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Prioritization: Accentuate the Right Things

How do you prioritize the smart way? Set some boundaries, properly manage workload and determine what is essential.

I once heard a music professor say, “if everything is accented, nothing is accented.” We’ve all seen a 16-bar phrase of music with every note accented. When we play the ink precisely as it is written, the music sounds like the teacher from Charlie Brown — monotonous, boring and predictable.

I’ve often translated this lesson to other parts of my life, specifically my career and personal workload. Accent means an emphasis on a pitch. Emphasis means to put stress on something. Stress is not always bad, but we risk becoming overloaded and burned out if everything is stressed.

Enter teaching in 2021. School, state and federal mandates must be adhered to, on top of the typical teacher requirements like planning, grading and other tasks that are not student contact hours.

Every year, the fight to keep teaching as one of the top priorities becomes more difficult. Just because something is noisy doesn’t mean it’s the most important.

Furthermore, when you ask anyone for advice on prioritizing tasks, you may get some helpful advice, but usually, you hear people’s opinions on what is important to them. I’ve had many colleagues and supervisors tell me that it’s OK to say “no” or “no big rush on this” — and sometimes, they mean it.

Bottom line, there are specific non-negotiable tasks and projects you must do. As an employee of a business, you signed a contract agreeing to fulfill these tasks. Some of these tasks are directly laid out in your job description, but many fall under a catchall statement that says something like “all other tasks as required by the supervisor.”

Even so, I believe that teachers have some agency in what we can prioritize. We can be productive in a healthier sense by setting some boundaries, properly managing our workload and determining what is essential.

Boundaries: Protect Classroom Time

male music educator conducting in front of band Our jobs must remain focused on the following two items: 1) ensure the safety of our students and 2) educating our students.

We already know how vital safety is, and it’s a good bet that your school has many systems in place to ensure this. So, on to our classroom time.

As a teacher, the direct contact we have with our students in our planned classroom and rehearsal time is of the utmost importance. This time should be treated as precious and non-negotiable. Even if you have little control over your classroom time, this is the most direct impact you will have on students. There is no substitute for human interaction and direct teaching, guidance and learning.

Teachers should make every effort to avoid the insidious nature of administrative tasks infecting classroom time. This is easier said than done. I’ve been teaching for 15 years, and I occasionally break this rule but quickly recognize when I do and get back on the tasks that actually matter. I regret the early years in my career when I put students into sectionals simply to catch up on administrative work.

Some teaching moments can organically come out of administrative tasks. For example, some instruments may have common faults. Depending on the age of your students, you can show them during class how to do some minor repairs to instruments. Take five minutes to adjust a loose screw with an eyeglass screwdriver, and you’ve potentially saved yourself time in the future. Furthermore, you’re providing an opportunity for student autonomy.

Other administrative tasks can wait. When we say “yes” to checking email, we are saying “no” to interacting with our students. You may also be in a situation where other teachers want to pull kids out of your class to finish a test or project. We have field trips and events that occasionally pull students out of a day, but I never ask students to complete work for me during another teacher’s class. The more this is entertained, the more other teachers will ask for your kids to leave your class. And then you have more work, later on, to catch them up.

Besides administrative tasks, there are other “time burglars” that can rob you of your precious time without you even knowing it. Read my article on some common time burglars and how to address them.

Manage Your Workload

tablet with

Work Within a System: I love lists and organization systems and have tried almost every system under the sun. After years of vetting, combining and tweaking systems, I’ve come up with a practical, reliable and boring system that works for me. It’s primarily based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system combined with the Todoist app and a notebook.

I put all my tasks in Todoist. If I’m ever without a digital device and think of a few to-dos, I write them down in a notebook and transfer it over to Todoist later. Within the app, I list my projects, and the tasks within projects are managed by what is actionable, when I can do it, where I can do it and how long it’s going to take. Tasks are worded in a clear, direct and actionable way. For example, “Call performance venue to get price for three-hour concert rental on November 21.”

