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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

Natalia L's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed this article. I love the idea of having standard based questions outside of the restrooms. I have often found that bathroom breaks have wasted so much instructional time. Even if it is not a policy that is adopted schoolwide, I plan on carrying questions on my clipboard to travel with in the halls for any wait time. Thank you so much for the tip.

Isaac's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our school has block scheduling and we have four 90 minute periods each day. I am not a supporter of this for many reasons. We still only get through one lesson a day. One and half or even Two are too much. On a half day when we only have hour periods and I still get the same amount done. I know I could 90 minute periods are great for activities which occasionaly have, but overall, for Algebra 1, I don't find it effective, especially since the kids have the class every other day. This may be a little off topic, but its what came to mind.

Nancy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our school calendar runs in quarters for exploratories. Since I teach art and music, I am always scrambling for time at the end of the quarter. Year after year I try to cut back in certain areas to reclaim time lost, without sacrificing any of the material.

Lately, I have one method that seems to work. When I take roll, I have the students hold up their art project so that I can quickly see how far along they are in the assignment. This allows me to check 25 students with little time wasted, so that I know who needs my attention first.

Another method I use, and I am sure all of you do, is to write the directions on the board so a student knows what to do even if I cannot get to them right away. This also helps to eliminate 25 of the same questions. I review this information as soon as I take the roll.

I know that I am still taking too much time to deliver my lesson. When I see a student look at the clock I know I am finished talking.

Any advice for art or music teachers?

Margie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Being a third grade teacher in a school that is still paper run, in the morning I have to send the attendance folder to the office. I have found a way to use this time wisely that I would like to share. As I send the two children to the office, I walk by the ticket bag and draw two names for the treasure chest (a big thing in third grade) and then proceed directly to the CD player and we sing about 3 songs. This has made me feel good because we are no longer leaving music almost out of the schedule, and because while the two children are out, I am not holding instruction up or repeating when they get back. If you miss singing today, you get to sing tomorrow. The children don't feel like they missed anything and I feel like I used the time wisely for the busy office paper work, the all to (student) important treasure chest pick, and the world of music. We all win. Thanks for reading.

PHerrington's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Don't you just love planning days that are consummed with nonstop meetings? Several times during the year my school district has grade level planning days. On these days, substitutues are placed in the classroom and the teachers are brought into the resource room on the pretense of having an all day planning day. Our team has changed the name to "meeting day" because the majority of the day is set up for others to come in and lecture to our team. So much for the planning. The planning is done, as usual, on the teachers free time. So planning days are a wasted day as far as I am concerned, because my students are engaged in busy work, or getting written up to spend a day in In School Suspension, which is more wasted time.

I don't have very much down time in the classroom because the students were taught from the beginning of the year to utilize the computers, math manipulatives, classroom library, and the listening center whenever they are finished with their assignments.

We do have a great deal of wasted time getting to what we in our district call rotation (computer, gym, music,and etc). I have devised a plan that would have the students complete all rotation classes on one day of the week. During their day of rotation, we teachers would have the ability to plan or meet with administrators without causing a daily distruption of lost time.

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I use this strategy of counting down many times throughout the day. I have also been working in different classrooms this year and have learned many new strategies. One is give me 1, give me 2....give me 5. When the teacher says give me 5 all the students are seated and listening with their eyes on her. It is absolutly amazing. It is definitely a strategy I will use next year.
I also agree that when the teacher begins to count the students move fast!

Amber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kim- I really like your idea about the "When I Am Done" corner. I also teach 2nd grade, and experience the same difficulties as you do with students finishing their work at different times. I am always looking for ways to challenge my students who finish early. Thanks for the great idea!

Jessica Stern's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Time is such an important resource for everyone, especially teachers. I find it very difficult to fit everything into my class time, that I am often playing catch-up from the previous lesson. Although I have a lesson planned out for every day, something is bound to come up that will inevitably delay the class (fire drill, difficulty grasping a concept, etc.). Attempting to squeeze the curriculum into the 180 day school year is difficult if you want to do more than "teach to the test". I would love to hear how others have been able to budget their time so that they are not left with huge gaps of empty time or trying to speed talk through the bell at the end of the class.

Jennifer Krell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have found that infusing little snippits of learning during transitions buys me back a few minutes of wasted time each day. In order to line up to go to a special my students need a "ticket." They get one by briefly restating or reviewing concepts newly covered. They show off what they know and others get an opportunity to hear the information a second time! I also whole-heartedly agree that students are most engaged during "practice." My school uses the "Workshop Model" from Teacher's College for reading and writing. Mini-lessons (10-15 min.) introduce the topic, followed by an extended "try-it" period where students are working hands-on and are usually completly engaged, closure happens with a brief share session at the end of the period. This model is amazing and makes the most out of my Language Arts block. It is worth studying!

Erin S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree with your posting. I am a third grade teacher at a school that does full inclusion. I have 28 students in my Math class with the intervention teacher. We have 90 minutes of Math each day and struggle to get through a lesson. The 8-year-old students get "bored" and become off-task easily. SO we have done many different games about half way through the class to get their attention refocused. We play simon says or the "whats it" box. Things to liven them up.
Also, it is important that some practice is not always good practice. We do a math lesson with the students and will do many examples with them but it is not until they are working on them independently that they are getting the practice they need. If we do not give them a chance to try it themselves and then check it over, we are not doing justice for them.

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