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Commentary: Where does teacher time go?

Literacy coach Jessica Cuthbertson takes a close look at a teacher’s day and finds long hours but key professional development needs unaddressed.

The complaints are familiar. Teachers want more time. Time for instruction, time for planning with colleagues and time to learn and develop as professionals.

The public is skeptical.  More time?  What about the average 175, seven-to-eight-hour days per school year spent with students? The additional 10 days built into a teacher’s contract for in-service, professional learning and work days? The shorter summer breaks and summer school opportunities?

Where does all of the time go?

Meet Roberta McDonough.  She is a sixth grade master literacy teacher with 15 years experience. She teaches five classes daily at a large, comprehensive middle school outside the Denver metro area, which serves an increasingly diverse community of learners.

This is a typical day for Roberta:

  • 6:30 a.m. – She pulls into school parking lot and begins to prepare and organize for her day.
  • 7:20 a.m. – Greets her first group of 30 sixth grade literacy students and begins instruction in her crowded mobile classroom.
  • 8:25-8:30 a.m. – Dismisses her first class and walks to the main building to teach her second period class: a mix of 39 sixth-to-eighth-graders who fill every space in the jam-packed room for the Socratic Seminar “choices” (elective) class.
  • 9:40 a.m. – Returns to her mobile to teach her honors literacy group, her third distinct class of the day.
  • 10:45 a.m. – Dismisses her third period; by this point, she has seen nearly 100 students.
  • 10:50 a.m. – Walks to the cafeteria entrance of the main building to report for her assigned lunch supervision duty.
  • 11:05-11:35 a.m. –Takes her lunch (and first bathroom break) of the day.
  • 11:35-12:30 p.m. – Planning period
  • Roberta works furiously to respond to emails, parent phone calls and any logistical needs for her afternoon classes. She is unable to collaborate with colleagues during her planning period since no one else in her content area or grade level shares her planning time.
  • 12:35 p.m. – Teachers her fourth group of literacy students
  • 1:45 p.m. – Begins her fifth literacy class of the day.
  • 2:50 p.m. – The dismissal bell rings signaling the end of the students’ school day.
  • Roberta has seen 140 students. She stacks each a pile of student work from each class (ranging from exit slips to paragraph or multi-paragraph writing) into her “homework” bag.
  • 3:00 p.m. — Her duty day ends.
  • 3:30 p.m. — Roberta tries to leave to ensure she can pick up her own daughter on time at a bus stop 19 miles away.
  • After dinner, Roberta spends an average of two hours per night evaluating student work and planning for future instruction. (She spends three to four hours on Sundays planning for the next week.)

Following this daily routine, with some variations, Roberta’s weekly time on the job includes: 27 hours teaching students, 3.75 hours supervising students, 90 minutes in professional learning, one to two hours communicating with parents via email, phone or face-to-face conferences, one to two hours serving on a school committee which meets twice a month after school, five hours planning for her classes during her work day and 20 hours planning, grading and evaluating student work outside of her contracted workday.

In total, in a good week, Roberta works 60 hours or more to be an effective educator.

And she still feels it’s not enough to meet the ever-growing needs of the students and the surrounding community. She is teaching more classes, working with more students, and juggling her classroom and professional needs with less support than ever before.

Teachers like Roberta need and want more time for professional learning and collaborative planning with colleagues. They need to supervise less and plan, teach and analyze data more.  They need to work within schedules and structures that prioritize teacher effectiveness and learning over crowd control.

Roberta’s solutions for rethinking the way time is allocated in her school include many supports that existed for teachers in the past, but have disappeared in light of budget cuts in recent years. Support like paraprofessionals who would photocopy and help with logistical classroom needs, allowing teachers to focus on planning for instruction.

Support like daily vs. weekly collaborative planning with colleagues in her content area, a common practice when the building operated on a “block” schedule and students had longer, fewer classes within a given day. Support like teaching schedules that included teaming with colleagues in her grade level within or across contents to standardize expectations and streamline parent and school communication.

Her reflections on both what supported teachers in the past, as well as her greatest hopes for the future, echo the results of MetLife’s Survey of The American Teacher. This survey revealed certain factors, including professional development opportunities and time to collaborate with colleagues, directly relate to teacher job satisfaction.

Roberta McDonough is just one of many teachers who work above and beyond their contract day in an attempt to meet the individual and varied needs of their students. We must rethink the way time is allocated in our schools and create schedules and structures that reflect what we value – learning, collaborative planning and professional development.

After all, it’s about time.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.