The GTD system says to engage with all your projects consistently. This did not work for me because I like to dig in and complete at least one project every week or two. So, I rank my projects and focus on getting to completion as best as I can. If I have to wait for someone to complete a task to move forward on a project, that project is demoted to “waiting.” I then make a note to follow up with that person.

focus on the 2 on a clock One list I particularly like is my two-minute task list. According to the GTD system, if a task takes two minutes or less, you should just do it and not have it take up valuable real estate in your schedule or brain. I agree with this but learned that these small tasks can get out of control if not approached correctly. First and foremost, planned-out tasks come first. Emergencies can wedge their way into my planned time, but nothing else. I reserve two-minute tasks for either a specific time of day or transition time. Sitting at a meeting and the presenter is 10 minutes late? Use that time to complete five tasks. Teaching a private lesson, and the student is pulled out for an early release by the office? Knock a couple of two-minute tasks off the list.

A word of caution: don’t get addicted to completing two-minute tasks to feel a sense of accomplishment. Focus on these tasks during breaks or short specific times of the day; otherwise, you might get caught up trying to complete as many as possible instead of focusing on more profound work.

Bring Solutions, Not Problems: One of my cooperating teachers shared an insightful piece of wisdom: “When you complain, people have two reactions — 1) they don’t care or 2) they’re just glad whatever you’re going through isn’t happening to them.”

Most people are sympathetic and even empathetic to our issues, but they aren’t likely to actively work to find a solution that will further us. If you need help from an administrator, by all means ask them for help, but bring them at least a few examples of what you have done to help your situation or some thoughts on possible solutions. For example, say, “I have a situation I need help with. I have tried these three things, but I haven’t been able to gain any ground on this issue. Do you have any other ideas?”

Use Your Teaching Assistants: I have 120 teaching assistants — they just happen to be my students. Every week, set aside some time for planning. Go through your list of what needs to happen and who can do it. At my school, students cannot submit attendance due to privacy issues, but they can set up chairs and stands, file music and monitor the supplies cabinet.

We’re a Title I school, and we provide all items for students, and most items are stored in a cabinet. I designate a student to be our supplies cabinet manager, and he or she monitors the stock and distribution of reeds, valve oil, grease, sticks and related articles. When we are running low, the student emails me a list of what needs to be reordered. I show the student how to format the email so I can forward it directly to our music store rep (budget permitting).

We regularly have parents who help out as well, especially with smaller-scale projects. One year, I needed 200 letters stuffed into envelopes. I called a parent and asked if she could help with this. This parent had expressed in the past that she wished she could help more but couldn’t commit a significant time to help because of work. She said she could help, and I sent the envelopes and letters home with the student. They came back stuffed the next day, ready for labeling. The parent was proud she could help out with her child’s music program, no matter the size of the job. I used my free time to fix yet another broken instrument.

Outsourcing Is OK:  If you have the money or resources, outsource what you can. This section includes some harsh realities and things I have said to myself.

  • the word delegate written on transparent wipe board Harsh Reality #1: Only I can make the perfect concert program. I spent hours selecting all fonts, finding the ideal graphics and template, and triple-checking all names. 
    • People don’t care who designs the program, as long as you don’t use Comic Sans or Papyrus fonts (sorry, not sorry). They just care that it’s done. Spend $50 at the local print shop to create the program or ask a music parent volunteer to take on this task. Just triple-check the names yourself, so you don’t leave off the euphoniums again.
  • Harsh Reality #2: I listened to every single student play their chair placement assessment because I am a devoted music educator. At 120 kids submitting three-minute assessments, this was 360 minutes of recordings. Assuming I did at least three minutes of writing and feedback for each student, this was now 720 minutes on this task. I spent close to 12 hours on this one task, but it was worth it because I listened to every kid and gave feedback! 
    • Yes, it’s important to hear each student individually, but you may be able to do this during class and provide real-time feedback in a quicker, more organic way. This took two or three hours out of your day for at least a week. Based on your energy levels, did the kid that had their assessment listened to at hour three get the same quality of feedback as the kid in hour one of your listenings? Or did you maybe get a little tired and rushed to get through these? Save time. Although you are good at giving feedback to students, so are others. If you digitally record assessments, send them to trusted colleagues who are experts in the specific instrument or voice parts. Use an ID number instead of student names to protect privacy, email the recording and Google Doc, and set a deadline.
  • Harsh Reality #3: I feel guilty about outsourcing certain items that aren’t necessarily in my job description because I feel that I should be doing them myself.
    • Who said you should be doing these items yourself? Besides, if you have the money in your budget to ease your workload while benefiting the students, there’s nothing to feel guilty about! If you don’t have money in your budget, you have two options: do it yourself or find volunteers. Think of it this way — you are already participating in outsourcing because you are the one being outsourced to teach music as an employee in your district. You may also be hiring someone else to teach voice lessons, write drill or fix instruments.

