Moving from school to school is part of the job for an administrator. It is both exciting and anxiety provoking. Starting with an entry plan for the new location is key. Each time I have moved I have done an activity with staff that I called ‘Successes and Barriers’. I want to find out what creates the greatest pride in the school and also what are the ‘things’ that get in their way and prevents them from doing their absolute best for the students they have in front of them.
The most common response for teachers listing their barriers, is “time”. Every teacher wishes they had more time. They wish they were not impacted by a sudden bell that rings and interrupts the amazing lesson that is happening, when all students are fully engaged and in a flow. At times they wish they were not interrupted by the public address system or other school wide events that do not pertain to them. They also wish they had more time with their teaching partners or division or same subject teachers during preparation periods in order to ‘talk shop’ with someone that understands their assignment.
Instructional time is so important for student learning. How we use it and abuse it is an important thing to consider within a school. As a school leader there are numerous structural things that you can do that impact the sanctity of preserving instructional time.
The school board that I worked with for 33 years now has a balanced day schedule. The Canadian in me always described this to my American friends as the classic hockey game. We had 100 minutes of instructional time, then a 40 minute break (intermission), another 100 minutes of instructional time, a 40 minute break and ending with a final 100 minutes of instructional time. This was not always the case and I remember beginning my teaching career with two 15 minute recesses and an hour lunch in the middle of the day. This model is still used in numerous school across North America.
Think of the time spent in transition? Students needing to get ready for break, getting dressed to go outside, grabbing a lunch or snack and then repeating the process in reverse to start up again. I read somewhere that each transition loses approximately 5 minutes (if done well) off of instructional time. Teacher contracts mean that there is a clear distinction between break time and instructional time. If students and staff don’t utilize opportunities during non instructional time to prepare for instructional time then all the time lost comes from the instructional day. Three breaks in a day equals 15 minutes a day of lost instructional time, which is over 46 hours in a school year. Even with our balanced day schedule we were still losing close to 32 hours in the year.
What could I do as a leader to show I value instructional time and then structure the school in a way to maximize our time in class? By modelling the importance of instructional time to staff the message became pretty clear that class time was going to be used well. It helped me as a leader have the conversations with staff when students were not active users of class time. We can all think of class activities that are not a good use of time, we also know the importance of slowing down, having breaks during instruction and having fun and building relationships with students. All of these examples are important to do during instructional time, I’m just commenting that there are some classroom practices that do not honour the importance of using time well.
In the creation of the timetable we wanted to make great use of the full 100 minutes of the instructional block. This most commonly meant students staying with their teacher for the entire 100 minutes before the next break. Some classes needed to be scheduled for shorter lengths of time (French, physical education, music, visual arts etc) so we would work to make sure two classes occurred during that time. If a class was going to leave their teacher for a French class, they were also going to have another subject not taught by their teacher during that 100 minute block.
This allowed us to be targeted with our preparation time schedule. For example, one grade four class has French/music, while another has music/French. Now those two teachers have a common prep period together for half the time, and the other period could be used to provide coverage to two teachers (primary teachers) of another grade so they are together. As much as possible the timetable was written with the idea of giving the opportunity to teachers to be with others in their grade, division or same subject
Teachers of home room classes loved having their classes to begin the day. The first 100 minutes were considered golden time and they did not want their classes moving through the school to other subject areas. So our coverage teachers and specialist teachers without homerooms would have preparation time in the morning. And if a class did have an interrupted first block, we made certain that it occurred only once in a week.
One of the best ways to honour instructional time revolves around announcements. We put all our announcements in a shared document that could be read/displayed by teachers when they wanted to share it during the first large block of time. Announcements needed to be done some time prior to the first break so students were aware of any extra curricular activities that may be happening during that time. Our primary teachers in particular loved not having the morning learning time taken up by school wide messages that had little to do with their students.
Our national anthem was integrated into our bell system and would start to play at the same time every morning. It indicated to students, families and staff the official start time of the school day. If you arrived at school after O’Canada, you were late for school that day. I did not get on the p.a. system and ask for everyone’s attention, did not ask them to stand for the national anthem, it just started playing. Everyone would stop, stand and begin the day.
As mentioned, teachers appreciated using the announcements in a way that best served their students and their instructional time. They often found that the content in the announcements did not pertain to their students. We found lots of ways to celebrate the accomplishments of our teams, bands, clubs and individual students outside of using the PA system to stop the entire school. Teachers would review the announcements in the morning and determine ‘when’, ‘if’, and ‘how’ they would share the news of the day. Birthdays were recognized within individual classrooms.
Some classes wanted to give the leadership opportunity of reading announcements to their own students. One of the classroom roles for students would be the ‘announcement reader’, a rotating group of students who would share the announcements with their own class, a joke of the day, birthday wishes etc. Relationship building, class togetherness, leadership opportunities within each class instead of one or two special students getting to do it for the entire school!
At each transition time we had a warning bell. It would ring two minutes prior to the bell that signified the start of the next instructional period. This bell signified to staff that students would be starting with you in two minutes and since instructional time is your teaching time, the expectation is that you are with your students at the start of that time. Therefore, you have two minutes left in your break before you need to be where you need to be. At the start of the instructional time, every staff member who was on schedule for that time was in the hallway, on the stairs, outside at the doors and greeting children. No one was in their classroom waiting for their students to get to them.
Every administrator knows that it is during this moving time when trouble begins. Since transition time was not built into the timetable, and we had over 1000 students, all staff teaching at those times was working and therefore visual for the students moving from outside to inside, and inside to outside. It allowed our staff to engage with students, welcome them, high five, fist pump, ‘so glad to see you today’. A simple thing that is so important.
A common phrase outside with our students was ‘beat the bell’. After the first bell (warning bell) would ring students were asked to be in their lines, or in the school before the next bell rang. We had a large field, so after the two minute warning bell, it would take that amount of time to clear the field and get students onto the pavement and near their entry door. Because the second bell was the start of instructional time, they were greeted by all the staff that were beginning the next class period to get them into the building, into their classrooms and ready to learn. It allowed transitions to be done quickly, done safely and smoothly because every staff can be involved. I can guarantee that it did not take 5 minutes out of instructional time to be ready to go because of the use of the warning bell and then all staff ‘working’ to get students settled.
And finally, how often does your school allow someone to get onto the PA system and make an announcement in the middle of instructional time?
How often is a child called down to the office to receive a message or item left at home?
Are messages broadcast through your entire school that are targeted to a single student or class?
I cannot say I value instructional time and then allow office staff or myself to continually interrupt the learning in the school. Find another way. Don’t interrupt the learning of the entire school to get a message to one class or one individual. The first year at a different school would be an interesting time as they got to know me, because I did not allow anyone in the office to use the PA system without asking me first. I’m curious what they said under their breath if they were used to doing things a different way in the past. In almost all cases I would take the message or item to the classroom or student myself, right in that moment (two minute rule) and I didn’t do it for that particular family or child. I walked through the building to see everyone, I was visible in the school delivering items in order to protect the learning time of the other 1000 students in the school.
Walk the walk, talk the talk and protect instructional time. When you become a school leader who has worked with staff in order to protect and optimize instructional time it is now easier to begin those conversations with teachers when class time is not being used well. Hard conversations for sure, but having been very public in our beliefs about the importance of instructional time it is now easier to begin to ask good questions about the practices occurring in classrooms.