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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Finding the Time, Part 1: Teachers Must Preserve Their Most Valuable Resource

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

If I were to ask you what the most valuable resource that teachers have at their disposal is, what would you answer?

You might consider the teacher's knowledge or skills in teaching as his or her most valuable resource. You might think support from the school administration, a well-written curriculum, sufficient teaching aids, varied strategies, or perhaps even the students themselves would be the most valuable resource to an educator. Amazingly enough, though, it is the resource that we often pay the least attention to and end up abusing (wasting) more than any other. I contend that the most valuable resource that a teacher has is time.

In many states, teachers have only about 180 days (177 days in my district) in which to get their students to acquire the knowledge and skills state requirements dictate. Add in numerous activities that may be worthwhile but that still chip away at those 180 days. Some activities -- such as sports, band, drama, and special celebrations -- do so in large chunks:. But there are also the small time wasters that add up: morning announcements, classroom business, students being summoned to the office, and other classroom interruptions.

The most important aspect of time for educators is the amount students spend actively engaged in the learning process, not simply the amount they spend on school grounds. In a previous post, I discussed some ways to develop a sense of urgency and how to provide a reason to do things now in the classroom. How teachers and schools spend their time is the critical issue in establishing urgency.

I see three aspects to a teacher's time: preparation time, instruction time, and professional-duty time. I would like to discuss instruction time and how to reclaim it.

Instruction time begins the moment the teacher greets his or her students in the hallway and ends the moment the young people leave the campus. Wait! Is that really the end of instructional time? No. Most schools employ a simple trick to extend the instructional time of the classroom: homework. (Unfortunately, homework is sometimes otherwise known as busywork.) So, if students view homework as a review and extension of what they learned in class, learning time can and should extend into the home.

During a typical lesson, a teacher employs the professional teaching-and-learning cycle: study, select, plan, implement, analyze, and adjust. You can read a brief explanation of the cycle in a comment I made to another previous blog entry. During the implementation phase (Madeline Hunter would be proud of me), the teacher spends time introducing the lesson, giving direct instruction, and modeling the lesson. The teacher then gives the students both guided and individual practice, followed by a final closure activity.

Of all of those time segments, which one is the most important? To answer that question, I'll ask another question: When are the students learning the most? Wouldn't that be when students are practicing? Looking at this issue more closely, in a traditional class, are all students learning if they are simply listening to the teacher talking?

Not likely. Even though some students may be able to retain the information in short-term memory, the rest will have difficulty remembering what the teacher said without notes or aids. The only ways to push knowledge or comprehension-level information and skills into long-term memory is practice, memorization, or participation in varied higher-order thinking activities. (See Bloom's Taxonomy.) These activities are, by their very nature, engaging activities. A student cannot easily sit by while all of the other students are actively engaged in a project.

Please share your thoughts, and read part two of this entry.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (115)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Regina T.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a first year teacher and time is always my problem. After reading this article, I realize that time is an issue for teachers as a whole. I have learned quite a few time savers as the school year comes to an end. I think that getting your students to help is a great time saver. Students can help with activities such as taking attendance, changing the calendar, collecting folders, etc. The help gives the teacher more time to deal with students either individually or as a whole. Getting your students to help not only saves time but it also teaches the students responsiblity. Two birds with one stone.

kara harris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many great ideas floating around. If you have not read Harry Wong's book The First Days of School, it is a must! He gives some great ideas on time savers and classroom management to help with this. I still don't implement all of his ideas (though I would like to), but I think if you are consistent with whatever you do that is the key--consistancy. Always have a visible list of things to do and the students will have no "in-between time" to be wasted. That has helped me. I always try to have the day's agenda on the board of what to do next. Then they don't come up to ask me, and they go right from one thing to the next without delay. This works well in Language Arts class. I still need to work on smoother transitions between subjects and at the beginning and the end of the day. The end of the day students are supposed to do their jobs, and get ready to go. It is always chaos and noisy and we are always late getting out. I need some way to make this go quicker.

