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Time for Teachers in School Restructuring

by Joseph Cambone - 1995

Time for teachers cannot be readily constructed and scheduled by reformers. Teachers need to construct their own time. The article examines different kinds of time for teachers, arguing that much of school reform will fail if it ignores the multiple constructs, boundaries, rhythms, and patterns of time for teachers. (Source: ERIC)

This article asserts that time for teachers is not an easily defined commodity. It cannot readily be constructed and scheduled for them by reformers or administrators. There are many kinds of time for teachers, each constructed by teachers themselves, shaped to serve different needs, and tightly interrelated with other types of time. Drawing on theoretical writings about time and reports from schools that are trying to restructure, this article delineates these different kinds of time for teachers, and explores their interrelationship. It argues that a multitude of school reforms are bound to wither if they ignore the multiple constructs, boundaries, rhythm, and patterns of time for teachers.

“We need more time to do the work of restructuring our school.” Repeatedly we hear this plea for more time in the documentation and reports from myriad efforts at altering the ways American schools structure their activities. Classroom teachers are finally faced with the exciting prospects of school revitalization, and many school staffs across the country have begun searching for ways to find time for teachers to do the important work of restructuring while they continue to teach. All kinds of methods are employed. However, even in those schools where time has been found for restructuring work, among teachers there remains a feeling that it still is not enough. Inevitably, the work quickly surpasses the time allotted. Time, adequate in quantity and rich in quality, is elusive. If we can find more time, we nevertheless seem to say, we will be able to successfully meet the task of restructuring schools. Why, despite all the efforts to manage it, does time for teachers in school restructuring remain so elusive?

In this article, I argue that without a fundamental change in the ways we conceptualize time, especially for teachers, our best efforts at teacher participation in school reform will probably wither. To date, reformers have focused their attention too tightly on ways to schedule or manage time that allows for school restructuring activities, and they have missed an important fact: Often externally imposed schedules actually work against teacher participation in school restructuring. Teacher time is not just a thing that is scheduled for them. Time is something that is constructed to a large extent by the individuals who live that time. Indeed, in their densely packed work lives, teachers construct their time both within and outside of the time scheduled for them, and they use that time in highly differentiated ways. There are different kinds of teacher time shaped around different kinds of teacher needs, and each kind of time is interrelated with another in much the same way as the gears of an old-fashioned clock. To understand time for teachers, we must investigate the systems and subsystems of time that work together—or do not—as teachers manage their work lives. By deepening our understanding of the multiple meanings of time for teachers, its construction and use, we may better assist teachers as they take activist roles in school restructuring.

In what follows, I posit different types of time that teachers construct, and the ways these time constructs mesh to form time for teachers. I begin by elaborating several general theories about time and time in schools. Next, I explain the teacher constructs for time that emerge from key studies on school restructuring, and the meanings of these types of time for teachers are explored individually. Using various scenarios found in restructuring cases, each of the meanings of time is tested using the metaphor of teacher time as a system of meshed gears. My aim is to connect theoretical notions about time with documented examples in the literature of school restructuring. Ultimately, I suggest that recognition of the multiple constructs of teacher time can enable us to adapt innovation initiatives to the rhythm, boundaries, and understanding of time for teachers, rather than working in conflict with them.

This article draws on four sources of information: theoretical writings on the topic of time and time in schools; key findings and case reports emanating from research into selected types of school restructuring efforts; heretofore unanalyzed data from several of those same studies; and anecdotal evidence and personal communication with principal investigators in key studies around the country.

The studies of restructuring used include those conducted by the National Center for Educational Leadership (NCEL), the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST), the National Center of Innovation of the National Education Association (NEA) Mastery in Learning (MIL) project, the School Ethnography Project (SEP) of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and reports from the National Education Commission on Time and Learning (NCT&L).1


Time, we know, is relative. But what exactly does that mean? Even though it is an easy fact to memorize, it is a hard concept to understand because we tend to live by the clock. In our day-to-day existence, we are likely to forget that time is largely a collective subjectivity—an agreed-upon convention that allows us to structure our lives temporally. Yet, while our notions of time are subjective, they are nonetheless strong. When we try to rearrange time as school reformers are wont to do, that is, by changing the order of activities, adding more minutes to a period, or changing the purpose of a given time slot, we end up adjusting a phenomenon that people use to structure their thinking, indeed their very being. Thus, to restructure people’s time is actually to restructure their thinking and being.2

Time for teachers can be reviewed using three general theoretical lenses: the personal and social construction of time; time as a variable in learning and teaching; and time as a political variable. As we will see, these lenses by no means exhaust the possibilities for analysis, but they provide a starting point for the discourse on the time dilemmas of teachers.


Time can be constructed rationally, phenomenologically, and cyclically, and each construction can coexist with the others.

Technical-rational Time

When we discuss time for teachers in restructuring, we usually are referring to time construed in technical-rational terms. According to this line of thinking, once the desired ends of an activity have been determined, the means for reaching those ends can be designed scientifically and administered rationally.3 Regarding time in schools, Andy Hargreaves of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education writes that technical-rational time “is a finite resource or means which can be increased, decreased, managed, manipulated, organized, or reorganized in order to accommodate selected educational purposes.”4 Thus, as problems in school organizations arise, we believe that time can be altered administratively to meet those needs.

In schools attempting shared decision making, such as those in the NCEL and NCREST studies, usually the first order of business is to find time to meet; in schools revitalizing curriculum, time must be found to conduct research and to develop plans; in schools that focus on pedagogical change, like the Essential Schools, means must be found to extend the learning periods. With the exception of extended school day or year programs, the resource of time must be increased and managed within the confines of preexisting time boundaries, and administered with precision. Once time is made for an activity, the strong expectation is that the activity assigned that slot will be accomplished. But there is ample evidence suggesting that this is not always the case and that time assigned to a task is not always used for that task. Hargreaves points out that, in schools he has studied, the time scheduled for teacher collaboration was not always used for such.5 Yet, it is this way of conceptualizing time that has dominated the means by which reformers seek to construct time for restructuring schools.

Phenomenological Time

Time goes unused for administratively intended purposes for a panoply of reasons. Teachers and administrators construct time somewhat differently, given their differing needs, work, and preferences. It is the subjective experience and use of time that often foils its technical allocation.

Phenomenological time may be described as lived time. It is the subjective experience of time “where it has an inner duration which varies from person to person.”6 For school people, it can be captured in that experience of time that makes a forty-five-minute detention study hall longer than a class of the same clock duration spent with twenty-five highly motivated students. Phenomenological time is also intersubjective: The reformminded administrator may experience the time elapsed in implementing a new plan as considerably longer than the teachers who were asked to implement that plan.7 Thus, both the subjective and the intersubjective constructions of time play a key role in how school people come to understand time in school restructuring.

