When we compare instructional hours, students in the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) receive about four more years of schooling than their peers in Finland – and yet Finnish students’ achievement consistently ranks among the highest in the world,1 while N.W.T. students, the majority of whom are of Indigenous descent, continue to lag behind their Canadian counterparts.
So why are Finnish students starting at age seven, in school for just 632 hours (elementary) and 844 hours (secondary) per year,2 and excelling in their core subjects, while N.W.T. students are starting a year or two earlier, in school for 997 hours (elementary) and 1,045 hours (secondary) per year,3 and not doing as well or better?
It turns out that the quality of instruction is more important than the quantity of instruction. Research does not support a relationship between instructional hours and student achievement, but it clearly shows that well-prepared, quality teachers have a strong impact on student outcomes.4 “The amount of time spent in school is much less important than how the available time is spent, what methods of teaching and learning are used, how strong the curriculum is, and how good the teachers are,” states the OECD Educational Indicators in Focus Report (2014).5
While Finnish teachers spend fewer hours at the front of the classroom, they are able to devote more time to designing instruction and interventions that maximize achievement. They have time to ensure success, which strengthens their sense of efficacy and worth, and reduces the exhaustion and burnout.
The professional expectations on teachers have expanded rapidly in the last few decades, with the change from a focus on teaching to a focus on ensuring student learning. Now, teachers must find time to work collaboratively to determine the Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs) in the otherwise bloated curriculum guides for each and every grade and subject, and to ensure that all students, even those who do not attend regularly, are making the best possible progress. To that end, teachers complete frequent pre- and post-assessments to know each student’s strengths and stretches in relation to the ELOs. With that information, teachers prepare evidence-based lessons that differentiate and maximize growth for each student. Further, the best teachers engage students and their parents in setting short-term goals for improvement.6
Education in the 21st century, and in Indigenous cultures, must take into account the whole person – teachers are expected to impart not only academic teachings, but also the values and skills that help a child grow into a competent adult. Teachers in the N.W.T. also build their programs on the foundation of Aboriginal culture, and deliver them in a more Indigenized way. And these skills, attitudes and world views – incorporating concepts like truth and reconciliation, self-regulation, resilience, and a positive sense of identity – take time to learn and understand.
Quality teaching and learning, as described above, is a monumental and insurmountable task in a 40-hour work week, considering that for the majority of that time (up to 30 hours) teachers are in front of the class (compared to 18 hours a week for Finland’s teachers).7 Teachers also prepare report cards, supervise children on their breaks, and are extensively involved in student extra-curricular activities. The list goes on.
With so much to accomplish, N.W.T. teachers report working over 52 hours a week on average. If we take a moment to do the math, some teachers are working 2,028 hours per year, compared to other government employees who average 1,725 hours yearly. And that’s after their respective vacation times have been subtracted.8 It’s no wonder teachers feel increasingly stressed by their job demands. This phenomena is not isolated to the North – across the country, teachers are doing more while having less time to recharge. Teacher workload studies, conducted by teachers’ associations across Canada, consistently report that teachers work 50-55 hours each week.9
The N.W.T. STIP Initiative
Starting in the 2017-18 school year, as a result of negotiations between the N.W.T. Teachers’ Association (NWTTA) and the Government of the N.W.T., schools were permitted to submit proposals to redirect up to 100 hours of instructional time divided evenly between teacher professional duties and collaborative professional learning. This Strengthening Teacher Instructional Practices (STIP) time still ensures that students in all grades are in class for a minimum of 945 hours per year – a number more in line with the majority of Canadian provinces, though still much higher than Finland.
The STIP proposals require majority agreement of the school’s teachers, and further approval of the superintendent, the assistant deputy minister, and the president of the NWTTA. It is the locally elected District Education Authority (DEA) that approves the school year calendar, so the principal must ensure the calendar meets legislative requirements and receives the DEA’s approval.
How schools are responding
Principals, teachers, and their local DEAs worked together to determine what would work best for the parents, students, and staff of each community. They analyzed past school attendance records and considered the implications that schedule changes could have on things like busing and childcare. While schools were given the autonomy to determine how to redistribute the time, they were all required to approach the task with the same priority: to improve staff and student wellness and achievement.
For some schools, this means Friday afternoons free of student contact time, giving students an early start to their weekend and staff a chance to decompress as well as plan for the next week. For others, Monday mornings have the poorest attendance, making that the logical STIP time. And a few chose to attach full STIP days to holidays and other breaks through the year.
At Paul W. Kaeser High School in Fort Smith, classes used to begin at 8:30 a.m. sharp. But student attendance and tardiness is an issue in the mornings. So in 2017-18, students will begin their lessons at 9:10 a.m. as their teachers take the first 40 minutes to analyze student assessments, share strategies, and prepare more effective lessons. Principal Al Karasiuk, one of Canda’s Outstanding Principals in 2012 (The Learning Partnership), says, “We are going to work towards very specific data analysis – understanding the data, setting short-term goals to target learning outcomes, and ensuring that the kids are ‘getting it.’”
