Friday, November 22, 2013

A "How-To" Build a Master Schedule

Two teachers approached me yesterday with questions regarding next year's master schedule. Both times, I did a double take at the mere mention of the 2014-15 school year. After all, it's only November. Why concern ourselves with the school year that begins next August? The answer to this question lies in the importance of a school's master schedule and the stress it brings to a school staff.

What exactly is a master schedule? To parents and students, it's the huge board in the principal's office with teacher names and class titles arranged in seemingly random fashion, attached to magnets, and often color coded. The resemblance to a Pollack piece of art is uncanny. To staff members, however, the master schedule is what defines their upcoming school year, what they'll spend their summer preparing for, and can either bring a school year of success or 10 months of frustration. Simply put, it's very important to the classroom teacher and paraprofessional.

In layman's terms, the master schedule is the blueprint for what classes each staff member teaches, what order they'll teach these classes, and when their "prep period" will be. While there is the occasional staff member who will just show up a few days before school and be pleased with any assignment they receive, the majority of one's staff watches the master schedule for any little change that could alter what they're expected to do for the upcoming school year. To understand their concern further, let's examine how an administrator builds the master schedule.

You start with a blank slate in February. Pull everything of of the board. A new year means a fresh beginning for everyone. You should receive your number of allotted sections (how many classes you are able to put on your master schedule board) which will help determine your staffing needs for the upcoming year. This is a good time to work closely with your district office in checking credentials of your current teaching staff. Is there a 6th grade multiple subject teacher with a secondary authorization in math? Does the 8th grade science teacher have enough PE credits from college to teach a section of gym? This is important information and can help you later on down the road when you're stuck in a corner with the master schedule. 

My first steps with the board is to determine the teacher teams based on any changes from the previous year. From here, begin to place classes in no particular order on the board. Based on your number of students per grade and your staffing formula providing by your district office, you'll know how many 7th grade social studies sections to schedule. Often, the 7th grade social studies teacher from 2013 will teach 7th grade social studies in 2014. Much like your students who like to tackle the easy math problems first before addressing the harder problems, sometimes it's best to place the sections on the board with the staff members who taught the classes the previous years and then see if there are any leftover sections you'll have to place elsewhere. 

One of my main core beliefs with the master schedule is to not assign the most "difficult" classes to our newer staff members. Sometimes you can't avoid this from occurring but if you want to ensure the best years for your newest staff members, allow them to build the craft without the most challenging class schedules. While your veteran teachers may not want to teach these classes, they do have the most experience in handling discipline and student issues -- why not have these staff members take on these more challenging schedules? 

Every master schedule is built with the students' best interests at first. Occasionally, you'll have a teacher who may "request" a prep period at a certain point in the school day. Perhaps they'll strongly urge that they teach 7th grade instead of 8th grade. They'll spend much time in your office, pushing their agenda and trying to have you see their perspective on why it's so important to give them the schedule they want. It's during these times I repeat my mantra about the master schedule: it's about the students. We do what's best for kids. If "what's best for kids" happens to give a staff member the schedule and prep period they want, that's great. However, first and foremost, I create the master schedule with our students in mind.

This isn't to say that I don't solicit input from my staff. Our district circulates a form where staff members can indicate their preferences for the upcoming school year. I also, during my first year as a principal last year, asked our staff to submit a simple note card with their requested schedule, requested prep period, any classes they'd like to teach that I may not know of, and if they're requesting a room change. There are two schools of thought on this process: (1) Don't ask for input from your staff -- if you don't give them what they request, they'll say you don't listen or (2) always solicit feedback and input from staff on the master schedule -- they're an integral part of the process and it's best to include them. Personally, I'd rather ask for their input, explain that nothing is guaranteed, and face any fallout if it occurs.

Your next step is to discover overlooked mistakes and any improvements hidden within the master schedule. One year, our administrative team left out an entire line of sections and had to hire a teacher two weeks into the school year. In another year, there was an extra section of 8th grade science at the expense of the 7th grade team. Since you're becoming increasingly familiar with your master schedule, you'll begin to lose perspective on these errors. Reach out to your district office and ask for an assist. I encourage teachers to stop by, see the master schedule, and provide input. Nothing is more valuable than a fresh set of eyes on the master schedule at this point. 

Once you've got a master schedule that seems to make sense for your school, it's time to confirm that they are enough seats for each period. I use an excel spreadsheet to account for every seat in each period separated by grade level and team. If you have a "numbers guy/girl" on your staff, this is a good time to include them with these balancing concerns. Make sure your electives link up to each period. Recheck the "singletons" (classes that only exist once on your master schedule) that may cause a bottleneck in the school day. 

One of your last steps is entering all of the information into your school's information system and then load your students into the schedule. This process is done to see how many errors, conflicts, or issues there are with the schedule you've built. Most of the time, you'll have a 70-90% load rate, depending on the number of singletons and overlooked errors your master schedule may have. My personal recent was a 97% success rate during my third year at a former middle school, a number I've not approached since. As you become more familiar with the process of making a master schedule, you'll improve greatly at your load rate.

Be prepared to start answers questions about the master schedule over the next few months. The best advice is to starting planning now and try your best to calm your staff's concern about next year's schedule. After all, it's only nine months away!

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