Our construction of time is intimately connected with the work we do. Much teacher activity is made up of a variety of concurrent tasks. The busy elementary teacher who is juggling relationships with different children, asking and answering questions, setting individualized tasks, and making the myriad decisions such teachers make in the course of a day experiences time in which anthropologist Edward Hall refers to as a polychronic time frame. Polychronic time is characterized by doing several things at once, the completion of transactions, a high sensitivity to context, and an orientation toward people and relationships. Hall argues that polychronic time frames are common in smaller organizations, in Lat in and Amerindian cultures, and among women. In contrast to the polychronic time frame is the monochronic time frame. Those who work within this time frame tend toward linear arrangements of activities. There is a low sensitivity to context and an emphasis on the completion of tasks, schedules, and procedures. Such time frames are characteristic of Western cultures, large organizations, and males.8

The busy school administrator may be likely to organize time using a monochronic time frame. Indeed, the larger U.S. culture places extraordinary pressure on administrators of all kinds to use time efficiently and in a linear way—in essence to become the “one minute manager.”9

It is in the juxtaposition of these two subjective time frames that we begin to see the kinds of difficulties that can arise in school reform efforts. The differing conceptualizations of time held by teachers and administrators may be closely linked to the kinds of work they are called on to do. While administrators often conceive of time as a commodity that can be managed to render tasks complete, teachers’ work is highly context-dependent and individualized. In these differing time frames, Hargreaves claims, “can be seen much of the reason for the apparent failure of administratively imposed reforms in education.”10 He offers examples from his study of preparation time for teachers to demonstrate how these two time frames can conflict. He explains instances where administrators scheduled time for teachers to “collaborate” without reference to the compatibility of the people that have been co-scheduled, or to the utility of that particular collaboration. Similarly, teachers may be scheduled to collaborate at times of day that they would prefer to use for doing other tasks—to phone parents or copy materials, and the like.

The polychronic time that teachers spend in highly complex social interactions takes considerable concentration and effort to sustain. In the dense activities of their days, teachers often sense time passing quite rapidly. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has demonstrated that people deeply involved in a project often enter a state of “flow” where time seems to pass unnoticed, and concentration is extraordinarily deep. Scientists, artists, and performers of all kinds talk of this phenomenon when they realize that they were so involved with their work that an hour or three collapsed into a few moments.11 Although many teachers do not describe their experience as one of flow, some often experience accelerated time in their classes when a demonstration or discussion “takes off” and student, teacher, and subject work in concert, only to be interrupted by the period bell. The “flow experience” is one of synergy between self and activity, and it is an experience not entirely foreign to teachers.

A different perspective on phenomenological time, that of public and private time, is illuminated by sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel in his studies of time in hospital life.12 Although public time for teachers is regulated by union contracts and by the conventions of the school day, teachers must still devise quite personal ways to delineate that time which is private and public. When and for how long a teacher will spend time grading papers, preparing lessons, counseling students, writing recommendations, or chaperoning school activities on a Friday night are decisions that depend on how teachers understand and construct their private or public time.13 Zerubaval writes, “Time functions as one of the major dimensions of social organization along which involvement, commitment, and accessibility are defined and regulated in modern society.”14The internal rules by which teachers regulate their private and public time have a bearing on whether they will relinquish any private time for school restructuring activities.

Cyclical Time

Michael Connelly and Jean Clandinin have provided an insightful analysis of Zerubavel’s work on the sociology of time to understand time in schools.15 Principal among Zerubavel’s points is that “the world in which we live is a fairly structured place” and that the structure of sociological time is cyclic.16 Connelly and Clandinin argue that the characteristics of these sociotemporal cycles are important if we are to understand time in schools, and the resistance that is engendered among school personnel when a change in schedules and calendars is implemented.

A key characteristic of sociotemporal cycles is that they have strong, resilient boundaries; in schools, the demarcations of the beginning and endings of periods, school days, and school years provide good examples of the boundaries that cannot be transgressed without incident. Often, such boundaries are invisible until they are crossed.17 Extending the school day and year or changing the schedule of the day violates these boundaries and can have a remarkably upsetting effect on the lives of school people.

Sociotemporal cycles also have structure; they have beginnings, middles, and ends, each with some sort of routine and ritual. In schools, the day begins and ends in particular ways, with both students and teachers performing quite specific tasks. Teaching periods have their structure, as do semesters, and full school years. Changes in these structures are often difficult to make. For instance, changes in the times when homeroom takes place in high school, or instituting a schoolwide program that requires everyone to read silently at 9:00 A.M., can disrupt sociotemporal structures of the day.

These sociotemporal cycles overlap, and many different cycles run concurrently. Annual, semester, monthly, weekly, and daily cycles all overlap in the life of a school, and the overlapping may vary by the job that one has. An administrator’s cycles may overlap in ways that are quite different from those of teacher, whose cycles are quite different from students’ cycles. Nevertheless, these varying yet overlapping structures begin to cohere and, played out over time, lead to a strong feeling of regularity and a deeply embedded sense or cultural rhythm in schools. Ritual and routine characterize sociotemporal cycles in schools in a most important way. When one realizes that many overlapping, highly structured cycles are routinely at work in schools, it comes as no surprise that schools are so resilient, and that time and schedules remain largely unchanged despite valiant efforts at across-the-board reforms.

As for the actual cycles in schools, Connelly and Clandinin identify ten: annual, holiday, monthly, weekly, six-day, duty, day, teacher, report, and within-class cycles. Each varies in duration, sequence, temporal location, and rate of occurrence. They also differ for participants in school life. For instance, the administrator is most likely to concern himself or herself with monthly cycles because of monthly reports of attendance or lunch receipts. However, monthly cycles do not usually impact classroom life, where other cycles hold sway. Similarly, the daily cycle of schools differs for students, teachers, and administrators, with each keeping schedules different from the other.18

Because participants in schools derive meaning from the way time is structured and used, they come to rely on the regularity and predictability of school time. By creating time for restructuring that is orthogonal to the cycles of time that are deeply embedded in the culture of schools, reformers create culturally invalid kinds of time. Such time will often end up being unused or extinguished in the day-to-day life of schools.


Time is constructed; it is also used. For teachers, time is mostly used for teaching; in the case of restructuring, it is also needed and used for learning new ideas and ways of working.

Learning Time

Restructuring requires a fair amount of time for school people to learn new concepts, skills, and attitudes. But learning new ideas or ways of working is largely a volitional activity for adults, in the sense that adults can avail themselves of new situations or ideas, or willfully avoid them. Unlike an infant or toddler whose fascination with his or her environment grows as neurological capacity grows, the adult teacher is not always so fascinated, not always easily induced to engage with new ideas. Certainly the time that is scheduled for adult learning is not always used that way, and we can easily find evidence of teachers’ doing any number of “off-task” activities at venues meant to teach some new idea or skill. There are many possible reasons for such inattentiveness, and issues of time are among them. What kind of time is needed for adult learning in restructuring? Of what quality and duration should it be? And in which contexts should it be offered?

Useful ideas can be found in the work of David Berliner of Arizona State University. Although this work has been largely concerned with predicting and controlling how children and youth learn in classrooms, the concepts of allocated time, engaged time, time-on-task, aptitude, perseverance, and pace a r e worth considering in terms of adults.19 Applied generally to such teacher learning activities as committee meetings, faculty meetings, in-service sessions, and retreat, these ideas seem crucial for understanding how change can be affected in the cognitions and, it is hoped, the actions of teachers.

