhh… (2 minutes later) simplifying like terms! Right, where did we get up to? (2 minutes later) Oh yeah, we finished that worksheet! OK, I’m ready to plan now. Wait! Don’t I need to speak to James about something? Oh, and I need to give Alice a consequence for misbehaving! Or was that Charlotte? Oh and a few of those boys haven’t handed in their assessment…but I can’t remember which ones. That’s OK, children are always organised and honest!

The problem here is self-evident, so how do you mitigate it?

For each class, keep a rolling document of everything you need to follow up on. At the end of each class (or day), update the document with your latest, required actions. For example:

A sample rolling document

By having some record of what you need to follow up, you can stress less about the thoroughness of your teaching, spend less time planning and direct your attention to the important classroom tasks.

Setting up a to-do list and rolling document takes some time. But once going, it is a near self-sustaining system that will give you more time.

By managing our time, we can draw a psychological line in the sand. By managing our time, we can spend less time flailing and more time sailing (or watching Netflix).

By managing our time, we can start accounting for the unaccountable.

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