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How do you manage your calendar as an instructional coach?

When you're in the classroom full-time, your calendar mostly runs on a bell schedule and around school events. Sure, there's probably not enough time to get everything done, but there is a predictability to the day and week that makes it so that eventually (hopefully) you find your flow.

As an instructional coach, that flow looks really different, and it can take some time to figure out how to make it all fit and not drop the ball on anything important. Meetings, observations, training, planning time, prepping resources – how does it all work together?

And while scheduling doesn't intuitively sound like the lever that's going to get us to equitable outcomes for kids, it's a huge piece of the puzzle when it means the difference between being prepped for an impactful conversation or not, putting together a thoughtful and well-planned meeting agenda that attends to the needs of adult learners and leads to powerful collaboration, doing the data analysis to inform next steps, or getting that just-in-time resource ready that's going to help shift practice.

But as you can guess...

There is no formula or magic wand that fits all coaching roles.

In fact, moving multiple times for family reasons meant I had to change my approach to scheduling each time I took a new instructional coaching position in order to fit the school or district I was in (hello, traveling between five campuses with different bell schedules!).

The good news is there are general principles that apply no matter what, and they can be adapted to whatever your instructional coaching situationship is.

Here are my recommendations, generally in order:

Pick a scheduling tool

I recommend an online calendar. I use Google Calendar, but anything works. It makes it easier to drag, drop, repeat, and adjust events. And in a job that involves other people, it also makes it much easier to invite others or keep them looped in to events you're involved in. And if you're clinging to your planner and gel pens -- I feel you! I do a hybrid method with a paper planner myself. But if you do all your planning on paper, you may find yourself sending a lot more scheduling emails to remind others of your commitments, and you may have more difficulty modifying events without a mess of scribbles.

Schedule the known non-negotiables.

The basics would be any major events from the school calendar: breaks, special schedule days, testing days, trainings, marking periods, or other events that you know will impact scheduling and that you cannot currently change. This keeps us from being surprised by things that aren't surprises and helps us anticipate emerging needs teachers or we may have as those dates approach.

Schedule the most important stuff upfront.

We know how time works. You won't find it later. Make the time for the highest priority items upfront. I wont' try to define what is most important here. You know what that work is for your context, what tasks go along with it, and probably have a good guess of how much time it's going to require.

Make the time before it gets crowded out.

Schedule your standing items.

Make a list of anything you know happens at the same time every week: the report that needs to be turned in on Monday mornings, the weekly newsletter, the teacher that can only meet at exactly 10:07 on Tuesdays, the weekly team meeting agenda you committed to getting to people a week in advance. Block that time off. This is also the place to put routines you need in your work rotation, like time to open and close your days and weeks with intention, check email, and return phone calls or messages.

One of my secret weapons? I have a standing time block to do my scheduling every week, so that I don't have to remember to check in on anything that has changed.

Schedule the coaching stuff: meetings, observations, and prep time

Maybe you do other things with teachers regularly as well, like co-teaching, video recording, or lesson plan review. Whatever is on your coaching workflow, make a list of everyone you're actively coaching, and create a table with each activity you need to schedule for the timeframe you work with them on (every week, two weeks, month). Schedule each item, and as you work through it, check off the item on the table.

Usually I schedule coaching meetings first since these tend to be constrained by the time the teacher is available to meet (their planning period, or before/after school). Then I schedule the observations based on our focus, and finally, prep time. Don't skip blocking off the prep time. You won't prep if the time to do it doesn't exist.

Time-block everything else, remembering Parkinson's Law

Time blocking is the practice of making a schedule match reality: that if a task is going to get done, you need time to do it. There are generally two approaches to time-blocking:

  1. Schedule general "work blocks" for small tasks, and specific blocks for "deep work", as Cal Newport calls it. During a general work block you may have items from a to-do list that you can tackle in sequence (and get a dopamine hit from checking things off!). Other tasks that require more thinking or longer blocks of dedicated time get their own special time with their own special title.

  2. Schedule individual time blocks for everything. In this version, Oprah comes out and yells: You get a time block! You get a time block! Everything gets a time block! From PD planning, to time to commute between schools, to time to tidy up your files and physical space -- they each get a time block. (Anecdote: a principal once asked me once how I stay on top of reading. She was floored to learn that I scheduled recurring time in my week to read articles and books, and began adopting the idea herself).

Try them both and see how you like them. Personally, I lean towards 2, getting as specific as possible about how I will spend my time and knowing everything is accounted for. It also keeps me honest because if it doesn't fit on the calendar, it almost certainly doesn't fit in real life.

But keep in mind: Parkinson's Law is the idea that a task will expand to fill the time we give it. Do you need 45 minutes, or can you get it done in 30?

Schedule buffer time.

You work in or with schools. Nothing is going to go exactly as your calendar says, so planning meetings back-to-back is not going to work. You will need slack in the schedule. This is a known unknown. Plan for it, and in the event that you end up with "found time", I'm sure you'll have no trouble filling it with important tasks.

Step back and make sure it's working.

When you look at the calendar and the tasks just don't fit, start by tinkering: what can be shortened, eliminated, or reduced in frequency, or cycled in later? Where could you work more efficiently? Who can help? When the cadence of the demands of our work are laid out in front of us, it forces us to contend with what is realistic. When you've tinkered and the puzzle pieces still don't fit, this is the part where you bring in your supervisor to ask for support with alleviating or rethinking different parts of your role. Not everything is within your control to change, but being able to show how your time is spent can help ground the conversation in the realities of the challenges and constraints you're facing, bring visibility to your work, and may result in your ability to problem-solve together on what can change.

Finally, for the love of all that is good... Schedule time for lunch!

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