Elementary School Scheduling

Elementary school schedules are complicated! How simple it would be if there was a bell schedule or a standard amount of time for each discipline. Not so! Each summer elementary schools have to grapple with the challenges of building a master schedule, and it is never easy. There are a few guidelines, however, that you should keep in mind to avoid wasting a lot of time.

LoPresti_I'll Keep Our Conversation in Mind (2)

Jennifer Lopresti, I Will Keep Our Conversation in Mind

(This is a long one for me, so buckle up… or better yet, save it and come back as often as you need.)

Establish your priorities and a plan before you begin.

Not long ago I was asked to support a master schedule committee at a school. I knew they had met a few times before, but otherwise had very little information. When I went to meet with them one afternoon, an administrator started off the meeting and reminded them of their task: to create several schedules based on a variety of scenarios. I hope my face didn’t betray my inner thoughts. WHAT!? Are you kidding me?!

Building a working schedule takes far too much time to waste by creating one (let alone several) that may not match the reality or priorities of the school. Save time and determine what the priorities will be before you begin. How many classrooms are you scheduling at each grade level? What is your staffing allocation for classroom and specials teachers (such as art, music, and P.E.)? What are the state or local minimum instructional times for various subjects? Where no specific guidelines exist, decide how much time you will schedule, especially for disciplines that are not taught by the classroom teacher. How much planning time will be scheduled for each teacher? Do your grade level teams need collaborative planning time? How often and for how long? Do you have special goals that will impact the schedule?

If any of these questions is unanswered, you’re not ready to start. I know somethings aren’t determined until later in the summer, but some preliminary decision must be made so the goals of your scheduling are clear.

Start with the specials (art, music, P.E., etc.).

You’ve established your goals, and I realize full-well that they are probably not about P.E. or the arts, but starting with these is going to make it easier to realize the goals of your school. Starting the schedule with the specials serves to control where, in the school day, there will be interruptions to classroom instruction. Only after these are scheduled should you, or the teachers, attempt to schedule classroom instruction blocks. The specials provide the planning and collaboration time for the classroom teachers, and the specials teachers (may I call them specialists?) must be used carefully to provide all of this in a fair and consistent manner.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking about the specialist’s schedule like you would a classroom teacher. While the classroom teachers instructional schedule is broken up by the time their students will be elsewhere, the art, music, and P.E. teacher’s schedule is defined by when classes are coming to them (or when they are going to a class in the case of travelling teachers). It sounds a subtle distinction, but the act of planning for teacher time becomes opposite. Scheduling the classroom teacher means scheduling their planning time – the specials. Their instructional time is all the space in between. Scheduling the specials teacher means scheduling their instructional time, and their planning time is that which remains.

Work without names.

When building a master schedule, you have to be in the mindset of doing what is best for instruction, and what is best for the whole school. For this reason, I recommend using generic notation for your classes and teachers. To use a teachers name invites you to think about whether or not that person will like the decisions you are making. Here’s what I do:

  • Identify classes with a number and letter. For example, 3 first grade and 3 second grade classes would be 1A, 1B, 1C, 2A, 2B, and 2C.
  • Identify specials teachers similarly. Two art, music, and P.E. teachers, for example, might be A1, A2, M1, M2, P1 and P2.

Use a method that allows you to make a lot of changes.

Let me compare two methods: a digital file (maybe an XL spreadsheet), and a physical chart with Post-It notes.

Many schools will eventually put the schedule into an official digital format, but I do not recommend this for working out the schedule to begin with. If we imagine an in-progress schedule in a digital file, a decision to make a change to one class that has already been placed involves deleting what has been typed in one location and typing into a new location. Any change in an elementary schedule will likely have a domino effect, quickly becoming more than you can keep track of. What you just deleted now goes in another slot, but you have to delete what is in the destination spot. A quick distraction can cause you to forget what you just deleted, or where you were going to move something. If you can get back on track fast enough to realize what happened, you may have to search through the already complicated schedule to figure out what got lost or where you left off. There is a simpler, better way.

I schedule with a large-scale grid and small Post-It notes. Each column on the grid represents a specials teacher. The number of specials teachers on each day of the week is determined in the goal setting phase. The rows will eventually be assigned times, but not yet.

Each specials class that needs to be scheduled is put on a sticky note. If each third grade class gets one art class, two music classes, and two P.E. classes per week, for example, these would read: 3A, Art; 3A, Music; 3A, Music; 3A, PE; 3A, PE. Write out all of these at once without placing them in the schedule to make sure you have a sticky note for each class that must be scheduled. As long as I don’t lose any of my sticky notes, this method prevents the problem I described above. If I move a class to a filled slot and create that domino effect, I have to remove the other sticky note, and find a place for it. I can’t forget what I just moved, because there is a note in my hand that says “3A, PE.” Ah, right! It’s a P.E. class… let me find a place for that.

Color code.

I have a special pack where I keep at least 7 different colors of Post-It notes, one color per grade, K-6. It makes it a little easier to see how your schedule is coming together when each grade is a different color.

Do one grade level at a time.

Unless you have no interest in having your grade level teams working together (please don’t say it is so), I recommend scheduling a whole grade level before moving to the next one. I like to start with the upper grades since they do well with having specials in the morning. I start placing 6th grade at the top of the chart (our elementary schools are K-6), keeping all of the specials classes for the grade level lined up as well as I can. This will become the first specials time of the day.

Depending on the length and number of your classes, you will likely need to (or be able to) block a couple of shorter specials classes together to provide a longer planning period for the classroom teacher. In my district, for example, most schools schedule 60 minute art classes, and some schedule 30 minute music and P.E. classes. In this case, one 6th grade class can be scheduled for art, and the others for music-then-P.E. or P.E.-then-music. With this approach, schools can often schedule a full hour of common planning time for a team, even several times a week.

Don’t imagine that it’s going to be neat and clean.

It would be lovely if a finished schedule could have a nice, neat row of 6th grade specials followed by a nice, neat row of 5th grade classes, etc. But it can’t happen. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do this and provide an appropriate amount of instructional time for meaningful instruction (See Instructional Time for Art).  What’s more, unless you have some magically perfect number of classes that balances exactly with the number of specialists, like some planetary alignment, trying to make a nice, neat schedule usually means that you will not be using all of your staffing to it’s fullest extent. Your art, music, and P.E. teachers are… well, TEACHERS! They should teach! …ideally about the same amount of time as your classroom teachers so all teachers have an appropriate and fair amount of planning time. Don’t waste the time you have them.

Every school is different.

“This is really hard! Wait a minute… I have an idea. I’ll just get a working schedule from another school.”

There are so many things wrong with this way of thinking, but I hear it all the time. Art teachers email other art teachers asking them to share their schedule, principals ask central offices if there are good schedules that can be shared, and even the leaders in our school system will ask for sample schedules when there is a question or concern. Well, it doesn’t work that way.

Any given schedule will work for exactly one school, in exactly one situation, and most likely for just that year. All it takes to throw it off is one more class, a minor change in staffing, or a new instructional focus, and that schedule will no longer work to meet your goals. Should a school keep records of past schedules? Absolutely! It may be easier to tweak one that only requires a couple of changes, rather than starting from scratch, but you should not expect to be able to use the same schedule year after year. (And if you do, maybe you should question why that is.)

Scheduling is a complicated process. I have worked with schools for a quick meeting, to hours-long schedule building sessions. No matter the situation, these guidelines help focus and the work and make it productive. Let me know if any of these help you, and I’d love to know what works for you. Happy Scheduling!


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