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The Gift of Teacher Time

Making teachers' time a valued resource in your school
The Gift of Teacher Time

Teachers’ time is one of a school’s most valuable and scarce resources, yet it’s often wasted because of poor leadership and management. Repeated demands for paperwork that has no apparent purpose, disruptions caused by tardy students or fights in the corridors, and delays due to broken equipment, missing textbooks, or a locked bathroom can zap teachers’ spirit and sidetrack their plans.

The time crunch is nothing out of the ordinary for teachers, but an in-depth new study shows how much an enterprising and responsive school leader can help — creating an environment where teachers use their time well, succeed with their students, and stay in the profession.

In her latest book, Where Teachers Thrive, Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Susan Moore Johnson describes 14 schools studied between 2008 and 2015. These schools required an in-school workday for teachers ranging from 6.5 to 9.25 hours. Teachers typically had designated blocks for instruction; planning and preparation; supervisory tasks (such as monitoring bus arrivals or lunch in the cafeteria); as well as afterschool staff meetings and professional development. No matter how long their workday was, most teachers said they did not have enough time to complete “essential tasks.” Responsibilities like grading, reading, lesson planning, and calling parents often fell into out-of-school hours, leading many teachers to question whether they could teach at the level of quality they aspired to or would stay long in the profession.

    In the most satisfying and successful schools, Johnson found, teachers had agreed about how they would do their work together, developing in-house systems for responsibilities like hiring, curriculum, team meetings, and school norms. Administrators respected their time and minimized disruptions.

    Johnson found that some schools were vibrant and productive workplaces for teachers, while others were demoralizing, depressing, and sometimes infuriating. In the most satisfying and successful schools, teachers had agreed about how they would do their work together. They had developed in-house systems for important responsibilities, such as hiring new colleagues, developing curriculum, meeting as teams, and enforcing schoolwide norms and rules. Administrators respected their time, minimized disruptions, eliminated needless requirements, and trusted teachers to use their time well.  In response, teachers were willing to step up to their school’s new challenges.
    “The schools where teachers thrive are actually schools that are very well managed by principals who protect teachers from interruptions and unrealistic demands,” Johnson says. “Teachers play a role in working together to devise strategies for better using the time that’s available.”

    How school leaders can make the most of teachers’ time

    • Rather than treating teachers’ time as something to be spent freely, work hard to conserve it. Pay attention to the “little everyday things” that chip away at time and limit progress, like broken equipment, empty toner cartridges, or an internet system that’s repeatedly down.  
    • Make teachers’ time a top priority when building the schedule. In assigning prep periods, schedule common planning time for those teaching the same grade level, cluster, or subject. Then assign specialists to cover classes during those blocks. Fiercely protect teachers’ time for collaboration.

    “The schools where teachers thrive are actually schools that are very well managed by principals who protect teachers from interruptions and unrealistic demands.” — Susan Moore Johnson

    • Reduce administrative tasks that have little or nothing to do with teaching or supporting students. Can someone else supervise bus arrivals, rest rooms, or the cafeteria? Do teachers really need to submit lesson plans for each class every week, or would a sample of lessons be just as informative?
    • Provide convenient, reliable technology so that teachers can easily complete routines such as taking attendance, scheduling meetings, distributing agendas, sharing meeting notes, or making lesson plans available to peers.
    • Ensure that all teachers have the curriculum and materials they need for the subjects they teach, so that they can spend their prep time planning classes, grading papers, and conferring with students, rather than searching the internet for content or scrounging for basic supplies.
    • Work with teachers to develop schoolwide standards for students’ behavior and consistent responses to violations, so that the school becomes an orderly, predictable setting for teaching and learning.
    • Recognize that some teachers will need additional time. New teachers and teachers who work in challenging settings or teach students with special learning needs may need more time to analyze student needs and respond with appropriate supports. Establish contacts with community agencies that can expand the school’s capacity to provide help for students and families.  
    • Encourage teachers to suggest more efficient ways to organize their time and responsibilities. Explore the potential of flexible schedules that permit different arrival or departure times for teachers’ with family responsibilities. Or consider having teachers specialize in one or two subjects in upper elementary grades so that they can concentrate their time and efforts on doing well what they know best.

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