The Tyranny of Time

As I sit at home with my children enjoying the holiday break (that was WAY overdue), I can’t help but reflect upon my year in mathematics education.  In doing so, there has been one topic that has reoccured so often that I can only think of it as the theme of my 2016.  That topic is TIME.  I work with hundreds of elementary teachers each year and the problem they all seem to share is not having enough time to meet all their objectives with their students.  During the twelve year period that I was an elementary classroom teacher, I can easily say that time was my greatest challenge.  The problem with this kind of problem is that you can not create time.  There is a finite number of minutes in each day and no matter how hard I tried, I could not change that fact.  I also could not change the fact that the number of demands on my time was ever-increasing.

So what is a teacher to do?  In the face of the dynamic tension between time and demands, how can we strive to that which we know is best for students given the limited amount of time we have to do it?

In his 2016 NCTM Ignite talk, Andrew Stadel (@mr_stadel) spoke about the #classroomclock.  Since hearing him speak, I haven’t been able to get my mind to stray from this subject for long.  In this talk, Stadel spoke about the 80/20 rule.  He stated that 80% of what we want to do with students can be done with 20% of the tools available to us as teachers.  These are mind-boggling statistics to me.  After years and years of constantly adding more to my regime of teachers tools, I’m not sure I ever considered what I should have been pruning away from this same collection.  The result of this was a lack of focus and extreme proximity to teacher burn out.

Recently, while reading the book Leading with Focus by Mike Schmoker (2016), I was taken aback by this quote:

The real path to greatness, it turns out, requires simplicity and diligence…It demands each of us to focus on what is vital — and to eliminate all of the extraneous distractions.

-Jim Collins

Having just recently worked with a group of elementary teachers over a three day period, we collected this list of routines that we had engaged in:


I began to wonder which of these tools were among the 20% that could get me the most bang for my buck?  Which of these could be elimated or reduced?  Which items were not on this list, but should be?

As I was considering my past practice, I thought about my beloved calendar time.  There was so much good learning that happened during that time.  I was able to engage students and have fun while learning.  At the time, these felt like major wins.  However, hindsight is 20/20.  I know see that many of the components of this sacred cow in my classroom were not my standards to teach and, as such, were an example of the mathematical clutter that should have been modified to meet my standards or eliminated altogther.  How many of us out there have a practice like this that we can only define as mathematical clutter? Can we be brave enough to stand up to what Michael Fullen calls “the awful inertia of past decades” and do what we know is best for students?

Because we can not create more time in our day, we have to be very strategic in how we choose to spend this valuable commodity with our students.  Our #classroomclock is ticking.  With each passing moment, we have the opporunity to create greatness in our students.  It’s time for us all to re-evaluate our #classroomclock.

What will you add?

What will you reduce?

What will you eliminate in the name of greatness?


Published by: jgarner05

I am a math consultant with the Stanislaus County Office of Education and a preservice math content instructor at California State University, Stanislaus. It is my passion to work with teachers to improve math content understanding and instruction.


6 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Time”

  1. Very interesting and worthwhile ponderings Jamie – both yours and the link by Henri above. Using time wisely and purposefully is vital. I see so much more value in exploring math and adding the processes rather than focusing on the processes at the expense of the big ideas. Thanks for the thoughts.


    1. I can’t agree with you any more Dave. It is so easy to get caught up in the ” we always…” or “we must…” rather than stepping back and really evaluating the value of each learning experience we give our students.


      1. How familiar is this problem of time… I’ve thought of the 80/20 principle in other areas of my life before, (even back when I was a student school myself and wanted to save time on studying) but never really thought of how it could apply to teaching. Thanks for bringing that application to mind… I recently started reading and listening to Greg McKeown and his ideas on essentialism. Your post reminds me of his message. It’s the same sort of idea, and so about a month into school this year I started paring things down. Marian Small’s books on the “big ideas” has also helped, but I have a long way to go. This is a message I needed to hear as I prepare to head back to teaching after Christmas break with a head too full of ideas.


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