Time is a teacher’s best frenemy.
We are constantly strapped for it. We run out of it in lessons. We teach our students the skill of keeping to it in exams. We wish it away when longing for the weekend or counting down to the next half term. We don’t have it for even basic things like when we need to pee!
In an article about ‘Why You Have no Time’, author Derek Thompson argues, ‘to solve the problems of overwork and time starvation, we have to recognize both that individuals have the agency to make small changes to improve their lives and that, without broader changes to our laws and norms and social expectations, no amount of overwork will ever be enough.’
At CST, we’ve tried to make some ‘broader changes’ - for example, our 4.5 day week, 3 week Christmas break, taking away formal lesson observations, performance management and student report writing - and whilst we have felt the benefits of these changes, why doesn’t it feel like we have more time?
Parkinson’s Law is the adage that work will expand to fill the time allotted for its completion. This plays out every year with ‘gain’ time from exam classes - it can seem like the only thing we gain is more work!
Thompson, in this podcast, argues that whilst there are legitimate ways to become more efficient and get more things done in ‘less’ time, on some level, we must accept that we won’t ever achieve this utopia of ‘having lots of time’. Once we can accept this, we can focus on the things that matter the most.
The things that matter the most
At CST, we have identified some of the things that matter the most to us: one of them is our explicit direct instruction playbook. We know that if we use it to get a little better everyday, our students will get the best deal in our schools and beyond.
But when we’re time-poor (which we are, all of the time), it sometimes feels like there’s a lot to get better at every day!
100 things 1% better
In Atomic Habits, James Clear uses the British cycling team to exemplify the idea of 100 things, 1% better. After hiring their new performance director, Dave Brailsford in 2003, the team went from winning just 1 gold medal in the last 100 years to winning 70% of the gold medals available in the 2012 Olympics.
Brailsford’s method was a simple one; what he described as the aggregation of marginal gains: 1% improvement in everything you do.
He broke down the sport to every component he could think contributed to their performance and looked to improve each thing by 1%: from obvious things like changing tyres and wearing lighter cycling gear to less obvious things like learning to wash hands better to reduce the risk of getting ill and buying better pillows to improve the quality of the sleep of each rider.
In teaching, it can feel like we are doing 100 things a minute. In fact, we probably come close to it. Let’s take the example of dismissing a class. I will attempt to do what Brailsford did and break down every component of the task for it to be done well:
Finish the lesson on time (that in itself comprises many more components…)
Stand at the front centre of the class
Call a 10 second countdown to ensure a quick pack up routine
Begin the pack up routine
Instruct the class to stand behind chairs in SLANT
Issue a golden ticket
Remind the class of corridor expectations
Move to threshold
Dismiss row by row
Keep one eye on the corridor and one eye on the class
Greet back students who greet you
Sanction students who are not following corridor expectations
I could go on and I am sure the above list could be broken down into even smaller components.
Consider how well you did any number of those things at the start of this academic year and compare yourself to now. Ask yourself, which one(s) are you better at now compared to earlier on this year?
Which one(s) could you be 1% better at?
Maybe your 10 second countdown could be slicker? Perhaps you need to be explicit about a pack up routine with your class to make it faster? Maybe you forget to remind your class of corridor expectations as you dismiss them?
Clear says, ‘improving by 1% isn’t particularly notable—sometimes it isn’t even noticeable—but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding.'
The goal of the British cycling team didn’t change. Nor did the time they had to achieve their goal.
As teachers, our goal remains the same: being better in our practice every day so that our students get the best deal in their education. Thanks to Parkinson’s Law, the time we have to achieve our goal is not likely to change either.
Our best bet to achieve our goal is the aggregation of marginal gains.
What are the 1% improvements in your teaching practice?
Identify them. Get to work on them. With ‘gain’ time around the corner and the summer holidays 5 weeks away, time remains our frenemy. Let’s get to it.