It’s possible that the most important moment in my teaching career came not while teaching, but while speaking to a beautiful young woman I dated at the start of my career. I was a first-year teacher, and I was introducing this woman to what my working life was like.
“Some days,” I told her, “the only time I see the sunlight is through the window of my classroom.” After saying this, I expected her to swoon at the noble warrior-poet who stood before her.
Instead, her response was something like this: “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Well, at that point she had me — I needed to marry this woman!
The future Mrs. Stuart’s point was profound to me. The objective of teaching isn’t to spend all your time doing it; the objective is to produce a certain set of results. She was pushing me along in my journey toward clarifying that the long-term flourishing of kids is what teaching is about, not the envisioning of oneself as the star of an imaginary, savior-style teacher movie.
Shortly after this conversation, Crystal helped me develop one of the most critical rules of my teaching career: I stop working at 5:30 pm. From this constraint, I’ve worked backward: How do I get done what needs to be done between 7:30 am and 5:30 pm on weekdays? With only fifty hours to spend in a week, how do I spend them as wisely as I can?
When we start with the work that needs to be done, the work is endless and it is impossible to complete. It fills whatever space we’ll give it; this is called Parkinson’s Law. That’s why I was the first car into the parking lot and the last car out during way too many of the days of that first year of my career.
But when we start with the constraints, we have to work from those. Suddenly we can’t do every possible thing — and so we have to ask questions like “What is the most pointless thing I do?” and “What am I ultimately aiming for?” We start to discover concepts like satisficing and the relative unimportance of the physical classroom space and the need to experiment with disciplined work schedules.
The average person starts with the work. You and I can’t afford to do that. So we start with the constraint.