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“Teachers don’t have time…”

November 22, 2009

I think this is turning into a series of posts on typical reasons why schools will say they can’t integrate social skills training into their curriculum.  It didn’t start out that way, but after the first post (“It’s not the school’s job…”) I had a reader ask the following question:

Some people think that teachers are too busy as it is, and should not be wasting time on social skills. How would you respond to this claim?

Good question…and it IS a common reason for why schools say they can’t take on “yet another curriculum.”

There’s no debate that teachers have a lot on their plates these days. There’s lesson planning and prep time, continuing ed time, “in-service” training days, meetings with school administrators and principals…oh, yeah, and then “teaching” time, too.

Which is what teachers are supposed to be doing. It’s what they were trained to do and it’s what they want to be doing.

We hear about how teachers have to spend too much time with meetings and planning and such, but what we don’t hear about is the thing that is taking more time away from them than all the other things combined — classroom disruption and dealing with student discipline.

It’s a significant issue that sadly doesn’t get nearly enough attention.  How much time is being lost? Well, depending on your source, it’s anywhere from 30-40-50% or more of teaching time.  Back in 2004, Public Agenda published a study that stated 43% of the teachers they surveyed said they were spending more time on managing classroom behavior and discipline than they were on teaching ( “Where Are We Now?” ).  Other reports set the amount of time spent on dealing with disruptive students at about 35-40%.

But, try to ask the teachers how much teaching time is lost on behavior management and the reports vary: many teacher’s instant reaction is to say THEY have no problem managing students.  Other teachers say it’s so bad that they are lucky to get 15 minutes of actual teaching time out of an average 45-minute teaching period because, in her words, she’s so busy “contending” with students’ behavior and issues.  You may say that this depends on the teacher’s ability and experience in managing student behavior, but the last comment came from a teacher who’d been teaching middle-school kids for over 15 years.

The challenge is that too often teachers are reluctant to admit how bad things really are in their classroom because they are worried about being labelled as “bad” or “ineffective teachers.” That it’s their problem if they can’t deal with the level of disruption in their class.  Other teachers have just become immune to the level of noise in their classrooms — they have just come to accept that this is normal, and that it’s just “kids being kids.”  But, it IS a big deal.  Just recently, The Apple published results of their study about the 7 biggest challenges teaachers face. Care to hazard a guess which was #1?  “Dealing with bad student behavior.”  The recent report from Public Agenda, too, backed this up when it showed that 40% of teachers were “disheartened” and classroom disruption and student behavior was the primary cause.

It does not need to be this way, and, frankly, it shouldn’t be this way. If 30% of time of productive teaching time is being lost, that is literally time that is being robbed from both teachers and students.

Let’s put it in perspective:  30% of the average 180 day school calendar is 60 DAYS. That’s 60 days that students could be learning, that teachers could be teaching.  When you juxtapose that with the other arguments about lengthening the school day or year, wouldn’t it just be easier to work on regaining some of that time we’re already losing.  I mean, do you think we’d have better academic outcomes if we could get back 30-45 productive days of those 60 we are losing? What about other “benefits” such as happier teachers, less bullying and anti-social behavior, fewer days missed to absenteeism (both student and teachers), and more?

Can’t be done, many will say. Yes, it can — and it’s been proven to work.  Let’s pretend for a moment that I ask you to spend one hour a week teaching social skills to students that works in a fully-integrated fashion in-step with academics?  One hour a week is the same as 36 hours over the school year (yes, I know not all school week’s are full 5-day weeks, but let’s keep this simple, shall we?).  That’s roughly the same as 6 days, over the course of a year, if you assume only a 6-hour school day. You’re presently losing as much as 60 days of the year, as it is. If you could “invest” 6 days out of the year to regain 25 productive days of teaching time, would that be worth it?  And, that’s what we’ve found — at 40% or more increase in student time-on-task when integrated social skills education is brought into the classroom.

So, when we talk about “gee, we don’t have the time” to teach social skills, I’d argue that we not ony HAVE the time ,we must offer it in order to make best use of the time we do have.  If we could cut down the level of disruption and poor behavior in the classroom, we’d have more time to teach.  Students who are paying attention instead of mucking around are more likely to learn — and they aren’t going to wreck the learning of those students who really do want to do their best. Teachers who are able to spend more time teaching and less time “babysitting” will feel more productive.  And the bottom line is, with the Race to the Top funding emphasizing “teacher effectiveness” it’s clear that many people are concerned about the same thing.

“We don’t have time” is another common reason we hear for why schools don’t think they can bring in social skills education. But, if we can turn wasted time into productive time — without increasing the number of hours or days students and teachers have to spend in the classroom — don’t you think this is time well spent? It’ll do more for you than trying, one more time, to drill math rules or grammar into an audience who isn’t focused and ready to learn. You can’t teach them until they are paying attention, not matter how good you are.  Let’s give our teachers a break and give them the tools to be effective, at the same time we are determined to grade them on that “effectiveness.”

BTW: I’m very open to hearing from more teachers on what they think and what their experiences are.  Please send this link to any teacher you may know and ask them to weigh in…you can also email me directly at if you don’t want to comment in the blog.


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