Recall that allocated time is the time scheduled for the learning activity, measured usually in minutes per day, or hours a week or year. Theoretically, this is time over which participants have the least control, created as it is through administrative means. Engaged time is the amount of time during which a participant actually gives attention to whatever is being presented. Such attentiveness is differentiated from time-on-task, when a participant is engaged in a specific kind of task related directly to an outcome goal of learning. Berliner defines aptitude as the amount of time a person needs to learn under optimal conditions, whereas perseverance is the amount of time someone is willing to spend on the task. Pace is the amount of content covered in a given time period.20

Later, when learning time for teachers involved in restructuring is elaborated, we will see that it is often most difficult to engage teachers in learning about restructuring. It takes considerable time for them to become receptive to ideas, to thrash out ideological differences among themselves, and to actually attend to the tasks at hand. Moreover, because the tasks of restructuring challenge the ways in which teachers have been taught to think, they are often challenged beyond their ability to persevere. The time it takes for teachers to learn the ropes of restructuring is substantially longer than many teachers, or administrators for that matter, are willing to give.21

Curricular or Instructional Time

The concept of curricular time is a difficult one to unpack because it deals with the way time is allocated and by whom, and the way the time is used for instruction. This time is different from the time for learning teachers might need in restructuring efforts. Rather, this is the time they need to teach children.

Miriam Ben-Peretz writes of curricular time as a variation on allocated time, but where such allocations are prescribed by curriculum developers or in some cases by school boards. In Ben-Peretz’s formulation, curricular time is not planning time per se, but the time a teacher has to teach what is assigned for that day.22 A curriculum guide may suggest that a particular topic be taught in a forty-five-minute period, for instance, with fifteen minutes spent on a warm-up activity, twenty minutes on presentation, ten on review, and so on. In some ways, curricular time is the quintessence of technical-rational time, where, in Michael Apple’s terms, the conception of the curriculum is far removed from its execution.23 Curricular time that is planned a priori by the required use of basals, texts, and courses of study rankles many teachers. Frequent complaints can be heard regarding the inherent insensitivity to student learning and teacher intelligence that is built into such time.

While teachers may lament the loss of control they have over how much time they can spend on certain topics, it is also true that they demand their time to teach curriculum, regardless of who designed the curriculum originally. Teachers covet their curricular time, and many claim they simply close their classroom doors and teach what they think needs to be taught— whether a variation of the material required, or something else entirely. Regardless of the source of the curriculum, teachers want and need the time to do it. One reason teachers are reluctant to involve themselves in restructuring activities is that it removes them from teaching and limits their curricular time.

For those teachers who have the freedom to design their own curriculum, curricular time can be construed as the time it takes to conceive, research, and plan units or lessons. Teachers can design their own curricular time instead of having it crafted for them, but it comes with a cost in time that would usually be spent privately or doing other tasks. As we shall see later, this kind of curricular time is more often found outside of the teaching day or week. Teachers use Saturday mornings, weekends, and summers. Curriculum designed in this way is then piloted in instructional settings by teachers, and revised as data are returned on the effectiveness of instruction. Curricular time in this sense is planning, development, and instructional time combined.


Andy Hargreaves makes the point that in physics we have come to accept that time is relative. The fixed notion of time is a human invention and convention that we have agreed to and “most of us unquestioningly organize our lives” around it.24 In a discussion in which he draws an analogy of physical time to political time, he cites explanations of relativity offered by Stephen Hawking, explaining that time slows as we approach the speed of light; it also runs more slowly as we approach a massive body like the earth.25 Hargreaves then compares these phenomena to those who are close and far from the action of classroom life, claiming that those far from it perceive time to go more slowly than those in the thick of it. The analogy uncovers the subjective experience of participants in school reform as one imbued with politics. Those at a far point from the action of schools are often administrators or planners; those close to it are usually teachers, the actual implementors of the desired change. The administrator’s impatience for discernible change often brings about pressure on teachers to move faster and produce more. Hargreaves writes,

From their distant standpoint, they [administrators] see the classroom not in its densely packed complexity, in its pressing immediacy, as the teacher does. Rather, they see it from the point of view of the single change they are supporting and promoting . . . a change which will tend to stand out from all the other events and pressures of classroom life. Administrators see the classroom monochronically, not polychronically. And because of that, the changes they initiate and support seem to move much too slowly for their liking.26

Of course, even the teacher who is in full support of a particular program change will, in the course of the polychronic day, have his or her concentration drawn into myriad other problems and interactions. He or she will consider administrative time lines to be too aggressive, and Hargreaves claims that the teacher will work to slow things down in order to sort things through and integrate classroom efforts. This can result in administrators’ becoming more impatient for implementation, and subsequent calls for acceleration of the change process. In turn, the teacher slows down even more, and the political battle is engaged.27

This clash between administrators and teachers over how teacher time will be used, and how quickly it is used, highlights the role of power and politics in understanding time for teachers in school restructuring. Reformer or administrator notions of how teachers ought to be spending their time are often at sharp variance with how teachers prioritize and use their time. When reformers attempt to carve time out of the teaching day for restructuring meetings, they bump up against the curricular time of teachers. If only a little time is taken, there is hardly any resistance from teachers; but if the pressure for time away from teaching duties intensifies, reformers will meet with considerable resistance and a slowing of the reform process. Of course, the administrator can require that more time be used despite the resistance of teachers. Such is the prerogative of the powerful, monochronically oriented administrator, and this may be the nature of time as a political variable.

The way time is distributed among school personnel is another way in which it is a political variable in restructuring and reflects power relations in schools. Data from restructuring studies bear out that higher-status academics, such as English and history, often get greater curricular time allowances, larger staffs, and consequently more political clout. In one high school in the NCEL study, for instance, informants claimed that the English department had the largest share of curricular time, faculty, and, most importantly, power in restructuring itself. This department revamped its curriculum offerings to be on a quarterly credit system instead of the district-wide semester system. They accomplished this with the blessing of the principal, who approved of this change mostly because it was finally an indication that some shared decision making had occurred. The loud protests of the guidance department did little good, even though the resulting transcript format and credit calculations were incongruous with the rest of the district. It was left to guidance counselors to transpose English department credit into the district format.28

Political relations in schools are also apparent in the ways in which the vast majority of teacher time is scheduled for classroom work. Teachers have been traditionally tied to the classroom. When a teacher is called away from teaching in order to plan or consult, his or her status increases. But the status comes with a price, and time away from teaching responsibilities engenders conflicted feelings in teachers and administrators alike. Teachers involved in restructuring often talk about their guilt over not using their time correctly when they are away from class for meetings, or when they must get a substitute.

There are other political prices to pay. In the Coalition of Essential Schools studies and some of the NCEL school cases, teachers engaged in high-profile programs where they were given fewer students to teach, more time for planning, and fewer conventional school duties. The political fallout was significant when colleagues construed that their own time or subject matter was not as valuable as the specially treated teachers’ time and subject matter. How much time a teacher spends in classroom work is very significant to American teachers, tied as it is to issues of equal and fair treatment.29

Thus, despite reform rhetoric to the contrary, it is still understood that teacher time is to be spent teaching in classrooms for most of the day, using time-honored schedules. This is particularly true for elementary teachers, who spend virtually all of their time with students. Much of the temporal infrastructure of schools has been built around this tradition of direct and sustained contact with students, and teacher understandings of their power, status, and efficacy are intimately linked to that infrastructure. When teachers are asked to devote time to activities that have not been part of that tradition, as they are in restructuring, it necessarily creates substantial disequilibrium.30 In efforts at school restructuring, it appears to be paradoxical to ask teachers who have been thoroughly socialized into one type of political relationship to engage in new political affiliations—without changing the temporal infrastructure that supports the original power and status relationships.


