In Search of Lost Time

No, I haven’t just eaten a madeleine.  I’m talking about the idea of time, passing even as you read this–time, unstoppable, incessant, inextricably equated in our minds with money. “Every minute matters,” warns teaching guru Doug Lemov in his seminal teacher effectiveness text Teach Like a Champion.  “Time is water in the desert, a teacher’s most precious resource: to be husbanded, guarded and conserved.”  He exhorts teachers not to waste a single instant of class time, extolling the virtues of teachers who pepper their students with questions as they stand in line to enter class.  “A walk to the bathroom is the perfect time for a vocabulary review,” he says, though I cannot imagine there are many who share this sentiment, certainly not anyone who’s been swilling from a Big Gulp cup of iced coffee for the last two periods.

Not wasting time is at the heart of the current canonical view of effective teaching.  Time is the central unit of value, a commodity from which a maximum of measurable, testable instruction must be wrung.  To spend the last minute or so of class relaxing and chatting with your students is to “leave value on the table,” the moral equivalent of walking away from a deal without reaming your opponent for every last nickel. 

I’m not gonna lie: I left value on the table with some regularity.  Most of the time, I really did try to fill my classes with purposeful activities.  But I’m gonna admit right now that one of my fondest memories is of a class when I left the entire class period on the table.  It was election day.  My Guidance class had a boatload of SAT prep questions they were supposed to be working on, but the kids started asking questions about the election and next thing you know, I’d pulled up the California ballot propositions, we read them out loud and we had one of the most interesting, free-wheeling discussions about politics that I ever had in my five years of teaching.  I did things that were totally, 100% against the principles of effectiveness.  I told them about the first time I voted, leaving several minutes of value on the table right there as I talked about what it was like to be a kid during the Vietnam era, something they romanticized, in my view, excessively.  They shared their own views.  We talked about gun control, the three-strikes law, immigration and school funding.

I did not execute a single item from my lesson plan.  We talked.  Freely.  Without direction or purpose.  At the end of the class, the kids agreed that it was one of the best classes they’d ever had.  “Why can’t it be like that all the time?” one girl asked.

I didn’t have an answer.

Look: I’m in no way arguing that it’s a good idea to roll into class every day and shoot the breeze with your students.  But there is a balance to be found between meeting your students’ urgent need to learn content and process on the one hand—I am not questioning the necessity of this learning—and on the other, making space for the actual lives of the people in the room together.  “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience,” said the Jesuit philosopher Pierre de Tailhard de Chardin.  “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”  As an agnostic and a teacher, I would like to offer my own interpretation, which is that beyond our effectiveness, at every moment in the classroom, we are human beings having a human experience.  We live, we love, we suffer, we rejoice, we die.  We are trying to understand how to live our lives in a meaningful way when soon, impossibly soon, we will vanish.  I don’t mean we need to talk about it every day.  But it’s the truth.  And it underlies everything we do.  If not, why else would we bother to understand anything?

I’m thinking about time today because it’s what so many people in education, not just Lemov, will tell you that we have not got. We need measurable results now, this year, because we need to know who to fire and who to hire, what to do and what to stop doing.  We don’t have time to wait to think about what it all means.  We need an answer.  Now.  Or if not now, by Tuesday, in a laminated folder that can be distributed to investors, stockholders, voters.  If we’re going to teach students how to think analytically, we’re going to need to spend billions of dollars on standardized testing so we can make sure we’re doing it right, and billions more to buy the mountains of computers we need to take those tests even though the technology will be obsolete in three years and we don’t have the internet bandwidth to run them and the tests aren’t very good in the first place.  Still, we’ll have quick answers.  The answers may not mean much, but we’ll have them.  We’ll have hired people and fired people.  And the only thing we’ll really know is that a handful of corporations–the ones who really know how not to leave value on the table—will make an obscene amount of money.

But when we demand instant results, “timely” results, we deprive ourselves of the deep understanding that we actually crave.  As I’ve seen in my interviews with two groups of 21 year olds this week, my son and his friends and a group of my former students, education is by definition something we want our students to carry through their lives, not just till the test.  I think of my professor in my education program who joked that the difference between an F student and an A student is that the F student doesn’t remember anything on the day of the test and the A student doesn’t remember anything two days later.

The two groups I talked to could not have been more different demographically.  But the common thread in our conversations was startling.

What they remembered, more than anything, was the relationships they had with their teachers.  I’m not talking about a therapeutic, gut-spilling closeness.  I’m talking about a long-term engagement with an adult they respected and trusted, often someone who spent time with them outside of school.  They remembered their teachers’ values, their passion for their work.  And the one thing I hear over and over, no matter how many people I interview, young or old, is: And then I had a conversation with a teacher who changed my life….

I hear this from students.  I hear this from teachers.  Now, years later, they carry those conversations with them.  They carry that belief with them—not just till a test, but for years afterwards, until that belief in themselves becomes part of who they are.

