The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Understanding Wasted Time

As a classroom teacher, one of my biggest pet peeves is wasted time. This is different from down time (when take a break to reenergise) or transition time (when we are going from one task to another and haven’t yet learned the impossible art of moving seamlessly from one to the other without any pause). Wasted time is what happens when I have to pause a lesson because students are talking and not paying attention. Wasted time is what happens when a student or a group of students leave the room and everyone else stops what they are doing to worry about them, instead. I value every minute I have with my students and I would hope that they value every minute they have, too.

But the reality is that some time is going to be wasted. Maybe it is because I don’t give the students a break when they need it and they lose focus. Maybe it is because there is too much stimulation or too many distractions. And maybe it is just because my students are 9- and 10-year-olds who are still learning self-regulation. So I try to take wasted time and turn it into teachable moments. To guide the students through an understanding of how time was wasted, why it was wasted, and how they can better manage themselves so that it will not happen again. (Or at least, not happen as much!)

Today I decided to use our morning meeting to better understand how quickly wasted time can multiply and how that can impact learning time. I started by asking the class to make an estimate as to how much time is lost in the classroom each day due to things like students talking, moving around, distracting others, etc. The estimates ranged from anywhere to five minutes to an hour. I have not actually measured it this year, so I am not sure, but the average estimate from my students’ perception was about 30 minutes a day. (I would guess it is actually much, much lower, but I wanted to honour their perceptions.) Then we did some calculations:

  • If the students wasted 30 minutes a day for 165 days, they would log 4,950 minutes in a school year.
  • 4,950 minutes is equal to 82.5 hours
  • Since we spend roughly 7 hours a day in school, those 82.5 hours are approximately 12 days of school.
  • A student who reads 100 words per minute could read 495,000 words during this time. (They grade level target is between 120 and 160 words per minute, though.)
  • The average middle grade book contains something close to 35,000 words. That means those 495,000 words are close to 14 complete books that could be reading in just one year. (Of course, the flip side of this is that if students read just 30 minutes a day while in school, they should be able to read at least 14 grade-level chapter books by the end of the year. That’s ¬†certainly something to think about when setting goals for the future!)

After doing these computations with the students (they did the multiplication and division with limited support from me), they all agreed that wasted time is definitely a big issue that really matters. Even with ISAT testing all of next week, I am going to start keeping track of the time so that my students can better understand what they are using their time for and how they can better manage themselves. We will also set goals for decreasing wasted time between now and the end of the year. I admire my students’ ability to think critically about themselves, identify weaknesses, and come up with strategies to fix problems. It will be interesting to see what happens from this day on!


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