Nine ways of viewing time for teachers in the context of restructuring emerge from an analysis of studies in restructuring. They are, in no particular order, time for students, time for teaching, time for learning, time for innovation, managed time, administrative time, cyclical time, political time, and experienced time. These are simultaneously experienced time constructs through which life is lived in schools; in fact, it is the nature of time for teachers that different aspects overlap and interact with each other constantly. Turning the gear of one kind of time for teachers necessarily turns another interlocked gear or gears.

Multiple gears of time are turning for teachers in an average day, in what appears to be a polychronic experience of time: A teacher meshes student time with teaching time, while somehow managing to find time for photocopying, calling a parent, and arranging a doctor’s appointment for his or her own child. The teacher is on the move, both physically and intellectually, shifting attention from task to task, trying to give each the kind of time that it needs, in the amount that can be afforded. Many teachers have a highly developed capacity for meshing their different time requirements into a well-oiled routine.

Yet frequently, teachers find themselves overloaded with demands for time as the needs of students increase, the marking period ends, or the winter holidays approach. Sometimes they are so overloaded that they experience “timelock,” where the different gears of the living clock grind to a stop, ability to attend to tasks is diminished, and almost nothing gets done.31 It is always a challenge for teachers to keep the demands of their time in precise balance, living as they do in multiple and overlapping time constructs. Into this already delicate balance, the time demands for restructuring schools have been added.


Students are the people with whom teachers spend the balance of their time and they are a prime source of teacher energy and despair. Each interaction between a student and teacher takes concentration, and teachers use tremendous energy to sustain student time. In the teacher’s polychronic day, many such interactions take place, often in tightly packed succession and most often during time originally set aside for teaching. The nature of student time appears to differ somewhat among elementary, middle school, and high school teachers. As children grow older, their teachers appear to expect that the time they spend will be less related to a student’s social and emotional needs, and will tip more toward an intellectually based relationship. In the NCEL interviews particularly, teachers mention how they are frustrated at having to deal with outside issues of students when they want most to be using their time for teaching.

For high school teachers, student-teacher time is enhanced or diminished by the cyclical time of schools, which allows room for interaction outside of teaching time. Again, the NCEL study provides a good example. In a Maine school (grades 7 through 12), teachers have been assigned advisees that they retain through all six years at the school. Protected time is built into the schedule for teachers with their twelve advisees every day. Teachers consider this a nearly sacred part of the infrastructure of the school, a sociotemporal ritual that helps them maintain the shape of their work in classrooms, and throughout school life.

There are a number of examples of time for students in the studies. Similar student-teacher interactions are reinforced in most Essential Schools, where teams work to reduce the number of students they teach to no more than eighty so that more time can be spent with teachers and students working together. In one alternative school in the NCREST study, Delancey Street Preparatory, the Shared Decision Making (SDM) team helped the school rearrange the schedule so that two hours every Wednesday afternoon were set aside for students, with one hour for activities and one for mentoring.32

However, as important as student time is to most teachers, it can be exhausting time. The more a teacher becomes involved with a student, the more thinking and planning goes into the relationship. Some Essential Schools teachers found that the workload increased tremendously as they switched their teaching to be more student-oriented. This affected their private time and their ability to manage their preparatory time, as well.

It is also true that as the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students increase, it appears that the hats a teachers wear multiply too. One teacher in an NCEL school speaks for many teachers when she explains that she has become social worker, nurse, police officer, and parent for her students in addition to being their teacher. She has begun to bring those student problems home with her, and her student time acts to corrode her private time. Thus, the cyclical time of schools, its boundaries, structure, and rhythm, is changed when more student time is sought; the private time of teachers must be redesigned in some cases; the time that teachers have management control over, such as preparatory time, also changes.


Teaching time is the actual doing of instruction, a way of construing curricular time, discussed above. It is comprised of the hours teachers spend in their classrooms, labs, studios, and workshops trying to engage students in learning, It is a huge portion of teacher time, but there is little agreement among educators on how it should be constructed or used, and who has control over those decisions.

In the technical-rational view, teaching time is a commodity that can and should be manipulated to increase student performance. But many teachers maintain that their teaching tasks extend beyond academics, and their teaching time cannot be thought of in mere instructional minutes. They claim that the time spent interacting with students about their social and emotional growth is as much a task of teaching as teaching math, science, or reading.33 Such teaching time resists measurement in minutes, and is hard to structure instrumentally, even though it is shaped within the allotted time. It is time crafted from inside the experience of teaching and learning, and it is created by the teacher in interaction with students and the material under study.34

Teaching time is a distinctly personal investment for teachers and they tend to covet it. For this reason, we often see struggles among teachers and reformers over teaching time: Some want to extend it; some want time away from it for other professional activities; some will not involve themselves in restructuring activities expressly because those activities require time away from their core activity. Teaching time defines teachers, for good or for bad, and catches them in a paradox: They are isolated from others by their time teaching, while seeing their strongest results with students borne of intensive teaching time.

In a discussion on the MIL School Renewal Network about one district’s plan to increase teacher’s nonteaching time to 50 percent, one correspondent alludes to this paradox for teachers. Some teachers in his district— elementary more than secondary, he says—are

in a panic over this one. . . . teachers [were] very concerned about spending any more time than they do already away from their kids. A high school administrator then said [to them] that they really have to learn to let go a little, for their own good. It is important to take care of themselves. Staying isolated in a classroom is not the most healthy thing to do, either personally or professionally.35

Part of the concern of elementary teachers over being away from their students may be found in the amount of overlap they experience between teaching time and student time. The developmentally oriented elementary school is qualitatively and quantitatively different in the amount of time that is spent on the fundamental socialization of children. Thus, teaching time for the elementary teacher, and increasingly for the middle school teacher, is constructed to allow time for this phenomenon. This time is different for a high school teacher, who undoubtedly spends more teaching time transmitting information. But it is not just socialization that is at issue for elementary teaching time; often the whole teaching enterprise is different, and time is constructed accordingly. One teacher on the MIL School Renewal Network recalled that her fondest memory of teaching was in a multi-age classroom where she had the same children for three years. Referring to herself as much as the children, she wrote,

I found it amazing how much we were able to slow down and relax—to think and to dream. I read aloud, we drew pictures and listened to music, we sat in the grass and wrote poems on the first lovely day of spring, we hunted for frogs in the brook for hours, and one day I remember sitting silently under a hedgerow for an hour watching ants milk aphids with the kids—and we did all the content stuff we had to do, too. . . . I think I taught at least four years worth of curriculum in three years—and I believe it was the atmosphere of unanxious expectation that great things would come in their own time.

