One of my favorite quotations comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. When Gandalf the wizard recounts the story of the ring and the havoc that it has brought to Middle-earth to the hero Frodo, Frodo says to him, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which Gandalf replies, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Given the tumult of the past several years, I have to imagine that many of us have felt like Frodo. Especially in education, the pandemic threw things into chaos and caused massive losses of learning. When schools open back up in the fall, they are going to have to make up for a lot of lost time. They will not be given much time to do so, so they’ll have to make the most of it.
Do schools make the most of the time that they are given? In partnership with Hanover Research, I surveyed a national sample of 686 public, charter, and private school teachers. I asked them a battery of questions about how they spend their days both inside and outside the classroom to try and answer that question. Here are some big takeaways.
Direct, whole class instruction is the most popular method of classroom teaching. Of the 686 teachers surveyed, 81 percent said that they had engaged in direct, whole class instruction in the previous week. Of those teachers, almost a quarter (24%) said that they spent more than 10 hours of that week providing it. The next most popular instructional modality was working with students individually, with 78% of surveyed teachers stating that they had engaged in it in the previous week and 6% of those teachers saying that they spent at least 10 hours doing so.
Student discipline issues are the most common classroom interruption. When asked to think back to their most recent day of teaching and identify what interruptions happened in their classroom, 58% of teachers said that they had been interrupted by a student discipline issue. Forty-six percent of teachers said that they had been interrupted by student questions or concerns outside of class, 39% had been interrupted by the intercom, and 27% had been interrupted by administrators. Fifty-nine percent of teachers said that they had to spend time out of the classroom addressing student discipline issues in the previous week. More than half of those teachers said that they spent more than one hour doing so.
Almost three quarters of teachers spend less than 5 hours per week working outside of the regular school day. While the overworked teacher burning the midnight oil is a popular narrative in media, when asked “in the average week of teaching, how many hours do you spend on school-related activities outside of the regular school work day?” 10% of teachers said they spent less than one hour, 30% said that they spent 1 to 3 hours, 31% said they spent 3 to 5 hours, 18% said that they spent 5 to10 hours, and only 7% said that they spent more than 10 hours. This figure is corroborated by a similar question where I asked teachers to look back on their most recent school day and to think about how much time they spent on pre- and post-instructional activities. (Pre-instructional activities would be things like lesson planning and post-instruction would be things like grading.) Fifty-nine percent of respondents said that they spent less than one hour per day on pre-instruction and 58% said that they spent less than an hour on post-instructional activities.
There clearly are teachers putting in lots of out-of-school hours, but they are the exception, not the rule.
There were not large differences between school sectors. When the above questions were disaggregated by school sector, public, private, and charter school teachers tended to answer in very similar ways. Here and there, one sector might stand out as slightly different, but on the whole, it appears that teachers across sectors spend their time in similar ways.
There were interesting differences within the population of teachers. Longtime Brookings Institution education policy researcher Tom Loveless used to remind folks making comparisons of state-level school performance that the spread of student performance within states was much wider than the spread of student performance between states. It appears something like that is true in this survey as well. When I asked a question about how much time teachers spend working outside of school hours, the answers were similar from public, private, and charter school teachers. But looking within just the public school sector we see a spread of 8% of teachers spending less than an hour per week and 7% spending more than 10. Those are serious difference in teachers’ experiences that could be happening within the same school district or even building.
Hopefully better understanding how schools use time can be informative as they think about how to maximize the time that they have with students. The next few years will be critical to mitigate the massive levels of pandemic learning loss. Every minute will count.