Teachers Need Time to Learn about Using Time Well
In the first year of my teaching career, like so many of my peers around the nation, I was proud of how many hours I worked. I didn’t count them, of course — I just noted with grim satisfaction when mine was the first car in the lot each morning and the last to leave each night. “Most days,” I told a friend at the time, “I only see the sun through my classroom window.” I was startled by my friend’s immediate laughter — didn’t she realize what a hero I was?
The thing is, teacher overwork isn’t a laughing matter. While perhaps humorous at the individual level, at the system level it is a leading cause of teacher disengagement and attrition. Schools can remedy this site-based professional development.
We need to teach and practice core principles of productivity in order to improve long-term flourishing outcomes for students (and, nicely, their teachers). Here are a few methods I’ve seen teachers use to get more for their time.
1. Prize Results Achieved, not Hours Spent
In the Hollywood teaching mythology that I was enamored with as an early career teacher, the point of all the hours was the long-term flourishing of young people, and the only way to enable that long-term flourishing was via the unending investment of all of one’s hours. This savior archetype is problematic for all kinds of reasons, but the problem we’ll focus on is that it is not professional.
The professional’s objective is to do her work with ever-improving levels of excellence. She aims at results for her students, not clocking hours for herself. And so the professional is mindful of studies like Morten Hansen’s (2018), which finds that across the industries the highest performers aren’t those who work the most hours. In fact, Hansen finds that once a worker reaches 65 hours per week, there is a decrease in overall productivity — so in terms of our jobs in education, we produce worse classroom learning outcomes when we work 70 hours than we do when we work 60. This is the kind of information that many teachers do not have access to in their teacher preparation programs or ongoing professional development.
At Kingston Learning College in Brisbane, instructional leader Kelley Cowley makes this results-not-hours ethos a central part of her coaching with teachers, forwarding practical articles from researchers like Hansen as they come across her radar. This incidental approach to productivity-focused professional development had, over the years, produced a staff culture that clearly prized instructional efforts that married results and sustainability. Professional development on time well-managed does not need to be complicated.
2. Start with the Constraints, Not the Work
Okay, so focus on the results, not the hours worked. Great! So what are the best uses of teacher time in terms of results produced? What efforts are a waste of time?
Now we get into one of the primary purposes of world-class professional development: how can we as professionals produce better results, knowing that adding more work to our plates necessitates removing or simplifying other work? When professional development aims at nuanced outcomes like this, teachers perk up. Finally, professional development rooted within the reality of time constraints.
Indeed, time constraints are an important first step in helping teachers identify the work that matters most. As Cyril Northcote Parkinson once famously quipped, the work that we have to do will always expand to fill the time that we give it. This “Parkinson’s Law” is likely a reason for Hansen’s findings about the average workweek length for top performers (between 50 and 60 hours): when we limit the number of hours that we have for work each week, we’re forced to prioritize.
I can still picture myself at a small desk in my first teaching assignment, speaking with an instructional coach about all of the things I had to do. “How am I supposed to get all of this done?” I asked. What followed were abstract words that I didn’t like the texture of: Prioritize. Eliminate.
Ugh — how mundane!
But my coach was right, and as soon as I began to place limits on the hours I was “allowed” to work each week, I started to see that not all of the tasks on my to-do list really needed to be done. The bulletin board update? It could wait. This week’s lesson prep? It couldn’t.
The constraints of a work schedule didn’t hinder my work — they enhanced it because they got me asking the kinds of questions that professionals ask. How do I improve both efficiency and productivity? How do I make my lessons better for student learning but simultaneously simpler for my prep?
Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport uses a similar constraints-based philosophy to balance his career as a tenure-track professor, his career as a popular writer, and his roles as a husband and father. His fixed-schedule productivity system (Newport, 2016) is eminently applicable to the teacher’s life (after all, he is a teacher), but systems like it are woefully under-represented in building- and district-level professional development.
3. Satisfice Often, Maximize Wisely
One final concept that professional educators are hungry for originated not in education but economics. Nobel prizewinner Herbert Simon identified that while the tendency in organizations often tends toward maximizing — toward completing tasks at the optimal level of quality — it is often best to satisfice — to complete tasks at the lowest level of acceptable quality — for the sake of maximizing on the few tasks that matter most.
The idea is common sensical — just consider your email inbox, where plenty of the messages ought to be dealt with quickly (if at all), and just a small sliver of them likely merit a thoughtful reply. Or, more complexly, consider the batch of student work that you need to provide feedback for this week — perhaps a set of one-paragraph compositions, or a whole-class discussion, or an ongoing art project. On the one hand, this feedback will be most effective if it is provided in as timely a manner as possible — the sooner the better. But on the other hand, it will be most helpful of it’s specific enough to guide the learner toward improvement. For situations like both our email inboxes and our feedback workloads, it’s best to help teachers picture satisficing and maximizing as existing on a sliding scale. The more adept teachers get at viewing tasks this way, the more impressive their labor-to-impact ratio will likely become.
And satisficing doesn’t just help with efficiency — it improves our quality of life, too. Swarthmore College researcher Barry Schwartz and his colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated the life-enhancing quality of satisficing. For example, in one 2002 study, the researchers found that people who tend toward maximizing are less likely to be happy, more likely to suffer from upward social comparison (a common struggle, especially for novice teachers), and less likely to be satisfied with consumer decisions.
Practice these principles across the system
Results over hours. Constraints before work. Satisfice often, maximize wisely.
As teachers are given time and resources (e.g., articles like this one and the others found in this issue) to apprehend and discuss these principles, a key task of school leadership is to encourage professional, responsible experimentation. If these ideas are not put into practice, they will remain theories for school teams rather than outcome-enhancing realities.
Perhaps the best way for school leaders to facilitate the cultural transition to effective time management is to recall Daniel Coyle’s three skills of effective cultures (2018).
- Safety: Leaders can emphasize that everyone in the school building can benefit from this work around time management. None of us have “arrived” in this regard. We can all improve our performance.
- Accuracy with vulnerability: Leaders can start meetings by sharing specific ways that they’ve muddled up the principles outlined in this article and specific ways that staff members have succeeded.
- Purpose: Finally, leaders can continuously call their team’s attention to why smart, professional time management matters: long-term flourishing, for both our students and ourselves, is at stake. Nothing less!
As it turned out,
that early career teacher who I started this article with didn’t last for very
long. After my third year teaching and with starting a family on the horizon, I
did what many sane people do: I left. Thankfully, within a year or so I was
back in a classroom, this time armed with the principles outlined in this
article. Over a decade of teaching since then, I lament how many of our early
career colleagues quit for good within a few years of starting, many for lack
of professional development on time management.
Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: The secrets of highly successful groups. New York, NY: Bantam.
Hansen, M. (2018). Great at work: How top performers do less, work better, and achieve more. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.
Schwartz, B., et al. (2012). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 83, No. 5, 1178–1197.