Each teacher has had some moments like this, and it is intoxicating. The moments differ for teachers in mood or substance, depending on what they teach and at what level. But teachers work tremendously hard for those kinds of moments, and so teaching time becomes almost sacred. It is also idiosyncratic to the individual teacher. After all, teaching is a craft, and the time that they make and use is part of that craft. Seasoned teachers, particularly, can be somewhat pugnacious when they are exhorted to use their teaching time differently than they have in the past, especially if the suggestion feels like a university-initiated recipe for time usage. The so-called effective teaching variables, however useful in their pure form for helping to shape teaching time, will invariably be adjusted by the veteran teacher to meet his or her requirements for time.36

Perhaps these idiosyncrasies about their time explains why some teachers resist the changes in teaching-period length suggested by many school reformers. In the NCEL interviews, a number of teachers discussed how reformers at their schools attempted to modify the day to create longer class periods. They met with considerable resistance from their colleagues. One teacher finally confessed that he and his colleagues were actually frightened by the idea of double periods. They had no idea how they would actually use the time; after so many years of crafting their teaching time to fit fifty minutes, they could not conceive of how to craft it for one hundred minutes. Teachers in Essential Schools experience similar challenges when they attempt to extend periods to do more project-oriented work. Changing the amount of teaching time implies a change in pedagogy, which in turn requires a reordering of notions of curricular time. One teacher balked at the idea of having students do more project and library work. She had realized that she did not have the time to generate the new curriculum and teaching plans that would facilitate such learning, and such an effort was going to take more time.37

As with each construct for time, teaching time meshes with other portions of time for teachers. In the present instance, we can see that teaching time is constructed differently by different teachers, even when they have the same amount of minutes to use. How teachers craft time is a matter of personality, preference, and cognitive style; in other words, a teacher’s use of teaching time mirrors to an extent how he or she thinks. Of course, one can argue that the effective teacher ought to be in the service of teaching students to think; this would require that the teacher adapt his or her teaching time, and hence his or her thinking, to what students need to do their best work. But to change teaching time implies that teachers will need more learning time; changes in thinking do not come easily to anyone.

Further, we can see that elementary teachers will necessarily differ from high school teachers in the way they construct teaching time because their time is used for substantially different purposes. The nature of the work is different, and the cycles of time differ in elementary school. The boundaries between first period Earth Science and fourth period British Literature, clear and strong in most high schools, are more easily blurred in the elementary room as a read-aloud experience with Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is woven into a hands-on experience about metamorphosis, and the making of twenty-five unique construction paper butterflies for a class mobile.38


Without a doubt, teachers involved in restructuring need time to understand new concepts, learn new skills, and develop new attitudes and tolerances. One person writing on the MIL School Renewal Network said it well:

I have been hit with the reality that not only is it difficult to change paradigms to accept change, but it takes time. Time for researching, time for discussing, time for assessing, and more time. There seems to be an overwhelming amount of ideas for change, not only in structure and governance, but also in teaching and learning innovations, technology, and the philosophy of education. . . . I’m beginning to wonder how this is going to take place when in reality our time is already “overspent” in teaching, planning, conferencing, etc. I agree with [the] statement that “reform cannot be carried out in the spare time of teachers” if it is to be effective.

If time is needed for adult learning, how do we find that time, and what might be the characteristics of that time? Adult learning time in schools can be sliced two ways. It can be time that is allotted for the purpose of learning, say in the form of a workshop, an in-service session, or even a course; or it can be the time that it takes—weeks, months, years— for a person to experience and digest new ideas or ways of working.

In terms of time allotted for adult learning, David Berliner’s constructs for learning time offer one avenue for deepening our understanding.39 Usually some sort of time can be allotted in schools for teacher development, but it is unclear how individuals will actually use that time. For this reason, it seems that engaged time is particularly salient. Engaged time, the amount of time a participant actually attends to the learning presented, is one of the most difficult things to engender in teachers attending schoolwide in-service or planning meetings. It is hard for teachers to focus on complex ideas when they get short bursts of released time from their regular work. For instance, some Seattle teachers in the NCEL sample talked at considerable length about how little attention they were able to give to restructuring meetings. Full-day and half-day sessions had been arranged once a month by the team of school leaders to focus on a variety of topics in small action groups. Teachers reported how they grouped with their friends and allies, and although they did some work, they mostly socialized. When learning time is allocated for teachers in the middle of their teaching time, it often used as respite from the routine of schools, not for learning.

How hard and for how long teachers are willing to persevere at the task of learning about restructuring is also an issue in learning time. Many participants find themselves quickly discouraged by how much attention to group process must be paid in order to generate long-lasting products.40 It is hard work learning the skills of conflict resolution and consensus building. Not everyone is willing to commit to it. In one NCREST school, some members of the SDM team were highly taskoriented, and they rushed forward to implement changes without a full consensus with fellow members, and against the warnings of their facilitator. Eventually, the team came to a standstill, with the group divided equally on some important issues. To their credit, they realized that they had ignored good advice, and had made important errors in group process. They persevered by returning to the beginning of the decision making process, and again moved forward.41 But many teachers are not so willing to persevere at learning, and find the whole process thoroughly disheartening.

The pace of learning, how quickly new information is brought to teachers and how quickly they digest it, appears to play an important role in their learning. Learning time for teachers is a developmental process, as it probably is for all of us. A phrase used in schools across the country is “buy-in,” and it seems closely related to the developmental learning process for teachers. If this phrase is unpacked, we find that it refers to the process of first coming to understand the concepts presented in restructuring proposals, next to wondering how they differ from past “innovative” suggestions, to weighing them against one’s own values and experiences as a teacher and a citizen, to waiting until some initial results are in, to testing some ideas for oneself, and then to giving one’s support, however limited, to learning more and trying things out for oneself. What complicates this process profoundly is that buying in to reform is not purely an intellectual process, but a social and emotional one as well. My colleagues and I have argued elsewhere that teachers have long been socialized into thinking and responding in particularly timid ways; many teachers are unsure of how to use their strengths and abilities in the larger arena of school life. In the context of school reform, it will take teachers a long time to unlearn their wary attitudes toward traditional school authority, to develop a strong sense of professional identity, or to willingly take responsibility for schoolwide decisions. Teachers, taken as a group, are a reticent lot, and many have good reason to be.42

Of course, merely allowing time and experience to unfold does not bring about specific learning outcomes for teachers, or for anyone for that matter. There must be significant investment in adult learning as a goal, like at the Green Valley Essential School described in the SEP studies. Over a ten-year period, the principal and staff have reorganized the school schedule, instituted an advisor-advisee program, lowered the dropout rate, and changed the school discipline policy. Investigators point to the principal’s enthusiasm and vision, but also his investment in teacher learning time. This is reflected in his commitment to professional development activities for teachers, including the use of the summer to plan the upcoming school year, but also in such activities as encouraging teachers to keep journals. He collects these journals each week and reads them twice—once for understanding and once to respond. Allotting and managing time to conduct these activities must be a difficult task for teachers and principal alike. But these examples highlight both the process time and the pace of learning that can stretch over months and even years.43

Finally, learning time for teachers cannot be separated from the content that they are encouraged to learn. This content is complex in the extreme and spans a wide group of interrelated topics. The structure and governance of schools, teaching and learning innovations, educational technology, and philosophy of education, not to mention adult behavior, are fields of study in themselves to which people dedicate their entire thinking lives. It is small wonder that teachers need quality time in copious quantities to encounter different ideas, test them, reflect on them, and experiment with them in their practice.

