Excuse Me Please, for Just One Minute…

…why there are too many interruptions in the school day.

When I was a pupil in primary school I used to love visitors calling to our classroom. It might have been the principal distributing the “Snippets” newsletters he had duplicated on the school Gestetner, or the lady from the “Conquer Cancer Campaign” asking us to sell tickets. In my young mind they were a welcome interruption to whatever writing, or reading, listening or singing we were doing in class; they added colour to the monotony of the school day.

But like sweet foods and good tv programmes, which were also scarce back then, we are now bombarded by interruptions in classrooms: announcements on the intercom, teachers withdrawing children for learning support or resource class, a parent handing in a lunchbox for a child, a reminder of a sports practice or rehearsal for a play, a child displaying a medal hard-earned in some endeavour, and much more. It really is hard for a teacher and pupils to get down to some serious, sustained work.

Interruptions are not just limited to classrooms of course. Principals and lecturers too experience them, though they may be of a different kind. E-mails arriving, phone calls, text messages, and visitors – from Department of Education & Skills inspectors to sales representatives – all prevent or delay us from getting work done. We even interrupt ourselves by looking up items on the Internet or making a phone call when we think of it rather than waiting and making a few calls together.

In the mid 1990s in our school we used to practise “Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading.”  The idea was that for ten minutes of the school day (after small break) every teacher and every pupil would read for ten minutes and no-one in the school could interrupt the whole-school reading for any reason (bar an emergency). It was a welcome oasis of calm in the school day. I’m not sure if many schools still practice uninterrupted sustained silent reading, but the idea of having some time when teacher and students can work interruption-free for a sustained period of time would enhance teaching and learning.

Interruptions interfere with the flow of a lesson. After being interrupted, it takes a few minutes to re-orient yourself back into the lesson. Interruptions make it easier for children to be distracted from the focus of the classroom work. This can lead to a teacher spending time on classroom management that would be better spent on instruction. According to Stigler and Hiebert, interruptions to lessons are commonplace in the United States, quite common in Germany, but unheard of in Japan.

The timing of some interruptions is worse than others; particularly disruptive are those that come five minutes into a new lesson or when a child is sharing a sensitive memory of a time when she felt sad/afraid etc. In contrast, when children are writing down their homework in the evening, an interruption causes minimal disruption.

So, how can teachers reduce the number of interruptions to lessons? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Agree with colleagues at a staff meeting to put teaching first by minimising interruptions, and discuss how this can be done.
  2. Monitor interruptions over a day or a week, identify patterns, and think about how they can be reduced.
  3. Synchronise the class timetable with the timetables for learning support and resource teaching so that changeovers happen at the same time.
  4. Only interrupt another class with a message etc when the interruption cannot wait. If it can wait, make a note of it and only enter the class at a time that is less productive from a teaching perspective (such as when the children are eating lunch).
  5. Check at breaktime that you have all the materials you need for your next lessons so you don’t have to interrupt your class by leaving it or interrupt another class by seeking to borrow materials.
  6. If a class must be interrupted, do so as close to break-time, assembly time or home time as possible.
  7. Put a reminder on classroom doors asking potential visitors if the interruption is really necessary (like the reminders on e-mails about thinking before printing).
  8. Put mobile phones on silent between breaks.
  9. Encourage parents to call to the school office with messages for their child in preference to interrupting the teaching and learning.
  10. Make use of noticeboards, placed strategically around the school – electronic if the school can afford them – to remind children of after-school activities.
  11. Do all administrative tasks, such as collecting money or forms, at the same time. Or better still, remove this task from teachers altogether.
  12. Display on a mini-whiteboard outside the classroom door, information that must be collected daily, such as attendance or lunch numbers. The person who needs the information can then collect it without interrupting the class.

Given how common interruptions have become, it is unlikely that they can be eliminated. But they could be reduced. Wouldn’t it be a good new year resolution for educators everywhere to interrupt less and be interrupted less?

Disclosure: As a supervisor of student teachers I sometimes interrupt classes around the country. I am happy to take on board any practicable suggestions that teachers make about minimising interruptions in that role.

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