Ep. 331: How Do Teachers Spend Their Time?

July 6, 2022

Mike McShane director of national research at EdChoice joins the show to talk about his most recent paper on teacher’s usage of time.

John Kristof: Hello, and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m John Kristof, research analyst at EdChoice. And thank you for allocating some of your time with us on this fine day. Joining me today to talk more about time is Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice to talk about his most recent paper on teacher’s usage of time. Mike, thanks for joining today.

Mike McShane: Thanks for having me. When you first gave that introduction I was just speaking generally about time, like looking wistfully at the past, or hopefully towards the future. No, we’ll be speaking about something slightly more specific than that.

John Kristof: Sounds good. Yeah, the best I had was just some dad joke about the word tie.

Mike McShane: Listen, I’m relentlessly pro dad joke. So if you have that inclination, you just lean into it, man.

John Kristof: Excellent. Simple is best. Right. I found this paper very interesting as a topic. And I asked a couple teacher friends about the concept behind this paper, about teachers usage of time, why it’s an important thing to study and who it’s important for. I think you make the case for why this paper is important to study very well on just the first page by sharing some stories from your time teaching and also watching some other people teach. But rather than me telling people what you wrote, do you want to share how you set up this paper?

Mike McShane: Yes. Even though I believe you would be fully capable of telling the story secondhand since I experienced, I might as well. Yeah. So I started this paper [inaudible 00:01:37] an experience that I had when I was a teacher in Montgomery, Alabama low those many years ago, I taught as part of this program called the ACE program Alliance for Catholic Education. Easiest way of thinking of it, it’s kind of a Catholic teach for America, run through the University of Notre Dame, but sending kind of teachers to underserved Catholic schools across country. And it’s a two year program. You get your master’s degree while it’s going on while you’re taking classes and everything. But I was a second year teacher at this point and a colleague of mine who was a first year teacher asked me to observe his class, just to give him some pointers or whatever. I think of, in the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king. And so I think in the land of the first year teachers, the second year teacher is king, but one of the kind of annoying things about this school, where I taught was for whatever reason, they gave basically like a wide spectrum of people access to the Intercom and throughout the day, both to individual classrooms and to just like the school as a whole, we would routinely be interrupted. Some of them perfectly reasonable reasons. And some of them completely unreasonable reasons, but it would happen like multiple times and some days particularly like it would just be over and over again. And I got really frustrated with it. And sometimes I was a ninth and 10th grade teacher and so when the Intercom would interrupt me, I would sort of stage shout back at it, be like, thank you for sharing disembodied voice or some stupid teacher joke like that. But when I was observing my colleague, I sat in the back and he’s just like, Hey, can you watch my class and see if I do anything? And it was funny because he didn’t really need my help. He was a really gifted teacher and he was doing a great job, but, and I wasn’t fully paying attention to it at first. When I was sitting kind of in the back of the class and there was an interruption on the Intercom. The first time it happened one child, I think he was teaching like seventh and eighth grade, a child sort of got up out of his seat, walked up to the white board in the front of the classroom and like marked a tally on like the right hand side of the white board, where there had already been several tallies before. And I didn’t really think of it because it was so like, the teacher just kept going and like class just kind of kept going. And the kid just like sat back down in his seat, whatever. And so I didn’t really think of it and didn’t notice the pattern until it happened again, there was like another interruption. He went up and tallied it again. And I was like, oh my God, this is the greatest thing ever. And I’m sitting in the back trying not to laugh because it was like, whereas I did a very kind of loud protest against the interruptions, he would do this like silent protest. And so that has always stuck in my mind, that sort of experience of interrupting classes. Teachers have like a limited amount of time with students. And then there’s been some great research that came out in the last couple years. Matthew Kraft, who I think is at Brown, he did this great paper where he was looking at interruptions to classrooms. I think it was in the Providence schools and he documented this just like incredible number of interruptions and the amount of learning time that was lost. And so that kind of got things percolating in my mind. He looked specifically at one school district, it was looking in traditional public schools. And so I thought, Hey, maybe it might be possible for us to look across sectors. Maybe it might be different between public schools, charter schools, private schools. And again, we asked a kind of whole battery of questions, not just about interruptions, but I was interested in that question. I was like, well, you can’t just like do a whole survey with one question. So let’s talk about some other things about how teachers use their time and see if any interesting patterns develop.

