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Volume IV Issue IV

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Time: We Have to Spend It Wisely

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


During two recent back-to-back classroom visits the contrast in the use of time was striking. In the first classroom, the teacher took 21 minutes to begin instruction. In the second classroom, the teacher began instruction 30 seconds after the students arrived. In the first classroom, the teacher was seemingly unaware that so much time elapsed as students milled around the room, acquired materials, and eventually took their seats while the teacher interacted with individual students or worked at her computer. In the second classroom, the teacher had materials on each student’s desk, the students immediately took their seats, and instruction began. There was no doubt that the second teacher had established, through modeling and teaching, procedures for students to follow. What I observed in these two classes brought to mind how important it is for teachers to spend precious instructional time, the currency of education, in the most efficient ways possible.

Teachers clearly understand the importance of conducting pre-assessments, task analyzing, allowing students processing time during lessons, emphasizing mastery learning, giving students multiple opportunities on assessments, providing engaging active learning experiences for students, and differentiating instruction. However, a recurring teacher response when these best practices are the focus of professional development or coaching conversations is, “I know it’s the right thing to do but I just don’t have enough time.” Putting in place efficient organizational systems, finding a pacing rhythm that allows time for instruction focused on all the big ideas and key concepts in the curriculum, and ensuring that students are actually learning can be a challenge for even the most experienced teachers. When you hear the lament, “I have so much to cover!” consider these variables as conversations starters with teachers.

Begin With the End in Mind: It all comes down to careful, focused planning. When teachers plan units and lessons with specific outcomes in mind and clear pictures of what success looks like, it is much easier for them to budget time for appropriate learning exercises. When plans are fuzzy or incomplete, time can be easily misused or wasted. To minimize the chances that plans are not standards-based and time is not allocated appropriately, many school districts have published pacing guides. These pacing guides can be valuable tools but teachers often express righteous indignation when it is supposedly mandated that they follow the published guide like robots. Some teachers believe, hopefully incorrectly, that they must be on a specific topic/page on a given date. It is important to remember that a pacing guide is just that – a guide. Forging ahead to keep up with a guide when students have not demonstrated mastery of essential understandings and processes is foolhardy at best and a terrible misuse of instructional time. Teachers are not robots and neither are students. (N.B., When a teacher has on-going pacing problems and cannot independently design instruction that focuses on student learning and addresses the required curriculum in a timely manner, close supervision and coaching by a knowledgeable and skillful administrator or instructional coach is essential.)

Time Templates: All teachers have the same amount of time for teaching and learning. Skillful teachers develop a repertoire of strategies that enable them to use time in efficient ways. Strategies to suggest include:

  • Wait Time: Pause three to five seconds after asking a question to allow students time to think and process the question before calling on a student to respond. Additionally, pause three to five seconds after a student answers so that all the other students can make sense of what was said. (Mary Budd Rowe)
  • 10:2 Theory: Provide students two minutes of processing time for every ten minutes of input. (Mary Budd Rowe)
  • Anchoring Activities: Create standards-based learning experiences that students go to after they complete their regularly assigned work. These anchoring activities can be remedial or enrichment.
  • Sequence: We remember best that which occurs in the first few and the last few minutes of instruction. Maximize that time.
  • Movement: Build frequent opportunities for movement into lessons via work with learning buddies, Total Physical Response (TPR), role plays, simulations, etc.
  • Notice: Warn students of upcoming transitions. Think of the “two minute warning” before the end of football games and do the same in the classroom. (Paula Rutherford)

Productive Procedures: Teachers who get the most out of their allocated instructional time use procedures that enable them to have more time for teaching. These teachers develop routines for taking roll, dealing with tardies, and late arrivals. Likewise they have in place routines to address students who have been absent and the collection of homework. Pages 207-216 and 232-242 in Why Didn’t I Learn This in College? provide many tips for you to share with teachers who find time evaporating because of the use of ineffective procedures.

Lesson Clutter: Too often teachers plan their lessons with extraneous fillers that are a waste of instructional time. Busy work, including an overuse of puzzles and games, worksheets, cutting and pasting, and coloring can absorb significant amounts of instructional time. When teachers evaluate their lesson and unit planning, they should ask themselves how much time is cluttered with activities that do not contribute to mastery of the learning standards or eat up far too much time that could be used more productively. Supervisors are trained to compile data and give feedback to teachers on how much time students spend on assigned tasks. Although this data can be important, according to Paula Rutherford, a more relevant question is, “Is the task worth doing?” Mike Schmoker writes about the “Crayola curriculum;” he purports that students in elementary through middle school grades spend more time coloring than they do reading and writing. It is not so much the time students spend on the assigned task but whether or not the assigned task truly promotes student learning of the identified standards of learning.

And, finally, consider the ways you can help teachers spend time wisely:

  • Keep your own time and energy focused on teaching and learning. Be sure to ask not only whether or not the lesson is a good lesson but also ask, is this the right lesson? (Paula Rutherford)
  • Plan meetings that purposefully set up structures so that teachers can discuss teaching and learning and share instructional strategies with one another.
  • Provide teachers time for planning together or observing one another by either covering classes yourself or arranging to have classes covered.
  • Build a master schedule that provides teachers the time to work collaboratively. Throughout the country, more and more schools at all levels are putting in place schedules that allow teachers who teach the same subject or grade level to meet during their work day to share their best thinking about lessons, assessments, analyzing student work, and refining their plans based on data. Teachers who participate in such collegial collaboration are finding that this teamwork actually saves them time because it cuts down on the amount of individual planning each person must do.
  • Monitor carefully what tasks teachers are asked to do that detract from their teaching responsibilities. Pay special attention to new teachers so as not to overburden them.
  • Any non-classroom task assigned to a teacher should contribute to student learning.



Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Time: We Have to Spend it Wisely.” Just for the ASKing! April 2007. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2007 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.