Teachers and Time by Dr. Bethany Kelly

There are so many sayings about time; we can have it on our hands, be running out of it, be in the nick of it, it can fly, it can heal, and it can certainly be a-changing. In schools it is a precious commodity, it is actually a place where time costs money. Our lives are so regimented by time in education, we even have a different year to the rest of the world – they have a boring old calendar year, and we get to have an academic year. Within that we have that time neatly divided up into terms, that gets divided up into half terms, weeks and if that isn’t enough, we then divide our week into lessons. Our time is planned for us, so it is no wonder that many teachers feel that they don’t have enough time. ‘Where will I find the time to do this?’  Ownership of time is taken away from us, it feels like everyone else gets to decide how we spend our time. Terms become whirlwinds and we spin around from INSET day until we are waving off our pupils and collecting thank you cards. It is something that I have thought about a lot throughout my career and now find myself speaking about with teachers during training sessions.

At one point, nearly twenty years ago, when I was a very busy Head of Department teaching in London, I thought a lot about time. School days were long, it was a busy school with lots of events and then added onto that travelling to and from school, time seemed to disappear quite easily. I came across a book called ‘Ten Thoughts about Time’ by the Swedish physicist and philosopher Bodil Jonsson. Probably one of things that had attracted me to the book was the connection to Alice in Wonderland. The cover then featured the White Rabbit who, like many teachers, spends they existence running around chasing time. The next thing that appealed to me about Jonsson’s approach was that he said we had to begin our thinking about time by not being so ‘depressed about it’. Certainly, the years since I first read his book have brought a focus on growth mindsets and now it makes even more sense to apply this to our thinking about time. If you think you will never come to the end of your To Do list, then you probably never will. If you think you won’t have enough time to achieve work/life balance, then you will probably end up being right. Negativity about time can eat away at you and with current focus on staff well-being it is important to recognise the damage that this can do to you. Much to my delight Jonsson quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer (see my blog on Bonhoeffer here) on the power of optimism. If Bonhoeffer can write this as he was imprisoned awaiting his execution it is a challenge to all of us about our ability to be positive about time.

In essence, optimism is not an evaluation of a given situation, but a life-force. A force that enables you to hope when others have resigned and gives you strength to endure disappointments. A force that will not let go of the future and leave it hands of the pessimists, but annexes it in the name of hope. (Jonsson, 1999, p156f)

Jonsson goes on to categorise time and gives many practical approaches to developing a better relationship with time, for example, thinking about ‘set up time’, ‘thinking time’ and how we like to sometimes work with divided time and at other points prefer undivided time. I would warmly recommend this book still today, nearly twenty years later, as a thought-provoking guide to aid reflection on how we use time. When I first read the book, it did not stay as a nice set of interesting ideas, instead I applied them to my context, considering the kind of person I was and how I felt about time. For example, I am definitely a morning person, my brain functions far more efficiently earlier in the day. I’m afraid I could never be someone marking into the wee small hours because it would look like a child’s scribble across the page, so I looked at how i was using my day. The book also made me consider the value of thinking time, especially at times when we feel we have no control over our day, for example invigilation!

The bigger impact of reading the book at that time was that I was one of the school’s timetablers and I realised that perhaps the timetable itself was something that could take account of the differences amongst teachers. I was lucky to learn how to do timetabling from scratch from an expert (thank you Helen!) and we used software to aid our thinking and not the other way round. Even if you have never been a timetabler yourself I think it is vital for Senior Leaders or those aspiring to leadership to understand the process, as it still one of the best ways to get to grips with the workings of a school.  Not least because it is through that process you have a clear understanding of the financial cost of time in schools.

Finally, something everyone appreciates in schools is when people make time for you especially when we recognise its rarity as a commodity. Feedback is more meaningful, thanks feel more sincere, listening is more valued. To be the recipient of someone spending time with you can make a difference to our own development and progress as teachers. Sometimes wasting time can be just the tonic you need in our stressful world. There is so much to consider when it comes to our own thoughts about time. Don’t miss out on the benefits of pausing to reflect on what time means to you because you are the white rabbit running around in a state of perpetual lateness. Or to put it another way:

Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its brevity. Jean de La Bruyère.

By Dr. Bethany Kelly

Director of Programmes, Faculty of Education, University of Buckingham

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