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Commentary: Time is not on teachers’ side

The Rolling Stones had it all wrong when they sang “Time is On My Side” in 1964. If you are a teacher, time is not on your side. And if we want to see improvements in student achievement, we need to transform how we use and how we compensate teacher time.

Ask teachers what they believe is the most precious resource in the school and most will tell you it is time. Time to collaborate, time to score papers, time to read research, time to build lesson plans and time to remediate with students are but a few of the examples of need for this precious resource.

Then there is the industrial use of time – as in student seat time. Time also plays (or played) a role in teacher tenure—the longer you have taught the more security you have.

But if we are to answer the call to increase student achievement through a higher level of performance from teachers we need to reexamine how schools use time and create new structures that allow for the effective use of time.

The best way to start this discussion is to build some common understanding of how we currently spend our time.  Seven years ago my school decided to commit to the idea of professional learning communities (PLC). Our first charge was to find time for teachers to collaborate.  We held fast that if PLCs were that important for our school, we needed to find time to collaborate during the school day. We then committed to taking something off of our plates to add PLC.

The first to go were the various antiquated committees that schools have had for years.  Any committee that did not directly deal with student achievement was moved to a volunteer basis, with meetings held after school. Gone were the committees that dealt with technology, climate, district content issues and others that did not have a direct impact on student achievement. While these committees can indirectly impact student achievement, they also can divert attention from immediate needs of students.

Then we decided that time dedicated to student achievement meant that we would not use PLC time to deal with any calendar, consequences, or content issues (the Three C’s).  (Unfortunately, that only leaves summers to focus on the three C’s – however, that time is not compensated, which is a key reason why the need for more teacher time remains largely unmet ). The time spent collaborating in school would be focused on analyzing student data, and, most importantly, responding to the data.

A quick glance at the research on high-achieving countries reflects a focus on teachers being afforded the time to collaborate throughout the school year and compensated time to work on the Three C’s. For example in Finland, one of the world’s highest performing countries in education, some of the most important work done by teachers is not in front of the class but outside of the classroom – much of it in collaboration with other teachers on the Three C’s. The average middle school teacher in Finland spends 600 hours annually in the classroom, as compared to 1,080 for the American middle school teacher.

Linda Darling-Hammond’s research on high-achieving international schools led her to remark: “As is true in many other European and Asian nations, nearly half of [Finnish] teachers’ school time is used to hone practice through school-based curriculum work, collective planning, and cooperation with parents, which allows schools and families to work more closely together on behalf of students.”

Collaboration among teachers has been recognized by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future as crucial to making the teaching profession more rewarding. The NEA’s plan for improving schools calls for compensated time for teachers to collaborate to promote continuous improvement of teaching and learning in order to achieve shared goals.

So, high achieving international schools and many professional organizations recognize the importance of teacher time outside of the classroom. If we are to balance both time for teachers to collaborate and increased class time for students to learn, we need to lengthen the teacher contract time to compensate teacher collaboration and their work on the Three C’s.

If policymakers are genuinely concerned about improving results in schools, they need to give serious consideration to models of reform that create new structures allowing teachers the time to accomplish all the things that need to be done. We need structures that recognize that classroom time and teacher time are differentiated in order to focus on student needs and teacher needs.

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.