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

Christina Chirco's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel that the most challenging obstacle that I face in my normal teaching day is time. Between the students going to their different specials(sometimes twice a day), whole school assemblies, small literacy groups twice a week, and meeting with the reading consultant for some students, the precious time that we have together is limited. I found the article to be very interesting. I agree that the students need to be engaged in the material being taught. I like to model the lesson, and have the students work hands-on to grasp the concept. I also like to incorporate different subject areas in to one lesson. This helps out with the material that I want to cover and the challenge of time. Creating a calm, fun learning enviroment for our students will help them be able to learn the material being taught in the time allowed.

Sarah Mardirosian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that my students do get frustrated when we need to close on an activity that they are deeply involved in working on. I sure this is true at any grade level, but in first grade it is hard for the students to transition into the next activitiy especially when they are not "ready". I too have often switched my schedule around to accomodate more time for math investigations or activities. I also seem to always need more time for sharing our stories in author's chair after writing workshop. The insights that the students gain from commenting on other student's writing is many times just as effective a teaching tool as the mini-lesson I have presented. More often than not I always seem to need more time for guided reading and reading center activities. It seems it is so hard to fit all that we need to do into our school day.

Another post suggested that the students sense our frustration as well and I agree with this idea too. I have been trying to make sure that I do not over schedule my school day, because ultimately, it is the students who lose. Even though we will never have all the time we need to do all of our paperwork and preparation, our students will never gain the time back from poorly timed and managed lessons. This is something I really need to remind myself of everyday!

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, like many of the rest of you, find too much time is wasted daily. For example, this week our school has 3 convocations!!! Each convo lasts about 45 minutes and, of course, you have to add in travel time, excitement before and after -- I can bank on losing at least over an hour for each!! Granted that doesn't happen every week, but even so I, like everyone else, have title kids out for 30 minutes every day, a child that goes to computer for tutoring for 30 minutes everyday, speech kids gone for 30 minutes twice a week. As we all know too well, you can't really continue or teach something knew while they are gone..... I love the ideas reading aloud during lining up times - that would have to cut down on the talking and might even hurry them through the restroom more. I think I'll talk to my team members about hanging up an o ring with vocab. or spelling words near our bathrooms --- great ideas!!

Michelle Rhodes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this blog and its comments to be both eye-opening and reflective. I found myself thinking: "True", "Good point", and "Not necessarily". The concept of wasted/effective time is something I have tried to reflect on this year. I have two "free" periods a day. During this time I am not teaching a core-academic subject. Some would say I am not using my time effectively. Sometimes I even question myself. I struggle with what to teach during these "free" periods because I do not have my entire class together. During these times, I have students being pulled out for everything: Basic Skills, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, Enrichment, Instrumental lessons, etc. During this time I often allow my students to read silently/or with a partner, I will read aloud, or I give them free writing time. I question myself weekly: should I be doing more? Is it fair to those being pulled out to miss what others are being exposed to? I am in my fifth year of teaching and have had the same schedule for those five years. I often do not have more than two-three students out, so I have found it easy to "catch-up"; however this year, I often have five-eight students out. What would you do given this schedule?

Mark Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a novice teacher, I have found that time is the most important part of a student's learning. I enjoyed your article on time, and I found that several suggestions to deal with time issues will be implemented in my classroom.

One suggestion that I have about roll call is to assign each student to a numbered desk ( it does not matter whether they are in alphabetical order or not). On an overhead have that number beside their name. This way there is no question about where the student will sit. The teacher will also have a paper that will show where the student will be sitting. I tell my students that if there desk is empty then they are absent whether they are sitting in a different desk or not. This tends to be very effective. Of course I have some students to try me and I let the class know who I have absent for that day and they return to their seat. After about two weeks of this, I am able to look for empty desks and tell within a few seconds who is absent. This process saves me alot of time at the beginning of class.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I learned so much from this blog. I am a first year teacher and have been very busy trying to organize myself and classroom. I was struggling how to make my teaching more effectively within the limited time. This blog clarified that I have to organize the school hours more creatively. I also noticed from my experience that even one minute makes difference. I know I sometime waste my time looking for something. It surely relates to my planning. Please give me some advice how to organize paperwork such as students' portfolios, various sheet works, lesson materials, and notes to administrators, letters to parents, teacher magazines, old materials, school supplies, and more. My desk and bookshelves are full of papers, binders, and books! I just don't know what to keep and what to throw away. I hope it will get better time by time.

Teacher5's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Recently, our school changed the instructional hours to fit the program of another school. However, during the change we realized that of the three classes, one lost a considerable amount of instructional time. The teachers were not allowed to make additional changes. The time lost is apparent in grades and learning of the students.

Tara Koster's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Michelle,
I just thought I would comment about the state testing in April. Ours, in Wisconsin, is done at the beginning of the year--in October or November. Not only does it not tell us much about the current--for example--4th grader (who has only been a 4th grader for a month or two), it is shortly after a 3-month summer break and students are just beginning to recall information! We then don't get the results back until March, which is pretty much too late to help a student who scored very low. It's very frustrating to say the least!

Also, with the time constraints, I like to, as we are lining up waiting for other students, I will ask questions about the lesson we just had. It can either be related to what they learned in the lesson, one thing they found helpful in the lesson, a quick question about the content, or a basic fact. (I am an elementary math teacher.) I do have issues with students going to the bathroom constantly, and I hate to make them wait too long! I really like the idea of the bulletin board by the bathroom to answer questions, and I may do something where I am asking them questions while they are waiting. We also count to 5 when someone gets a drink so that students are not waiting as long in line. What we may do is use multiplication with it, like "Johnny got in line 4 times. He drank for 5 seconds each time. How many seconds did he drink?" That could be fun!

Tara Koster's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jodi,
Thank you! Yes, I completely agree with you that we need to take our time and show students the benefits of using time productively and using free time to relax and re-energize. I couldn't have said it better myself, so I won't try. Great job!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teacher Counting

I have totally seen the results of teacher counting too. I used to beg, encourage, threaten my kindergarteners to clean up after center time. Now I just set the timer for four minutes and say, "go!" If they are not done cleaning up the center they had their clip on, they will have time out. It works, they run around in a frenzy telling each other, "hurry, clean up, clean up" while I do not have to say anything.

My student teaching mentor used to play the "clean up song" on a tape. The song was instrumental, maybe even classical. It started slow, progressively became faster, and then ended. The students learned that when the faster part came, they had better be finished.

I think the best time savers are routines that become automatic for students where the teacher doesn't have to oversee every time.

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