Saturday, March 30, 2019

Squeezing the Clock

Put this on my list of Things I've Noticed Since Retiring From The Classroom.

In a teaching day, every single second counts. Teachers squeeze the clock till it screams. Five minutes left in the period? Just enough time to review the main concept from yesterday. Three minutes between classes? More than enough time to pee and swing by the office to pick up my mail. Twenty-five minute lunch period? If I get my eating done in ten minutes, then I have time to make some copies, answer three parent e-mails, check my phone messages, and finish making up a test for tomorrow.

You know you're operating at a fast clip when you're still in it, but like many things about teaching, you just don't realize how very hard you are working at using every minute of your day. Ask a civilian how long X will take, and the answer is, "I don't know-- about five or ten minutes?" Ask a teacher and the answer is, "Three minutes. Four if someone asks a question." Five or ten minutes? To a teacher that is crazy inaccurate, a difference of an entire five minutes. Five minutes! Do you have any idea what I can do with five minutes?!

And I'm talking about a high school setting. Ask an elementary teacher how long it takes them to pee and the answer will be, "It takes until I get home after school."

This is one of the things about teaching that non-teachers just don't get. If you have an office job and someone says, "Hey, I want you to work in this little project some time this week-- it should just take a half an hour or so," then nobody gets excited because, hey, you can always find a spare thirty minutes here or there. But teachers are desperately sick to death of all the politicians, policy makers, administrators, and public spirited folks who propose, "Here's a worthwhile thing to do-- let's just have teachers add it to their classroom. It won't take much time out of their day." If teachers are feeling polite or restrained (or just resigned) they'll smile and say, "Sure. Sure. Just send me the materials." If they're feeling undiplomatic they will say, "Sure. Please tell me exactly what you want me to cut, because every damn second of my day between now and July is spoken for." And we're not talking about blocks of "an hour or so." Teacher time is measured out in minutes. It is one of those things that you just don't get if you haven't been there.

And God bless and defend teachers from the parents who call to say, "I'll just take a minute of your time" and then take thirty.

Being at home with the Board of Directors is different. If I try to measure out time in minutes, all I do is increase my own blood pressure, because for the twins, everything takes as long as it takes (as one parenting site wag noted, "Sorry we were late, but we had to get from the house to the car.") All times are measured in "arounds." It will take around this much time for them to eat lunch and around this much time to go down for naps, and they will keep napping for around this time. When I said "ten minutes" as a teacher, that meant ten minutes; now "ten minutes" means "somewhere between five minutes and an hour."

I know that I could have used more of this in the classroom, that at times I had to step back and check myself before I started thinking that my students were an obstacle to the proper following of the schedule. But it's still a bit of an adjustment shock to realize that I can now glide through hours without noting the time, when a few years ago my world suffered a major upheaval when class periods went from 43 minutes to 40 minutes.

Every once in a while it's a useful skill (while the boys are eating a banana is enough time to start a load of laundry), but it's kind of tiring and stressful to push push push, and I wonder how much stress and tension teachers operate under, how much teacher healthy is hit by swimming in a slightly toxic soup of being pushed pushed pushed by the clock, by fighting with that clock to squeeze every second out of it. I have renewed respect for the teachers I have known who were able to stand their ground and maintain a steady human pace even if, of course, they're seen as not working hard enough.

This is yet another reason that teachers should have lives outside of school; it helps them stay in touch with the part of the world that isn't squeezing minute by minute out of the clock. It is okay to remember to breathe. Just don't use more than, say, two and a half minutes for it.


  1. Count me among the undiplomatic teachers. One of my happiest moments was yesterday, when my content colleague stopped in my room on her way out to show me she was not taking home any work. I had been pushing her for a long time to stop doing that. For context, both of us work from 6 AM to 4 PM every day school is in session. That is enough. Ann Landers said no one can take advantage of you unless you give them permission. It is time teachers, one and all, stopped giving permission.

  2. "If you have an office job and someone says,...."

    Look, I get it. Teaching is hard and stressful and takes every second of every day. I sympathize. But you lose people when you act like teaching is the *only* job like that and no one else (especially those office workers!) can understand what you go through.

    I don't know if you're aware of what's happened in the private sector while you've been handling the crises in the education sector, but it hasn't been pretty out here either. Companies have merged left and right specifically so that jobs can be eliminated. People are usually doing jobs that used to be done by three or four different people. "Technology" is an excuse because everything is "easier" now, but it really just means that there's more to do because everything can be done that much faster now.

    I am an office worker and I'll tell you that I really *don't* have an extra thirty minutes to squeeze in yet another project that someone thinks I should do. I reached that limited a couple decades ago, just like you did. But, just like teachers do, I somehow find a way to make every new project happen. You'd be better off recognizing that the problem is neoliberalism, not teaching.

    1. Most of my family works outside education, so I'm aware of what's going on-- particularly in the medical field. I may have overstated my case, but my experience is that most non-ed folks don't get it. That may simply speak to the limits of my experience, or to another factor which I failed to include-- the degree to which teachers do not control their own schedule. I don't know that teaching is worse than other types of crunch jobs (nursing definitely comes to mind as a nominee for worst) but it's definitely different. That's all I meant to capture, no disrespect intended to other jobs that are crunched in their own rotten ways.

  3. Kids are also pushed, pushed, pushed, and heaven help them if their minds were on lunch or anything else during those precious five minutes the teacher was able to maximize.