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I have never loved mornings.
I remember my mother dragging me out of bed for an early morning church class that I went to during high school. The class started at 6am. From there I’d walk to school, muscle my way through classes and stay awake by munching on Pop Tarts and Goldfish. Most of the year I had rehearsal for a play in the evening. As tired and sleep deprived as I was, my brain would come alive again once rehearsal started and I’d come home and stay awake far later than was healthy, but not late enough to satisfy my night owl tendencies. I would swear to anyone that I did my best writing after 10.30pm.
My mom, who loves mornings, would tell me that some day it would all change and I would learn to get up early and not want to stay up so late. She knew that I wanted to be a teacher, and I knew that an early schedule was part of my future. I hoped she was right.
Now I’m in my eighth year of teaching and months away from turning thirty. I can attest that while my mother is right about basically everything, she was wrong about this: I still detest mornings. The earlier I get up, the longer it takes for me to feel like a good, functional, kind human being.
It was with this in mind that I started my campaign to get a later start time for my school.
Several years ago, my then school - Merit College Preparatory Academy in Springville, Utah - started discussing a possible change to the schedule to allow for more students to conveniently take distance education classes, among other reasons. My rather selfish thought was that this would be a great opportunity to push back the start time. Knowing that “I just want to!” was not an argument I would accept from my students (much less expect my administration to go for), I went to work researching school start time in the hopes that I would bring back something to make me seem more reasonable and professional and less self centered.
Turns out, the research wasn’t that hard. What I found was that everywhere I looked, the evidence was the same: schools - especially secondary schools - that start after 8.30 see a sharp increase in academic performance. Schools that start at 9.00 see the same academic results as schools starting at 8:30, but discipline problems go down and morale skyrockets. It makes sense. Science tells us that the teenaged brain isn’t wired to shut down until after 10:00 - perhaps even as late as 11:00. Given that teenagers need roughly nine hours of sleep a night, the earlier the start time - the more fatigued they are.
Armed with a pile of information printed and highlighted, I approached my administration about the possibility of a later start time. After explaining the research I’d done and a brief discussion, they took me up on it. It helped that, at the time, I was teaching in a school not beholden to a district bussing schedule which places priority on keeping younger students out of the cold and dark in wintertime. The change was approved, and the next year we started at 8:30.
It was a half an hour difference, but what I saw in my students and in myself completely corroborated the research I’d done. Before the change, my students came in each morning and had to be coaxed into having the energy I wanted them to have until after lunch. Afterwards, they came in ready to work and excited about the day.
The same was true of me - I didn’t feel like I had to drag myself through the first few periods of the day. I felt much more prepared and energized after getting a little bit of extra time to sleep. Discipline problems in my classroom were far less often or less dramatic than they had been before. It was easier to establish aclassroom culture that was unified toward excellence. Student anxiety and stress gave way to enthusiasm and confidence. State test scores for the school went up nearly 20% in just a few years.
Whether all this success was correlation or causality, I don’t know. We had administrative changes and staff changes that probably contributed to the shift in the school as well. What I do know is this: I felt better. My students felt better. After experiencing both early and later starting schools, I know that no data can prove or disprove what I see in my class: happier students, happier staff, and better academics.
Joni Newman teaches at the American Leadership Academy, a charter school in Spanish Fork, Utah