Finding the Time, Part 1: Teachers Must Preserve Their Most Valuable Resource | Edutopia
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Finding the Time, Part 1: Teachers Must Preserve Their Most Valuable Resource

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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

Amy Butler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading all of the time saving suggestions. I have begun to think about what time I waste through out the day. I will have to change this. I am going to try the ticket idea to leave the classroom for recess.

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I understand that homework is a program that has limited success, especially in areas where the parent is not intimately involve with their child's education. But ultimately, regardless of the age of the students, we expect the student to be the one to do the homework, not the parent. I know the parent has a vital role in helping the student be successful, especially in homework, but the parent cannot do the homework for the student. So, irregardless of parental support, a student can do homework if he or she wants to.

Having said that, we know that having the student individually embrace the topic of study is a life long habit that we want students to learn, prek- 16. The key is to first provide homework opportunities that the students will want to do. I don't know what student will tell you they want to fill out worksheets or answer math problems. But some of the most interesting homework assignments have been ones that the students become part of the next day's lesson. If in math you want to graph some measurements, have the students get measurements from all of their family, shoe sizes, nose sizes, hat sizes etc... In English they can interview family members, relatives or neighbors for topics to write on. One thing that always motivates students is when they get to choose what to do for homework from a range of options (all calibrated to be equally challenging, but using different learning and assessment modalities).

If we accustom our students to want to do homework with more engaging and realistic assignments, then when they periodically have to do the drill and kill practice, they will be more likely to do it, especially if they understand that their practice will help them in class the next day.

At our high school some teachers told me that because of the same reasons that you listed, they do not assign homework (we have over 70% of our students on free and reduced lunch). Yet there are several other teachers at that high school who assign daily homework and get daily homework back from these same kids. I believe that it is because the teacher has successfully shown the students that the homework is essential to do well in that class, and has set the expectation that each student can and will do well. Certainly, there are consequences for not doing the homework, but I believe the focus is on rewarding those that do do the homework.

So what I am saying is basically, don't give up on homework. Start easy, and work your way up to more complex homework assignments. Make sure that every homework assignment is related and relevant to the next day's learning. Celebrate small successes along the way.
Good luck.

Ben Johnson Natalia, TX

James's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have recently begun teaching 8th grade pre-algebra. After reading this blog, the next day I told my classes about it. Now, whenever a student starts to distract others from learning, I either move them to another seat or dismiss them from the room. I am implementing a "0 tolerance" policy with regards to interrupting class. One strike and they're immediately removed at least for a short while in order to cool off. I also invite my students to step outside at their own will if they feel the need to talk to their peers or just move around because I find that when they return, they are less likely to disrupt the class again. As for pre-algebra, there is just too much to cover and too little time to get these students to master everything. So basically right now I am moving right along and not stopping on the lessons. Any student who WANTS extra help will receive it upon request. I encourage the students to ask for help from me or other students if they do not understand something. I realize it is not always realistic to expect every student to master what we teach but, it is realistic to expect that they know the consequences of not learning the material we teach.

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Taking the Time Back:

Engaging the students is the very first thing a teacher has to do. The faster that happens in the classroom, the easier the lesson goes. As a Spanish teacher I did journal writing to help the students in very similar ways to yours. The prompts for the student writing, came from Spanish refrains, sayings, and words of wisdom. This was a double benefit for my students because it got them thinking in the language and it made them evaluate what they believed. It was difficult at first because the students were not accustomed to thinking figuratively (What does moss have to do with rolling stones?). After they got used to it, though, they really enjoyed it.

Ben Johnson Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


When you look at education through the viewpoint that the teacher has to provide all of the learning, then if you do direct instruction during those two "free periods" then, yes, the students who are out for "specials" would have to catch up. That would be quite disruptive. So why do anything?

Perhaps I could help you to look at things in a different perspective. If students can be their own teachers, then what they learn will either reinforce prior learning or be an added benefit on top of what they are "supposed to learn."

