Students Want and Need More Time With Adults

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When Adele Simmons, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, took the microphone at Chicago's Orr Community Academy last month to announce a new philanthropic initiative to assist Chicago school reform, about 100 Orr students were there, black high-school students with thoughts of their own about urban education. Ms. Simmons asked for questions, and the students obliged her. The questions were direct, unadorned, and delivered with a sense of personal urgency.

The first came from a young woman who stood, faced the bright lights of the television cameras, and asked if she and her schoolmates would receive "more teachers who will give us more time and more help with our studies." Later, another student asked the same question with a different slant: "Wouldn't it be best to concentrate on the grammar schools? If the teachers in grammar school spent more time with us and helped us more, we wouldn't need so much help in high school."

The students were pleading for what seems to be in such short supply today--time with teachers. The plea is especially poignant in a society that is also drastically deficient in another resource for children--time with parents. The Orr high-school students asked for more time and more help from those who have lived longer, know more, and should care most about them.

They asked only for what education research tells us they need most. When educators call for more "time on task" and "direct instruction," they euphemistically seek what the Orr students requested more simply and eloquently. They seek time and help from teachers: purposeful time, effective time, precious time. Even "cooperative learning," far from a laissez faire retreat of the teacher, is a highly-structured attempt to engage the teacher in the construction of social arrangements in the classroom that facilitate learning.

We have seen the comparisons of American schools with Japanese and European schools. Our children, especially those in urban schools, spend less time in school each day and fewer days in school each year than children in other countries. They spend less time with teachers. And when the school day ends, urban children stand and watch their teachers drive away to the suburbs where they live. They stand and watch and then go home, where too often there is no father and too often mother has too little time to give to too many children.

The retreat of adults from the lives of children is not an inner-city phenomenon. Single-parent families are everywhere. Families in which both parents work outside the home are now the rule, not the exception. Few parents rely on children to help with the family business or do chores on the family farm--activities that once demanded time spent with adults. Today, children's time with parents is likely to be spent watching television. To say that this is time together is to miss the point of what children need from adults. Children need time with attentive adults. They need to be listened to and spoken with.

Parents and teachers wish that children needed something less scarce than time with attentive adults. How can a single parent find more time? Where is the spare time in the lives of the busy mom and dad caught up in the demands of their professions? Can a harried, fatigued teacher be expected to give even more than she is already giving? What about the teacher who is also a parent? To which children does she give more time, her own or those in her class? Who makes up for the inattention of parents who are grossly neglectful of their children?

Children need more time and help from attentive adults; this fact is simple and bare, but finding time is not simple. It is, perhaps, the greatest challenge facing our society today.

Schools can do their part to see that students get more time with attentive adults and that the time they get is productive. First, schools must view time as education's most precious commodity. Then schools can:

  • Examine the way time is spent each school day, carefully considering the opportunity-cost of each activity.
  • Increase the length of the school day and the school year.
  • Use available adults, college students, and senior citizens, to compensate for the time once given by parents--particularly non-employed mothers. Mentoring programs, big-brother and big-sister programs, adopted-grandparent programs, and volunteer tutor programs are examples.
  • Remember that the first objective of "parent involvement" is to increase the constructive involvement of parents with their own children, not to increase the involvement of parents in contrived activities at the school.
  • Provide education for parents to encourage their constructive involvement with their children and to draw them into greater association with one another. Teach busy parents how to efficiently use their limited time with their children.
  • Be careful not to usurp parental responsibilities, instead place clear demands on parents for participation in their children's education.
  • Realize the special power of extracurricular activities to bring parents and teachers together for events that give attention to children. Broaden the scope of extracurricular activities, expect the attendance of teachers and parents at events, and use these events to promote the values and goals of the school.
  • Set as a goal for the school community that each child will receive each day a few minutes of the undivided attention of an adult (teacher, parent, volunteer, trusted neighbor) for the purpose of allowing the child to talk about his school experience, his studies, his learning.

For Chicago students of high-school age, nearly half their school years have begun with teacher strikes--the withdrawal of time with students as a tool in negotiation. These same Chicago students have also witnessed a massive reform effort that has formed councils of parents and teachers to govern each school; teachers and parents are spending more time with each other. Now let teachers and parents find ways to spend more time with children.

Vol. 10, Issue 12, Page 28

Published in Print: November 21, 1990, as Students Want and Need More Time With Adults
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