You will soon realize that no one cares who did a specific job; they just want the job done correctly and on time. Just give credit where credit is due.

Determine Importance

a pile of important signs with exclamation point What is actually important? As a professional, you know there are certain non-negotiables in your job. Teachers must complete IEP/504 reports, attendance, grades, mandated reporter tasks and promptly return parent emails and phone calls. If you ask yourself, “What are they going to do, fire me?” and the answer is “yes,” then those tasks are important and must be completed accurately and on time.

Now, let’s move on to some other tasks. Here’s an activity: Rank these tasks in order of importance:

    • Complete an IEP report that is due in one week
    • Complete an IEP report that is due tomorrow
    • Respond to an administrator email about contract tracing in your class
    • Replace the cork on a saxophone neck
    • Select music for the next concert cycle
    • Book a piano tuner and request payment
    • File music from the previous concert
    • Clear your email inbox
    • Lesson planning
    • Respond to a superintendent’s request for a group to play at a local event.
    • Reply to a parent email marked “high priority” about a fundraiser that is due in three weeks.

Now ask yourself a few questions:

    • Who is the best and most appropriate person for each of these jobs?
    • What happens if I just don’t do the task?
    • Do I have to do this today?
    • Will it make things worse if I put this off?
    • Can someone else do this?
    • Will it take me longer right now to teach someone else to do this?
    • If this is not a legally/contractually required task, will my group learn/sound better if this task is completed?
    • When is the best time to complete a specific task?
    • Who is this task actually crucial to?
    • Is this a task that must be done, should be done or that I want to be done?

You can quickly figure out what will and won’t put students’ safety and education at risk or your job in the above list. Some of the tasks genuinely are important, but are they important right now? Sure, the superintendent is contacting you, but saxophone kid can’t play until that neck-cork is fixed. The word “superintendent” holds a lot of mental weight, but I know that my superintendent would completely understand if I didn’t get back to her immediately because I was making sure a kid was able to play his instrument.

Other tasks could be done by someone else. Most of these tasks must be done by you, but there’s no reason you couldn’t show and then ask student helpers to file music. Another option is to simply not do specific tasks. In the case of filing music, you could actually just leave it in a pile. You may be a person that’s OK with the mess, or you may be a person who gets mentally drained seeing unorganized things, but not doing some of these lower-level tasks is an option.

Depending on the time of year, energy level, etc., I would separate this list into the following three groupings.

  • today's list in spiral bound notebook Today / High Priority / Must Be Done
    • Respond to an administrator email about contract tracing in your class — high priority, safety issue.
    • Complete an IEP report that is due tomorrow — this is a hard deadline and a document that has legal ramifications.
    • Lesson planning — this will require a significant part of my mental energy, so I would complete this before moving on to the next set of tasks
  • Today / Would Be Nice to Get Done
    • Replace the cork on a saxophone neck — if I have a stock of saxophones necks that I can clean and loan out, this is pushed to a later date
    • Book a piano tuner and request payment — do this within the next two days because district finances take a long time to process
    • Respond to a superintendent’s request for a group to play at a local event — our superintendent is busy and knows how busy everyone else is; she will understand if I have other pressing tasks to get to first
    • Clear your email inbox — this would be helpful, but if I can’t get to it, I will at least check email to make sure there are no new action items.
  • Not Today — if on the slim chance, I finish everything above, I may engage with this list a little
    • Complete an IEP report that is due in one week — this can be done up to the due date; it’s on my radar, but other items take priority.
    • Select music for the next concert cycle — this is important, so I want to carve out a chunk of time to dig into it. I would rewrite this task as “schedule two one-hour time blocks to begin selecting music for next concert” and put it on my tasks for tomorrow.
    • File music from the previous concert — take this off my plate and delegate to some students
    • Reply to a parent email marked “high priority” about a fundraiser that is due in three weeks — respond during my next email engagment time OR delegate to the parent running the fundraiser

