How Would Great Teachers Spend a Time Bonus?

Five of the country’s best teachers to tell us what they would do if they had more time in front of students.

(This is part three of a five-part series about how some of America’s best teachers spend their time. Read the introduction and part two.)

The Fishman Prize winners achieve phenomenal academic gains with their students in any given year, which makes their time extraordinarily valuable. Yet their time-tracking led to an interesting finding: while most of their time was spent on tasks that contribute to student achievement, several hours of their time was spent on responsibilities that could be completed by support staff, freeing up teachers to do what they do best: help kids learn.

Much of this extraneous time outside of the classroom is spent on administrative duties, meetings and other, non-specified tasks. While most of the teachers found that the large majority of their tasks in a given day were a valuable use of time, a relatively small, but significant portion of their time was spent on tasks they felt did not directly contribute to student achievement.

We asked the teachers about some of these tasks, and in a perfect world, what they would be doing instead.

(Note: this conversation was moderated by TNTP and has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.)

TNTP: Did all of your tasks require the attention of a top teacher?

Steven: Going into this project, I really and truly felt like everything I did directly contributed to student learning. If a student’s instrument is broken, I have to fix that. If I have to run out of the building and go to a music store or go to a Home Depot or whatever, I have taken myself out of the building, but when I get back to school, I’m able to fix the student’s instrument and they’re not just sitting out in class.

I thought about all types of different scenarios. Where could I be going wrong? This project helped me to figure out a few scenarios. One of them is making copies.

I like to make my own copies because they’re not as simple as telling someone, “I need 300 of these.” I may have 11 clarinet parts, but then I have to split it up between first and second clarinets. That may be five first clarinetists and six second clarinetists. We have work study students at my school. I have tried to have them do it, but every single time it would be a complete disaster. I wound up wasting so much time in class having to fix their mistakes. So I run my own copies.

Most teachers might say, “I don’t need to run my copies. We have somebody else to do that.” Still, I really and truly felt like I should be doing them. But that’s still not a valuable use of my time when I really look at it. This project opened up my eyes and made me think that maybe I need to come up with some sort of system that can allow me to teach someone how to make copies the way that I make them so that I don’t have to do that.

TNTP: Say you had some highly skilled person who could make copies just how you like them and fix instruments. What would you do with the time bonus?

Steven: With that time bonus I would do score study. I would plan.

TNTP: Anybody else have any ideas for a time bonus?

Kelly: I’d love to — after school, if there was time — be able to do one‑on‑one tutoring with students, or even pulling small groups of students for skills, especially students who are below grade level in reading or math. Really getting them some more foundational skills that I’m not able to teach sometimes in the classroom. I would love to do some more intervention work with students.

Listen: Kelly explains what she would do if she had more time to devote to her students.

TNTP: How do you think schools help staffs maximize their time on activities that contribute to student achievement?

Steven: For starters, they can sit down and analyze the schedule, analyze what’s happening in the building, and figure out ways to be more efficient. At our school, every single year we have a morning meeting. It’s a five minute meeting. The whole staff has to come to that meeting. That meeting starts at 7:45 a.m. but most teachers usually get in the building around 7:00, 7:15 a.m. They have morning office hours.

Before, we would have morning office hours and would have to send the kids away while we locked up our rooms. Then we would have to travel all the way to the north side of the building, which, in student traffic, was a five minute travel. Then you get there. The meeting lasts between five and ten minutes. Then you have to travel back to your room. That’s 20 minutes of your day spent on traveling to this meeting, and sitting in the meeting.

The meeting is just like, “Oh, there’s a soccer game today. Come out and support the boys Firecats.” Or there’s another meeting that’s just like, “Oh, just to let everyone know, it’s so‑and‑so’s birthday. There are brownies in the teacher’s lounge.” Things that could be said maybe through an email, or maybe through a teacher newsletter.

But this year, actually to my surprise — I shared this project with my principal and a lot of other teachers are thinking about the same thing here at the school — we got back this year and they’re like, “We’re going to do away with that morning meeting. We’re only having it on Monday and Friday mornings.” Tuesday through Thursday we don’t have to travel to the north side of the building to have this morning meeting.

