“Time!” Talk to any teacher anywhere and ask them what they need more of, and nearly every one of them will say they need more time to accomplish everything they need to do. With such a premium placed on time, it is imperative that we plan well and not waste a moment. It goes without saying that things have changed a lot in our profession over time, but what really needs to change is how we view the time we’ve been allotted.
Recently, during a professional development session I was presenting, I mapped out a typical school day and academic year carefully examining the way we spend our time. While I was preparing for the session I stumbled upon some rather sobering data: the teachers at my school only have 4.25 hours per day for direct instruction! You are probably wondering how can that be true since the average student in America spends 7.5 hours in school each day. You see, that is the tricky part about time; we look at the whole rather than the individual parts. Once you take away lunch, recess, specialists, and technology labs, there really is a rather small chunk of time left for the classroom teacher to deliver the state-mandated standards.
At the school where I work, our students are “in school” for 405 minutes per day or 6.75 hours per day. That is well above the state mandated number of minutes for elementary schools. After lunch, recess, specialists, and our math lab are removed, there are only 4.25 hours (255 minutes) left to teach reading, language, writing, core math, social studies, science, health, and handwriting. If you subtract restroom breaks, transition times, early release days, and extra planning periods that teachers get, there is even less time. (Are you sweating yet? I know I am.) You see, time is of the essence!
Before I became a school principal, I would “count down the days” to summer and post it at the end of my daily lesson plans. Like a lot of teachers, I lived for June, July, and August. I realize that is a questionable practice, but my rationale began to change as I began my leadership program. The focus shifted from “How many days until summer vacation?” to “How much time do I have left to teach these students?” It was a subtle mind shift, but it dramatically changed the way I viewed my instruction. I began telling my students at the beginning of the year that I only had 36 Mondays to spend with them, and they would ask where I was going. The truth of the matter was that I was staying in my grade level, but they would be moving on. It put the impetus on all of us to work hard and use our time together to its fullest advantage. Once in the principalship, I would remind my teachers how many weeks they had left to cover the standards. They would wince, but I believe it made all of us better educators. Now that I’m back in the classroom, my lesson plans remind me how many Mondays I have left so I don’t squander my time. As a teacher, I’m still acutely aware of the matter of time and the way I use it.
I can already hear your thoughts on the matter: “Mike, you don’t know my school…My students have too many needs…The parents aren’t doing their job…These kids don’t…” and I could go on and on. I understand that kids today are different from the ones we taught 30 years ago. I understand that society has changed, and school isn’t as important to families as it used to be. These are huge challenges, but that just means that we shouldn’t be trying to teach the way we did 30 years ago. It’s not going to work. Kids today have had hundreds of hours in front of a technology screen since they were toddlers, and they aren’t accustomed to attending to anything for long periods of time. Combine that fact with the rise in incidence of ADHD and the other various medical/psychological acronyms that show up in our classes, and it becomes painfully obvious that we, as teachers, face far more difficulties than ever before. With that in mind, then, let’s look at ways we can address these challenges.
To become better time managers and more effective instructors we must become more purposeful planners. All too often our focus is placed upon the curriculum’s content rather than our educational objectives. Remember, we teach students, not curriculum. We are mandated to teach our state standards and use the curriculum as to tool to do so. There are not enough hours in the year to teach the curriculum “cover to cover,” but if we teach “bell to bell” we can teach all the standards in the time we have been given. It is going to take more purposeful planning to make it happen, however. If we shift our mindset away from being “lesson planners” and begin to view ourselves as “instructional designers,” the rigor of our lessons rises, student engagement increases, and student achievement improves. Simply put, we must shift from blaming students for their lack of motivation to accepting the challenge to design motivational lessons. If you want to engage students, you must be engaging. In other words, motivating teachers motivate students.
The challenges facing teachers and schools today are formidable, but I believe that we are up for the challenge. We are highly trained professionals with education degrees, professional experience, and compassionate determination to guide us forward. Sure, we face strict time limitations, but we are also wise stakeholders. With such a limited amount of time allotted to us to invest in our current set of students, let us invest our time wisely so that the 180 days (or 765 actual hours of direct instructional time) we get to spend with these students is put to good use. Join me in accepting the challenge to carefully consider the design of the instruction we are delivering and then maximize the returns we get on our investment.
So, what time is it? It’s time for change!