A Meditation on Time (in Schools): A Constellation of Thoughts

We’re delighted to welcome guest blogger, Eric Chandler, who serves as Director of Upper School at Kent Denver, a GOA member school in Colorado. Eric also just completed our Blending Leadership course, where we first met his compelling writing on time in schools. We knew his insights would be valuable to many and are grateful he was willing to write further about the omnipresent challenge of time. 

In some ways I have nothing to say—awed as I am by the immensity of the topic, Time (in Schools). And in another way, I have too much: an infinitude it seems of thoughts and connections that I am continuing to process.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that the question of time—how to use it—is central to the entire enterprise of education for all of us involved: students, parents, teachers, and administrators. We often talk about it in specific contexts, especially when considering a school calendar or schedule, the homework load of students, the role of extracurricular pursuits, the over-programming of students, the need for family life, the workload of faculty, or the demands on administrators. It seems that at times we in independent schools talk out of two sides of our mouths: we acknowledge challenges with our use of time and yet we continue doing what we have always done, perhaps even more so. The most honest acknowledgement of time’s challenges for schools I heard from a candidate for an administrative job: “we can schedule anything; we just can’t schedule everything.”

In a Global Online Academy course, Blending Leadership, the nineteen participants were asked to identify “the three most critical challenges you think school leaders are facing right now.” Eleven identified “Time.” One participant wrote simply, “never enough.”

Anxiety about time—its use and management and relationship with personal efficiency—is rampant in our culture and world. In his excellent article “Why Time Management is Ruining our Lives: All of Our Efforts to be More Productive Backfire—and Only Make us Feel Busier and More Stressed,” Oliver Burkeman observes,

Most of us have experienced this creeping sense of being overwhelmed: the feeling not merely that our lives are full of activity—that can be exhilarating—but that time is slipping out of our control. And today, the personal productivity movement…which promises to ease the pain with time-management advice tailored to the era of smartphones and the internet—is flourishing as never before….The quest for increased personal productivity—for making the best possible use of your limited time—is a dominant motif of our age.

His thesis: “techniques” promoted by a massive personal time management industry and “designed to enhance one’s personal productivity seem to exacerbate the very anxieties they were meant to allay. The better you get at managing time, the less of it you feel that you have.” Burkeman does not discuss the relationship of this insight to schools and the lives of kids and families. And perhaps that is the problem: our inclination often is not to see how the world of school reflects the world outside of school.

In his TEDTalk, “In Praise of Slowness” (2005), Carl Honoré approaches time from the standpoint of speed:

In the headlong dash of daily life, we often lose sight of the damage that this roadrunner form of living does to us. We are so marinated in the culture of speed, that we almost fail to notice the toll it takes on every aspect of our lives, on our health, our diet, our work, our relationships, the environment, and our community. And sometimes it takes a wake up call, doesn’t it, to alert us to the fact that we are hurrying through our lives instead of actually living them, that we are living the fast life instead of the good life. And I think for many people that wake up call takes the form of an illness, a burnout….

And the culture of speed affects kids, too: “It is not just these days adults, though, who are overworked; it is children, too….I look at kids now and I am just amazed at how they race around with more homework, more tutoring, more extracurriculars that we would have ever conceived of a generation ago.” So not just adults…kids, too, with adults providing the speed infrastructure for their race for greater achievement, longer activity lists, and increasingly elusive admissions to name-brand colleges.

One of my ah-has as I have sought to navigate my relationship with time is appreciating its psychological dimension. We don’t experience time directly, but through the mediation of our mind. Our psychological state and perception of things can make us feel that we have more time or less. Gandhi is often quoted as saying paradoxically, “I have so much to do today that I am going to meditate for two hours instead of one.” Those who practice mindfulness know the multiple layers to this quotation. No matter how busy we are, we need to take time for self-care. We also need to gain perspective on our own thoughts: the anxiety of having a lot to do can magnify the sense of not enough time in which to do it, and for some, this can become paralyzing.

