Swift | Silent | Deadly

Time Management for Instructors

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I would like to pose question to my instructor friends out there: why do you teach? I hope the answer is something along the lines of, “to provide my students with valuable information.” Poor time management can completely interrupt the learning process. I’ve written about respecting students’ time before. Today I’m going to delve deeper into the idea of time management for instructors, using a bad example.

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A Quick Disclaimer

Being an instructor was my full time job for a decade. I’m now in “has-been” status. I haven’t taught a class in a couple years. I realize that may diminish my credibility a little bit with some of you. But consider this: I am still a regular student. View this article as a wishlist from your students.

The Backstory

Last year I attended a fairly demanding outdoor rescue class. The class is two weekends long consisting of two very long classroom days the first weekend, and two equally long field days the second. The outdoor portions of the class were fantastic but the classroom portions left a lot to be desired.

This year one of my friends is taking the course. She texted me throughout her classroom days about her frustration with the instructor. Her frustration echoed a lot of complaints I had about the same instructor a year ago, and they all have to do with time management.

Throughout the classroom weekend (both mine and hers) the instructor made statements about time. On Saturday morning he said, “we’ll put in a long day today so we can get out early tomorrow.” On Sunday morning he said, “we’ll take a long lunch around 11:30,” and reinforced his statement about getting out early with, “I’m going to try to get you out of here at a decent hour tonight.”

As you have probably guessed, none of these things happened. Lunch didn’t happen until about 12:40 and it wasn’t a long lunch, it was actually shorter than the day before. Class did not wrap up early. Instead it went almost two hours late and my friend didn’t end up getting out of class until 8 PM.

What was the result of this time mismanagement? I will share some of the text exchanges she and I had as they day wore on:

Think about this. If your goal is to transfer knowledge do you want your students to be sending text messages saying, “OMG everyone is so pissed”? At 18:15 (6:15 PM) after she has been told to expect to get out early, how much do you think she is learning? An hour later the answer is clear when she says, “I’m stressed.”

How Poor Time Management Impacts Learning

In the past I have talked about respecting students’ time. Today I’m going to talk (rant?) a little bit about why that is important. This will mostly be applicable to those of you teaching students on their home turf. If students are all traveling from out of town to train with you the situation is a bit different, but you should still be aware of students’ expectations of time. If students are hosting you in their city you would do well to heed this information.

Student-Instructor Trust

When you teach you are building a relationship with your students. You are establishing credibility with them throughout your class, whether it is a ten-minute keynote or a ten-day course. When you present your bio, give a strong lecture or high-quality demo you are establishing your mastery of the topic.

You are also building personal trust and rapport with your students. Though class is not a popularity contest, students won’t learn much from someone they don’t like†. When you demonstrate good time management you are demonstrating trustworthiness. When students feel like they can trust you they will learn more. This gives them a sense of control of their own environment. Bouncing them around emotionally by promising an early, long lunch, then delivering a late, short lunch damages hard-won trust.

I know, I know – students should be focused on learning. But life doesn’t stop when students are in your class. They still have to get ready for work the next day, get kids off to school, get groceries, cook dinner, pick up dry-cleaning, let dogs out, etc. When class runs needlessly late because you told too many stories, any time spent in “overtime” is time that is completely lost. You have taken valuable time from your students and given them nothing in return because all they are focused on is their drive back home, where to get dinner, and all the other mundane details of everyday life.  Fortunately there are some pretty easy fixes.

Time management for instructors isn’t a hard concept to grasp – there are just a few key things to keep in mind.

Time Management for Instructors

In the interest of this article being more than a big rant, I also want to offer some solutions. There are a few pitfalls you can avoid to improve your time management.  I happen to know that the instructor mentioned above is a great guy. He is incredibly well-credentialed. He loves teaching this particular topic and has a wealth of knowledge on it. So why do his classes so consistently result in annoyed students? There are some easily identifiable causes if he ever bothers to look for them.


Many hands-on classes give students a gear list based on the content of the class. This may include ammo, tent, a dry change of clothes, mask/fins/snorkel, whatever. Some courses issue gear lists that are several pages long. Make sure you also tell students how much of their time to bring to class. Time is a valuable resource, so treat it like one!

