Time is an empty vessel…

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.” 

H. Jackson Brown Jr.

Recently, our school showed several screenings of Race to Nowhere and I went. For me, the movie begged all sorts of questions of how we, in education, ritually abuse time. Time is an empty vessel to be filled, and filled to the brim.

A teacher with time on their hands is labeled as a lazy teacher, and the same is becoming true of our students.

I made some comments about time in the discussion after the movie and, despite a smattering of polite applause that every comment (even a few wacky ones) received, nobody picked up the theme and I have had no further discussions about it. However, every day I hear people say that they are “time-poor”, or they “didn’t have time” to do something in more depth, or they wished they “had more time” to plan something better, or “time just ran out”. All these people with complaints about time suddenly kept their mouth shut when given a chance to talk about it openly.

This year, I organized a series of guest speakers for my students. The subject was creativity, inspiration and limitations on our creativity. Out of ten speakers, all highly talented members of our faculty, 100% of them said that they simply don’t have the time to be creative any more. I was shocked, but not surprised. Creativity is a massive “buzz word” in education – we are all being called upon to plan for, recognize, develop and celebrate creativity in our students. Yet, how can we really do that if our own ability to be creative has been shut down by “busyness”. Surely, a teacher who creates is inspirational. But, a teacher who merely talks about creativity is a bore!

So, the quote at the start of this posting is very true. However, something has happened to the value of time since those people did their wonderful things. I’m interested in finding out what we can do about that, particularly in schools.



  1. Cristina

    As always, your posts generate a lot of thinking…
    In what regards time, I can only speak for myself.
    As an educator, I feel this whole 21st century skills idea calls for more work. How? Well, let’s summarize:
    – understanding how technology works is time-consuming (I had to discover by myself what on earth an HTML is, what is and how to “embed” things into a blog, what is an RSS feed etc)
    – creating wikis, blogs, videos etc for my class and for school again takes away from my time
    – getting fresh ideas from my PLN (especially designers, photographers, writers etc) involves following them and keeping in touch (which, again, has its cost – time, that is)
    – connecting to others (educators or otherwise) means commenting, reading blog posts, viewing new resources
    These are added to what I used to do before (planning, sequencing activities, balancing academic rigor with play and tech, writing and contributing to school assessment etc).
    It is a load that we are willing to carry because in as much as it consumes our time, it also enriches our intellect and helps us grow professionally.

    • Mr. Sam

      We asked them to speak about how they are creative, what limits their ability to create and how people react to their creations. Each one of them said that their job took all of their time, leaving no time for them to be creative.

  2. Simone

    I know ‘time’ has been on your mind for a long time (pun intended) and I agree with most of your post above. Having attended the same screening as you of Race to Nowhere, I don’t feel that the Friday night audience and very limited time limit allowed for people with opinion on the subject to speak up. I don’t believe anyone kept their “mouth shut” on purpose, but rather needed a different forum and time (again!) to reflect on their ideas. It would have been great to have a follow up staff meeting/open forum with all staff & parents. I think our school is brave to show the movie but there definitely needed to be further follow up and discussion which both parents and teachers on the night indicated they would have appreciated.

    As for the creative talents at our school not having the time for their passion, that is a tough one. Like Cristina said above, there is just too much to learn all the time! You start one thing and something else has to slide. You can include to her list: having a family, juggling friendships, exercise etc and that’s where the time goes. At the end of the day it comes down to the old cliche, work smarter, not harder.

    Teachers have developed amazing PLN’s through twitter/blogs but very few I have seen/worked with (in my experience) have those relationships among their own colleagues. Still teachers are creating/reflecting on their own! I don’t get it. The workload is not being shared because people tend to be closed off from those in closest proximity to them. You would have more time if you share the thinking; team teach; bounce ideas etc It’s all so simple it’s crazy.

    Cristina’s comment above reminded my of Seth Godin’s post Bring me Stuff that’s Dead Please http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/03/bring-me-stuff-thats-dead-please.html

    It can be too hard to keep up with the next big thing. Rather spend the time making the old big thing better. Whether that be your blog, reflection strategies, homework, questioning techniques…anything. if everyone in your team worked one doing one old thing better and pooled that knowledge together then I am sure there would be more time.

    thanks for the post Sam.

    • Mr. Sam

      You’re right – context, time, place etc… It just feels strange when something seems so obviously a problem and yet nobody else mentions it!

      “Work smarter not harder” is such a brilliant old cliche, and like most cliches, it is one because it is true. However, I reckon “not working harder” is highly stigmatized in schools. The emphasis is very much on “busyness” and very rarely on competence. As long as we walk around quickly and look relatively stressed, we must be doing a good job right? It reminds me of how I managed to work in an office in England for about three months without doing anything at all. I just picked up a file every day and wandered around chatting to people!

      I guess what I’d like to see, as I said in my reply to Ed, is that “time is on the agenda”, time is valued and time is used well. All the things you listed above are very powerful but, as you said, many of them are done in our own time. I’d like to see schools start to recognize the value of allowing time for more sharing, generating good ideas, genuine reflection and so on. We tend to pay lip service to ideas like mentoring, buddies, sharing sessions, learning communities and so on but then no time is actually created for them to actually happen!

      • Mr. Sam

        I like that Seth Godin posting too, particularly this line: “I love to hear about the next big thing, but I’m far more interested in what you’re doing with the old big thing.”

        There is nothing older than time, time is definitely not the next big thing. However, have we – in schools – ever really thought seriously about what we’re doing with time?

        • Simone

          It’s good to see you back! It’s also good the end of the school year is near and there will be opportunity (I didn’t want to use the word time) to think about how the next school year can be different.

  3. Cristina

    I agree with Simone and not incidentally I had placed Seth’s post (the one she mentioned) under my Favorite category long ago.
    It is true you can work smarter…but that comes after the foundation is set. You cannot encourage , say, connections between students in your school with others from other countries without having no idea what Skype/VoiceThread/GDocs are. Or how to use them.
    Or talk about using technology in the classroom in this “digital era” unless you actually understand and use it yourself.
    As for using the immediate sources – other colleagues – that depends on their mindset and will to change things and collaborate as well. School culture is, in this respect, essential…
    Having a good IT Department is also important – in my school we do not have it. A single person in charge with technical issues only (e.g. internet access) is not a person who can help you in terms of education.
    So…I guess…it takes time (ironically) to eventually work smarter and be creative/productive.

  4. whatedsaid

    I completely forgot this blog exists. So many great blogs to read and not enough time 😉
    We constantly have teachers talking about lack of time. Without downplaying their frustration in the face of all kinds of time consuming demands, I suggest (seriously) that to begin with, they could save time if they stopped talking about how little time they have. I suggested some other tips in a recent post here http://whatedsaid.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/10-ways-for-teachers-to-save-time/
    I also think Covey’s quadrant is a helpful way to take note of how we spend our time.

    • Mr. Sam

      Ha ha! I forgot it existed for a while there too… but I’m back now!

      I do agree that a lot of time is spent talking about how little time there is. However, I also think that not enough time is spent talking about how to use time properly. One school years start, we’re off… like a high-speed train. Very often we go so fast we can’t even see the view out of the window. (OK, I’ll stop that analogy now).

      Maybe, just for once, time should be on the agenda. Maybe, timetabling shouldn’t be a task that is hidden away and done only by some unusual individual who enjoys the job! Maybe, instead of always finding new and interesting ways to fill time in schools we should be finding new and interesting ways to free up time.

      I do like Covey’s quadrant. However, I’m wondering if we need something more simple. Perhaps something like this:

      Will improve learning | Will not improve learning

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