As I searched for references to the Gandhi quote, I found it used in an article by Philip Goldberg, “You Know You Should Meditate, So Why Don’t You?” Goldberg points to the acknowledgement that mediation has become a widely recognized self-care practice with many admitting that, yes, they should do it (like eating well, exercising regularly, and flossing) but don’t because of a…“lack of time.”

We don’t do something because we do not have time. No Time! No Time No Time! Gotta keep doing what I have always done because I have no time to do anything else. Schools can sometimes feel this way.

In Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, Ron Ritchhart identifies “Time” as one of the forces and addresses it in a chapter promisingly subtitled, “Learning to be Its Master Rather Than Its Victim.” His broad goal is that in our classrooms, our students should be actively thinking—not being told what to think. Thinking is not note-taking and memorization. Thinking is having voice, grappling with ideas, collaborating, discussing, debating, and solving real problems. Making a classroom a thinking opportunity for students requires pedagogical change and adoption of deliberate practices. And it makes sense that when presented with the prospect of that change, teachers, while completely applauding the goal of thinking, may feel daunted, especially with the sense that they have too much content to get through and not enough time to do it.

Ritchhart, addresses these points in his chapter:

  • Recognizing time [how you use it] as a statement of your values
  • Learning to prioritize and always prioritize learning
  • Giving thinking time
  • Investing in time to make time
  • Managing energy, not time

These are important insights: especially the idea that how we use time and what we prioritize convey our values. Later, acknowledging the challenges of time in our world a la Honoré, and distancing himself from the easy prescriptions to which Burkeman ironically points, Ritchhart notes,

I present no magic bullets that will suddenly resolve all of the pressures our modern age places on us as individuals or on schools as institutions. Instead, what you will find in this discussion are approaches to and ways of thinking about time that may help you feel more in control and proactive as you seek to leverage time as a cultural force. (96)

Pretty much what Ritchhart asserts, even aggressively, is if you think kids should be thinking, really thinking in class, than you will make time for it as a teacher, no matter what your institutional context is. You may not control everything, but you do have some control, and time, to pursue what you think is best for students.

In a KQED News segment,“How To Ensure Students Are Actively Engaged and Not Just Compliant,Katrina Schwartz talks to John Almarode, associate professor at James Madison University and co-director of the school’s Center for STEM Education and Outreach, on educational innovation and reports, “Almarode realizes that his suggestions and strategies around engagement often feel to teachers like one more thing to do.” Indeed. However, he pivots to insist that administrators be mindful of how they use, or use up, the time of their faculty:

He believes everyone within the profession needs to be better at filtering out demands on teacher time that aren’t the most important for classroom learning. He said it’s time to let go of old structures like math time in the morning or long staff meetings to go over procedures. When time is precious, it should be spent collaborating, reflecting, improving and prepping. Administrators have a crucial job in protecting teachers’ time, not adding to a long list of things they ‘should do.’

To administrators now, it is again a question of what is prioritized and what are the implied values in those priorities. And the prescription—”When time is precious, it should be spent collaborating, reflecting, improving, and prepping”—comes close to what we are hoping for our students in our classes for them.

In Blending Leadership: Six Simple Beliefs for Leading Online and Off, Stephen Valentine and Reshan Richards suggest that technology offers “blended” school leaders the possibility of saving everyone time. In their chapter, “Blended Leaders Challenge Meeting Structures and Change Meeting Structures,” they, too, ask the question if meetings need to be had if the same business could be handled another way, asynchronously or synchronously, using technology tools. They cheerfully assert, “leaders do two things for us”: “save us this—TIME” and “help us share this—TALENT.” They call time “sacred” as “the one thing you can’t get more of.” And they point to talent as “a gift that only has value when shared.” And technology “gives more options for organizing ourselves around the common meeting tasks of (1) sharing information, (2) solving problems, (3) following up on work, (4) planning” (91).