Some would argue that more time for teacher learning ought to be found during the usual school day. However, it appears in the studies reviewed here that allocating time for teacher learning is not as effective when it is integrated with teaching time, student time, and the standard cycle of schools. Brief forays on Tuesday afternoon into topics of school governance or curriculum reform just do not do the trick.


Adult learning time appears to need breathing space that cannot be found in the brisk tempo of the regular school day or week. The pattern of behavior among teachers in the restructuring studies suggests that in order to be innovative, creative, free to try new ideas, they must be away from the time and place of schools. Prolonged release time, retreat time, and summer work time are all venues that schools have used with considerable success.44 While many of these times encroach on teachers’ private time, happening as they do during weekends or summers, most teachers report that it is time well spent. Discussing this phenomenon in the schools they studied, the NCREST investigators write, “In all cases, team members reported how important the retreats were to their work. As one said, ‘It is a time when we can actually work through major problems and have enough time to do it.’”45

This need for special, uninterrupted time to innovate is not surprising in light of the phenomenology of teacher time. While working every day in a polychronic time frame, teachers are focused on the interactions among students, and between themselves and students. Part of a teacher’s mind is engaged in the curriculum and teaching; part is wrapped up in managing administrative, planning, and duty tasks. Sadly for many teachers, part of their thinking is concentrated on how they can keep control and safety in their classrooms. Teachers usually cannot find the creative space in their packed days to toss around sweeping plans for change or to do the detailed work that such change entails. Most teachers, on most days, must stay fully engaged in creatively teaching, not creatively building new school structures.

As with learning time, innovation time for teachers is usually sandwiched in between all of their other tasks. The correspondence among teachers in the School Renewal Network provides a good example of the dilemmas this creates for teachers. There are a number of descriptions of how they have squeezed an hour or so out of their weeks for innovation. There are elaborate plans in which teacher aides carry out prepackaged art and exercise programs so that teachers can be released to plan; substitute time is used to free up teachers in groups; teachers bank their time by teaching longer days four times a week. But Gary Watts and Shari Castle of the MIL project claim that such efforts are tinkering with, and not necessarily transforming of, schools. They write that these efforts are like “building an airplane while we’re in the air.”46

Some schools actually land for awhile and do the redesign work on the ground. The schools studied by NCREST, and the Essential Schools that were able to make renewal work, share the planful use of retreats and time away from school to think and work. The Maine school in the NCEL study carried out a yearly outdoor challenge week for its entire teaching and nonteaching staff just before the school year began. Teachers found this invaluable for building teamwork skills, trust, and confidence in each other.

In most schools though, innovation time must double up with planning time. However, day-to-day planning is a substantively different endeavor from innovation, much like building the plane while aloft. If teachers are to do the important work of school redesign, they need the research and development time to do it.


Managed time is what we usually think time is when we think of time at all. Everyone participates in some form of managed time—either as the manager or the managed—throughout most of the workday. We cannot adequately discuss how teachers find time for restructuring without first asking how they manage the time for work they already do. Before any tasks of restructuring are added, teachers already must manage paltry amounts of time for preparation, grading, faculty meetings, hall duty, study hall, parent conferences or calls, extra help after school, sorting and filing student work, attending IEP meetings, getting audiovisual equipment ordered, and finishing photocopying. All of this must be accomplished above and beyond their teaching time, and all in the context of a school schedule that is managed by someone else. It is not surprising that a teacher’s ability to manage time is so important to the work of teaching that states require student teachers be evaluated on whether they are competent at managing their time before allowing them to be certified.

Of course, teachers manage their time only to an extent, given the school schedule. As one NEA teacher said and many teachers would agree, “The schedule is GOD. You can do any innovation you want in your classroom as long as you don’t mess with the schedule.”47 The cycles of school time are decided by others and are intended to meet administrative and institutional needs, but not necessarily teachers’ teaching and learning goals. This is not surprising, nor is it illogical. Individual teachers simply cannot decide that 7:30 to 10:45 is the most productive teaching time, and 11:00 to 11:45 is the best time for grading papers. Too many overlapping schedules—students’, specialists’, classroom teachers’—must be coordinated if there is any hope for order and purpose in the school.

Even when teachers try to organize into clusters and to manage their time collectively, they often run up against time constraints imposed by the larger school culture. Particularly at the high school level, where students might want to take second-language courses and other electives, cluster programs founder as they try to accommodate student scheduling needs. The constraints are not always derived from the lack of available hours. For instance, Essential Schools have adopted the philosophy that “less is more” partially because too many choices dilute student learning in any one discipline. The less-is-more philosophy helps with scheduling students in alternative schools, where the four core subjects (mathematics, English, science, and history) are the predominant offering. However, while scheduling issues are diminished, the political implications of dividing time between so few subject areas constrains how far teachers can go in managing the scheduled time (see “Political Time,” below).

The grand schedule of schools is remarkably resistant to change, and so in order to get their work done, teachers exert considerable control over time in class, between classes, at preparatory and lunch periods, and before and after school. High school teachers have quite a lot of control over the way in which a class period will unfold; elementary teachers can control the flow of their entire day—up to a point. Teachers control whether they use a preparatory period for preparing, meeting with another teacher, or arranging for the car to be serviced. Teaching time, student time, and other managed time all must coexist, and somewhere in the day everything they are required to do to keep life running smoothly must be done. For the conscientious teacher, this means using up some private time to finish work. In Among School children, Tracy Kidder describes Chris Zajac sitting after dinner at least a few nights a week grading papers because, in her busy day, there simply was not enough time to do all the work.48 This image is familiar to all teachers. In my own experience, my first principal and mentor taught me that my weekend ended and my job really began on Sunday evening at 5:00 when, like it or not, my thoughts would turn to planning and preparing for the next morning.


The need for administrative time to do the tasks of restructuring is relatively new to teachers and finding it is particularly difficult. Two administrative tasks that surface most often throughout the literature are coplanning periods for teachers to collaborate on teaching plans and management meetings for activities such as strategic planning, decision-making teams, and site-based management groups. Teachers and administrators have tried to buy, borrow, and even steal time for the administrative work they want to do, but little real progress has been made at achieving satisfactory solutions. Each new arrangement of time bumps up against another need teachers have for time. Mostly, administrative time is being squeezed into the existing ecology of teacher time, and it has upset the entire system.

It is, however, exciting and even exhilarating work for many teachers. For instance, at the Stephen Day School in the NCREST study, a group of reluctant teachers became excited about SDM as a result of a week-long student counseling and orientation program they had successfully planned and implemented. The team and staff felt they had finally taken some control of their destiny. But it was not without cost: “We’re dying now because there’s just no time to handle all our regular duties and responsibilities as well as these new ones—but we’re dying with smiles on our faces.”49

Teachers have mixed feelings about their struggle to find administrative time. It affects their teaching time, as well as their student time. One teacher in the MIL School Renewal Network wrote about the guilt she feels leaving her class to do her administrative work:

Last week as we went out for our Steering Committee meeting, my students said, “Another meeting Mrs. H-?” I replied that it had to do with school concerns and one student said, “Don’t be so concerned.” I know where they’re coming from. I haven’t been sick, but I have been out for staff development workshops. . . . In the long run it all will supposedly benefit the students, but what about doing my job which is to teach?