People who are at the top, like administrators, really go through the schedule and see where you can cut certain things and really analyze, “How much time does this take for a teacher to even arrive to the point where we want them to be? How much time is it really taking away from an opportunity to teach students, such as in the morning with morning office hours?”

Jennifer: I would second that in terms of not only thinking about the schedule but thinking about all of the little things that people put on a teacher’s plate. It’s interesting that Steven is even using the language, “People at the top.” In so many ways, these hierarchies we have put teachers at the bottom. But that almost entitles everyone who is above us, so to speak, to put tasks on our plate.

Listen: Steven and Jennifer discuss what schools can do to help teachers maximize time.

TNTP: Kelly, aside from time in front of the classroom, what’s the most important use of your time?

Kelly: Spending one‑on‑one time with the students. But for me, above that is planning. That’s reflected in my hours and the percentages when you look at it. I think 18 percent was spent on planning and development.

For myself, I spend so much time making sure my lessons can run smoothly so that during the day I have my three periods of teaching but then the rest of it I can dedicate to coaching and working with the other teachers. I know that I do spend a lot of time outside of school making sure that I’m planned out, my grading is done, and that I’m ready to go when I step in the classroom.

That was one thing I was really surprised at when I was looking at my numbers. I am 50/50: a teacher/coach, but my numbers didn’t reflect that. I think it’s because I spent so much time outside of school planning to make sure that my lessons and my students would be prepared.

Listen: Kelly describes the most important use of her time outside of the classroom.

TNTP: Could everyone address that? What is the most important use of your time outside of classroom instruction?

Laura: About 21 percent of my time was spent on planning and curriculum development. It was really important last year because our school adopted three new curriculums to align with the Common Core for math, reading, and writing. It was important that I was planning everything. I was also mentoring a resident teacher. I had to be on top of everything weeks before she was going to roll it out in my classroom. I needed to know exactly what was going on.

Shira: This two week period I spent 15 percent of my time planning, which is a significant chunk and probably surprising just because I was teaching calculus and geometry, two classes I have taught before.

A common misconception folks have about teachers is that once you’ve taught a class you use those same lesson plans the next year. I’ve taught geometry every single year that I’ve been a math teacher. This is my 12th year, and yet there’s nothing that I won’t look back and fix and tweak and rework, especially with modifying things to align with the Common Core and following new scoping sequences from DCPS.

Steven: For me, besides the instruction, my office hours. My office hours is where kids come to my classroom and just get extra time to practice.

Last year I taught 250 kids. We don’t have practice rooms here at the school so when students come to get extra help it’s me in the hallway, in my room, in the gym, or in the office. I go anywhere that kids can practice their instruments. That time is for me to engage with them one‑on‑one because I have class sizes of 45, 50. I can’t get to everyone.

“A task is useful if it directly relates to student learning. If it directly relates to stuff I will use in my classroom.” — Laura Strait

TNTP: Jennifer, how do you know whether or not a task is going to affect student achievement or development?

Jennifer: I feel deeply invested in my students’ end of year assessments. When trying to decide if something affects student achievement or not, I think, “Is this going to affect, pretty directly, students’ performance on those assessments?” I believe the assessments to be very authentic representations of my students’ college readiness.

TNTP: What about you, Shira?

Shira: I have similar measures to Jenny, where I often ask myself, for my Calculus kids, “Is what I’m doing right now going to help them when it comes to them taking their placement math exams in college?” Or, “Is this going to help them be the type of individual that will be able to succeed in college and not be one of the statistics of DCPS graduates that don’t graduate from college?”

Laura: A task is useful if it directly relates to student learning. If it directly relates to stuff I will use in my classroom. At meetings, we looked at student writing and thought of next steps for instruction. There was also extra planning for guided leading and small group discussions. All of that was definitely a good use of my time.

Tomorrow, find out what schools can do to help teachers avoid burnout.