The Teacher’s Schedule

The Maker-vs-Manager-Schedule is one of those paradigms, incubated in Silicon Valley, which broke its way out to nest in certain less structured corporate environments. It explains where “all that free time” went, and it explains why your boss always seems to have time that you don’t. And it also explains why sometimes more work gets done away from the office.

Teachers are makers too, you know.

Creating a lesson plan is an exercise in modelling—modelling your students’ state of knowledge before the lesson, modelling their cognitive biases and receptive pathways to learning, modelling ways to generate cognitive dissonance, and then modelling ways to fit your lesson outcomes into whatever educational paradigm (and accompanying paperwork) your school/ministry/organisation has adopted. And like all exercises in modelling—think programming, writing, some types of creative work—this requires blocks of uninterrupted time.

What do teachers get interrupted by? I can’t extend my experience to all regions, but here, at least, at least one of the following occurs at least once a day:

  1. Money collection (for various internal fund pools)
  2. Quick questions about administrative work
  3. Social interruptions
  4. Unscheduled meetings
    All of which are usually fine in themselves, so long as they don’t occur in the middle of a Maker time-block. That is something difficult to avoid when mental work often looks like no work, and nobody’s actually made thinking caps to reflect the state of one’s focus. (Let me know if you find a good one for the office!)

Being a maker in an office environment is like trying to read a book while escaping little children dashing about the playground. A typical lesson plan is only about four pages long, possibly longer depending on the level of detail, but certainly not commensurate with the number of hours spent working on it. It looks like the kind of document that can be done in half an hour. An interruption is hardly anything when one is working on a half-hour document over four hours, right?

The informal literature on programmer productivity estimates at least 15 minutes to get back into a task after interruption. Similar penalties apply for anything involving heavy mental modelling. A child-collision knocks you mentally out of the classroom, pulls you away from your (two or more) classes of students, and scatters your pages of topical notes and gathered resources, and throws you back into your administrative seat, where you’re once again all too aware of the paperwork dashing about the place. Pick up your papers, settle into the mental classroom again, and pray for uninterruption, now and till the hour of your lesson.

For the past few weeks or so, I have been settling into the new teaching year and getting the hang of meeting students in regularised settings on a regularised basis. I know I need blocks of interrupted time to get work done. I have blocks of uninterrupted time, about two hours or so, two to three days each week. Technically, that should be enough to get things done at a pace that keeps additional work at bay, but I still find myself short of my expected work rate at the end of the week.

The Maker’s Schedule offers an explanation for this:

For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.
Okay, so teachers shouldn’t need an entire day to get a lesson plan done, right?

Administrative paradigms of teaching-work assume that lesson resources created by one teacher can readily be adopted and used by another teacher, with minimal modification. That assumes lesson resources are like administrative resources and procedures: just follow the steps, you can’t go wrong. It is the kind of assumption that is at the heart of scalable education, and at the heart of what MOOCs are trying to do.

A face-to-face lesson is rather more like an interview: on one end of the didactic sliding scale, you have lesson-interviews that are entirely one-sided, guided by the teacher, and on the other you have unguided conversation that essentially constructs itself, with or without the teacher. Somewhere in the middle lies the idealised lesson-state—at least as described by constructivist teaching paradigms.

Could one journalist write a story using another’s set of questions, intended for another personality? I don’t know; I would have to ask a journalist sometime. But I try to craft lessons that are adapted for each unique group of students, and even if I have a set of boilerplate lesson plans to draw from, I would still need to carry out this tedious mental modelling to pick appropriate questions, and to prepare contingencies. This is especially true for beginning teachers, who need more time to build up the ritualised mental states and behaviours of experienced teachers, who rely on this to balance the cognitive load for various classroom tasks: classroom management, questioning, groupwork facilitation, etc.

So I’ve decided to carve out some Maker time-blocks for myself. My gut feel tells me I really only need two major Maker-blocks to get most of the creative work done. What this means is twice a week I am going to find a cranny to forget the world and hammer out my lesson plans and resources, and for the rest of the week I will simply fight paperwork and not be too stressed about getting actual work done. In other words, if I’m going to be interrupted, I might as well be on the Manager’s schedule.

After all, isn’t it better to simply disappear twice a week and finish the week’s work, than to look busy all the time and get less work done? I’m going to try it out and see what feedback I get.