“Your life is purchased by where you spend your attention.”James Clear
Is it time to rethink high school instructional minutes?
We are approaching two years of pandemic life. In many career fields, we have not only encountered countless new challenges, but also found existing challenges were amplified – and sometimes exacerbated.
Restaurant servers and grocery clerks tired of continued lack of respect have walked away from those jobs, leaving many locations under-staffed (often to the confusion and dismay of the mask-adverse customers who they have left in their wake).
Health care workers in all types of jobs have buckled under the strain of trying to do their jobs without losing patience pleading with the unvaccinated. There are growing shortages in that field as well.
Pilots and flight attendants, retail staff and tech workers, across the spectrum of employment, many have chosen to reconsider their options – and at the root of much of this “Great Resignation” – is a search for respect.
Educators are no different. Our ride through pandemic life has had glimmers of hope – moments when we thought that the American public would “get it.”
Get that what your kid sees at school is just the tip of the iceberg.
That the hours printed on our contract are merely the hours for which we are paid, not the hours we actually work.
That our salaries, when stretched across the months of vacation time, are not as comparable to those in other professions that require extra preparation, additional degrees and/or certificates, not to mention intense, um, “on-the-job” training with an expectant audience: the nation’s youth.
That is the number of high school school instructional minutes required in an academic year in the state of California (in 4-8th grades, 54,000, in 1-3rd grades, 50,400, and in kindergarten, 36,000).
In what other career is your worth, your ability to do your job, pinned to a finite number of minutes to do so? And, when faced with an untenable amount of tasks to complete within those minutes, the uniform response our system provides is “self-care.”
“Think about what you want today and you’ll spend your time.
Think about what you want in 5 years and you’ll invest your time.”James Clear
And when, as a learner, has your ability to learn something been limited to the minutes at hand? Did you learn how to snowboard or kite-surf or use a trapeze in a single hour-long lesson? Or did you stay longer on the mountain or in the water or in the gym, practicing?
Maybe you had an hour to learn a short song on the piano or guitar, but, having read music since childhood, it took you just 17 minutes. Did you stare at the ceiling for the remainder of the hour? Did you learn a new recipe? Or did you spend 42 minutes trying it and then stop midway, because time was up? Or did you go back to that recipe so you had something to eat for dinner?
Two years of pandemic life and we are lamenting the challenges our students face – challenges that are then borne by our educators, who, like many others, are contemplating retirement or resignation. Unless the nation is ready to consider widespread education at home (because that went so well in the spring of 2020!), then the time has come to reconsider instructional minutes – especially in high school.
We are supposed to be creating a ramp to adulthood, but rather than scaffolding experiences and opportunities for teens to plan their time – and celebrate or suffer from the consequences – we schedule every minute of their lives – and not just high school instructional minutes – beginning with pre-natal yoga and continuing through their graduation party.
We all need time to process; we are over-programmed, overtired, and over-committed. And no longer can there be an expectation that time is carved out from our private lives. Between long commutes, the return of extracurriculars (that we both coach, and have our own kids participate in), and supporting our own kids and families with their education from our overwhelmed colleagues, there are very few hours left after the school day to manipulate.
Instead, we must shed this archaic vision of instruction only occurring in designated minutes and re-envision our school days and years in a way that supports our students – and staff – in what we say we want for them.
What if every Wednesday (or another day) students could choose a block of time for homework help, one for a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee or a run, and a third for time to volunteer, meet with a mental health support team member or chip away on college applications? What if we could truly reenvison high school instructional minutes?
Of course, academic learning is a cornerstone of the American education system, as it should be. But our family’s eighteen months of crisis, distance and hybrid learning (across elementary, middle and high school, and special education, general education, and Advanced Placement curriculum), made it clear that less can be more.
And in The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley highlights the Finnish education system that routinely achieves more learning with less time in school. (And speaking of things Scandinavian societies get right – American adults could take a page from their vacation mindset – actually take one, and actually don’t work during that time and you will likely end up being MORE productive when you return!)
Our non-verbal autistic son met his IEP goals in the spring of 2020 in three 30-minute Zooms per day. And what of the rest of his time? Enough sensory input via water, swings and trampolines to allow him to focus on – and learn during – those video sessions.
Our neurotypical son loved completing middle school online – for him, he had spent the end of many class periods bored, plowing through at least one “free reading” book a week, often more. And my husband hit all the requirements of the College Board’s rigorous AP Chemistry curriculum, even though the high school distance learning schedule cut weekly minutes from nearly 250 to just 140.
And while I watched some of my hundreds of students falter as we all became untethered from the anchor that is a physical school building, I also watched many of them learn to survive, and even thrive, in our new world of distance learning, outdoor community service, singular extracurricular activities (only one pod per person – no more overcommitment!), and porch-dropping everything from canned food to science kits to help other families.