So yes, of course, teachers need to teach their content.  And yes, we also need to teach the process of thinking analytically.  As my former student Gerardo says, we need to push our students to struggle.  But if we continue to see time as money, if we continue to view the process of teaching as the swift and timely production of outputs in which every passing minute can be assigned a monetary value that will be reflected in a cash reward or punishment for the teacher at the end of the year, we are creating a vision of education that is empty of the human, mentoring relationships our students need for any meaningful learning to occur, no matter how long it may take us to see results.  The fact that we don’t have time to wait does not mean that we will not have to wait anyway.  If I want a giant shade tree in my back yard and plant a seedling, then stand over it yelling that I don’t have time to wait, it won’t grow any faster.

I’m gonna tell the truth: I have no regret whatsoever about the times I failed to fill the last minute or so of my class with purposeful activities.  But I do regret every time I was too busy to listen to my students.  I regret the times a kid came in crying but I didn’t have time to take her aside to find out what was wrong.  I regret the hand-scrawled poems I didn’t read carefully enough.  I regret, on those occasional days when everything sucked and we were all in crabby moods, that I didn’t just throw out the lesson and ask what really mattered to my students.  But time past is, as we know, lost.  I don’t know how to put a value on that.

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11 thoughts on “In Search of Lost Time”

  1. In every interview I had from August 2013 until now…from California to the northern reaches of Maine and all across the country…every single person talked about relationships as the most important and meaningful aspect of their school experience. Sometimes the relationship with teachers felt adversarial….sometimes a teacher finally understood…..
    Hands down, every person I interviewed had a story about a teacher who inspired them somehow.
    Keep on E….

  2. The time on task mantra has been one of the more troubling ideas to me, not so much because of the idea that students should be doing something productive (I think I’m OK with that to a certain extent), but with the judgment placed on what is valuable or productive. If one values student achievement as defined by a high CST score here in CA, and soon to be high Common Core score, then OK, the time on academic task idea makes sense. Question, solve, read, explain, practice test, quiz, listen, efficient class procedures, wait time after questioning, random calling, think pair share, etc…and do as much of this as possible in a class day to get higher scores,

    But at what cost, as you write about above. Some of the most memorable moments in class were the times students saw me as a human. It’s hard to convey that I’m human if I’m all about time on task. Sometimes we need to share stories of life and adventure. I think that teaches something, but it’s difficult to measure.

    I also think there’s a reason why there’s this idea of a Sabbath. By trying to be productive every minute every second sometimes I feel like we’ve lost humanity in a classroom.

  3. One more thing. For anyone who had held a job before, you usually were either given breaks, or you gave yourself a break by checking espn.com or getting coffee or something. Why are students expected to be “on task” 100% of the time? Teachers too.

    Today I forgot to eat lunch. Literally. It was so hectic. I was 100% on task. Students, teachers, meetings, emails, calls. I didn’t realize it until I went home and wondered why the lunch bag I use was so heavy. I wonder if in our pursuit of maximizing time learning effectivenessness (that’s a word according to me) we’re forgetting lunch (figuratively) for our students.

  4. Hey Ben ..”time on task mantra” made me chuckle…I felt it….and it made me think of the I Love Lucy bit where she tries to keep up with the conveyer belt and loses it.

    1. Hah!

      More thoughts –

      Although I definitely believe in building relationships with students and believe that many no excuses urban schools might be sacrificing this in order to raise scores, I understand why they’re doing this. Their view is that nice feelings won’t get them anywhere – a high GPA, high CST scores, and high SAT score will get them into college. The traditional education system just hasn’t delivered in this area. The traditional schools of education haven’t emphasized this enough – results, outcomes. Hence, something needs to change. And hence, the idea of increasing productivity via students on task as close to 100% of the time as possible. Let the brain compute, think, process 100% of the time, and this can counteract the years of poverty and challenging life circumstances they’ve faced – at least academically.

      I do feel very guilty when in class I go in another direction that I know may not help students do better on their final exam or CST exam. I think to myself, will my class score on average one or two % points lower than other teachers on the same final exam because I didn’t get the students on task enough with a particular concept, and instead chose to share a story, or have them share a story about something that’s more life related? Will this lower score then hurt them, on, say, an application for a scholarship or college. Did I essentially hurt my students’ life chances because I chose to deviate from the hundreds of academic concepts I am required to try and get my students to learn by state exam time?

  5. A good argument for longer school days and years? Our kids go to school 50 days less per year than students in Shanghai and elsewhere…

    “And then one day you find
    Ten years have hot behind you
    No one told you when to run
    You missed the starting gun.”

    Time, Pink Floyd

    1. Yes and those children are reported to be suffering acute anxiety disorders and depression at alarming rates. More drawn out days of RTTT can’t be the answer here….

  6. I haven’t read Doug Lemov’s “seminal book”, but, based on your description, hopefully if it hasn’t already been discredited, it soon will be. The constant need for “measurable results” is so damaging to so many people of all ages; it’s trying to constantly quantify many things that cannot be quantified. Worse that that, if often forces otherwise intelligent people to throw common sense out the window. I look forward to someday reading “Teach Like a Human,” maybe by you. Or, given how unsustainable the methods described above are, by Doug Lemov.

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