Musings of an academic manager – managing my time whilst covering for sick teachers

One of the responsibilities of being a DoS or any sort of academic manager (in general) is having to cover teachers’ classes when they fall ill. Most of us in management have probably become even more aware of this (and the pain that it brings) over the last two to three years with the COVID-19 pandemic. For me personally, every year over the last three years has included teachers being aware due to sickness, with some instances being just one or two days, whilst others have been as long as three weeks. Currently, I have one teacher away sick, and I am covering the majority of his classes, whilst also (trying to anyway) carrying out my normal, day-to-day responsibilities as a DoS. In this blog post, I’m going to share some of things I’ve found useful for maintaining my sanity and schedule when these situations arise.

Block scheduling

So, this is something that I’ve pretty much always done, but I’ve become a little more principled with it this year. My director, Patrick, introduced me to Cal Newport, who basically writes and speaks about being productive. In effect, he recommends spending a significant amount of time planning what you’re going to do for the week and day, and then schedule these activities in as blocks (there is more to it, but you can read about it from him if you’d like 🙂 ). Every few hours, you can re-evaluate and if anything needs changing, then you can do so. For me, however, it’s the process of sitting down and really thinking about what needs to be done and then putting this on paper that helps me. This has become especially important now as one of my teachers is away – and I still have the management duties to deal with! So, to give you a rough idea of how my days are, below is a ‘day’ from this week. You’ll notice that there is a whole hour and a quarter dedicated to the planning of the day. You might not like the idea of block planning, but simply having a very clear to-do list will help.

1215Planning and communication
1330 Task 1 (e.g., prepare materials for workshop)
1400 Coffee and read – ‘deep work’ associated with study for either my MA or for the academy
1500 Check in with teachers
1530Prepare handover notes for Sara, get level test data ready, make sure academy is ready for classes
1600Cover D’s L13 class
1730Cover D’s L5 class
1900 Break, check in with Ts
1915 Prepare materials for workshop, brainstorm ideas for SLA workshop, take notes on exam week.
2015Cover D’s B1 prep class.
2115Close down classrooms, check in with teachers and head home.

I suppose I should also note that my mornings are usually my study hours as I am currently completing the NILE MAPDLE. I don’t see these as work hours, per se, but I know that I am working.

Prioritise tasks

The to-do list will never end. It’s one of the things managers come to learn shortly after moving into management. However, that is not to say that all tasks should be done in the order that they are put on the to-do list. In my planning phase at the start of the week, I write down the priority activities (along with minor ones, but I make note of which need to be done ASAP) for the week, and then when I get to the daily planning, I try to incorporate these into the daily blocks. This prioritising helps me decide which activity to focus on at certain times throughout the day. For example, if I know that I need to an email out to teachers updating them on the peers observations/observations that are happening over the next two weeks, then I’ll aim to do that in the first two blocks of the day when I am fresh will have time with the computer, and haven’t started the cover lessons yet.

Work with your management team

Duncan Foord recently posted about delegation, and I think it’s important to recognise that an effective manager will be effective at delegation – in fact, it’s probably one of their defining features. This becomes paramount when covering sick teachers as our time becomes even more ‘valuable’, in a sense. The time that we are not covering classes needs to be focused on the management side of things (especially those priority activities), but we can’t let the little things go – they need to be effectively managed by the management team. One thing I’ve heard a lot about from other DoSs is the idea of burnout – and I can see why this happens. This is why it’s important to have a management team, and work closely with them, especially in these times of ‘crisis’! I’m very lucky in that my management team consists of myself, and two of my directors. We also have two senior teachers with paid admin hours to help out where needed. My job would be infinitely harder if I didn’t delegate to these people.

Another important part of working with the management team is understanding boundaries, and I guess this also means having clear lines of communication open. This hasn’t really ever been a problem with my current management team, but I do remember working as a teacher trainer under my former DoS, and there was no clear boundaries set between her and the director, so she was working her butt off, covering teachers so much that she herself would get sick and burnt out (but she wouldn’t call in sick, so she kept working). I suppose it didn’t help that our boss was a bit of a (very-bad-word-here) either – someone who expected her to be there at all times, ‘grinding’ all day, every day. I don’t see this as healthy – neither for the manager, nor for the academy. Yes, there is a certain element of ‘grit’ required to get through those hard moments we all face, but we don’t need to kill ourselves in the process.

Keep track of your stress levels

On my ride home, I reflect on the day and how stressed I am. I don’t get stressed very easily, but I still ask myself how I’m feeling. I find that these moments help me realise when I’m working too much or when I’m in the right ‘zone’ mentally. This was especially important during the pandemic when we had two teachers away at one stage, and then a third dropped out almost immediately after one teacher returned. There was one of two days when I said to myself that I needed to ‘back off’. This didn’t mean that I stopped working, it just meant that I had to take a look at my schedule and shift some things around so that mentally and physically I could keep going at an appropriate level.

Make time for yourself – and exercise!

You’ll notice that in my daily schedule I have a block from 1400 – 1500 dedicated to coffee and reading/study. This is a time that I give myself to sit down, order my coffee from the local bar, read the article that I’ve chosen for the day, and simply relax (I know this may not sound like relaxing to some of you). I’m not saying that you need to have this same hour, but I find that having this one hour of me time is really important. Now, I combine this with exercise – at least four to five times a week. There are some mornings when I really don’t want to get up and go to the gym, but I push myself and I really feel the benefits throughout the day. I’m not going to get into all the science behind exercise, but basically I know that cognitively I feel clearer, my body (almost paradoxically) feels more refreshed and energised, and I also have the positive thought in my head that I ‘did the hard work for the day, so everything is going to be ok’.

Over the last two weeks, these me-time moments and hours spent at the gym I feel have really kept my spirits high, even with the increased workload. I know they did during the pandemic as well.

Eat properly

So, I get tired, and I really want to eat all the bad stuff. This being said, whilst the occasional sweet does make its way into my belly, I’ve found maintaining a solid diet of veggies and good carbs helps me get through the longs hours of management and covering classes. Management work requires that I’m cognitively focused, and teaching means that I’m cognitively on point as well as energetic and attentive to my learners. This means that my diet needs to support these needs, and eating crap won’t cut it. It takes time, but preparing a lunch box with a prepared meal is really worth the time. Also, a healthy cup of coffee is good as well!

Final notes

So, these are some of the things I do. They are not meant to be ‘advice from a pro’ – rather, I’m just sharing what works for me. Which leads me to my next point – I’d love to know what you do! So, when you’re covering teachers and still have to get all your own stuff done, how do you manage your stress levels? How do you ensure that get things done? Let me know in the comments section!

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