John Kristof: Yeah. I love that. I think that’s a great setup and I feel like I can see this event happening as well. I can imagine you stage shouting at the Intercom and I kind of wish I was there. It’s a good story. And a compelling one. So you mentioned there was like the Craft study and you were trying to make something broader and maybe ask about time in a greater number of ways. Do you want to like go into some detail, I suppose, about what you asked, who you interviewed, how you set up the survey and what all you were looking for?

Mike McShane: Totally. So listeners to this podcast are consumers of EdChoice’s research content know we have a long running partnership with Hanover research, a research firm who helps us do a lot of our survey work in addition to focus groups and other stuff that they do. They were a great partner on this. So we worked with them to design a survey for teachers asking about a whole bunch of time used questions. And then we delivered it in the middle of February to a nationally representative sample of 686 teachers. The majority of them like the majority of teachers were in public schools, traditional public schools, about 70%, 471 of those 686. Another 71 were in charter schools and the rest were in private schools. And so we asked them a whole series of questions, sort of the two basic forms of the questions is we asked them to think back to their most recent week. And we asked them to think back to their most recent day they were in the classroom. And asked them about the type of stuff that they did and how often they did it or how much time it took up. So how much of your week do you spend doing X? How much of your day do you spend doing X? And then we kind of tried to drill down on some of those questions.

John Kristof: That’s excellent. And so I think it’s important to just acknowledge for anybody who’s listening to this, there’s cross sector, there’s across all the different age ranges in school. Right. So we’re talking about kindergarten through 12th grade teachers who experience very different things, perhaps at least like when they’re at the front of the classroom, but all of those are represented here. One thing that I did find interesting as well, that I might ask you about this later as to whether you think it’s affected anything, but 24% of the people that you interviewed of responding teachers said that they were doing some kind of hybrid approach as well. And so maybe less of an Intercom thing if you’re teaching remote. And so that might be like, I don’t know if that’s a limitation to a feature of this study, but that’s just kind of the time we live. I just thought that that was an interesting thing to maybe note as we’re kind of describing what,

Mike McShane: For sure.

John Kristof: You were studying here.

Mike McShane: Absolutely.

John Kristof: So at risk of being possibly too broad, this is a very data heavy study if anyone is reading or following along, you ask a whole battery of questions, asking what are some things that you have done to prepare for class outside of working hours? What things have you done for your class after working hours? What different kinds of things interrupted you during working hours? So I want you to take the floor and kind of identify what you think are some of the more interesting things that you’ve found about how teachers use their time.

