Unique and Necessary
The Together Teacher™: Plan Ahead, Get Organized, and Save Time!
by Maia Heyck-Merlin
(Jossey-Bass, 2012 – Learn more)
It’s 4:30 PM on a Friday afternoon. Your kids have left the building and your fellow teachers are pressuring you to join them at a much-needed happy hour. You look at the bottomless pile of papers to grade and the incomplete lesson plans and think: I’m exhausted, but there’s no way I’m going to make progress on this stuff in an hour. So you shove everything into your tote bag and pray you will get to it all on Sunday… Sunday comes around and by the time you eat breakfast, go to the gym or spend time with your family (or both), do laundry, and grocery shop, it is past 3:00pm. The tote bag taunts you from the corner of the living room. Eventually you open it and try to comb through its contents. You have no idea where to begin. ~ Maia Heyck-Merlin, The Together Teacher (p. 121)
As I read these lines of Maia Heyck Merlin’s new book, The Together Teacher, I saw myself many-a-time…reflected exactly. Teachers have a huge workload and no secretary to keep us organized and on track, as so many other professionals do. Our preparation and professional development rarely address this formidable challenge in our work. The amazing thing about this book and Maia’s work in general is that she has lived through and understands the life of a teacher—and she actually has some real solutions to the problems we all face with organization, sustainability and creating a healthy work-life balance.
The Together Teacher is not a collection of tips on how to be more organized like those you might find in a magazine or single blog post, that you can take or leave, remember or forget. For people who really struggle with organization, a tip here or there can have little to no impact on the above scenario. This book is set up as a comprehensive guide with all the materials necessary to implement an organizational system. Maia’s tone is personal, and since she’s worked directly with so many teachers, you feel like she’s really talking to you. Best of all, it’s set up for any of us, regardless of subject, grade level, or varied responsibilities, to customize an organizational framework around our particular needs and wants.
Changed My Thinking and Behavior
On top of being incredibly concrete and practical, the book also goes into a great deal of reasoning and psychology behind some of our best and worst habits. Taking the time to read through the entire book created a real experience for me that actually changed my thinking about organization, my time, the way I approach my work and my life. In other words, for a busy teacher who struggles with organization, reading and responding to this book has the potential to be nothing short of life changing.
Maia’s techniques revolve around the somewhat counter-intuitive concept that by planning everything in advance to the T, we actually become more free and flexible. This certainly differs from my natural inclinations, which are more of the “go-with-the-flow…it’ll-get-done” variety. I am the type to do important things at the last minute by staying up late, and let smaller things, like packing lunch for myself, slip by undone.
The Together Teacher’s customizable templates (included on an accompanying CD) gave me an efficient way to write down everything I need and want to do in a 7-day week and how much time I need or want to spend on each item. While this level of planning feels rather Type A to me (not a way I identify myself), Maia argues that teaching is not a normal job. To accomplish everything a teacher needs to accomplish and still have a life, some strange and compulsive behaviors are necessary and provide great payoff.
By writing/planning everything strategically, I stop avoiding the truth about my time. I have more knowledge of it and can make informed decisions about it. If something comes up on a Wednesday night, when I said I would be blogging, I can divert from my plan. If I choose to do so, I know that somewhere else in the week or month, I will need to make up the time. Instead of making the decision blindly, I can now weigh my options with the bigger picture in mind. Or if a pressing situation with a student takes my prep time away, when I planned to make my copies, then I’m aware of the amount of work that just got pushed into my afternoon or tomorrow morning. Sounds simple, but thinking this way consistently provides a level of strategy and clarity for busy teachers who have to be their own personal secretaries.
Maia even has a way of capturing the ideas that you have while on the go — the to-do’s that result from PDs or meetings, or those important tasks that don’t have hard deadlines and therefore get pushed back and back and back. The trick is to have everything you have to do (whenever) in one place. She provides an array of tools to accomplish that (electronic, paper or both) and lets us choose, depending on our preferences.
Crucial For Teacher Leaders
One thing I really appreciate about this book is how relevant it is to teacher leaders, who are fulfilling an increasing variety of roles, both within our schools and in other education-related work. In my schedule, for example, I need to include all of the following professional tasks:
- Unit and lesson planning
- creating and photocopying materials
- assessment and grading
- communicating with parents
- maintaining classroom environment
- meeting with co-teachers
- planning and facilitating grade team meetings
- education-related reading
- writing my book
Maia’s approach is 100% applicable to teacher leaders and can work around each of our unique sets of responsibilities. Especially helpful, she profiles several teacher leaders throughout the book. We get to peek into their work and home lives, seeing concretely what their schedules look like—how they manage to eat breakfast, maintain romantic relationships and social lives, coach teachers, lead PD sessions, teach students, and grade papers. All in the same lifetime.
The book is highly readable and even fairly entertaining. If the description at the top of this review applies in any way to you, now is the perfect time to read this book, and get set up to launch a different kind of year.
While The Together Teacher will not lessen anyone’s actual work load, it can help us clear away the mental clutter that begs the questions, “How can I possibly get this all done?” and “What am I forgetting to do?” and “How did I get myself into this mess?” These questions can often make it difficult to even get started on simple or complex tasks. The Together Teacher teaches us to make important choices ahead of time, and no longer hold them all in our heads. Maia’s good advice frees us up to focus our mental energy where it counts most.
Ariel Sacks is an eighth grade English teacher and grade team leader at a middle school in Brooklyn, NY. A member of the Teacher Leaders Network, she writes the blog, On the Shoulders of Giants, and is working on a book on teaching Whole Novels. This past school year, she participated in a Together Teacher training experience.