The imperative is if one is going to have a meeting, then it must be worthwhile, useful, and compelling—like our classes. Meetings cannot be had just to have them or because they are what’s always been done. In a sense conventional meetings like these are busy meetings, analogous to “busy work”—the homework that gets assigned to kids because of the misguided sense that kids should always have homework and any homework is better than no homework at all. Valentine and Richards offer an instructive term for the condition of experiencing busy meetings: “meetingocrity”—that is, “mediocrity by meetings, pulling us away from other, more meaningful work” (93). As a meeting organizer, we surely have achieved meetingocrity when participants can ask, “Why wasn’t this information simply delivered in an email?”

Valentine and Richards’ thoughtful work is not without tensions. They point to various helpful and practical technology tools, such at Twitter for networking (seeking ideas and resources outside of our immediate institution), Google Docs for collaborating, and learning management systems for institutional management. They are, indeed, good tools. And yet, as I, and others, read about them, part of us recoils: Great, another thing I have to learn to use. Another thing I have to manage, keep track of, and check. Burkeman’s article in part humorously focuses on the struggles people have had with managing just their email and the false promise of the Inbox Zero movement, which seemed to offer some salvation but ended up only creating greater email fixation and anxiety. And I suspect we have all experienced reading that email sent by a colleague or supervisor at some absurd hour of the evening or early morning and feeling that pang of guilt that we are responding so late while simultaneously admiring the sender for the ability to seemingly thrive with a 24-hour sense of duty and apparently without any need of sleep.

Valentine and Richards anticipate the recoil and point to mindsets or capacities, such as the “individual absorptive capacity”—”the ability of employees to identify, assimilate, and exploit new ideas,” (21), principles and imperatives of leadership, such as “leaders look out for their organizations by looking out of their organizations,” (26), and choices, such as “there is a wrong answer…avoiding choice or pretending it does not exist” (147). And in their penultimate chapter, “Blended Leaders Keep the Off-Ramp Open and Use it Frequently,” they talk about…breathing, meditation, mindfulness—taking the time to disconnect, to focus, to be present, and to be aware of one’s own default settings in managing time and technology.

At Kent Denver, an amazing scheduling innovation happened this year in that spirit. The administration offered the faculty a combined work and wellness day. It was scheduled just after the first set of comments were due. This was also the time that most faculty had to pound out college recommendations. It is always a challenging time of the year: mid-fall semester, with the days getting shorter and the reality of the school year kicking in with various assessments to be graded. People are fatigued and morale can run thin. We have always had a professional development day around this time (the tradition), just before our fall break. But the faculty had asked for…time. Time to get caught up, to think, to recalibrate. So the administration gave time. The day was unstructured, and the invitation was “use it as needed.” If you needed to catch up on planning or preparation or grading, do so. If you needed to meet with others, you could. The only requirement of the day was to spend it on campus. In addition to time, there were a few appreciation opportunities: a espresso bar in the morning, a lunch at noon, chair massages in the afternoon, and a reception at the end of the day. The faculty was delighted and felt appreciated and heard.

Also this year, our school worked with Challenge Success to administer to our students the Stanford Survey of Adolescent School Experiences. One of the many insights Challenge Success has is that in the minds of students, all homework becomes busy work when too much of it is assigned (over two and a half hours a night for high schoolers). This is critical: if there is too much homework, even if most of it is thoughtfully assigned by caring instructors, all of it becomes corrupted for our students. The perception of homework’s value thus has a subjective element to it, and it is related to time, a sense of control, and a sense of fairness. This, perhaps, is analogous to how teachers experience time and the various demands placed on their time. In part, external conditions affect one’s inner life, perception and experience.

Prescriptions are always problematic. Sometimes they feel smug. Sometimes they seem easier said than done. Sometimes they feel like a false promise. Yet some offer potential tools and choices. The imperative is to recognize that in dealing with the challenges of time we do have to explore tools and make choices. As Valentine and Richards insist, we cannot avoid these challenges or pretend that they do not exist. We need to make time to manage time thoughtfully, mindfully. And we need to manage time to make time. We can make time and think about its use differently. And that begins with prioritizing what we value and eliminating what we don’t.

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