Mike McShane: Yeah. So like at a baseline, the most simple question we sort of asked level set on this was like, when thinking back to your most recent week, how much time do you devote to the following activities in your classroom? And teachers had the opportunity to say up to an hour, between one and three hours, between three and five hours, between five and 10 hours and more than 10 hours. The most popular one as most people might imagine is providing direct whole class instruction. Almost every teacher said that they did that. And almost a quarter of those teachers said that they spent more than 10 hours a week doing that. Next most popular was things like working with students individually and then leading small group instruction. So that was the kind of baseline of like what classroom time is taking place. But then we ask these questions about what I called non-teaching duties and it’s tough. Like there’s really no good term for this. I think back to like some of the research that people did on like quote unquote non-cognitive skills in kids. And I never really liked that term because it was still using cognition to like, I don’t know, learn how to use PowerPoint or something like that. But I was interested in sort of outside of the nuts and bolts of actual instruction, how much teachers had to do other stuff. And so teachers responded and saying how frequently or how much of their time was spent addressing student disciplinary issues, which a large majority of teachers said that they had to deal with. But more than half of those teachers said that that took up more than one hour of their week addressing student disciplinary issues. We said things like staff meetings, delivering assessments, utilizing results of assessments, these are all things the teachers said that they were spending their time doing. And then we ask other stuff kind of what they do outside of their teaching day. So how much time did they spend planning or communicating with parents or doing collaborative planning time? And this is one of the things that I think was interesting. Well, I should say it certainly surprised me. So we’ll see. Interesting is kind of in the eye of the beholder, but it was interesting to me. So we asked this question, when thinking back to your most recent day, and I should say, we asked the same thing about the week and these things kind of lined up with one another. When thinking back to your most recent day, how much time do you devote to the following activities? And we said pre instruction, which is sort of like lesson planning, all of the stuff that goes along with that and post instruction, which is like grading and all of those things. And what we saw was this interesting kind of distribution of teachers and the two sides were almost identical to one other. So when you think about pre instruction, like lesson planning, 6% of teachers said that they spent less than 15 minutes doing that in a given day. 21% said it was 15 to 30 minutes. 32% said it was between 30 minutes and an hour. 29% said it was between one and three hours. And 9% said that they were spending more than three hours. So this is one of those things. And again, the same was true for post instruction. So that shows that about six or 7% of teachers are spending less than 30 minutes per day, doing all of that sort of outside of delivering teaching stuff. And about eight or 9% are spending more than three hours. So I thought there was this really interesting spread. Obviously it’s kind of a curve that settles around that kind of 30 minute to one hour mark, but we saw even within sectors and all of those things, this really interesting spread where you have some teachers that are spending very little time outside of the classroom doing things. And then you have some teachers spending a whole lot of time outside of the classroom. The one last one that I’ll share is when we were talking about classroom interruptions, it’s sort of the story that started this whole thing, we asked the question, think back to your most recent day of teaching, which of the following interrupted your class time? The most popular one, 58% of teachers said that student discipline issues interrupted their class time. 46% said student questions or concerns outside of class interrupted their class time. 39% said Intercom announcements, 27% said administrators, 17% said personal matters. And then another 11% said none of the above. So around half of teachers were saying discipline issues, student questions or concerns outside of class. And kind of between the third and half were being interrupted by Intercom announcements and about a quarter being interrupted by administrators, just in their most recent day of teaching. So that’s the kind of spread of those things. We did some questions about digging into each of those, which is like how frequent, like was that one time was that two times? Was it three times? And then the just overall question of in the average week of teaching, how many hours do you spend on school related activities outside of the regular work day? And again, kind of mimicking, I said the last one was the last one that I would say, but mimicking what I said earlier, about 10% of teachers say that they spend up to one hour, or I guess you would say one hour or less working outside the regular school day. 30% spend between one and three hours, 31% spend between three and five hours, 18% spend between five and 10 hours, and 7% spend more than 10 hours outside of the regular school day working.

John Kristof: That’s a lot of really good information there that obviously covers a lot of ground. I could just share and then you can comment on this if you think this is a good interpretation, because I’ve not been at the front of a classroom and probably for a lot of children’s benefit, but something that kind of stuck out to me, actually, if we can go back a second to this non-teaching duties idea. You presented seven different kinds of non-teaching duties as you mentioned. We’re talking back about like student disciplinary issues, meetings, assessments, supervisory duties, and things like that. In each of the categories that you presented, a majority of the teachers said that they were spending at least an hour on these different activities. So if you total all those up, if you want to think about like this average or median teacher that we might have in this pool, in these seven categories, the average is spending at least an hour on this, that’s like a full school day just doing nonteaching duties. And I don’t know if that’s surprising, I don’t know if that’s good or bad or whether teachers would be surprised by this, whether administrators would be surprised by this, whether parents would be surprised by this. So that’s just one example, I suppose, that was drawn out to me. So I guess, were you surprised by anything that you saw in this study based on what you experienced as a teacher or when you’ve talked to teachers, do you feel like this is representative of the stories that you hear?

