What Kinds Of Things Waste The Most Teacher Time?
by Terry Heick
Or rather, many of the things that waste the most of my time when I teach (and seem to do the same for most of my colleagues and others I work with through TeachThought).
The premise: good teaching is extraordinarily difficult and one of the primary challenges seems to be a lack of time. Since we can’t invent time, we could take a closer look at where our time is going.
For each, I’ve tried to offer at least some kind of response or strategy to hopefully mitigate at least some of the time (and energy) lost. For others, I tried to offer more than one idea because of the range of contexts these losses occur in. No two classrooms or teaching styles are the same and what might be useful in one school or content area, etc., may not work (or even be feasible) in another.
Of course, teaching is hard and good teaching is extremely difficult, and meeting the needs of every student every day is, of course, impossible. In It’s Time To Face Some Difficult Truths About Teaching, I said, “instead of focusing on what teachers can’t possibly sustain and instead clarify what they can, you can then work backward from that to see what kind of functions and responsibilities and so on that children need that can’t be met by teachers (or most teachers most of the time). Then, together with families and communities, support systems for those children and their families and communities can be developed and capacity can be grown over time without eating teachers alive.”
What Teaching (And Related Educational) Practices Waste The Most Instructional Time?
Note, this list could’ve been much longer and much more negative. There is so much in a school that is inefficient, poorly thought-out, wrong-headed, and not at all useful for teachers or beneficial to students. Many of these problems are at the social norm-level–how we perceive what education is, how the politicians that fund it think about it, what local governments or district and school administrators value, monitor, and support, etc.
There are philosophical underpinnings to everything we do as a society that left unscrutinized or misunderstood can sabotage efficiency, innovation, and quality for decades. Think about the role of knowledge or critical thinking in a democracy or the concept of compulsory education. Embedded in our current practices are philosophies like Progressivism, Social Reconstructionism, Perrenialism, Critical Theory, Communal Constructivism, and even non-education-pseudo-philosophies like Industrialism and Capitalism.
It’s within these macro concepts and practices that the real bugaboos lie, of course. But while we participate in the system that we have, let’s look at what we can do more/less of today.
1. Reteaching content
Strategy: Competency-based learning, mastery-based learning, flexible curriculum mapping, personalized learning programs (whether full-on school programs or simply using a platform like IXL to help ‘reteach’ using a platform that can be individualized for each student (by the teacher’s instruction, by an adaptive algorithm, etc.)
2. Classroom management
One way to address the issue: Have a clear, consistent behavior plan on a ‘team,’ department, or school level that is flexible enough to support the needs of students but that also protects and empowers teachers to feel safe, supported, and in control of their own classroom.
This can be done at a district level but in my experience, is best done not even at a school level but first as a team or department level and then is supported at the school or district level.
One way to address the issue: Adjust your grading and assessment practices. A few ideas?
Don’t grade everything (see How I Eliminated (Almost) All Of The Grading Problems In My Classroom).
Consider Alternatives To Letter Grades
Use Additive Grading
4. Inefficient teaching
Unclear objectives, work out of the ZPD of too many students, confusing activities, learning objectives that depend on previously unmastered material, too much lecturing, a lack of alignment between the learning objective and the planned activity, a lack of planning for struggling students or students who’ve already mastered the content, etc.
One way to address the issue: Diagnostic Teaching
Also consider: Find unit and lesson planning templates that make sense to your brain (thematic unit planning changed my approach to teaching, as did UbD’s backward design).
See also How To Save Time As A Teacher
5. Doing all the things they’re told/trying to do too much
One way to address the issue: Don’t always do what you’re told
I’m not saying to be devious or defiant, but it’s true that the best teachers don’t simply ‘do what they’re told.’
In that post, I said that many teachers have ‘learned to do what they’re told–they start with ‘district expectations’ and work backward from there. We toss around fun phrases like ‘team player’ to normalize this hurtful fascination education has with alignment and standardization.”
Note, adhering to good policy is different. Since adhering to ‘good policy’ supports teachers and students and results in sustainable growth over time for everyone involved, adhering to said ‘good policy’ is not a waste. Bad policy is altogether different, obscuring student learning, taxing already over-worked teachers until ‘pedagogy’ is reduced to a matter of simple survival.
6. Bad data practices
Data–and practices related to the collection of that data–aren’t inherently bad or good. They either help you teach and students learn or they don’t.
One way to address the issue: Identify exactly how, when, and where you collect data and then exactly how that data actually reshapes planned instruction and what the results of that data –> reshaping are. Put another way, look at what you’re doing and see if it’s ‘working’ (another word you need to define–see What Works In Education And How Do We Know?).
Where does the time go?
Where is the time actually going? Document it for a week and see what you find.
When we look to save money, we create a budget and intermittently look to see where our money is ‘going.’ So why not do the same with your time. Note, this is different than simply making a schedule. This is an ongoing ‘check for leaks’ approach to how your time is spent as a teacher–a daily or hourly documentation of what you planned and what actually happened, etc.
7. Unnecessary meetings
Also, missed meetings, meetings that should be 10 minutes and end up 40 minutes, meetings that should’ve been emails, meetings that don’t serve any purpose other than to ‘have met,’ meetings that aren’t held at the right time (too early in a project, too late to have made a real difference, etc.)
One way to address the issue: This one’s difficult. There are wasteful policies everywhere here–many of which are matters of school or district policy or even state law. But notice how many times you think, ‘This could’ve been an email’ and see if there are any simple alternatives you can suggest: a private social platform/community for your school, for example, that offers threaded, time-stamped discussion, private messaging, a ‘What’s Going On Today/This Week/This Month/This Year’ FAQ that’s updated, a school ‘Wiki’ with important need-to-know information, events, etc.
You can also consider flipping your staff meetings if that fits your needs.
One way to address the issue: This is a major challenge for me, so I’m not sure I’m in a position to offer any insight or help other than to say in the same way a disorganized coach struggles to coach or a disorganized accountant will find it a challenge to be a good accountant, the same goes for teaching. The best I can offer is to be honest with yourself but with a ‘let’s grow’ mindset about where you need help.
Talk to other teachers you know who are organized and ask them specific questions or watch how they carry out certain procedures. Have an ‘organization buddy’ who agrees to go through the let’s-get-organized journey with you together. Start small, take it slow, and forgive yourself as you (hopefully) improve.
Other wasteful teaching practices: Inefficient classroom procedures (handing in work, asking questions, etc.), poorly-designed PLCs, reinventing the wheel (spending too much time to create things that already exist), lecturing (more student talking, less teacher talking, repeating instructions, directions, or other procedural knowledge (instead of making a course syllabus with FAQ, or a class Wiki, etc.), not using ‘Ask Three Before Me,’ and, at times, talking too much to other teachers either about non-teaching topics or talking about these topics in a not-helpful, negative, repetitive, ‘fixed mindset’ way, filling out unnecessary paperwork