Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

You’re Your Own Worst Enemy: Teaching and Time Management

On the whole, undergraduates find their contact with TFs to be one of the most important aspects of their Yale education. As a result, you might find yourself wanting to spend an inordinate amount of time helping your students succeed in your class or section. This is a natural and noble response. Nevertheless, you need to find a way to work with students while continuing to make progress in your own coursework and research. And while you’ll probably find yourself spending extra time preparing for class at the beginning of each semester, too much of a good thing can really wreak havoc on your academic and personal lives.

It’s true, it can be a lot more fun to prepare a really stellar section, garnering the respect of tomorrow’s world leaders, rather than to consign yourself to the recesses of Sterling for the afternoon. Fortunately, most TFs strike a balance between teaching and the rest of their lives (such as they are). How do you do that? First of all, set reasonable goals for what you’d like to accomplish in each section and a limit on how many hours you’ll allow yourself to accomplish them. Once you’ve done that, the rest is gravy:

  • Set boundaries around the time you spend striving to achieve your goals
  • Prevent others—particularly your students—from encroaching on those boundaries.

Setting Boundaries


Effectively limiting the amount of time you devote to teaching each week requires, above all, creating a plausible and realistic schedule for yourself, allotting time for all of your activities: teaching, working on your own research, part-time job, intramural stickball, gamete donation, and so on. So devise a schedule for yourself, providing blocks of time for each activity.

You’ll probably get more done working in a single two-hour block than in three 45-minute sessions. If you’re teaching a discussion section, try to limit your teaching prep days to two or three a week. If you teach two sections, you may want to consider teaching them back-to-back, thus eliminating extra prep time. Or perhaps you prefer an hour of down time (coffee shop, here I come!) in between sections. If you teach every day (as in elementary and intermediate language courses), get into a routine that includes a set number of hours spent each day on teaching prep.

You might also make a semester calendar, marking down when exams, papers or problem sets will need to be graded so that you can count on having less time to devote to your own work during those times.

Call It A Day

What you might suspect is true: the person most likely to encroach on your time boundaries is your own fine self. There’s no way to avoid the feeling that there’s just one more reference to track down, one more helpful handout to make, one more student to email. With teaching prep, as with writing a dissertation, you never really finish: you just stop. At some point you just have do be done, so budget your allotted prep time accordingly. You might be surprised to find that your students will forgive you if not every section is mind-blowing. Be reasonable, we beg you.

Keeping Students at Bay Like the Rabid Dogs They Are

Front Load!

Do as much preparation as possible before the course starts, or during the first few weeks of the semester. If you need to read a particularly long or dense text or if you have to learn (or review) part of the subject matter, do it early so that you’re not under the gun when the time to teach it rolls around. If you want to give your students a handout on writing tips (or something else), make a draft of it early on, well before you need it.

Make Student Responsibilities Clear

Students can be remarkably clever in the sundry and devious ways in which they suck hours from your schedule. Believe it or not, you are not single-handedly responsible for each student’s success or failure in a course. You do not have to tailor the course or section to each student’s individual needs. Moreover, the students who demand the most of you are usually the ones putting the least amount of effort into the course. They’re the ones who need to meet twice a week because they slept through lecture, or want to re-write their papers because they didn’t do it right the first time. Don’t do more for these students than they’re doing for the course. If they miss a week of class, don’t email them your notes; instead, tell them where they can find the information. (There are, of course, cases—a medical or family emergency, for example—in which the right thing to do is to bring the student up to speed. These cases are the ones for which a student can obtain a Dean’s Excuse. See “Late or Postponed Work” in Chapter 7.)

Dealing with late work can be a burden, so think through your late policy and make it clear from the very beginning. Be concrete. Don’t say “late work will be penalized”; say “late lab reports will lose a letter grade for each day they’re late” (or whatever system you choose). If you want to cut students some slack on an individual basis, that’s fine (but see “Be Fair and Flexible”), but beware of imposing a strict late policy halfway through the semester. Not only is it rude—you shouldn’t change rules seemingly at will—but it won’t work and may also cause resentment.

Be Reasonable with Student Meetings

You are not obligated to meet students at the time most convenient for them. Direct them to your office hours, or, if that’s unfeasible, make an appointment for a mutually agreeable time. Don’t shortchange your work for theirs.

Similarly, be clear about how available you’ll be outside the classroom. Email is a godsend in this regard because it allows students to contact you whenever they want, and you to respond whenever you want. Make sure your students know how often you check your email so that they don’t harbor unrealistic expectations as to how quickly (or how late into the evening, or — dare we say? — the wee hours) you’ll respond: many undergraduates check their email compulsively and many graduate students do not.

It’s a good idea to save every email message you receive from and send to your students. Create a separate mail folder for each course, and save it for at least a semester after the course ends. Do this in part for reference, but also for your own protection. For vital or thorny emails (for example, if you are informing students that they are failing the course or that their paper is three weeks late), copy the head of the course on your email so that a faculty member is also aware of the situation.

If you choose to give out your home or cell phone number, be extremely explicit about acceptable times to call (or text — if you will even accept texts). Emphasize that students who call you at unacceptable times will be the objects of your unrestrained wrath.

Share the Burden

If you have a particularly hectic week, consider asking your students to share the burden for a bit (though you need not necessarily say “I’m having a really busy week, and so…,” unless you want to hear that very excuse coming out of their mouths the night before papers are due). It might be a good time to try having a student-led discussion. You could also invite a guest speaker or find some other way to get others to help you out. Do NOT cancel section because you are “just too busy.” Instead, do your best for the week and figure out what went wrong in your time-management scheme.