It has to do with power. Every time anyone shamelessly interrupted my class, the message was clear: “My time is more valuable than yours. Whatever you’re doing cannot possibly be as vital as whatever I’m doing.” (Coleen Armstrong)

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He smiles, you cringe as you strain to hear your students.

Why do American teachers struggle to find uninterrupted time to teach? What in the school psyche allows office personnel—principals, guidance, and secretaries—to interrupt lessons either over the public address system (PA) or telephone? What allows janitors to run floor-cleaning machines in the hallways or lawn mowers outside windows while we are teaching? We claim that teachers are the most important piece in a child’s education, yet others in the school undermine our efforts.

Coleen Armstrong is right. It is a power struggle but an unnecessary power struggle, an unjustified power struggle. As successful businesses put customers first, so, too, should schools put teachers and students first. As soon as the principal calls over the PA, the lesson disappears! Depending on the length of the announcement and its content, returning to the lesson, if possible, can take several minutes. “Will the following students please come to the office?” has more emotional impact than announcing a change in the lunch menu. A colleague once told me, that she learned that an average of seven minutes are lost with each announcement. If five of them occur during the day, thirty-five minutes of teaching is lost. For a week, that means three hours! For thirty-six weeks, forty-eight hours!

As I read Armstrong’s the-emperor-is-not-wearing-any-clothes exposure of this travesty, I recalled the contrary practice in Japan where the classroom is considered sacred, learning takes priority, and no interruptions are tolerated. In contrast, in American schools, where handling interruptions is the order of the day, Japanese visitors are stunned, particularly when the PA (Big Brother?) commands the classroom or when teachers barge in on one another during lessons.

Perhaps some of the onus of living with interruptions rests on our shoulders. How often do we drop in on each other’s classrooms in the middle of the period to borrow something or simply to say hello? How often do we interrupt students arbitrarily? Isn’t the assembly-line approach to learning built upon scheduled interruptions? We can argue such conditions are reality, the system within which we have to live. But, aren’t we part of that design? Couldn’t we, become advocates for a new design built more on creative flow than segmented timeframes?

Have you paid attention to the negative effect of interruptions on your classroom?

 

For more on this crucial issue see Chapter 13 “Stop the Interruptions” in Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting students to Learn from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Middle-Room-Frank-Thoms/dp/0615358918.

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