Need more reasons why less is more here? Less time in class means more time for students to extend their learning outside the classroom, in real, authentic ways and/or get extra help in areas where they need it – during the office hours and asynchronous days of many distance and hybrid schedules. (And true, outside-of-class homework can create huge equity issues for students who lack the time, space and support to do that work – folding that time into the school day can address that issue).
As a generation, our youth spend way too much time sitting, often in front of screens, and way too little time moving their bodies. And high school instructional minutes typically only include physical education classes for ninth graders, and sometimes tenth graders. School sports, whether intramural or interscholastic, do not count as high school instructional minutes.
To make time for school-sponsored sports, it takes a high level of commitment, and often involves traveling to schools across the district or county, not to mention the grade requirement for most leagues. School sports also do not include many worthwhile lifetime physical activities, such as pilates, kayaking, hiking, or pickleball. Less time in classes means more time for students (and staff!) to move during daylight hours.
Increased physical activity has been shown to support overall social-emotional wellness – as has sufficient sleep, and thoughtful nutritional habits. A de-emphasis on high school instructional minutes can help in these areas as well. Shortening the academic day for older students (while allowing them time to complete “homework” during school hours, can allow them to actually go to sleep at a reasonable hour.
The policy strategy of imposing later start times on schools has helped somewhat, but many students report that they are simply staying up even later than they would have without the later start time.
Imagine an afternoon where a student could finish school, participate in a sport or other activity, AND be home to eat with other family members at a reasonable time. Then, instead of slogging through hours of homework, the student could read stories to younger siblings, workout with a parent, or have a family game night or movie night- even on a Tuesday.
And with an increase in emotional wellness comes a decrease in mental health crises. Of course, that is not to say that students will no longer have acute needs that need to be addressed with individual therapy. But our current system of high school instructional minutes rarely makes this easy.
Most students must miss a class on a regular basis in order to meet with school-based mental health professionals. So in order to get support in managing their anxiety and overwhelm, they must choose to miss an academic class and therefore risk feeling even further behind. More flexible, at-school time means students can attend class AND access necessary mental health supports.
We have created a perpetual sense of what Tom Hodgkinson calls “time famine” in our school system. (Dr. Laurie Santos discusses the contrast with “time affluence” on her Happiness Lab podcast here.) For students, there is never enough time for what they want to do – connect with peers and staff, dig in with topics that interest them, or to get things done before the due date.
Each year, we graduate millions of high school seniors and send them out into the world and then lament that they cannot show up to work on time, or plan for something a few weeks out. Yet we have scheduled every minute of their academic (and, often, extracurricular) time for more than thirteen years. How can we expect students to gain time management skills without providing them (supported) situations to practice?
Staff, too, are in a constant state of time famine. At the primary level, there are planning periods; at the secondary level, they are called preparation periods. Either way, they are not enough.
If teaching a lesson was like cooking, a planning or preparation period would be akin to the time and act of planning the recipe, and writing your shopping list. With the recipe, you would still need to shop for ingredients and prepare them, so that you could actually cook them during your class period.
And what about the dishes, um, I mean grading? Let alone the time it takes to realize that one of your eggs is bad or you need an extra half a cup of flour, and then to troubleshoot that. The lesson itself is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. It’s time for our system to create time for educators to plan, prepare, troubleshoot, and evaluate the lessons – at school – not as some sort of implicit teacher homework assignment.
“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” This quote is often attributed to President Theadore Roosevelt. But regardless of who said it, the sentiment is one that few can argue with. Especially our kids. Any educator who is trying to “phone it in” (never mind how utterly inappropriate that analogy is to our work) will be called out on that by their students.
It is our students who gravitate toward the staff who see them for who they are. It is our students who connect with those who teach people and not just math or history. It is our students who plant themselves in the classrooms and offices of educators who ask about their families, their pets and their lives – and actually listen to the answers. And a de-emphasis on instructional minutes allows for students to forge these positive relationships not only with staff but with peers.
And, importantly, for educators to foster stronger ties among themselves. For it is those connections that often serve our students in indirect ways that can be so impactful. The conversation in line at the copy machine reveals that the student struggling in 3rd period is actually the secretary’s goddaughter.
The exchange in front of the staff mailboxes elicits the important fact that a particularly outspoken student in 6th period is a budding DJ who played at your son’s Bar Mitzvah – so there may be ways to channel that unconventional leadership into your next project. And the moment when you actually sit down to lunch with colleagues- a revelation in itself – you learn that your friend regularly crosses paths at the boxing gym with a student with recently divorced parents, where she has a structured environment to let off some steam.
Educators and students alike, we are in need of sleep and rest, community and communication, and more opportunities to collectively nourish both our stomachs and our souls. What if school regularly included shared staff meals? What if school schedules allowed for relationships to be prioritized over regimentation? And what if instead of a sense of time famine, we could create a sense of time affluence – one in which both educators and students approached each school day as an opportunity to explore and grow, and not as an obstacle to overcome? Isn’t it time to ask for more? Isn’t it time to rethink high school instructional minutes?