Katherine Boles describes a collaborative team of elementary grade teachers who met periodically on Saturday mornings in order to avoid being out of their classes too often. The team was made up of three general teachers and one special education teacher. They collaborated around almost every aspect of their teaching, including such things as their literature curriculum, instructional groupings, and behavioral and learning problems of individual students. The Saturday morning meetings were crucial, even though during the week they had bought collaboration time with grant money that brought specialists into their classrooms to teach.50

Teachers cannot successfully do all they are asked to do, and all they want to do, in the current schedules of schools. They must at least reinvent the school schedule and their current means for time management. Teachers are experimenting with a variety of methods. After examining the correspondence from the MIL School Renewal Network, Watts and Castle listed some of the strategies that teachers have employed to resolve these dilemmas.51 Some faculties have freed more time from the constraints on the school day through early release, team teaching, administrators’ teaching on occasion, and the use of parents to cover teachers’ classes. Some schools have actually altered the school calendar or day to accommodate new blocks of time. In other schools, new time has been purchased using grant money, substitute funds, or staff development monies. For the most part, teachers have only succeeded in juggling time within the confines of the existing school cycles. As long as the tasks they must accomplish as teachers remain the same, and the schedule constraints remain the same, teachers will not be able to change their managed time and find adequate administrative time. Even at one of the most successful SDM schools in the NCREST study, a key finding was that “those interviewed pointed out that the combined responsibilities of creating new programs while teaching the old ones were draining, perhaps to the point that they could not both be managed well.”52

There may be some promise for finding administrative time for teachers by extending the school day or year. This will happen only if policymakers, parents, and other stakeholders in schools are willing to redistribute teaching time in order to make more room for administrative time for teachers. Until recently, the federal government advocacy for increasing instructional time for students had been quite strong, and will take precedence over time for teachers. Without a change in that emphasis, it seems unlikely that the extended year will provide the needed time for teachers. Whatever the case, a change in the length of the school year implies a change in the more than just the cycle of schools—in fact, in the entire community.


When educators speak of the “culture” of schools, they are speaking in part of the cyclical time of schools, the rhythm and tempo of rituals and activities. Class periods repeat until they become days, which become weeks, semesters, and years. The grand cycles are those that mark the end of elementary, middle, and high school. The public school cycle is, for most children, a twelve-year cycle embedded in a larger set of social cycles. Twelve cohorts of children are involved at different stages of their school cycles during each year. Each of those cycles is tied to other aspects of the epicycles that each teacher, student, administrator, and parent lives out within the school experience.

In some schools, the culture is negatively impacted by discontinuities in these cycles due to repeated disruptions to classes, student absenteeism, and the like.53 To maintain a balanced culture, good schools end up scheduled in regular, overlapping, interwoven, and highly predictable ways. However, by pushing at the rhythms that school people already keep—as most restructuring efforts do—the balanced, time-honored cycles of schools are tampered with. As one teacher in the NCEL study said, “I think that it’s very difficult to reform an institution that has been virtually the same for a hundred years.”

At one school in the NCREST study, the committee for restructuring strove to keep membership open so as to include as many people as possible in the process. But as the membership swelled, so too did the problems for finding time when everyone could be together. There was no common time to be found for a large group of people living out different epicycles of school life.54

Finding team time to collaborate in the weekly schedule of schools created a rippling effect throughout some of the schools in the MIL, as we have seen. Each effort teachers made for finding time had implications for changing the cycle of another school person’s time. Some time management strategies implicated parents’ and community members’ time: When time was banked every day by extending the schedule in the afternoon, and then used for meetings later, or when school was delayed in the morning so teachers could meet, the cycles of bus schedules or car pools changed; the cycles of family life changed as parents changed their morning routines to accommodate the different school schedules.

Problems emerge when schools decide to extend the year and the cycles of the school bump up against the external cycles of the community. Schools are sometimes met with opposition from seasonal businesses in the community that rely on students for workers, and vacationing families for revenue. One man who testified before the NCT&L claimed that the effect of year-round schools on the amusement park industry would be substantial. Extended-year plans also meet with resistance from teachers who find the idea entirely too disruptive to their lives as they are currently constructed. One union leader claimed that the teachers in his district would “riot” if the year were extended. Other opponents cite the negative effects of year-round schooling on keeping school buildings in shape, because maintenance and repair usually take place in the summertime. The concerns in each critique center around the effects of school cycles rubbing up against existing sociological cycles, and underline the fact that schools do not operate in isolation of the larger culture and society.55


Wherever an alternative program is begun and time or other resources are allocated to its institution, issues of equity and favoritism emerge among faculty. Time and energy devoted to a new project by a principal, or any powerful team within the school, are shot through with political meaning. Of the eight original Coalition schools in the SEP project, only three remained substantially affiliated after five years. The difficulty that each withdrawn program encountered is partly attributable to the divisiveness caused among staff because Coalition members perceived what many considered preferential time, duties, and power.

This is also true of programs begun in some NCEL schools. In Colorado, a principal threw her weight behind a group of young teachers who wanted to begin an alternative program for delinquent and absent students. They could sometimes be heard in the halls when others were in class. Senior faculty skeptics concluded that the special-program teachers were not using their time to do their jobs properly. What irked some particularly was that the coordinator of the new program had her teaching time reduced, and had been given an office and a phone. The politics of time and preferential treatment doomed the effort.

The politics of time are present in discussions over how comprehensive high schools are going to manage their limited resources. Which specialty will grow, and which will shrink or be eliminated? A Washington teacher in the NCEL project summed up this type of political dilemma well:

When we get into making decisions, a lot of them are based [on] political things. . . . They are based on . . . what is going to help my area. I mean they are very territorial on this. . . . Therefore, whatever is on the table people really scrutinize. How is this decision going to affect me? How is it going to affect my department? There is a real division.

Politics of time are played out not only among teachers, but between teachers and policymakers or administrators. In another NCEL anecdote, a Virginia teacher complained bitterly regarding the amount of bureaucratic interference and time-consuming paperwork he had to deal with from the state legislature, which required documentation of what was being done in schools on a number of reform-related issues. “I wish that legislators would come down and teach a day . . . ,” he said, “and then go back and legislate. Because until they’ve worked a day, they have no idea what they’re expecting [from us].”


Anecdotes regarding how teachers experience time have been woven throughout these discussions of different aspects of time for teachers. It would be redundant to rechart too much territory. But it is important to underline that the subjective experience of time—how quickly or slowly it seems to flow, its polychronic or monochronic nature, and its public and private qualities—plays a most important role in every aspect of a teacher’s understanding of time.

