How do we help students? How about more teacher planning time

Providing teachers with more paid time away from students could do more to help student achievement than any other reform.

Teachers in the U.S. spend 1,100 hours annually in front of students, compared to 650 hours by Finland’s teachers.

There is so much to be discussed when addressing public education reform, but what’s always ignored is meaningful teacher reform. Teachers are tasked with preparing students for the future, yet the profession still rests in the past. It’s time to recognize drastic change is needed.

It’s 2019, and teachers are still provided on average, only 50 minutes of planning time per day. That’s 50 minutes to communicate with parents, grade student work, plan lessons, collaborate with peers, address student needs, complete paperwork, make copies, use the bathroom, etc. 

Bottom line, no meaningful change in public education can occur until we address the excessive workload of teachers. 

Jason Starr Nelson

Teachers are expected to perform these duties outside of the normal work day, which isn’t the issue. One can expect to work overtime from time to time, but let’s consider only the task of grading student work and providing quality feedback. A secondary teacher may have 150 students. If a teacher spent only five minutes reading, which isn’t sufficient, grading and offering feedback, they would spend 12.5 hours grading the one assignment. Only four of those hours would be spent during a teacher’s planning, meaning the teacher would spend 8.5 hours outside of the normal work week grading just one assignment, and that’s assuming all 250 minutes of planning each week could be dedicated to grading.

In my district in Louisville, Kentucky, we contractually work a 35-hour work week, 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. One assignment, could push the work week to 43.5 hours, which isn’t bad, until you throw multiple assignments that need grading, and we haven’t discussed all the other duties teachers must perform – planning lessons, finding resources, prepping for classes, and on and on. 

Bottom line, no meaningful change in public education can occur until we address the excessive workload of teachers. 

Teacher collaboration is vital to student success.

I am a 13-year veteran of the profession. I’ve learned how to be as efficient as possible, but feel I am simply going through the motions of work, without any real quality, most of the time. Now, imagine how overwhelmed an inexperienced teacher feels. I recall my early days, arriving at work at 6:30 a.m., getting home around 6:30 p.m., working at night, on the weekends, only to be told I needed to do more for my under-performing students. 

Truth is, there aren’t enough hours in the day to provide teachers with adequate time to perform their job as well as they possibly can. However, there are steps that could be taken to move teaching into the present, in order to prepare students adequately for the future.

Providing teachers with more planning time is complicated. Teachers are already assumed to work outside of the school day, so who is going to decide what’s too much outside the school day? If a teacher is being paid for a 35-hour work week, it’s reasonable to think they should work 40. However, going beyond that is unfair. 

Districts like mine could find the funds to pay teachers for 40 hours, to provide an extra hour of paid planning each day. Currently, teachers in my district spend 88 percent of their work day in front of students, leaving little time for much else. That’s 1,110 hours per school year in front of students, which leads the world. Chile is the only nation in which teachers spend more than 1,000 hours in front of teachers. In Japan, teachers spend less than 800 hours annually in front of students, while in Finland, it’s closer to 650 hours, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Today, we are tasked with preparing children for a more complex world, and achieving high levels of quality across an entire profession without adequate time to prepare, learn, collaborate, and more, will only yield mediocrity. None of the reforms to public education will be effective if we continue this archaic model.

In my district, a teacher is in front of students about 6.16 hours per day, but using Finland’s model, it would be 3.6 hours per day. Why does this matter? Today, we are tasked with preparing children for a more complex world, and achieving high levels of quality across an entire profession without adequate time to prepare, learn, collaborate, and more, will only yield mediocrity. None of the reforms to public education will be effective if we continue this archaic model.

Some professions, such as teaching, mediocrity has lasting impacts. Encountering an overworked, mediocre, or poor employee in a grocery store may put you in a bad mood for a moment, but encountering the same in the classroom could result in negative ripples throughout a child’s schooling, causing them to fall behind their classmates.

Moving toward a model that permits the time necessary for teachers to hone their craft and ensure excellence, doesn’t come cheap, but society must be willing to accept the investment. It will require more teachers, a fundamental shift in how we view a school day, or year, and a willingness of teachers to change.

I am ready to forego the current model. Let’s move to longer school years, with shorter breaks sprinkled throughout and time for teachers to receive quality professional development. Let’s move to a system where teachers are in front of students no more than 60 percent of the time, so they can perform the other tasks needed to provide excellent instruction. Providing teachers with more paid time away from students could do more to help student achievement than any other reform.