I don’t mind working lunches, late days, or early mornings at all…as long as I know what to expect and can plan around it. Last year when I took the class described above and got in a lot of trouble at home. I set unrealistic time expectations with my girlfriend, based on what the instructor told us. As a result I completely missed going to dinner with her and an out-of-town friend. Had I let her know that morning that I wouldn’t be home until 10 PM this would have been a non-issue. Instead she and her friend waited around on me, which was a let-down for her and had some unpleasant second-order effects for me.

When you give students timelines, you set expectations. Your students’ lives are complex, and those timelines set a lot of other things in motion that go far beyond your class. Inform you students of your time expectations as early as possible and let them plan around them.

Stick To Timelines

Once you’ve informed your students, stick to the information you’ve given! As I have already described, this particular instructor has a very hard time sticking to timelines. He would throw out a statement about lunchtime or what time the class ended…then blow right past it. This one is a little bit different than the bullet above about informing your students. This is a violation of your trust with students and something you should try hard to avoid. When you give students a time – start time, end time, lunch time, whatever – do your best to stick with it.

I’m not saying you can’t flex if things change. You can absolutely change things up if the situation – classroom/training area availability, weather, etc. – changes. If you teach long enough you will run into a situation like this. When you do change a timeline, however, do it tactfully by reverting back to inform you students. Give them as much heads-up as possible and explain why the change is necessary.

Essentials Before Extras

The instructor in this story prides himself on all the “extras” beyond the mandated minimums that his class provides. I have no complaints about getting training the exceeds minimum standards. The minimum standards to have to be met first, though. This particular instructor spent the entire first classroom day on “extra” material – stuff he was most excited to talk about but is not part of the curriculum – at the expense of testable material. This meant he had to rush through the actual, testable material (for that matter the actual subject of the class), and cover it when students were least likely to retain it.

Again, I applaud him for trying to provide additional value but he seems to let it completely overtake the main subjects the class is about. If you are teaching a class with mandated minimums, or topics that you promise to provide in your literate, be sure you cover these first. This will virtually guarantee you have time for them, and make sure you cover them when the students are fresh and most likely to retain the information. Save the extra stuff for leftover time at the end.

Stay On Topic

The instructor is also very prone to letting students drag him off topic. Any question, no matter how tangential to the material, is addressed in exhaustive detail. Sometimes an answer to a question, or simply an anecdote he felt like relaying, would drag on for fifteen or twenty minutes. At the end the instructor would say, “sorry, squirrel moment,” even though these “moments” consumed at least two hours of each day.

It is virtually impossible to avoid all tangents. However, there are some techniques to help you. First, if a student asks a tangential question, you can simply guide the class back on topic. Say something along the lines of, “that’s a little outside the scope of what we’re talking about. I’m happy to discuss it offline.”

The answer to squirrel moments is to constantly monitor what you are saying. Not every topic that pops into your head deserves your students’ time and attention. This requires the personal discipline to hold back some of the stories you’d like to relate. As a consolation prize, you will present a better, more professional class and your students will be happier and learn more.

What I’m NOT Saying

I’m not saying you can’t have long training days, late nights, working lunches or skip lunch altogether. You absolutely can, and your students will appreciate and enjoy them…but only if they know what to expect. Most of the students that pay to train/learn from you will be glad to suck up as much knowledge as you have to give. But be clear with them and let them plan around the class. They will be happier and learn more.

I’m not also not saying that you have to take excessive breaks, long lunches, or get out early every day. You don’t have to cut classes short to make students happy. This is just as disrespectful of students’ investment in your class as everything else I’ve talked about in this article.

If there is no lunch on the first day, let them know in your welcome email. This will allow them to pack snacks and drinks and know what to expect. If there is a night-shoot or other late activity, let them know as far in advance as possible so they can plan child-care, dog-care, and set expectations their significant others.

The ability to plan in advance is the difference between being frustrated, stressed, or pissed off with a long training day, and being excited to participate in it. Inform your students, stick to timelines, cover the essentials before the extras, and stay on topic. You should be good to go!

†Sidebar: this is why I carefully avoid politics in class – it’s guaranteed to alienate at least one student, reducing what they will learn from me. My ultimate goal is to teach them, not share my political views and opinions.

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