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How Teachers Can Make Better Use of Time

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Finish this despairing sentence spoken by a teacher: “I don’t have enough _____!”

Plenty of words could fill that blank. “Money!” “Coffee!” “Adventure in my life!”

But most of my colleagues would fill in that blank with “Time!”

My friend across the hall recently confessed during a grade-level meeting that she felt overwhelmed:

“This is the first year that I don’t know if all my kids will finish 1st grade knowing how to read. We have this new 45-minute English-language development block this year, but nothing has been taken away. Between everything we’re supposed to teach and all these new assessments, I just don’t have enough time.”

She has a compelling point. Between the hours of 7:45 and 3:15, 1st grade teachers at my school need to fit in the following: guided reading, math, science, social studies, writer’s workshop, independent reading, English-language development, lunch, recess, specials, new literacy units, read-aloud, spelling, phonics, and shared reading. And I’m probably forgetting something.

When you crunch the numbers, that comes out to 30 minutes per subject, not counting transitions, bathroom breaks, or finding time to complete various required assessments in reading, writing, math, fact fluency, and English-language development. Whew.

A friend of mine who teaches in New York made a great related point about the word “change” relative to education:

“When I say ‘I’m going to change my shirt,’ I mean that I’m going to take off this old stinky shirt, then put on a new one. In education, though, ‘change’ means I’m going to put on a new shirt over my old one. Then I’m going to put on a third shirt over that, and then a fourth, and so on.”

We end up feeling like the over-bundled little brother in "A Christmas Story." (Try an image search for “Randy A Christmas Story” some time and see if you ever feel like that poor kid.)

A lot gets added each school year—new programs, new requirements, new curricula, a new format for lesson plans. But very little gets taken away.

Making Friends With the Clock

Time is our enemy, but it can also become our friend.

Readers of Harry Potter know the legend of the Deathly Hallows and the third brother, who conquered death by befriending it:

Though Death searched for the third brother for many years, he was never able to find him. It was only when he had attained a great age that the youngest brother finally took off the Cloak of Invisibility and gave it to his son. Then he greeted death as an old friend and went with him gladly. Equals, they departed this life.

Building on that metaphor, I think there are also ways for teachers to befriend (or at least better manage) our old adversary, time. By recognizing and accepting the limits that time places on you, in other words, you can sometimes come up with better ways to structure it.

Here are my top three. I’d love to hear yours.

1) Talk less. Let the kids talk, do, and create more.

Every teacher I know talks too much. If we only have 30 minutes for a lesson, 15 minutes is too long to talk. My most successful blocks in the day (guided reading, cognitively guided instruction in math, and writer’s workshop) involve between zero and seven minutes of teacher talking time. We take 20 to 30 minutes for the kids to read, write, talk, solve problems, and build things, with five to 10 minutes of reflective discussion at the end.

When I started teaching, almost all my talk was directed to the whole class. Fourteen years later, I probably spend the same number of minutes talking each day. The difference is that the vast majority of my talk time now happens one-on-one or with a small group, while I keep whole-class direct instruction very short. Most of my talk these days comes in the form of conversation, not lecture.

2) Choose depth over breadth.

Conceptual understanding matters more than coverage. I would rather teach three really good science lessons each week than cram in five mediocre lessons. Kids need time to get their minds wrapped around new concepts, and if we interrupt them every 20 minutes to transition to the next activity, they don’t have time to get in the zone and pursue meaningful ideas, projects, and problems to their full conclusion.

You may need to rethink your teaching schedule, if possible, to allow for this kind of in-depth instruction. My best math block this year was an hour and 40 minutes long. We did four different math experiences in that 100-minute block which built on one another toward a complex skill that was new to the class.

If I had split those four experiences into separate 20-minute lessons spread across four days, most of the kids wouldn’t have gotten it. First graders live in the moment, and trying to pick up the threads of a complex concept 24 hours later requires extra time for students to reacquaint themselves with the concept.

Kids often get more out of an hour-long block three times a week than a daily 35-minute period, especially for extended experiences like research projects, engineering design challenges, and science lab investigations.

Many innovative high schools have gone to a system where students have only three or four subjects each semester, with double blocks of time for each subject, rather than seven or eight shorter periods. The same benefits apply with respect longer blocks of time with young children: fewer disruptions, greater focus, and more time for meaningful work.

3) Work hard, but don’t work all the time.

Teaching is the most consuming work I know. The time it takes can invade your life, your home, and your mind, unless you make some clear divisions between work time and time for everything else.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times had an excellent piece of advice as its title: “Stop Checking Email So Often.” The article cited a study that compared two groups: people instructed to check their email only three times a day, and a second group told to check it as frequently as possible. Both groups sent and received roughly the same number of emails, but the infrequent email checkers took 20 percent less time to do it and experienced significantly less stress.

The best decision I’ve made in years is to take email off my iPhone. I sit down three or four times a day to read and respond to the messages that have accrued, but unwanted work emails no longer ruin a lazy Sunday morning or distract from a night out with friends.

I love the hours I set aside each day to plan lessons, get my classroom together, and look over student work. But I love it because I also block out times to watch “Scandal,” read books for pleasure, go on long bike rides around the lake, and battle imaginary “bad guys” with sticks and plastic swords in the backyard with my three-year-old son.

In the wise words of Gandalf, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Share your own advice on making better use of time in the comments or on Twitter.

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