First of all, thank you. I am grateful for so much from January 2015, and I owe a heckuva lot to this Teaching the Core community. Specifically:
- You've commented on this past month's blog posts like never before. Hearing your stories, your encouragement, your descriptions of what this blog does for you — I can honestly say that there has not been a month yet when being a teacher-writer has felt more rewarding than this past one.
- You've supported my latest book project, Never Finished. The book has sold 288 copies at the time of this writing, and while that's not much for the big dogs (one of my heroes, Don Miller, just released his latest book; 10,000 copies sold before the release date!), it means so much to me. Part of me was like, “Dude, don't publish that sales number; it makes you look lame; publishers will never pick up Never Finished if you do that,” but then I was like, “Seriously, Part-of-Me? That's what you're about?” We're talking about 288 people (and counting! Growth mindset, right?) that are important to me because their feedback will help make that book better and better as this year progresses. So far, they're saying it's a helpful book.
- You've put up with my inconsistent posting during the past couple of weeks; let's just say that Crystal's illness, in addition to giving me cause for gratitude, has made producing those two posts a week… challenging. (If you're not familiar with what threw my life into disarray this past month and would like to be, read this or this.)
And that final point brings me to the topic of today's post:
When life torpedoes our work schedules, how do we continue progressing toward our professional goals while remaining true to our life priorities?
Life Priorities are not synonymous with Professional Priorities
Our students are important, and we are wise to invest heavily in them. But investing heavily doesn't mean investing without thought or boundary; we must think carefully about how and in whom we invest. It also doesn't hurt to look in the mirror every now and then and ask two questions:
- “What will I wish I had used my life for when I'm viewing it from my deathbed?”
- “How does that line up with how I'm currently living?”
(You have no idea how convicting it is for me to even write those words.)
I hope it's obvious on this blog that I don't believe educators should sacrifice everything on the altar of professional success, even when professional success means impacting students in huge ways. I have several reasons for this stance:
- First and most pragmatically, it is simply not necessary to sacrifice one's personal life in order to promote the long-term flourishing of our students. Putting all our time into this job does not inherently mean doing it better.
- On a deeper level, though, we simply owe our families more than we owe our students. When I married Crystal, I made a vow to her to love her unconditionally, daily, and with multitudinous acts of love. I've made no like vows to my students. Teaching is a calling with which I am in love; it is not, however, a calling of equal importance as that of being a faithful husband to Crystal (faithfulness, by the way, is much more in my book than refraining from adultery).
- A similar thing is true with children. I, like almost every teacher in the world, view my students as my kids. I try to treat them and teach them like I would want a teacher to do toward my own kids. Yet there will only ever be one biological, my-genes-are-in-them dad to Hadassah, Laura, and Marlena. Just one. That is me. Teachers — of all people — should never neglect their children; we see, every single day, the effects of subpar parenting.
- To end on a more pragmatic note, consider this: the burnt-out teacher cannot bring as much energy and creativity and vigor to the work as the balanced one. We must have time in which we take the teacher hat off and be more than teachers. That time is called our personal life.
With all of these things, hear me: teaching is such a noble profession. The nobility of our work makes me speechless; I pray I'll never communicate otherwise. Yet it is exactly because of that that we must not make success in our work a worshipped thing, sought with every waking minute.
With that said: progress is important, even in hard times
Here I'll stress that, while this past month was difficult for my family and me, I in no way equate it with anything approaching tragedy. My wife has recovered; my children are okay. All is well.
If you're currently in the middle of a season that makes the one I just went through seem like a picnic with puppies and unicorns, please hear me: my sympathy is with you.
With that said…
Here's what I didn't do in January
I'll start here because honest, no-excuses self-examination is critical if we're to get better. This past month, here's what fell through the cracks:
- I didn't write two posts per week.
- I didn't release Never Finished on time.
- I didn't put enough prep into two days of instruction filmed by good people from Relay Graduate School of Education.
- I didn't give students quick enough feedback on their work.
- I didn't create a new First Day of School lesson that I had planned for my new students at the start of Semester Two.