ALG's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For six years prior to this school year, I taught in a Spanish Immersion school in which the students sped half of their day learning in English and the other half learning in Spanish. This essentially meant that I had half the time of the average teacher to teach the same curriculum, and repeated that cycle twice during the school day with two groups of 25 students. Time was definitely more precious than gold.
Some of the tricks employed by my colleagues were simple ways to extend learning that were also highly effective. From the moment we picked our students up in the morning from the gym, teachers would begin practicing vocabulary, phonemic awareness, math facts, etc. learned the previous day with their line. Sometimes students were each presented with a question in line order, other times whole classes would be singing songs or chanting consonant blends quietly. In this way, learning began literally the moment the students began to approach the classroom. We also did this during hallway transition times, to and from lunch and recess, to and from special area classes, and to and from restroom breaks.
Students enjoyed the "games" and teachers were grateful for a few extra minutes of time with their classes.

Erin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too struggle with never finding enough time for everything that needs to happen in the day. I have noticed that creating a routine of daily activities has been key for keeping things moving. This routine is started on the first day of school and continued all year. I also make sure that substitutes are on board with it as well.

One suggestion that was made at our school in hopes to save our precious learning time, was to put all assemblies at the end of the day. This way, the students are finished with the day as the assembly ends, rather than having an interuption in the middle of the day that causes you to lose even more time refocusing your students after the excitement.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really began to think about the time wasted during our school day. I started to brainstorm ways to use every minute of instructional time I am given. I really liked the idea of group bathroom break while asking standard based questions as mentioned in the second part of this article.
I must say though while reading this I begin to ponder how administration is supportive to using every ounce of instructional time. In our district we have several assemblies which fall during math time. I have expressed concern during staff meetings about considering other times throughout the day or rotating with other grade levels.
I was impressed with all the ideas shared.

Julie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you. There is definitely not enough time to do everything a "great" teacher is supposed to do. I have also learned this year to depend on the students to do more and not do everything for them. With each activity, I consider what they can do and allow them to help out. This helps save me time preparing the many materials.

Gayle Adkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One of the hardest things I deal with in teaching is time management.I teach every moment that I can and there are times when I still cannot get to everything.I teach the first grade, and I think sometimes in the lower grades there are more interruptions than in other grades.A recent topic of discussion in my Masters Course has been the characteristics of novice to expert teachers.I agree that Expert teachers or those that have been teaching the longest and have more experience can manage time in the classroom more effectively, but even expert teachers deal with the everyday time busters that can get teachers off track.It is imperative to keep students continually engaged in learning and have a structured learning environment.

Natalee Jenkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are several ways that we fight "time robbers" at my school. We have teachers stationed at their classroom doors. They ask students Core Content questions as they pass by in the morning on their way to class. They give them peppermints if they answer the question correctly. This is a great start to the day! It is proven that peppermints help you think. We also use central bulletin boards to play interactive games during non instructional time. We have a board titled "Great Grammar Game" where the students pick the correct sentence out of two choices. The students put their answer and name on a slip of paper. The winners are announced on the morning announcements each Friday and receive a pencil. We also use a central board titled, "Be A Mathlete". The students must guess the mystery number based on five clues. If they answer the number correctly, they are also announced and win a pencil. These are great ways to honor students for their thinking during non instructional moments. Try it! Please let me know what you think!

Natalee Jenkins

Amanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with this article. You mentioned that the most important aspect of time for educators is the amount students spend engaged in the learning process, which is extremely important. I believe it's solely up to the individual educator to have a set routine, so when "time robbers" do take up your time it doesn't affect your classroom as much. The key is to find away to eliminate as much distractions as possible. A solution might be to have students help with taking roll, lunch counts, and passing out papers. You can also create smooth transitions between classes or subjects to have things move at a faster pace. Always plan ahead. If you establish routine everything should run smoothly and you will have more time to teach.

Jenni's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 1st grade and we take bathroom breaks at the same time. All the students can not go into the restroom together. While the students wait for their turn, I quiz them on spelling words; counting by 5s, 10s, 2s, 100s; rhyming words; or anything that we have covered recently or in the past. The kids loved this! It also helped cut down on discipline problems.

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