You Decide What Is High Priority: Just because someone says a task is important doesn’t mean that it actually is. You will receive emails that are marked high priority, and in some cases, this is true. But in most cases, you are the one to determine whether a task is a high priority to you. The email sender feels that this is an important task, but he or she does not know your schedule or priorities.

You may also find yourself in a situation where the superintendent, principal and your department chair each sends you something that is a high priority. This can be a real dilemma, especially for newer teachers. In these cases, use your best judgment. You have a few options. If two tasks will be five minutes apiece and one will take at least half an hour, knock out the quick tasks first and then focus your energy on the more extended task. If they are all equal in energy and time, you can complete them by paygrade/ranking. That’s right — the higher position in the district gets his or her task completed first.

Don’t Be Surprised by Things You Know Are Going to Happen: Every year, I have colleagues who get upset that they have to complete tasks for their teaching evaluation. They don’t want to do it, don’t think it helps and complain about it. This is wasted energy. This is a requirement of your school, district and state — you have to do it. Accept it. Complaining about it may be therapeutic, but it does absolutely no good for you.

If you are incredibly passionate about things like this, consider lobbying or directing your efforts toward places or organizations that may impact these things. I’m not saying to be a mindless zombie and accept everything at face value, but certain aspects of teaching are never going away. People who have jobs must be evaluated regularly. You know it’s coming. Accepting things like this doesn’t change the fact that they’re frustrating, but it can free up some mental energy.

This acceptance strategy can be applied to your daily schedule as well. If you know that every day will have interruptions, including administrative requests, broken instruments or surprise reports, plan on this. In my position, I can count on about 50% of my planning time as my own and 50% allotted for surprises, emergencies or wherever else I would like to give my time to. Days that don’t have emergencies or surprises are counted as a bonus.

woman with serious look on face and open hand held out in front of her as if to say stopJust Say “No”: Many of us already say “no” frequently. When you say “yes” to something, you will end up saying “no” to something else. This isn’t a bad thing; the reality is that everything just takes time, and time is finite.

I’m naturally a people pleaser, so I’ve had to work hard on this one. If you are overwhelmed, and something is presented to you where you have a choice, say “no.” And unless it’s a part of your contract, do not explain why! When you explain why you are saying “no,” other people will automatically go into problem-solving mode to convince you to take on this oh-so-important task. All you need to say is, “Thanks for thinking of us, but we’re unable to help.”

Being direct is OK. If you want to be polite, say, “No, I can’t do this right now, but check with me in a few weeks,” but you have to be OK with someone checking back with you in a few weeks. I’ve found that people are tougher than I give them credit for; they can handle a direct “no.”

Saying “yes” to someone else for something you really don’t want or need to do is potentially saying “no” to yourself. And you should treat yourself well. People look out for their own best interests, and you should do this as well.

Sometimes the medium can distort the message. If you are concerned with getting misconstrued over email or text due to someone misreading your tone, pick up the phone or visit the person to deliver the “no.” It’s also good practice if you’re not used to standing up for yourself. If you follow a script, you will be surprised at how assertive you can be.

A music teacher’s job continually presents more challenges, opportunities and work. Remember, you are responsible for getting your work done and taking charge of your personal and professional growth. Others may try to make their priorities your priorities. We are employees, and we do have to adhere to whatever system we are in, but with some adjustments, a push toward personal agency and putting your kids and yourself first, you can reduce the noise of urgency put upon you. You are in charge of what is important to you!

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