Note: Click on the link for the OECD report contained within the article for a massive international study comparing teacher salary, instruction time, class sizes, impact of behavior problems, and many other insights on how the U.S. education system stacks up against other nations.

Less Is More: The Value of a Teacher’s Time

This past weekend, I had the privilege of being part of a panel at the Maryland State Education Association’s Education Policy Forum with 2014 National Teacher of the Year Sean McComb, Maryland Teacher of the Year Jody Zepp, and educator-turned-influential radio host Marc Steiner. We convened in front of policymakers, superintendents, and other thought leaders. It sounded title-rific until we actually started talking about the profession we love and lead. One of the first questions we were asked was: “If you could build a school, what would it look like?” I had a few models to draw from, including Lori Nazareno’s teacher-led Math and Science Leadership Academy in Denver, or Chris Lehmann’s inquiry-and-design-driven Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

The Unseen Work

Yet the best investment that seemed most tangible to the policymakers right in front of me was time.

If I started a school right now, I would restructure school time nationwide. On average, teachers spent the most student-teacher face-to-face time in the world, topping 1300 hours a year. In the latest OECD report studying teacher salary (PDF, 11.8MB), the time that educators are required to spend worldwide in industrialized countries averages at less than 800 hours. Finland, the country everyone loves to study, clocks in less than 700 hours in front of students.

Seats shifted, because the talking points always fall into similar arguments:

  • Students need more time with teachers.
  • Teachers don’t spent enough time with students.
  • Teachers don’t work hard enough because they get holidays and summers off.

However, in countries that have done away with those arguments, they’ve learned that teachers do much better by having less classes, less students, and more time for the mounds of paperwork they’re obligated to grade. McComb agreed as well, stating that, if we do the math based on the number of students he has compared to the time he gets in school to grade, he has about 20 seconds per student to grade their papers and give feedback. Of course, he would have to work at home and work extra (unpaid) time to finish his grading, but it seems wholly inefficient to make teachers do work at home when they could just get the time right there in school.

More Time to Plan

Some of the effective uses of time that I’ve seen include:

  • Conversations with students about their academic progress
  • Sitting with social services to talk about students’ social-emotional development
  • Meetings with colleagues about latest pedagogical practices and standards
  • Pre- and post-observation conversations with administrators
  • Department meetings to look more closely at student work.

These points might sound basic to some, but in our current school system, we cram many of these into tighter schedules, which almost always means that we trade effectiveness in one area for effectiveness in another. We have to envision better uses of the talent within our school systems than what we currently see. I envision, for example, a teacher having two double-period classes and taking the last two periods to grade the student work with their colleagues shortly thereafter, analyzing the pieces and making their curriculum and pedagogy more connected.

With more hours to plan, teachers can more thoughtfully adapt their lessons and units to the students in front of them. They can more carefully reflect on the teacher moves they use for individuals and classes. They can have longer, more meaningful conversations with colleagues and administrators. In this case, as in many cases, less is more.

A Better System

Seat time isn’t the only lever we need to push for making education better in this country, yet based on studies that we’ve seen from different school structures, much of how we do schooling has been ingrained in our culture. Many of us in American society would love to see the reform and change but don’t want the experience of school to look much different from our own experiences with schooling. The pushback on this piece probably looks like, “I want my child to have as much exposure and learning as we can cram into school, because the more time they have with the teacher of the subject, the better.” Yet we can use time more effectively by making sure that all folks within our school system learn, not just the students.

As much as I want to believe that teachers do their best with the conditions they’re given, I’ve come to understand that teachers generally work better given better systems in which to work. More so than the foundation of respect and trust that we must engender in students, we have to create pockets of time for teachers to get together and make things happen abovethe students’ work. Many high-performing countries say that they got their best ideas from the United States. It’s only a matter of time before this country gets it right for itself as well.

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