The Greatest Gift

I read recently about an advertising company in Minneapolis that gave their employees 4 months of paid time off.

More than a bonus or added salary, this gift as you can see and imagine is perhaps more precious.

One of the primary benefits of today’s technology is how it can eliminate time as a primary factor in learning. We’ve come to realize that learning can happen anywhere, anytime with anyone. That “anytime” part is closely tied to the “anyone and anywhere” part as well. Yet our schools and work places alike struggle with removing the constraints of time.

I’ve been on the recipient end of these gifts on several occasions and consider them integral to my growth professionally and personally. In 1999 I was part of a grant initiative called “Project Lighthouse.” One school in our district received this grant and seconded me to work for them 1/2 time for six months. From January to June I spent every afternoon removed from classroom duties to explore and create and play with various technologies and try them in out different classrooms. After 12 years in the classroom this was truly invigorating. It not only allowed me to learn new things, it made me value and appreciate time in a new way.

In 2002 I left the classroom and worked at the district in a consultant role. I remember the first week with no bells to tell me where and when to be. It was strange at first but quickly became a huge perk. When people would ask me if I missed the classroom, I usually would say “not really” and not because I didn’t want to be with children but because the autonomy of time was something I had come to love. At the same time I remember I worked way longer hours. Partly because I wasn’t spent at the end of the day and partly because I was more in control of what I did with my time. I remember discussing this new found gift with a principal. He recalled his first week as an administrator and how liberating it was to go make a bank deposit at 10 am and not worried about being away from a classroom. It’s amazing how these little things mean so much. Today I work out of my home for a wonderful company and great leaders. It begins with trust in me and my abilities. They hired me because they thought and believe I can do good work. That trust, along with my own desire to help and support teachers, motivates me to work really hard. I don’t punch a clock and don’t track hours but my wife can attest to my passion and the time I put into my job. My problem is shutting down. Some of my time is bound by constraints but it is also filled with time to explore, create and play.

Of course our students are bound by the constraints of time too. From the school year to the school day we constantly mark time and place major restrictions on them to the point of ringing bells at precise moments multiple times per day. When we talk about schools as prisons this is perhaps where we’re most like them. If you look at the life of a prisoner in most cases, it’s not that bad. They get 3 decent meals, get to pursue passions and often get an education. The worst part, along with the physical confinement, I would imagine is not being able to control your time. Even if you love going to work every day and 9 and finishing at 5 and even if you eat dinner every night at 6 and watch the news every day at 7 and even if you walk your dogs on the same path every day you still have the autonomy over those choices. Routine is great if you choose it. Autonomy over time is part of what makes us human. Freedom is priceless.

I’ve always been interested in ROWE (Results Oriented Work Environment). When you think about it, unless you’re in some type of service industry that requires face to face interactions, it seems pretty antiquated to require people to be in an office or school at any particular time. I remember having conversations with my Superintendent over the hours that consultants needed to be in the office. The objections to flexibility were always about appearances not work production. I understand that but of course would like people to look at results and availability in different ways, not just hours at a desk. Certainly we see the same issues in schools. Assuming all students need to be in the building the same hours hardly acknowledges their differences and needs. It’s why I love it when schools attack the notions of time and space and begin to think differently. It’s one of those paradigms that’s very difficult to overcome. When you think about how restrictive it is and how we now have the tools to change some of these contrived constraints, it’s amazing how little has changed. I’ve blogged a few times about teacher autonomy in professional learning and stand by that as a major reason teachers are often unmotivated by mandated, time bound learning initiatives.

Go back and watch that video again and let me challenge you to gift someone with time this year. If you’re a teacher, think of ways to give your students more time and freedom. I’m sure you’re already doing this but try and help them see more clearly what you’re doing. You may not have the luxury of transforming an entire time table but consider things like genius hour as a way of gifting time. If you’re a school administrator, think about a nice gift to give your teachers. One simple idea I heard recently was how a principal gave each staff member a birthday present. For their birthday, he he covered their class for the first 2 periods of the day and allowed them to sleep in and show up at 10:30. That may seem small but talking to staff members, they found this to be a wonderful gift. If you’re a district leader be on the lookout for opportunities to let your staff have some time. In an slightly unrelated idea, today my wife told me their staff held a walking meeting. Again, not exactly about time but somehow being out of a school, not worrying about the clock so much felt good. Finally, I think if you’re part of a union that negotiates your contract, think about encouraging them to see time as something to be negotiated as vigorously as salary. In my experience, unions seemed to be so focused on money when time is every bit as valuable, if not more. More money won’t make you love your job more but more time might enable you to do it better. I understand that often time is a cost item too but I’ve also seen ways in which it doesn’t have to be. You may have big plans this year to do great work, do that and make that happen but consider gifting someone with time. It may be the greatest gift.

Any other thoughts about time? I’d love to hear your creative ways that you’re gifting people with time.

cross-posted at

Dean Shareski is a Digital Learning Consultant with the Prairie South School Division in Moose Jaw, SK, Canada, specializin in the use of technology in the classroom. He lectures for the University of Regina and is the Community Manager of the Canadian DEN or Discovery Educators Network.