Mike McShane: No. For sure. I think, it’s funny, I hadn’t really thought of the question in the way that you just asked it, but actually a lot of the findings of this really did align with like my experiences as a teacher and teachers that I know and others. But in the time since I’ve been a teacher, I consume a lot of like social media and other media things that sort of paint teachers in a slightly different light. So for example, the one that I think stands out the most to me is this question about like how much time teachers spend outside of the regular school, work day? Based on social media, based on media outlets and others, I think if you ask the average American this question, like how much time do you think teachers spend outside of their regular work day? I assume probably the most popular answer is people think, oh, they have to spend like between five and 10 hours or more than 10 hours outside of the work day. We know teachers are kind of burning the midnight oil. They’re working late into the night grading papers, or they’re coming into the school on the weekends, they’re doing all this sort of stuff to keep up. My experience as a teacher, thinking of people that I taught with, the people I knew was that yes, absolutely some teachers do that, but those teachers were not necessarily representative of all of the teachers, even in the school where I taught or schools that I was familiar with. That there is this distribution, that there are teachers that spend less than an hour a week outside of their regular work day. And there are teachers who spend more than 10 hours, but there is a big spread between teachers’ experiences. And again, you can think about teachers have different subject matter, teachers have different levels of experience. So I will say based on some feedback that we got from reviewers, we ran these numbers, looking at teacher experience, like were the patterns different with younger teachers and older teachers and others? We didn’t actually end up including in the paper because there really wasn’t. There really wasn’t this big of a difference. And something that came up in this paper as well, that I think is interesting is that we don’t really see big differences between sectors on this stuff. That there’s just this kind of distribution of teachers that there are. And we could probably unpack it more if we ask more detailed questions of like what they teach, what subject matter they teach, what age they teach, et cetera. But there’s just a spread where you have the kind of center of the curve sitting around three to five hours a week, which if you think about it like three to five hours outside of the regular school work day is a fair amount of time, but not, I think a crippling amount of time to spend doing stuff. But you have just as many folks below that as you do above it. So that was something that sort of stood out to me, but I don’t think it necessarily should have, because it did sort of square with my experience. And I think that if you told most teachers that and maybe their first reaction would be, oh no, because they might be that person that is spending five hours or more outside the week. But if you said, think about your school and think about in your brain, all of the other teachers that in your school, and then imagine the distribution there. I feel like that might become more accurate.

John Kristof: Yeah. I think that’s a really insightful take on it. And it’s interesting that you mentioned social media at the front of it because while I have never been at the front of a classroom, I’m married to someone who is. And kind of looking over her shoulder or whatever in passing or whatever, when she looks at teachers on Instagram or TikTok, teacher talk and I don’t know, Insta teacher, whatever. A lot of the stars and people who build following on here are the people who really go over the top. And they are probably like that top one to 3% of teachers as far as just raw time that they spend. Some of it is for decorations that are,

Mike McShane: Yeah, Incredible,

John Kristof: Really amazing.

Mike McShane: Art projects and all of that, for sure.

John Kristof: Yeah. That are amazing. And would qualify as time spent on your job outside of working hours, but maybe debatable as to how much they would help younger kids learn how to read or the subject matter or things like that. But there becomes kind of this implied pressure. And we just see this in topics everywhere when those are the people that you kind of just assume are at the top of their field and they are putting in just an insane amount of hours into something that they love. You begin to worry, or you can begin to worry, like am I a bad teacher for not putting this raw amount of hours in?

Mike McShane: For sure.

John Kristof: That’s something that can happen. And so something that I’m interested in and I’m planning on sharing this with teachers that I know, because I feel like there’s something valuable in recognizing that most teachers out there are not spending 10 hours a week outside of school trying to do their jobs better. I think that’s [inaudible 00:18:05].

Mike McShane: No, definitely. No. And I think it’s important. Personally, I hope that that’s actually like a hopeful message for teachers or people who are considering becoming teachers. I think that we do a terrible job talking to people who might want to be teachers where again, if that’s the message that it’s like, you’re going to be spending 10 or 15 hours outside of the work day, that it’s a miserable job, whatever. And then we’re surprised when we like don’t have enough teachers or there are certain areas where we’re running short on teachers. It’s like, well, I mean, part of it could be, if we tell people a job is terrible, we shouldn’t be shocked when people don’t have it.

John Kristof: Exactly.