- I didn't include the essay on my world history exam; I wanted to, even though it wasn't part of the district curriculum, but it fell through the cracks.
- I didn't create the goal sheets I wanted my students to experiment with during Semester Two.
- I didn't create the warm-up sheets that better align with our district's new evaluation model.
But here's what I did do
You know me — glass half full, right? I like learning from failure and moving on quickly with lessons learned. “Fail forward,” I read recently. Yes.
So while some of those “didn't get done” things in the previous section were the result of failure, many of them were actually wins because I intentionally chose to drop them.
For example, not giving the essay on the exam was the right call. I was adding that essay by my own druthers. It was one way in which I wanted my students to Do Hard Things. Did my students lose out on an opportunity there? Yes. Will it make or break them in the long-term? I don't think so.
Here's what did get done:
- I wrote five posts for Teaching the Core (see them all here), making it one of my more productive months in the life of the blog. That's awesome because it was a hard month and I still showed up and did the work.
- I submitted a second round Character Lab Teacher Innovator grant application. I'm not a grant-writing pro, so this was highly challenging for me; it required hours of research and lots of notes taped around my kitchen for a few days. Yet the work was so worth it no matter what the selection committee decides. That's how powerful the writing process was for me in terms of clarifying (for me, and that means eventually for readers of this blog) interplay between character strength development and pop-up debate.
- I led two full-day literacy PD workshops — one in Dearborn, MI, and one in Turlock, CA.
- I went through the nerve-wracking process of being filmed for two days by the Relay Graduate School of Education. I say nerve-wracking because I was so nervous before they came in. Every Never Finished teacher knows their shortcomings better than anyone else; I was no exception!
- I released Never Finished — late, yes, but I still got it out.
- I spent a day walking around San Francisco with my wife (she came with me to the Turlock professional development engagement); we watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean while drinking some wine on a beach. In January. For a Michigan person, you might as well transport me to Mars.
While that might seem like a lot, I chalk it up to a few key factors. I'll close the post by sharing them.
7 tips for surviving when things are nuts
1. Accept help
Meals came to our house. Grandparents, aunts, and friends from church babysat our children. These might seem small, but they were enormous; they gave hours and hours of time that I wouldn't otherwise have had. I owe these people greatly.
Here's the takeaway: be open to the help of others. I've had to grow into a man who can say, “Yes, thank you,” when someone offers help. Teachers too often are fiercely independent. Resist that in yourself, especially in hard times.
2. If a task will only take two minutes, do it now.
David Allen explains the two-minute rule much better than this in his bestselling Getting Things Done, but I'll summarize:
- If you have a task on your to-do list that will take less than two minutes to complete, do it right now. Pwn it.
I allude to this in my work schedule post; there, I have parts of my day in which I allow bite-sized tasks.
Here's the takeaway: During times in your day that are already prone to interruption (if that's all times in your day, you need to get better at hiding), annihilate two-minute tasks — you have way more of them than you think. That huge email from a parent? Respond in two minutes. The one kid who told you his grade is messed up? Two minutes. Picking those things up from the printer? Etc.
3. Have some projects without firm deadlines? Delay them.
While I did accomplish a lot in January, notice how much I didn't accomplish. When things go wrong and your working hours take a huge hit, it's time to triage. What must get done by a certain deadline and can't be moved?
I didn't want to make a habit of moving my blog posts — that's why I ended up posting so many — but I did eventually decide, “Okay, these have to give.”
The Character Lab app, on the other hand, wasn't going to move. If I was going to apply, it had to be on time or not at all.
Those instructional pieces that I didn't do — the essay, the first day lesson, the warm-up sheets, the goals sheets — those are all things I think will improve my outcomes with students, but at the end of the day, the systems and assignments I currently have in place are helping my students. I suspect my ideas will help students more, but my ideas, in these cases, aren't time critical.
On the other hand, releasing Never Finished last month, I feared, was critical if it was going to get out at all. My perfectionism imp was hammering at me every time I looked at the manuscript, and I knew that giving it more time would be trading the possibility for minor improvements with the certainty of an increasingly difficult battle with The Enemy of Good.
