You Own the Clock (the clock doesn’t own you)

By Scott Knecht

Teachers like students to come to class on time. We value their presence when the class starts. We mark them tardy when they enter late and we remind them of the need to be in their seats and ready to go when the class begins. We say “we have lots to cover today and we need to get going.” (Just FYI – “cover” is not a very useful word for teachers to use, but more on that in a later post.) We love a good starting time.

Most students don’t see a great need for a crisp beginning. However, they do see the need for a prompt ending and that is where many teachers let them down. Teachers are like cars with great accelerators and lousy brakes. Once we get talking, we can keep talking for a long time. And even if we don’t say it we are thinking “Here’s one more good thing they need to know”, so we press on. We also love to say things like “look at the clock, where did all the time go”. So here is the free tip of the day: when you interject the element of time into your conversation with students you have opened the door for them to get antsy and lose focus. They start thinking of where they have to be next and how long it will take them to get there and I need to pack up my things and I’m going to be late and when will he stop talking. Every student has a life outside of my classroom and I need to honor that.

The starting time of a class is for the teacher. Class ending time is for the students. The sooner you can convince your class by word and deed that you will always honor the hour and that they will be able to leave on time, the more they can relax and trust you and the more engaged they will be. I watched a teacher one time say to her class about 5 minutes before the ending time “Since you were so talkative at the beginning and we didn’t get much accomplished then, we are going to stay five minutes longer. I prepared this lesson for you and I need to give it to you.” I died a little with the students, who at that moment stopped caring about the lesson and gave even less thought to how much time she spent on preparation. It was just a hard march to the end.

What would cause a teacher to go overtime? Often teachers say that they just lost track of time, which is understandable and easy to do. A solution to that is simply to remember that part of controlling the class is to control the time and the pacing and to begin to make it a part of what you do as a teacher. Another reason suggested by teachers is that the class was going so well, or the students were so engaged, that it was just difficult to stop. In almost all of those cases, I have observed that it wasn’t so much the students who were engaged but the teacher was engaged in telling a story or sharing some of his thoughts and feelings with the class. When a teacher holds a class over so that he can keep talking, the class generally has descended to teaching-as-telling, and that is a very ineffective way for students to learn.

Here are a couple of tips to help you stay on schedule in a gentle way:

1. Think of timekeeping issues as you prepare your lesson. Ask yourself some of these questions: “About how long do I think this discussion will go?” “What follow up questions are likely to ensue from this main question?” “What are some of the points I hope will emerge from this activity?” “How much time do we need at the end of class to allow for effective application?” And finally this question may be the most important: “What are we really trying to do in class today – cover a lot of material or help students really learn some important principles and doctrines?”

2. Make yourself aware of timekeeping issues in a class. Learn to glance at the clock or your watch on a regular basis. Make some small but easily seen marks on your lesson plan of the approximate times that you expect to be at certain spots. Stay aware of where you are and where you would like to be.

3. Students rarely, if ever, know how much a teacher thinks he needs to accomplish in a given period. We make time our enemy when we play slave to the clock, then verbalize it to the class (“Look at the time – there’s never enough time!”). Be sufficiently aware of where you are so that students will have enough time to digest what is going on and you will have enough to be able to challenge them to make positive changes, all within the framework of the allotted time. Announcing your frustration with the lack of time only serves to pass that frustration on to them. They don’t need it and it doesn’t help anything.

Finally, here is something I learned from watching cooking shows with my wife and daughters: let the meat rest. When a piece of meat has been cooked, it is best to let it sit for some minutes before cutting and serving it so that the juices can re-absorb into the meat and not drain out if the meat is sliced too soon. I like to stop teaching about 5 minutes before the end of class and let things settle and ask students what they learned and what they are thinking from the lesson. It gives them a chance to think about the lesson, make some decisions about how they will apply it, and we all end on time.


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