Your Teacher Chronotype and Why it Matters

Updated: Aug 6, 2019

If you're a teacher, Erin's tweet hits home. In fact, you may be scarfing down a Chinese food combination lunch special at 9:30 am reading this blog right now. Teachers have schedules that are highly predictable, to say the least. Our time is structured in ways we often have no control over—from our prep and planning time to our lunch and bathroom breaks. Working from within constricted timeframes, it is extremely important that we make the most of the time we have by organizing and scheduling our tasks according to our optimal “teacher chronotype”, that is, when we are most likely to successfully complete different types of tasks during the cycle of the school day.

According to Daniel Pink’s bestseller, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, there are three stages we all encounter during a typical day during which our brain power changes. We are most “vigilant” and able to focus on analytic tasks during the peak of our day. After the peak, we experience a trough, a dip in brain power and energy; this should be the time when we take a break, and then complete administrative tasks that don’t require laser focus. The final stage of the day is the recovery stage, when we see an increase in energy and are able to focus again but in a looser way; our brains are able to engage in creative tasks that require big-picture thinking and insight during this stage. The order in which you experience these stages depends on your chronotype, or when your circadian rhythms happen, which determines if you're a "lark" (morning person), an "owl" (evening person), or a "third bird" (somewhere in the middle).

To find out if you're a lark, owl or third bird:

Figure out the midpoint of your sleep cycle on what are called "free days," the days when you don't have to wake up to an alarm clock (i.e., weekends or during summer break).

If your midpoint of sleep is 3:30 a.m. or earlier, you're probably a lark.

If your midpoint of sleep is 5:30 a.m. or later, you're probably an owl.

If your midpoint is somewhere in between, you're probably a third bird

For larks and third birds, the morning is a peak time: the best time to do analytical work that requires head-down, focused attention, such as analyzing, or writing a report. The peak for an owl is later in the afternoon. "That's the time of day we are vigilant and able to knock away distractions," Pink says.

How many of us use our time in the morning before school starts or during an early prep period to “set up the day” by making copies, answering emails, or other tasks that are a waste of our precious peak time?

According to Pink's theory, teachers’ free time in the morning would be best spent grading papers or writing IEPs.

The trough marks a bad time of day to be productive. According to Pink, the afternoon trough is the culprit in major declines in productivity in most fields. The best way to deal with the trough time is to use it for administrative tasks that don’t require a lot of brain power. Copying handouts, organizing graded student work to return the next day, or tidying your classroom are all tasks that would be better done during the trough.

The recovery time happens in the late afternoon/ evening for larks and third birds and in the morning for owls. This is the best time to work on long-term projects, tasks that require creativity, and application of insight. Our brains are more open to ideas and different strategies during the recovery time and are open to multiple solution pathways. This, teacher friends, is our prime time for lesson planning.

Whether you’re a lark, an owl, or a third bird, you can use Pink’s research on timing to help you be the most productive you can during each part of the school day. Pink also offers readers insight into the typical patterns of school-aged children and ways we can use what we know about chronotypes to make sure teachers and administrators are optimizing the school schedule and their teaching for students. Check out the free companion, “When Discussion Guide for Educators,” to guide further discussions about timing in your school. Though teachers may not have complete (or any) control over their schedules, we can use what we know about timing to perform better during our peak, trough, and recovery times.

The chart below can help you figure out the best time of day to do different types of teaching tasks, according to Pink's assessment of chronotypes.

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