While the teachers are hard at work, students will be invited – and bused – to arrive early to school and enjoy a free hot breakfast and a slow start to their day in the foyer. Educational assistants will be available to supervise, tutor, and facilitate morning extra-curricular activities.
Karasiuk sees his proposal as a win-win for both staff and students. Teachers will have time to orient themselves for the day and collaborate with their colleagues, while the teens will be able to snag an extra half an hour of sleep or fill up on the oft-touted “most important meal of the day.” By the time the instructional part of the day officially starts, they are more likely to be rested, well-fed, and prepared to learn.
Deninu School in Fort Resolution, a small community of 500 Chipewyan people, kept the importance of teamwork at the forefront when redirecting 74 hours. The school has had success hiring educators who have been teaching internationally, in places as far away as China or South Korea, before deciding to return to Canada. But Beijing and Seoul are very different from the N.W.T., and when asked for their feedback on how the hours might be redistributed, the current teachers reported that a few extra days near the beginning of the year to help ease them back into the Canadian curriculum, and to get support with the development of integrated year plans, would be helpful.
The other STIP days are dispersed throughout the year, in line with Deninu School’s planning cycle. Every four to six weeks, the staff will have time to meet and prepare for the upcoming units they will be teaching. “We chose to schedule full days of STIP time,” explains Principal Kate Powell, a co-recipient of a Premier’s Award for Excellence and a Ministerial Literacy Award. “To have meaningful conversations and collaboration, teachers suggested that we needed long periods of time. We plan to use the mornings of these days for collaborative planning, marking, assessing, and goal setting; and then the afternoons for teachers to work independently incorporating the morning’s learnings in the preparation of their units and lessons.”
The value of Professional Learning Communities
Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, have long been proven as one of the best strategies for ensuring all students learn at high levels. In what is touted as the largest ever evidence-based research in education, Hattie synthesized those factors that the research shows to have the greatest impact on student achievement, with Collective Teacher Efficacy ranking the highest.10
Frequent PLC meetings provide opportunities for teachers in similar grade or subject areas to work together to address challenges and share best practices, driven by actual classroom evidence. The result is stronger, more confident teachers who no longer feel isolated in their concerns about students or the curriculum. By sharing and learning together, teacher wellness and effectiveness is supported and enhanced.
A quick search of the Internet shows that teaching is often rated in the top ten most stressful professions, and our educators are facing increasingly high expectations in regard to unique student needs, cultural relevance, truth and reconciliation, accountability, testing, and student achievement.
As counter-intuitive as it may appear, the evidence suggests that reducing instructional time can result in more effective instruction and in more students achieving their potential, provided the “found” time is used for teacher professional duties and collaborative planning.
By giving teachers up to 100 hours of collaborative professional learning and working time throughout the school year to be more effective, we are hopeful that we can offset the high number of hours they work each year, while increasing their job satisfaction and well-being.
If the expected results occur, more teachers will be energized to come to work every day instead of feeling emotionally exhausted. Improved wellness should lead to less sick time and less money spent on substitute teachers (who are in extremely short supply or unavailable in most small outlying communities), resulting in a more stable, supportive environment for our students to grow. We are hopeful that the domino effect will include students being motivated to come to school, attending regularly, performing well on tests, and graduating in larger numbers.
The evolution of education demands a culture of both wellness and success in order for both staff and students to thrive. Along with the partners involved in this pilot project, we are keen to monitor and evaluate its effects on staff and student well-being and achievement.
Photo: courtesy Curtis Brown and Sarah Pruys
First published in Education Canada, September 2017
1 Programme for International Student Assessment, “PISA 2015 Results in Focus,” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2016). https://goo.gl/TsLeC3
2 European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, “Recommended Annual Instruction Time in Full-time Compulsory Education in Europe 2015/16,” Eurydice – Facts and Figures (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, May 2016).https://goo.gl/0T4tpm
3 Canadian Education Statistics Council, “Education Indicators in Canada: An international perspective,” Statistics Canada (February 13, 2015). https://goo.gl/GRcpUU
4 J. Hattie, Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, 1st edition (London, New York: Routledge, 2009).
5 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Education Indicators in Focus,” OECD (April 2014). https://goo.gl/SLE2gv
6 Adapted from the work of the DuFours in Learning by Doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work, 3rd Ed. (Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree Press, 2016).
7 Kristen Lewis, “Lessons From Finland,” Scholastic. http://bit.ly/2qBQg1c
8 Government of the Northwest Territories, NWT Teacher Time and Workload Study (GNWT, January 2017). https://goo.gl/9XT24A
9 Compiled by C. Naylor, E. O’Neill, and K. Rojem, Teacher Worklife Research (BC Teachers’ Federation). https://goo.gl/HJxsYq
10 The larger the effect size, the more powerful the influence. Hattie concludes that an effect size of 0.4 is medium and 0.6 is large. His research shows an effect size of 1.57 for Collective Teacher Efficacy.