Teacher in the Hotseat: The Challenge of TIME

Today I welcome a fellow teacher, blogger and friend, Jeanne of Zella Said Purple, to the hotseat to talk about one of the challenges facing teachers today

First of all, Thank You to Christie for offering me a guest blog opportunity during her maternity leave from Childhood 101. Christie’s blog has been an inspiration to me since beginning my Zella Said Purple blog in 2010 and personally it has been thrilling to establish a blog-ship (is that like a friendship?) with Christie over the two years. Cheers to Christie and her new baby!

While Christie is focusing on her newest family member, here’s the Question that she proposed for me:

“What are the current challenges facing teachers today?”

I thought for quite some time about it. Hmmm, there are a zillion answers and there are no answers.

I asked the students in the college course I instruct about this topic to hear their interpretation as Brand New Teachers and discovered one absolute answer:

What it all came down to is TIME.

Don’t we all wish we had more of it or more control of it?

Don’t we all wish time could slow down when we needed it to and yet also speed along at other times?

As Time relates to Teachers in an early childhood classroom, however, the challenge varies from trying to be in the moment with children, implementing curriculum, addressing state standards, to cleaning blue paint from the art tables!

Here a few keys to fight time head on:

Big 3 Time Stealers and How Teachers Can Steal Time Back

Time Stealer #1: Teachers focusing on Teacher Agenda
Ok, sure, it is important to Think Ahead and have a sense of the big picture for the school day. Teachers need to be intentional in their planning and have a flow for the routine of the day. However, a Time Stealer is when teachers are not “present” with the children in the moment to witness learning, scaffold an experience or take photos and/or document an exploration. Teachers instead have the children “busy enough” in class so that the teacher can prep the NEXT thing they want the children to be engaging in or doing. The day is a blur of next, next, next.

Teachers are so worried about what should be happening NEXT that they do not connect with what is happening NOW with children. Your true time is lost because your focus is on the Teacher Agenda instead of on the children right then, exactly then. The children have so much to teach you if you allow them to be a significant partner in the planning of what happens in your classroom.

Steal Time Back #1: Leave room IN your agenda for children’s discoveries to guide your teaching. This requires you to focus on the children, listen, photograph, record conversations. The value is that you Really Understand where the children are in their development around a certain skill or exploration. When you sit down nearby a group of children building in the block area, examine the materials they have chosen, listen in to their drama they created around the Cave for Dinosaurs. Your formal or informal collection of this kind of data in turn authentically informs your teaching for the next day or weeks instead of needing to hurry up to prep a butterfly art project that has no connection to what the children are really DOing.

Real example: One of my favorite stories is of a girl named Sophia and her Train. She had worked in the art area over a period of time to create a train coming through a tunnel. My privilege was to sit near her and listen to her process and explanation of the train being born onto her paper with tape and crayons. “Oh, yes,” remarks Sophia, “I had thought a lot about this before I did it. I cut it like this to make a tunnel. You see? The tape around the sides is the tunnel part. And the black circle coming through is the train. It is a train coming through a tunnel. The red tape in the middle is the light you see when you see it coming straight through.”   Read more here: Sophia’s Train.

Time Stealer #2: Teachers impose their exact way for children to do something
Teachers often have learned a certain way that they believe children would benefit from doing something ~ paint “like this” or use these magnets “like this” or press the stampers “like this.” Even more complicated, teachers often have 3 or 4 steps of How To for children to do something exactly in one certain way: First, hold the paint brush, then dip it in the water, then dip it in the paint, then glide it on your paper….

This kind of ‘teaching’ usually has a complimentary “Don’t press the brush” “Don’t dip in two colors” “Don’t use too much paint”. Not a favorite style of mine. This is a Time Stealer because children don’t require our guidance in this way.

Steal Time Back #2: The classroom environment is set for children to USE and EXPLORE materials and tools on their own.

This can happen. You can think about What and Why you offer materials and tools in different areas of the classroom for the ages you teach. You can be deliberate about how you lay out a game or blocks or paint that makes it child accessible and child inviting. Sure, you should introduce the items in large/small groups so the children are familiar with their possibilities and properties. Yet, really, does paint require a How To? What if children surprised you with how they mixed and dabbled and smushed and dotted different colors? Wouldn’t that enrich your understanding about that child’s creativity and exploration with color and tools? Would all the colors being mixed to brown be the worst thing? Would smashed bristles on a paint brush be the worst thing? Would paint dripping off the easel be the worst thing? All of these can be used a discussion of “Oh, what happened here?”