It is particularly important to underline a worrisome quality of the comments teachers make in this sample of studies. Throughout, there are the voices of teachers who are joyful and stimulated in ways they have never been before—but even those teachers who have considerable enthusiasm for the restructuring process sound exhausted. The demands on their time simply seem too great. One very enthusiastic teacher in the MIL School Renewal Network wondered whether teacher “empowerment” would not lead to teacher “expirement.” As her days are becoming more packed than ever, she worries that she is not giving adequate time to her teaching, her students, and her own family. Her comment may foreshadow her own withdrawal from the restructuring effort, when she can no longer sustain the energy to engage. Indeed, the experience of expirement may cause many able reformer-teachers to withdraw from the process. Carol Weiss, a principal investigator in the NCEL study points out that many of the SDM efforts at the schools were exhausted after two years of work, and that the SDM efforts and results were rendered puny.56

The experience of guilt that teachers have over their use of time for restructuring cannot be ignored, either. Many teachers in this sample talk about guilt over shortchanging students and their private life alike. In the first instance, they may well be feeling pain over separating from an old and unhealthy experience of teacher isolation. But guilt is not an inherently unhealthy emotion, as pop psychologists would have us believe. Guilt is often an indicator that we are not being true to ourselves, our beliefs, or our goals. In the context of restructuring, teachers are often being asked to choose between two equally important activities, teaching and school revitalization, without being given the time to do either adequately. It is an unfair choice to put to teachers, and one that could bring down the whole restructuring enterprise. In the final analysis, how teachers experience their time should be of primary concern to reformers, for any substantive change in schools hinges on teachers and their willingness to engage in that change.


I have shown that simply finding more scheduled time for teachers will not induce the restructured schools we desire. Rational, scheduled time is only one of many kinds of time teachers need to do the job; but unfortunately, rationing time has been the primary intervention in school restructuring efforts. Reformers have limited the meaning of time for teachers and thereby missed important avenues for restructuring schools.

Indeed, the work of teachers requires many kinds of time, and is highly differentiated. Teachers construct it and use it in ways that match the work in which they are involved. These different aspects of teacher time mesh with each other and, in turn, mesh with the concepts of time held by administrators, the community, and the larger society. Teachers are forever working to manage an already overwhelming variety of tasks. Each task has its own time requirements, and each meshes with the others with varying degrees of ease. New tasks of school management tend to disrupt the delicate ecology of teacher time.

An anecdote taken from the NCREST data highlights how these two problems of time—the need for time for specific tasks, and the ways these types of time are meshed—can bedevil even the most successful of restructuring ventures. Recall that the Delancey Street School SDM group reorganized their school schedule to have time on Wednesday afternoons for student activities, student mentoring, and restructuring meetings. They also added brief meetings at the beginning of school for the whole staff, and they adopted a schedule for instruction that allowed prolonged periods. They initiated staff workshops, a family program, and a new interdisciplinary curriculum. Moreover, evaluators found that the team had been successful in involving the whole school in their efforts. In all, they were highly successful in meeting ambitious restructuring goals. But the cost in time had been significant, and they were having severe troubles keeping up with the work their changes engendered. The reporters write:

Some members pointed out, for example, that even though the schedule change had created time for meetings during the school day, individual schedules were still packed [cyclic time]. They found it difficult to do their restructuring work [administrative time], plan lessons [managed time and curricular time], experiment with new techniques [time for learning and innovation], engage in professional dialogue [time for learning], and participate in student activities [time for students].57

I have bracketed the different categories of time for teachers that I see at work with this group of able teacher-reformers. We can see that time is needed for each of their activities, but that each requires a different kind of time. Moreover, and most importantly, for these different time needs to mesh compatibly as a group, adequate time must be found overall. Without some adjustment of either the jobs that teachers take on, or the amount of time that is allocated to those jobs, it is unlikely that teachers will be able to sustain the work of restructuring as it is currently configured.

It complicates matters that, in general, teachers and administrators may actually construct and understand time differently; as a result, each may conceptualize, execute, and evaluate school restructuring differently. Further complications arise when one considers that substantial changes in school structure often imply changes in how schools fit into their communities. The rhythms of schools and communities are interlocked. Changes that extend a school day or year, for instance, will necessarily change family tasks for teachers, parents, and children alike.

Metaphorically, time for teachers is the old-fashioned clock: Small gears mesh to form subsystems, which in turn interlock to form increasingly larger systems. If we are willing to accept this metaphor, then it follows that restructuring schools will require that we restructure time itself to some degree, and consequently, many other facets of our lives.

What, then, can be done, short of reinventing Western culture? The question is only partially facetious, given the complexity of the problem outlined here. Six rules of thumb for the would-be school reformer emerge from this discussion and are listed here in no particular order of importance.

First, if teachers are to participate in innovation in schools, they need special time to do it. Innovation time cannot compete with teaching time. The use of retreats and summer work groups appears to help separate out these two types of time and tasks. But extended-year schemes seem the most appropriate means for finding this most important time, where portions of intercession periods could be used for innovation time. Currently, though, when policymakers and administrators discuss intercession in extended-year programs, they seem to see potential only for enrichment or remedial activities for students. Of course these are important activities, but it would be foolish to overlook the needs that teachers have to work at professional research and development of new initiatives and programs.

A second rule of thumb is to study the cyclical nature of time in a target school before changing schedules or adding more tasks. It appears crucial to understand how the cycles of time for teachers, administrators, students, and parents are constructed, and the ways the four interact. It is not easy to read the meaning these cycles hold for key players in a school, because the meaning is embedded in the life of the culture. Often, people are not aware of what meanings a certain ritual or routine holds until it is altered by others. Yet, the willing reformer can train himself or herself to observe these sociotemporal cycles, if he or she is willing to take the time.

Third, reformers must not interfere with a teacher’s time for teaching. Whatever the amount of time they have, and in whatever scheduled configuration, teachers must know that their teaching time is held sacred by everyone in the school culture. This requires an elimination of meetings held during their scheduled teaching time, and an elimination of nonemergency announcements, visits, socialization, and so on. Teachers should not be put in the position of having to choose between teaching children and school governance, or anything else for that matter. Furthermore, administrators and policymakers must differentiate between the kind of teaching time needed in elementary, middle, and high school settings. These are substantively different constructs, and cannot be treated uniformly.

Fourth, if teachers are to learn new skills and ideas, they need time to do it, and that time must be in excess of the in-service hours that are routinely allotted. Berliner’s concepts of aptitude and perseverance are important in adult learning. Aptitude is the amount of time needed for learning under optimal conditions. Teaching is not an optimal condition for teacher learning unless it is matched with time for reflection, discussion with a mentor, and retesting of a teaching idea. We will never see teachers’ true aptitude for learning new skills and ideas if we are unable to provide them with the optimal conditions, that is, the appropriate time. And without that time, there is no reason for a teacher to persevere.

Fifth, administrators must examine their own constructs for time, and realize whether they are construing teachers’ time from their monochronic standpoint, or from the polychronic framework of teachers. The administrator needs to develop skill at taking the perspective of teachers and experiencing their work through their eyes. Such a perspective will necessarily change the form and pace of reform efforts, as teacher and administrator negotiate the implementation of the reform effort, rather than engage in a power struggle over the effort.

Finally, we must realize that if we add a new subset of gears to the existing mechanism of time for teachers, and do not change the overall design of the mechanism, the mechanism will stop working, in whole or in part. Time for teachers in restructuring cannot and should not be shoehorned into the existing time structure.

Preparation of this article was supported by Policy Studies Associates as part of a larger study, The Uses of Time for Teaching and Learning. This study is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under Contract No. RR91172006. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 96 Number 3, 1995, p. 512-543
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 47, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:50:22 AM

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