How I conquered my fear of the school timetable

Paul Barry

Paul Barry is a science teacher and Assistant Headteacher at The King John School in Essex, which was graded Outstanding in all categories in 2013.  The school has about 100 teaching staff and over 2000 students.  Paul has been writing the whole school timetable at King John since 2009.  Outside of his commitments in school, Paul has recently teamed up with a group of teachers from other outstanding schools to form Archimedes College who provide Subject Knowledge enhancement (SKE) courses in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry.

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There are very few secondary teachers that would argue with the view that the role of the timetabler is one of the most difficult in the school. Most teachers have a certain respect for what they describe as a thankless task, while many senior leaders seem to display a mild fascination with it, riddled with an underlying fear of the day when they are asked to do it themselves. But does the school timetable deserve this negative image? What is it about the role that scares people? Are the rewards of the job great enough to throw yourself into the deep end? If you had to do it, would you sink or swim?

These were the sorts of questions that went through my mind at the beginning of my timetabling role, but having been doing it for several years now at a large secondary school, I think I’m in a position to attempt to answer them. I will list what I perceive to be the main fears of the role while attempting to quash them one by one.

Fear #1: It’s too difficult.

The first issue is that the task of writing the timetable is perceived to be extremely difficult. It must require a certain type of brain that is methodical and logical? Imagine having to make sure that every member of staff and every student in the school is in the right room, doing the right subject without any clashes... ever. And what about all of these terms that are thrown around, like curriculum plans, bands and blocks? Are these concepts that only a mathematical or scientific brain can grasp?

It’s not as difficult as people think. The finished product is very complex, but the process of creating it is gradual, organised and systematic. It feels a bit like a very large puzzle, and all along the road to completing it there are countless small rewards, as more and more blocks are fitted in. The human brain makes sense of large complex systems by taking it apart into smaller compartments and dealing with these separately.

"It feels a bit like a very large puzzle, and all along the road to completing it there are countless small rewards."

The timetabler does the same by thinking of the whole school as several year groups, usually split into two or more bands, further divided into blocks and then sets. The blocks go in one at a time, prioritising particular year groups and subjects and, gradually, everything fits into place. Timetable computer programmes are designed around this kind of logical method. New terms are very quickly learned for without them it would be nearly impossible to articulate what you are trying to do and what your staff need. Of course the role requires organisation and logic, but if you can plan a lesson or programme of study and track and monitor student progress, you are already displaying these skills every day. It might help a little to have a natural visuo-spatial awareness so that you are able to visualise the curriculum and the weekly cycle as a picture, but this comes with practice and isn’t crucial.

Fear #2: It’s too much responsibility.

The second challenge is the scale of the responsibility that inevitably accompanies the role. The timetable affects everybody in the school. What if you get it badly wrong? What if you can’t keep everyone happy? What if you can’t satisfy everyone’s curriculum and professional needs? Who on Earth would want this kind of pressure?

It’s hard to deny that a timetabler will probably feel a big responsibility to create a product that satisfies the endless needs of the students and staff, not to mention the headteacher and governors, but as long as you are clear what these needs are and which ones take priority, and you listen to and communicate with staff throughout the process, you can create the product which is right for the school.

Fear #3: It’s too big a job.

"You just have to serve the needs of the curriculum, the students and the school as a whole."

The third worry is the sheer size of the task. Everyone knows that for a few weeks of the academic calendar, the timetabler will be completely consumed by this massive task, mustn’t be disturbed unduly and often works on it late into the evenings.

The timetable is a big job, but this isn’t a negative thing at all. Having work to do that keeps your mind active, making progress every day, solving problems and experiencing triumphs along the way is fulfilling. You don’t have to work all hours. Timetablers might be known for this kind of behaviour but probably because they end up being consumed by something which is challenging and enjoyable. Like a good strategy game, it’s a bit of an addiction!

Fear #4: I can’t keep everyone happy.

The fourth apprehension is whether you have the attributes to effectively deal with the personalities and the reactions of the most critical recipients of your product, the teaching staff. Get it wrong and you may lose popularity.

The term emotional intelligence is used to describe the desired characteristic here, and it is needed on tap. People are strange. They react in ways that they can’t control to all sorts of things that aren’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. Teachers don’t always see the bigger picture and focus on their own needs, but that’s human nature. You just have to serve the needs of the curriculum, the students and the school as a whole and as long as people know that this is your agenda, your integrity will be upheld.

Fear #5: It may ruin my reputation.

For any ambitious teacher who has aspirations of a successful career in school leadership, the underlying root of pretty much every fear listed above is reputation. Will the timetable make me or break me?

People will look to you as the person who can make things happen, or the person who can find solutions to their problems, and this is a reward in itself. Everyone likes to feel needed and you don’t get much more needed in a school than in this role. You hold the knowledge that is needed for so many big decisions in the school, staffing being one. The timetabler is all powerful and, as long as you are careful not to acknowledge this publicly or let it go to your head, your reputation will be that of someone who has stepped up to this responsibility that everyone else fears. With this comes respect, and this might be why so many senior teachers are fascinated by the idea of taking on this apparently thankless task and why the ambitious amongst us are drawn to it.

So step up to the role and look forward to a challenge like no other, with massive rewards and unparalleled job satisfaction!

Do you organise your school’s timetable? Share your experiences in the comments.

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