Always Running Out of Time? Apply Scarcity and Budgeting to Your Classroom

By Brian Rock

We’ve all been there. There was a cool project you wanted to do with your students, but you didn’t. Or there was a timely event going on, but you didn’t discuss it.

Because there’s so much to get through in one year, and there’s just not enough time.

Well I’ll let you in on a little secret. You’ll never make it through everything in that thick curriculum guide. The sooner you realize that, the better. You shouldn’t feel guilty about glossing over some things and skipping over others in order to spend time teaching what you really enjoy.

After all, that’s what your students are actually going to remember.

We’re Set Up to Fail by the Curriculum

When I first started teaching, I took a look at the curriculum guide for my course, Early U.S. History. It listed sixteen units, and we were supposed to cover everything from pre-colonization to the end of the 19th century.

It seemed daunting, but I tried. I moved as quickly as I could, but something always got in the way. There was an assembly or a fire drill, and I’d have to spend some time re-grouping. Or students bombed a test or were absent, so I’d have to reteach some things.

A few months in, I realized that I would never make it through everything. For a moment I panicked… until I realized that I was further ahead than the other teachers and they weren’t worried. As it turned out, everyone just accepted the fact that they would get through the Civil War, maybe Reconstruction if they were lucky, and that was that.

Everything else from the 1870’s to the early 1900’s just disappeared. It never happened. Because the Modern U.S. History teachers didn’t have time to go back and cover it. They had the same pressures that led them to teach as much as they could until they ran out of time somewhere around the modern civil rights movement.

When you look at the underlying standards, you realize this isn’t just a local problem for my school district. It’s based in policy.

New Jersey’s Student Learning Standards for Social Studies contain almost 200 discrete progress indicators. Someone thought this was a reasonable number of things to master over the course of two school years – approximately 360 school days. It’s not.

From the get-go, this is an impossible task. And once you realize that, it doesn’t feel so bad to make a conscious decision to gloss over something or skip it altogether.

Apply the Principles of Budgeting and Scarcity to Your Classroom

Early in my career, I didn’t worry much about budgeting. I made a decent salary, I paid all the bills, I led a good life. But when the end of the month came there usually wasn’t a lot of money “left over” to put into long term savings.

Eventually, I realized the error of my ways and put together a strict monthly and annual budget. Now I know how much I’ve allotted to spend each month on various things. When I run out, I stop spending. And lo and behold, I found that there actually was enough money to stash away for the future.

This is the principle of scarcity. You only have so much money, and you need to be intentional in how you spend it. Hence, budgeting.

The same principle applies to time in your classroom. You only have so many days in the classroom, and you know a certain percentage of that time will end up being eaten up by other things.

If you just go through the year, spending time willy-nilly, you’re going to run out. In the moment, it doesn’t seem like a big deal to spend an extra day or two here and there. But when you multiply that across ten months, you’ll have wasted entire weeks and robbed yourself of time at the end of the year.

Instead, be as ruthless about your classroom time as you should be about your household budget. Set out a strict timeline of when you’ll teach each topic. Mark it on the calendar – down to the day.

You can teach the same topic in one day, one week, or one month. It just comes down to making different decisions. So once you know you have exactly nine class periods to teach a particular unit, you can make the appropriate decisions.

No matter how much you might want to in the moment, don’t try to add a day, unless you’re willing to subtract it from another unit marked on the calendar.

How I Budgeted My Classroom Time

Once I came to this realization, I entered the next year with a strictly mapped out budget of my time. Miraculously, I made it through the entire curriculum guide and taught every one of those sixteen units.

I also felt really rushed and felt like I had glossed over a lot on the surface without getting into the details. So I started to tinker with things over the next few years. I combined a couple of units that were similar and taught them as one unit. I took a few of the less important units, and I combined them into a unit of independent study where my students chose topics to read, research, and present about. Then I took that extra time to focus on a few areas with much greater depth.

Eventually, I even carved out a few days each month to talk about current events. This is a critical part of social studies and civics, but it’s often seen more as an add-on than a must-have. So without planning, it could easily end up being a never-was.

Be Ruthless With Your Time This Year

So as you go through this school year, be ruthless with your time.

You have a finite number of days, and you can literally count them up and mark them out on a calendar. Every day that you use now is a day that you won’t have later.

Ask yourself, “What’s really important in my class?”

Then allocate your school days accordingly. Spend more time where it matters most, and budget less time where it matters least. Stick to your calendar, and only make adjustments where you’re willing to make a corresponding adjustment somewhere else.

When you appreciate the principle of scarcity and budget with that in mind, you might just find that there is enough time in the year after all.

Brian Rock is a social studies teacher in New Jersey. He writes a blog about civics education – The Civic Educator. You can find plenty of ideas to incorporate civics into your classroom in the post, “How to Teach Government in a Fun Way: Six Ways to Bring Civics Alive.” You can also follow the blog on Facebook and connect with Brian on LinkedIn.


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