On teaching as a zero sum game
Time is of finite supply and every action has a cost
I’ve been thinking lately about our most precious and expensive resource - teacher time. We don’t think about it enough and it’s fraught with paradoxes. On one hand, our salaries don’t give much of an indication of expected hours of work, with the Gallop review revealing that teachers are working around 55 hours per week. Any discussion of holidays is contentious to say the least. And because teacher time never costs any extra in the form of overtime, we stretch to fit, with additional compliance and welfare duties each year. In this sense, teacher time is considered infinite. And despite the fact that we are highly accountable for student outcomes, teacher productivity in relation to this core function, has not (as far as I know) been thoroughly investigated.
So what if I said that teaching really is a zero sum game? What if looking at how teacher time is spent, rather than just hours worked, holds the key to improving outcomes, teacher wellbeing and productivity? A day of compliance - where we learn that we can’t come to school drunk or accept expensive gifts from parents - costs us one day of professional development that could improve our practice. When we add an area of responsibility to a teacher’s role, what do we lose? Time to do things better, energy and enthusiasm for lesson planning, even great teachers who might leave the classroom in frustration or exhaustion.
We rarely look at productivity as a goal. Elon Musk’s productivity rules would be considered radical in many school settings. When could a meeting item have been an email? Have you ever completed professional development that was irrelevant but asked to attend in the interest of ‘equity’? How many times have you heard the phrase, ‘Because we’ve always done it this way?’ Has your school calendar ever been audited? I take no issue with the amount of hours I work. It’s largely my choice. And I’m in the privileged position of being at a school that recognises the value of teacher time. But I do take issue with the industry-wide lack of scrutiny of our most valuable resource and I think a shift to a zero sum collective mindset would be a good start.
On time in the classroom
One area that I think we can agree is a zero sum game is instructional time. Again, I think it needs greater consciousness and I want to raise some questions here. These are dichotomies, yes. But I don’t think they are false dichotomies when we take into account the scarcity of teacher time. As Harry Nilsson said, ‘A point in every direction is the same as having no point at all.’ Here are some of these questions that we might be forced to consider:
In relation to pedagogical strategy, what is the time cost of discovery learning vs direct instruction? What time is potentially lost for revision, feedback and intervention?
Conversely, what learning opportunities are lost when gifted students are given a meat-and-potatoes curriculum and suffer from a lack of choice?
Should we be spending time pruning our programs, being more prescriptive with scripted lessons, or trusting teachers to make day-to-day judgements about their cohorts?
What if a gain in ‘relatability’ or ‘engagement’ from text choices brings with it a loss of opportunity to build knowledge, cultural literacy and vocabulary? This is something I have written about here.
What if raising the average does nothing to close the gap between students, and what if closing the gap does nothing to extend the top?
We are seeing the ‘iceberg’ in the distance, with high rates of teacher attrition and fewer top grads aspiring to be teachers. We also know that teachers make the difference. The problem is twofold. As an industry, how do we help teachers spend more time doing what they have been trained to do? And as leaders, how can we streamline our processes and articulate a vision about what’s important in our settings?
I will leave the answers, for now, to better minds than mine. I would love to hear from you in the comments or on Twitter. Thanks to Sally Larsen for sending me down this rabbit hole!
If you would like to time travel to simpler days, please enjoy this track from The Point.