I suggest that you try, rather than direct instruction, creating learning systems in which the students can explore, discover and investigate things on their own. (See post on learning systems You role changes to one of providing support and ecouragement rather than being a controller and provider of information. Students who leave will not miss out on anything because they can pick up right where they left off in their own personal learning.

This takes some advanced preparation on you part, but as you create these learning environments, you will notice that students will gradually become less dependent on you to tell them what to learn and more willing to take the initiative to find answers on their own. I caution you though, it is a lot easier for students to sit there and wait to be told what to do--that is how we have trained them-- and they will expect you to step in and just tell them what to learn and what to do. You must resist that urge to help them. Give them choices on what they can do, establish time limits, provide resources and then get out of their way.

Ben Johnson Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson<author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I would agree with you too, if I were the one shoving things on the students. We do not want hyper or stressed-out students. It reminds me of Tom Hanks in the beginning of the movie, Castaway, and how he fruitlessly tried to get the Russian Fed Ex employees to be concerned about time.

However, from the perspective of the student things look differently. Let's suppose that as a teacher I have set up some learning systems where the student is in control and is engaged. Then every interuption or wasted minute is time that the student would prefer to spend completing their project. The urgency to learn is coming from the student in this case. The students themselves would try to be efficient and use their time wisely.

I heard Robert Marzano say in a conference in Texas, if all of the state standards were taught equally, students wouldn't graduate from school till they were 21 years old. We cannot and should not try to teach everything to the same degree. Somethings have to take priority. That's where the professional teacher makes their judgement calls in preparing their lesson. Creative learning can be fun and not stressful.

Ben Johnson Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson<author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If I had to do my new teaching again, the very first thing I would do would be to spend more time getting to know the students, their names and skills and talents and less on getting through the book. The next thing I would do is to prepare my lessons so they could be active, everybody participate-type lessons. I would demonstrate to them that the most important thing that we can do is to learn math by being so excited and enthused about the activities and investigations that the students have to work hard to not also be excited by it. I would immerse them in the language and environment of math.

You are obviously a brave person to start school mid-year and with junior high students. Best of luck to you and your new career.

Ben Johnson Natalia, TX

pjt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The time constraints placed on teachers often seem insurmontable. With some students in pull-out programs, alternative classes, and similiar situations, managing the time we have with students is something that can perplex even the most seasoned teacher.
The two things that have been most beneficial for me to deal with time constraints are flexibility and organization. These two factors seem to be necessary components in making the best with the time we have each school day.

Rachelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This blog enabled me to reflect upon how effectively I use my time. I am a first year teacher and I am still discovering what works and does not work with my 5th grade students. I agree that engaging lessons are the best time management tool. I don't seem to have many behavior concerns during my academic classes. However, I often face classroom management issues with my homeroom class during the morning announcements, in between classes, and during dismissal. This is obviously because learning is not occurring during this time. I now realize that I need to change this. Next year I plan to have morning work on the board that my homeroom class will be held accountable for. I also like the "ticket out the door" idea. This will enable learning to be more consistent throughout the day. I currently do a warm-up with all my academic classes, but I will start to do this with my homeroom as well.

Janine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A recent topic of discussion in my Masters Course has been the characteristics of Expert Teachers. I believe that Expert Teachers effectively beat the Time Bandits that constantly steal precious minutes of our instructional day. These seasoned teachers carefully plan, prepare for their lessons in advance, establish routinues and clearly communicate their expectations to the students, in order to maintain a smooth running and efficient classroom. They make good use of the transition periods and actively engage the student in their learning. During "clean up" times between activites, I use Brain Builder cards or Mad Libs to keep students thinking. I ask questions and gather student input to create a silly story that everyone can enjoy as soon as the room as ready. It amazes me at how quickly the children finish putting their things away because they want to participate in the "fun sponge" activity that is really just an extension of their learning.

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