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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

Kim Stone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is interesting that I discovered this blog at this time...I recently had a conversation with my class regarding time. I teach 7th grade Pre-Algebra and have many students that struggle with mastering the concepts. For the last couple of months the other 7th grade teacher and I have been offering tutoring after school for an hour. We have been talking to students about the benefits of coming. Still, many just do not. About one week ago I had a heart to heart with my lower achieving class. I told them that I have been and will continue to dedicate to them of more of my most valuable possession, my TIME. They were completely engaged and I thought I was reaching some of them, yet after school it was the same core group that came every day. Even one of the students commented she could not believe that after my discussion with them very few attended. I was disappointed, but will continue to encourage them to come.

TIME truly is our most valuable resource. The school year has a limited amount of time and then it is over. I constantly feel like I am racing against the clock. Such much is expected to be MASTERED in such little time. One thing I have done to help protect instructional minutes is to use an overhead timer, called TeachTimer. I set the timer for that amount of time and train them to pace themselves in order to finish the task on time. It even has a 2-minute warning for longer tasks. It help my students follow directions in a timely manner. Now that I am dependent on it, I can't imagine teaching without it. Right now the battery needs to be replaced and it is harder to me to keep track of time and make every minute count.

Nancy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am reading the same book in my graduate class. I agree it has some nice insights that I may have overlooked. I am making an effort to get to know my students more personally and I have to say that it is making a difference. Students are more connected. An unexpeted bonus is that classroom management improves as the relationships improve.

As an art teacher who only sees students one quarter per year, I find myself racing to get everything done. Not one minute can be wasted or the projects will not be completed by the end of the quarter. One advantage though, is that I can tweak my time management strategy every quarter.

Sara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that much time is wasted in the classroom. I once heard at a conference, that if you subtracted all the time wasted in class or taken from class you end up with the hours equivalent to 19 days in which to teach your material. How do we make the most of those precious hours? We need to vary our instruction and make learning real to the student. These days that is not sitting in a class taking notes. Granted, there is a place for that, but I find that some high school teachers, trying to prepare their students for college, spend an enormous amount of time in this style of teaching, thus missing a lot of learning styles a lot of their students may have. There is then no connection to what they are learning and how they are going to use it. We have to be careful that we are not so focused on what we teach, but instead on what they learn.

Kim O'Brien (Virginia)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Ben that we have to actively engage all of our students. I find my second graders enjoy activities more when they are working with a partner or in small groups. They stay focused and are able to really communicate ideas to each other. I also believe that participating in higher order thinking will only benefit our students.

I often find that I am looking for time fillers in the morning. My students all work at different paces. I never want to feel that they are wasting time at any point in the day. I have created a corner in my classroom labeled "When I Am Done." The students choose one activity at a time to complete. The corner focuses on increasing dictionary skills, comprehension skills, using graphic organizers and completing small book reports. I keep my students accountable for these completed assignments and often use some of the work as an extra credit grade. I find this corner in my room very helpful and productive.

npierce's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also feel that a lot of time is wasted in the learning environment, which causes teachers to feel that we need to cram as much information in as possible in small amount of time. I believe that there are some strategies that teachers can use to help improve the use of time in the classroom. One example is to have student helpers take attendance and do the lunch count. I also believe that the administration can help improve our use of time. They can hand out schedules for assemblies well in advance and only make announcements when needed.

Beth Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Time is always the enemy for teachers. We either don't have enough time to plan, or to teach the lessons we planned. My school does not have a PA system, which is good and bad. Not having the system is good in a sense that we are not interrupted by announcements (our announcements are posted on a nail outside of our classroom, and we can choose when to read them outloud during 2nd period), but when something comes up, we do have a student or an office worker come into our classrooms.

I found Mr. Johnson's blog to be very helpful. I try to do little lecturing, and more of the discovery method. Of course there are times when lecturing is needed in 11th and 12th grade Language Arts, but I believe that students learn more when they try to interpret a poem or story themselves than with me telling them the meaning of it. Right now my students are creating a movie in imovie in which they interpret a poem without my help. All of the students are engaged, are having fun, and they are learning something. I am really excited to see the end results!

Kimberly Nihoff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many times I have found myself running out of time and rushing through the end of a lesson in order to assign the homework for that night. I have to skip important examples or tell the students to follow along with examples in the text in order to complete their nightly assignments. I know that I am doing the students a disservice and after reading the blog by Ben Johnson I know that I have to reclaim my wasted instruction time.

By making notes more concise students will be able to spend more time putting the concepts into practice by working through various examples within their tables and then again on their own. If I can make my notes more concise and spend less time talking I will be able to move around the classroom to work with groups and individuals, addressing their questions and concerns while practicing.

Ben's statement about pushing information into long-term memory, not just short-term memory resonated with me. Students need to practice, memorize, or relate the concepts to higher level thinking in order to really understand and retain information. I am going to work on preparing more activity-based lessons where students take the information and apply it in many different ways to reach a better understanding of the concept. By doing this I hope to prepare the students for whatever task is thrown at them on the state assessment that they take in June.

Rebecca's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At my school we live and die by the clock. I use a timer all day long. It's a good tool to use, to help kids stay on track. I work in an urban district where the curriculum is very strict and practically scripted. We are closely monitored to ensure that we are on pace. With that in place, time is of the essence. We have scheduled bathroom breaks that definitely help. As stated before I use a timer during independent work times to keep us on track. I've found that being departmentalized helps you stay on track, because you know that in a perscribed time you have to be finished and move on with a new class. The transitions can take up minimal time when you have a good management system in place.

As I read this article though I also felt like it's just as important to give the students time to relax. Some schools are getting rid of recess. I don't agree. I try to give my kids quick rest breaks, to get them moving. I find that they will work better for me of I give them even 30 seconds of chat and stretch time. You'd be amazed how much more engaged they'll be if you just have them all stand up and do 10 jumping jacks with you. I teach at the elementary level, so this may not work for all ages. Efficient us eof time is important, but remembering your age group and how well they will function after a long period of work time will also be very helpful.

Brandy W.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can relate to this article a great deal. I don't think a single day goes by when I don't think to myself one of two things; One "There is not enough time in the day." and two "I wish I had a pair of roller skates."

Since I co-teach with many different teachers in several areas of the building I work in, I am constantly moving from one room to another at the same time the students are changing classes. As I am briskly walking down the hall to my next class, I am always wishing I had a pair of roller skates to get me there faster!

I would like to comment on how much time students are actually engaged within a class. I agree that students are most fully engaged when they are "doing" the activity. Hands on activities and group discussions/analysis/problem solving are great avenues for promoting students engagement. It is however difficult to create an educational atomosphere where these wonderful activities can take place without the loss of some class time. A teacher must first establish a classroom routine with expectations and parameters that all students have a strong understanding of. This routine needs to be perfected before introducing these types of learning experiences to prevent loss of time due to students not knowing what they "need to do next".

At stong classroom routine and student understanding of expectations allows us as teachers to implement activities that will be engaging for all students. This will occur without losing valuable classroom time on minor informalities that will become second nature with the establishment of a strong classroom routine.

Colleen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This was a great article! This is my first year teaching and I cannot believe not only how quickly time moves during each day but during the year. I was recently looking over units that need to be completed and the calendar of days remaining. Living in upstate New York, we have lost 4 days to snow days. It is so hard to fit in all of the units in the curriculum while going into depth as much as I would like to. It makes me think about a tip I once heard of teaching more about less. Perhaps schools should consider limiting all that needs to be fit into a curriculum and going deeper and taking more time to explore it.

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