As adults, we lose the vantage point of something being brand new and how to investigate its properties in unusual ways: This is a gift you can give the children. The children would have so much Extra Time to investigate and explain and invent ways of playing with paint if teachers didn’t have an exact “right way” of painting. If teachers let go of How To, there will be huge amounts of Time given back to exploration in all areas of the classroom. You don’t need to teach children how to play. We need to let children show us how they play.

Real example: I have so many stories of children inventing ways of playing that I would never have dreamed of myself. One group of three children created a whole scenario of The Dinosaur That Might Be Dead when they investigated a goat skull we had in the Science Area. They used kaleidoscopes, magnets and magnifiers to research this “problem” of the dead dinosaur and created doctor roles for themselves such as Doctor of Bones and Doctor Wizard. If I had told them they could only do certain things with the skull or the science tools they would never have been able to invent this dramatic scene that lasted for over a week and also inspired my master’s thesis at university. Read more here: The Dinosaur That Might Be Dead.

Time Stealer #3: Teachers need to Prep and Clean all day
Teachers need to wash, disinfect, sort, stack, prep, organize all day long with food, materials, and children’s items. Teachers allow this part of our job to Become Our Job all day. Similar to the Teacher Agenda, teachers focus on the cleaning to a degree where teachers want to limit what children do or explore because “it is so messy” or “too many blocks” or “too much drippy paint.” Sure, part of our job is to have a safe and clean school experience for all children and staff. Yet, we all know cleaning could be a full time job itself in a classroom.

Steal Time Back #3: Teachers partner with children to care for the classroom.

Children who take ownership of the classroom have a much stronger role in the care of the classroom. When children are in an environment where they choose their materials and tools, have extended choice time to play, and have authentic relationships with teachers, they in turn have an awareness of the care that is required for their classroom and desire to be caring members. Children usually want to clean tables for snack time, to sort the blocks back onto the shelves, or to recycle the extra art paper from the exploration table. Children working with teachers to think about preparing and cleaning the classroom invites an unhurried tone where the before/after play is an equal part of being at school. It is not only for teachers to clean and prep. Children learn sorting, sequencing, organizing, as well as being a member of a group, helping, and recognizing what a ‘cleaned up’ classroom looks like. Other than cleaning, children also like helping prepare materials for a small group game or exploration, lay out snack or get books chosen for reading time.

Real Example: I would always have the children start cleaning up in the area that they were currently working in, then join another area if that group needed help. Lastly, I’d always offer an “I SPY for 3” more things around the classroom which the children really enjoyed finding that one scrap of paper under a table, or the one marble that rolled away, or straightening chairs “nicer.” A sense of pride as a class group was evident. Granted, teachers were equal members of the clean up, but Everyone Helping was modeled everyday.

Time is a gift for you to take hold of and offer to children in the richest form you can.

Breathing, Letting Go and Partnering with Children can steal time back into the school day.

Jeanne is an early childhood educator, artist, blogger and children’s book collector. She is committed to constructivist learning environments, documentation and photography as teacher research tools, and joy in the classroom.

You can read more about Jeanne’s work on her blog Zella Said Purple.

Get every post via email Get the monthly newsletter


  1. This was really interesting. Many of the time-stealers you mention are things that we parents can be trapped in as well. I’d love all the preschool teachers and primary teachers I know to read this! (not that they are not good teachers but it is a good reminder of how to get the best out of kids).

  2. Thanks again for the treat of being a guest blogger today, Christie :) Have a wonderful day!

  3. Well said! I really enjoyed this article.

  4. Kim Baumgart says:

    Thanks so much for this. I supervise 10 teachers who are frequently complaining about the lack of time. There are ideas here I have tried to give them as well as some new ways to look at things – Perhaps coming from someone else will help them to get these messages and implement them to the benefit of the children AND themselves.

  5. As much as I appreciate the sentiments of this article and agree with a lot of it, I have to disagree on a couple of points.
    I am an elementary art teacher who teaches 120+ students per day. My students all use the same paints, brushes, and tables. If I don’t teach them the right way to use the materials, they would quickly be ruined, or I would spend LOTS of extra time “fixing” the paint trays and brushes so that they are useable for the next student. While there is a time and a place for free exploration, it is just not practical in a school setting.


  1. […] Teacher in the Hot Seat: The Challenge of TIME {Childhood 101} […]

Leave a Comment