Time is one of the most precious commodities in a school, and students should know how to spend their time wisely. Students frequently expect their teachers to direct all of their time, and they assume that they are free to hang out or socialize if they don’t perceive that they have been specifically directed. This underlying assumption is so pervasive in many school cultures that it isn’t even recognized as a problem. It is, however, a key competency—and independent time management is almost a requirement in a competency-based classrooms.
Teachers universally agree that there is not enough time in the day to do all of the things that are expected. Part of that time crunch stems from the fact that whole class instruction is still a prevalent mode of delivery, and this method inherently wastes a lot of time. Teachers gravitate to whole class instruction because it offers a sense of control and it is easier to manage. Our experience has told us that kids who aren’t being managed are likely to be off task. This doesn’t have to be the case, but it does require some explicit changes in the way that adults talk to students about time.
Teachers have to understand that kids passively wait to be directed because that’s what they have been taught to do. In order to have kids understand that they are responsible for active learning at all times, they have to be taught this expectation and they have to be taught how to manage their time. In my own classroom, I see students in grade 5-8 for a quarter every year. The first time that they come to my room, they sit down and wait for something to happen. That is probably what they do everywhere, but I want them to learn to get their work out as soon as they arrive. That means that I have to devote time to creating an activity that young students, who possess limited executive skills, can initiate independently, and I have to prompt them repeatedly at each arrival. Eventually, they start to get it, and I no longer have to tell them to get started without me. Of course, they are only in my class for a quarter of the year, so they need a little reminder when they come to class the next year, but, in the end, they know that they are expected to get to work as soon as they arrive in my room. Students who are in other classes where this is the expectation find it easier to become self-directed, primarily because the expectation is reinforced by multiple adults in various situations. Those students come to expect that it is their responsibility to get to work.
Just getting students to start work is only part of the challenge. Students also need to know how to manage the rest of their time. We tell students that we expect them to be “on task,” but we don’t really help them see that the time they have in front of them is something that they are spending. Kids tend to feel like time is an endless continuum, while adults see it as a limited resource that is punctuated with deadlines. We need to combine the two perspectives and put the responsibility for managing time in the hands of the individual student. I try to combat the endless time perspective by asking my older students to chart out the landmarks of their projects on a rudimentary calendar. If they know the due date, they can learn to plan their time backwards. This takes some guidance, at first, but it can be done.
I know that the objection will be that there isn’t time to teach this kind of competency, which is fairly ironic. The truth is that it takes time to un-teach integrated habits, but students who can direct and manage their time independently are going to accomplish more. The time investment might feel invasive, but the outcome is increasingly independent students. Once students are self-directed, there is more flexibility for teachers to group students according to ability or task. Students can be specifically focused on learning the competencies that address their needs and readiness, and the teacher can effectively manage a classroom full of students who are working toward different goals.
Trying to change the way that your students think about time isn’t difficult, it just requires consistency and application. Don’t fall back into constant management. Instead, try to redirect them to the time management tools that you provide for them. Start with one class. Set up a quick exercise that they can initiate independently at the beginning of each class, and slowly teach them how to transition from the opening exercise directly into classwork, without you directing them. Something as simple as writing the time expectations for the first 10 minutes of class on the board may be enough to help them internalize a new expectation. If you can change your students’ perceptions of time, you may find that you can spend less of your time managing and more of your time teaching.
You can find the tool Barbara Weed gives to her students to help them plan their time here.
Barbara Weed holds a B.F.A and a M.S. Ed. She is a National Board Certified Teacher. Ms. Weed taught middle school art for seven years, and is currently an instructional coach. She has been engaged in school transformation, as a parent and as a teacher, for many years.