Mike McShane: Or if we say that the workload. Think of the number of people that might be scared off from being a like big law lawyer or an investment banker, something like, Hey, the first year or two, you have to work a 100 hour weeks. And folks are like, yeah, the money’s good, but I’m not working 100 hour weeks. And so lots of people choose not to do that. Now in that case, it may be true that those folks are actually working 100 hour work weeks. And on a personal level, I would never want to do that almost, almost no matter how much you paid me. But I think just trying to explain to people being realistic about what that looks like and saying, listen, you might want to be that person that is doing all of that cool stuff and God bless you. That’s awesome. Like, I think that’s so cool that you want to do that, but that’s not the kind of median experience of teachers in America.

John Kristof: Yeah. I think that’s super helpful. I think Parkinson’s law affects us all in different sectors, the adage that whatever time we’re given, we will fill. And if part of how you market teaching is you are a teacher all the time and there’s this idea that you work every day of the week, even on weekends and you’re expected to work all these evenings and things like that. Like you might begin to fill that time. And so if we begin to market, maybe you can do this like in a regular school day,

Mike McShane: For sure.

John Kristof: That can help market things a little bit better. So that’s a conversation about what this might mean for teachers, I suppose. But are there any takeaways that you would have from this project that policy makers or people in the advocacy space or education reform, what kinds of changes or ideas do you hope that people involved in the ideas space might take away from this?

Mike McShane: I want people to take teachers time more seriously, kind of tying back to the story that started this. When you interrupt teachers a bunch, whether it’s on the Intercom or for whatever, you’re sending a message to them that like their time isn’t valuable. Like obviously what you’re doing is not that important because the Intercom doesn’t interrupt open heart surgery. Right. It doesn’t interrupt legal proceedings, like it doesn’t interrupt any number, just a business meeting at an accounting firm or something, like people don’t come on the Intercom and say that a person in there needs to go get their lunch somewhere. You know what I mean? So I think that taking teachers time seriously is important. But then just schools in general. Obviously listeners to this podcast might know I’ve done all this research on things like hybrid homeschooling, innovative school models that are kind of playing around with the school day, school week, school month, school year. And a lot of that is predicated on this idea that schools waste a lot of time, that they don’t take advantage of all the time or they’re not as efficient with their time. And some of these models say, Hey, what if we were only in school for two thirds of the amount of time or half the amount of time, think of all the cool stuff that we could do. So I’ve been really interested for years now about using time more efficiently and effectively so that schools and teachers and kids have more time to do other stuff, right? Like all the time that you’re wasting when student discipline issues are taking up people’s time or when teachers are sitting in meetings or all of those things. That’s time that could be better used doing other things. And so I just think that’s the biggest thing and it’s weird because it’s kind of a nebulous idea. I don’t have like the three point plan of this is what we should do to do that. But I think a mindset shift of taking time more seriously is important for all levels of the education system. From like the individual classroom, the building administrator all the way up to think about how many times, I don’t know if it happened in Indiana this year, but it seems like inevitably if you follow the kind of education committee of a state somewhere in America, they never take stuff away from schools. So it’s like, and again, individually, all of these things make sense, right? So it’s like, we want every kid in Indiana to learn CPR. Cool. I get that. But what goes away? We want everybody to learn X, Y or Z, what the state tree is or whatever, that’s all like time that they have to do and what is going to go away for you to be able to add that. So I think that’s another sort of policy maker thing. I’m thinking really long and hard, because who’s opposed to that. It’s like a great thing for a legislator to run with. It’s probably close to free to do whatever stuff but thinking about, well it’s not free because time, there’s a cost related to that.

John Kristof: I think that’s really good. I think that’s a really important thing to keep in mind for people at all sorts of levels, making decisions about education. And so I think we’ll leave it there today. If you are interested in Mike’s new report, it is available on the research library on our website edchoice.org. Mike, thank you very much for joining today and for sharing your insights and your research talent as always.

Mike McShane: Thanks, John. Always a pleasure talking to you.

John Kristof: Wonderful. And thank you everyone again for spending your time with us. Be sure to spend the rest of your day as efficiently as you have here spending your time with EdChoice Chats. We’ll see you on the next one.