In my several years of teaching online I have developed a variety of time-management tools that have helped me to stay on top of my classes while making my efforts smoother and easier; hundreds of colleagues I’ve discussed this with over the years also have their favorite ways of managing time. As you can imagine, this collective wisdom includes a multitude of approaches (in fact, nearly 300 so far!), but what I present to you here is what I think are the best of the best. Use one, some, or all of these, and I assure you that you’ll have a much better time teaching online!
- Get into a schedule. In order to keep all aspects of an online course going smoothly, maintaining a solid and regular schedule is imperative. Develop regular times during the week for you to “do” papers and tests, maintain online office hours, send students informational emails and post documents, and hold online class discussions or chats. Also, set deadlines for students and for yourself — and keep them. Not only will this keep you up to date with all aspects of your course, but students respond much better to a course that can be counted on for regular “doses” of what makes up that course.
- Become ultraorganized. Whether you teach one online course or 10, staying organized is crucial. From the more traditional teacher’s planning book, notepads, and daily planners to the online daily reminders, class rosters, and various other course-management tools, there is a huge selection of items to help you stay organized. Choose what works best for your personality, style of teaching, and class specifics. Remember that choosing to teach “by the seat of your pants” will quickly result in more stress for you and a very unrewarding experience for your students.
- Always have a back-up “time stash.” Obviously, we can’t manufacture more time, but what we can do is put aside one or more hours each week to handle the thises and thats of teaching online that eat into the time we had scheduled for other things. And if you don’t use all or part of this time stash? Since you can’t roll it into the next week, it’s your choice: something relaxing, enlightening, enriching — whatever! Just keep that time stash available every week, because you will definitely have need of it during your course(s).
- Know that the “unexpecteds” always come knocking. No matter how careful we are, no matter how much we plan, what I call the unexpecteds will show up: students who need additional assistance, unanticipated paperwork your school needed yesterday, technical glitches, a sudden shortage of office supplies — the list goes on. Expect this, and when it happens don’t let it frazzle you; don’t let it stress you out. Simply borrow from your time stash, meet head-on whatever unexpecteds stopped by, and move on.
- Plan your assignments with time in mind. It’s important to always take time into consideration when giving assignments, especially those you must edit, score, or be involved in (such as discussion boards, class chat, or virtual office hours). Too often, well-meaning and highly enthusiastic teachers forget this and find themselves rushed, either because school commitments are suddenly bumping into one another or because of a surge of unexpecteds. In the end, the students suffer (from a dash by the teacher to get something finished, and thus perhaps not putting in as much quality or time as should be), and we never want that to occur.
- Don’t ever let time control you. Schools, of course, have certain times that must be adhered to; we develop syllabi that outline when this is due, when that will be done. Yet we also must keep in mind the importance of being flexible: students will have legitimate reasons for being unable to complete assignments by set dates; you’ll have unexpecteds come around, eating into a time unit you had planned for something else; maybe you’ll find that students don’t learn a particular unit in the time allocated for it. In cases like this, and others, you must allow for the resetting or extending of various deadlines, whether it be for one, a few, or all of your students. This is one of the realities of teaching.
- Always refresh your “teaching time zones.” Sitting at a computer, hour upon hour, can be and usually is draining! And while our work ethic might be, “I’ve got to get this done before I leave,” this may not be best for you or the students in terms of your best-quality efforts. A break from one of these time zones of teaching-related computer involvement will definitely refresh, re-energize, and re-focus you. A nap, a walk, a beverage or food break, watching TV or reading a magazine, etc.–ideally, something not related to teaching–will help make you a more productive and effective instructor.
- Focus on what has to be done. We have many teaching-related unexpecteds that come along, and we have no choice but to handle them when they occur. Yet there are many others that continually track us down and, like some spoiled little child, want our undivided attention: nonemergency phone calls, idle chatting with friends or family (that really CAN be done later), people sending instant messages, the lure of checking email–the list goes on, and if we give in we’ll find less accomplished than we had planned, more trips to our time stash, and a surge of frustration and stress. Don’t let this be you: when it’s time to “do school,” do school.
- Develop healthy time tricks. There are so many of these that we can develop or pick up, with an end result of helping us become better managers of our time. Some examples: for websites often used for class, develop folders under your “Favorites” for quick access; print out students’ email addresses so you can quickly locate them if they are not readily available on screen; create templates for phrases, formulae, assignments, etc. that you use on a regular basis; keep copies of class emails you send out so that you can use all or part for future classes; scan in or download useful info, articles, and research that you can quickly send to one or more students in need of extra assistance. Any of these can make your available time actually seem to expand!
- Let the Internet become your T.A.–Time Aide. We use the Internet for online teaching, of course, and I’ve already mentioned several ways that we can use it to help manage our time. But remember: we ARE committed to online teaching, and that means squeezing out every possibility a computer might offer to help us better manage our time. This use extends to non-teaching-related daily aspects of life that can allow for more teaching time, and certainly a more relaxed and less rushed mind set. For example, use computer reminder sites to help you remember deadlines, teaching and nonteaching items to do, etc.; pay bills and make purchases online; search for sites that might offer additional suggestions for teaching effectiveness, either in general or in areas specific to your subject; have a “Favorites” folders for TV and radio programs, for movie theaters, for newspapers and magazines, for favorite restaurants — all to save you from going here and there to look up or dial up; and save important student emails (especially those with good suggestions, that offer praise, or that criticize), as you can never tell when they might come in handy. Obviously, the list goes on.
REMEMBER: Not managing your time effectively is like letting termites run amok–pretty soon your entire structure will come crashing down.
Please let me hear from you, including sending along suggestions and information for future columns. You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, as always, with each of my columns I will be offering a sampling of whatever subject I’ve discussed; for this column, if you’d like some additional timesaving suggestions for teaching online not mentioned here, please drop me an email.
Errol Craig Sull teaches English composition online for Excelsior College (Albany, NY); he is currently at work on a book of his online teaching activities titled Pebbles: A Very Unusual Approach to Very Effective Writing.