For my student Andrea, the seven-hour school day is a grind. She is at school early and has AP Calculus for first period, even though she is only partially awake at that hour. She will sit in her hard chair in the quiet room with little interaction for 57 minutes and then repeat that five more times.
She’ll have a 15-minute break in the late morning. Sadly, she’ll spend most of this break in line for the bathroom and will only sometimes be able to pick up a snack, which her teacher will not allow her to eat during class.
At 1 p.m. she’ll have her 30-minute lunch, where she will wait in the long lunch line, then sit on hard concrete for whatever time remains. By the time the final bell rings, she is utterly exhausted.
She will not rest, however.
She is in charge of picking up and caring for her siblings all afternoon, and then she will finally begin her own homework—with two AP classes this year, it amounts to more than three hours each night.
The school day is a grind for me, too. I am on my feet teaching, answering questions, supervising, and intervening for five hours each day. I supervise the halls during passing periods. I struggle to find the time to use the restroom, often waiting until lunch.
My one hour of “planning” time is often spent covering for absent colleagues, and when I do get the time, most of it is spent dealing with urgent emails, paperwork, and parent contacts. The actual planning of my daily five hours of lessons takes place at home, late at night, or on the weekends. I also coordinate a leadership group on campus, am part of a district committee, and participate in a policy fellowship, all of which ensure that I work many, many extra hours every week.
If we want to engage students, find and keep teachers, and create supportive school environments, we need to focus on the basic yet critically important issue of time.
It is not healthy or productive for students to be in classrooms for six-plus hours a day. They need unstructured time, where they can study, get help in classes they struggle with, and just be with their peers and teachers so they can build bonds. Teachers need more than a single hour to take care of all of their non-teaching tasks and be available for students and colleagues.
The good news is that we can do all of this without lengthening the already-long school day.
Schools in other countries such as Singapore, Canada and Finland regularly outperform schools in the U.S., yet children there attend school for considerably fewer hours each day. Teachers also teach fewer hours in almost every other country: for example, in Finland, educators spend 300 fewer hours teaching than in the United States. Other countries and researchers in our own country recognize that teaching is a complex task that improves with planning and collaboration.
When I taught at a private school, I had four classes and two planning periods per day. I used that time to develop curriculum and to meet with colleagues about struggling students. There were no bells at this school, and students had plenty of time to move from class to class.
During the long lunch period, many students wandered into teachers’ rooms, including mine, for extra help. Despite the campus being small, there were many clubs and activities available, as teachers had more time and energy to sponsor them. Creating this community required support staff, of course, but it also required imagination: the time and space to consider what would engage students and attract good teachers.
The National Center on Time and Learning’s report, “Time for Teachers,” examined 17 schools with innovative practices to give teachers more time. Some of the schools highlighted in the report reconfigured their schedules to build expanded planning periods, weekly collaboration, and professional development into the school day. Students have built-in study halls and intervention time for students as a part of their daily schedules, and/or longer lunch periods which allow time for club meetings, socializing, and relaxation.
Simply put, education leaders need to make choices that leave teachers and students with more time.
School and district leaders must start by asking themselves if teachers have adequate time for planning each day and if students have enough time to complete their schoolwork during the school day. If the answers to these questions are no, they need to take a hard look at what can be done to create more time.
By focusing on the issue of time, we have the ability to create schools that are calmer, kinder, and saner; places where both students and teachers can maximize their potential and creativity.