Here's the takeaway: You are a teacher, therefore, you are ambitious. You have great ideas — many of them. But you must pick and, at the end of the day, commit to getting ideas out the door consistently. If hard deadlines don't exist for any of the important things you want to try, impose them on yourself. Kindly, yet firmly.
4. With firm deadlines, get the work out the door
For that stuff that must get done — so last month, I had to give exams and get them graded before the cutoff date; I had to give those professional development workshops; I had to submit that Character Lab application — here are a few tips.
First, produce a rough draft quickly. Days before the deadline, tell yourself, “Okay — let's say I fell into a time warp and the [speech, workshop, application, manuscript] is due tomorrow. I've got to have something.” I don't know if that helps you, but it's made a huge difference for me — especially with speaking engagements. This early completion allows you to tweak and improve a finished product — not a perfect one, but a finished one — during the final days before the deadline.
Second, get it out the door. This means getting it done, attaching it to the email, and clicking send. For my workshops, it meant having everything ready and rehearsed when I showed up.
Nothing I got done in January was perfect; everything, however, was of a quality that I know provided value to the intended audience.
Here's the takeaway: Defy perfectionism — it seeks to enslave you. Get your work done and get it in front of the eyes that need to see it.
5. What's the smallest action that can move the project forward? Take it.
If you've got a bigger project (for example, that Character Lab app last month was a big one for me), make progress on it even on crazy days by doing this: consider what is the tiniest step you can take to move the project forward, and then take that step. There were some days last month when my tiniest step was adding a sentence to my application, or revising five pages of Never Finished.
Here's the takeaway: Done is better than perfect. A little bit done today means one step closer to completion.
6. Do hard things isn't just posted on the wall; it's done
If you've been around for a bit, you know that front and center in my room is a sign that simply says “Do hard things.” That can't just be a slogan, though. Nothing is more painfully ironic to me than schools where the word “grit” is thrown at kids because it's an easy way of placing all the responsibility on them. When grit is something we expect only from our students, it's going to fail.
A key piece of grit is “getting things done.” Another is doing things that challenge us — all of us.
Here's the takeaway: We always ought to be doing something that challenges us — it need not be school-related, but it does need to exist.
7. Prioritize sleep
From a Harvard Business Review article I was reading awhile back called “Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer”:
Stay awake longer than 18 consecutive hours, and your reaction speed, short-term and long-term memory, ability to focus, decision-making capacity, math processing, cognitive speed, and spatial orientation all start to suffer. Cut sleep back to five or six hours a night for several days in a row, and the accumulated sleep deficit magnifies these negative effects. (Sleep deprivation is implicated in all kinds of physical maladies, too, from high blood pressure to obesity.)
Here's another way of looking at it; this is from Sleep Smarter: 21 Proven Tips for Sleeping Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success:
Generally, being awake is catabolic (breaks you down) and sleep is anabolic (builds you up). Sleep is known to be an elevated anabolic state, heightening the growth and rejuvenation of the immune, skeletal, and muscular systems. Basically, sleep rejuvenates you and keeps you youthful.
I certainly got less sleep than I like this past month, but I would have gotten much less had I clung to the goals I set prior to January.
Here's the takeaway: For some of you, sleep needs to be part of your professional development goals. That's right — if you're not getting adequate sleep each night, getting it needs to become an element of your “How I'm going to get better at teaching” plan. Seriously. Some of you tell me things like, “I'm up until midnight grading every night.” That is not sustainable. That is not a situation in which you need more grit; it's one in which you need more sleep.
To sum it up
Here are the things I learned in January. When the stuff hits the fan and you find yourself with lots to do and way too little time:
- Accept help from others.
- Do two-minute tasks now.
- Delay non-critical projects.
- Get work out the door.
- Take at least a tiny step, every day.
- Hard things are good to do, even when circumstances make them harder.
I appreciate you all. This month I'm planning to share some things I've been learning about the non-freaked out framework for literacy instruction, so stay tuned.