Monday, November 15, 2010

Teach less, but teach smarter

I've been doing a little math today.

I've been calculating how much time I work, and of that time, how much I spend teaching.

I have some unique data on this because, since September, I've been keeping track of all my work time.  Since I'm half self-employed, I need to track my time for some projects.  Since I was tracking my time for some projects, I figured I might as well track my time for all my projects, including my classroom teaching.  I like collecting data.

Because I'm teaching half time, I have extra energy for teaching.  On a daily basis, I have been more prepared for my students this year than ever before.  On my teaching days, I'm working longer hours than I used to when I taught full time because I know I only have to sustain that pace for 2 or 3 days per week.

So I'm operating under the hypothesis that my ratio of non-teaching to teaching hours is an accurate model for what an elementary school teacher ideally needs to do in order to be well-prepared to teach.  I don't think my hours are an exaggeration -- I think they represent what good teachers would do if they had the time and energy.  I tend to be a quick worker, and I've been teaching for a decade; if anything, less-experienced teachers might need more time to be well-prepared than I do.

(This exercise is based on the assumption that teachers are not just following a scripted curriculum but are tailoring published curriculum guides to meet the needs of their students; looking at their students' work and re-teaching as necessary; and designing entirely new lessons or units as necessary.  It also includes some "big picture" work in terms of creating overviews of units for the year and grading, but it doesn't include the instructional coaching I've been doing for my school.)

To calculate my hours with children, I figured out the full-time load at my school, which is 25.5 teaching hours per week -- those are contact hours with children.

In 9 weeks of school (discounting partial weeks), I have worked an average of 33.5 hours per week. Double that for a full-time teacher, and that's 67 hours.

On average, 1 hour of teaching requires 2.7 hours of my time. 

Maybe I do a little more than half-time work, because I have to spend time communicating with my job-share partner, catching up on missed meetings, etc.  So let's be conservative, and say that a well-prepared, full-time teacher works between 2 and 2.5 hours for every 1 hour of teaching.  This includes planning, looking at and responding to work, communicating with families and colleagues, writing report cards, holding family conferences, and meeting with supervisors, coaches, and colleagues.

If every hour spent teaching requires 2.5 hours of a teacher's time (1 hour to teach and 1.5 hours to prepare and follow-up), then a full-time elementary teacher at my school teaches for 25.5 hours a week and needs 38 hours of prep time, which is equal to almost 64 hours of work per week.

Let's say I'm working too hard, and better teachers work less than I do.  So we decide to round down and estimate that to teach 25.5 hours in a week requires an additional 25-30 hours of prep time.  That's still 50-55 hours of work a week.

In my contract, I have to be at school for 35 hours per week.  25.5 of those hours are teaching.  Less than 10 hours are for prep time -- and 45 minutes per day are meant to be a lunch break, which means I have only 5 hours of designated prep time.

Obviously, this set-up doesn't make sense.  We can't teach well for 25 hours with only 5 hours of preparation.  So teachers work extra hours: a lot of extra hours.

Clearly, this is not a sustainable model in the long run.  The days I teach, I am working between 10 and 12 hours per day; on weekends I work a few more hours.  This gives me little time, on work days, to exercise, cook, spend time with friends or family, do errands, or relax. It follows, then, that to be a skillful, full-time teacher, is not a realistic career option for many people as the job is now designed.  And, let's face it, we need many people to be able to do this job and, preferably, to be able to do it for quite a few years, since beginning teachers are not great teachers.

Let me outline an alternative.  Today I was looking at a typical teacher's workload in a charter school opening next fall in Boston.  Teachers will be required to be at school 45 hours per week, far more than is required at my school now or at other Boston public schools.  But they will only teach an average of 16 hours per week.  Even if you add in additional responsibilities, such as lunch duty, tutoring, or committee meetings, that's still significantly more than 1.5 hours of non-teaching time (ie. preparation and follow-up time) for each hour of teaching.

It turns out many other countries do things this way as well.  According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States has more hours of teaching time than any other OECD country.  (This while many people are demanding that we increase the school day!)

According to the OECD, in the United States, primary school teachers spend an average of 1097 hours teaching per year.  Secondary teachers spend slightly less (about 1060 hours per year).  In Finland, a country of late much-lauded for its educational achievements, primary teachers teach an average of only 677 hours, while secondary teachers teach about 570 hours.  Japanese teachers teach between 500 and 709 hours per year.  (These countries' school years are also longer than the US school year, so this means even fewer hours of teaching per week.)

With all this extra time spent teaching in the US, what results do we have to show for it?

And for those who want students to spend more time in class: Finnish students spend the third lowest number of hours in school in a year, as compared to other OECD countries.  (Data for the US are missing in this category, since the numbers vary from state to state.)

Similarly, according to a 2010 Mathematica study (see pages 12-13 of the Executive Summary), while many charter schools in the US require longer school years and longer school days, the data do not indicate a correlation between time spent in school and increased achievement in math and reading.

Clearly, the number of hours spent in school is not the variable that determines student achievement.

Many teachers and their unions are against longer days at school.  A longer day that means more time teaching, and no significant increase in prep time, would indeed be disastrous.  But if longer days mean there is an acknowledgment of how much time it takes to be a good teacher, and results in less teaching time and more time for lesson preparation, professional development, and collaboration, then I'm not opposed to a longer day.  In fact, it seems more honest; no one can say that teachers don't work long hours if their hours are visible to everyone, instead of the uncountable hours we work now.

(Just to muddy the waters a bit, it does not appear that other countries require more non-teaching time than the US.  US teachers have an average number of non-teaching hours at school.)

Obviously, the answer is not more time spent teaching and learning, for students or for teachers.  It's not that we need to teach more, it's that we need to teach smarter.  And teaching smarter means investing more time in training teachers and in allowing them to collaborate, plan, collect data, and hone their skills.  The answer is not for teachers to fill even more poorly-planned minutes in front of a class; the answer is that teachers should teach less, but teach better.

Thanks to my trusty research assistant, who knows off the top of his head where to find the resources I need, and can put his hands on them quickly.


  1. I know just what you mean! One year I logged every minute of my teaching time that I lost to assemblies, guest speakers, professional development days, IEP meetings, etc. It totaled about 31 instructional days by the end of the year! We clearly can't get more time, so I agree that we need to prioritize and make sure we're spending time in ways that make the most sense, for us and for our students! Thanks for bringing up this important topic!
    Mike Anderson
    Author of The Well-Balanced Teacher

  2. This post really hit home for me on so many levels! I have been blogging about time management recently:

    I logged in my hours at 62 on average and 57 on a GOOD week. Now, it's getting more balanced at 50.

    This is a topic that needs to be considered seriously. Also the charter school you linked to is the one that will be occupying the school I currently teach at!