A trusted and respected colleague of mine once introduced me to a problem-solving strategy she watched on an episode of Mad TV. Now, wait a minute, just because she watches Mad TV doesn't mean she can't be a trusted colleague and respectable individual. In fact, there are lots of things about Mad TV that can help develop one's critical thinking skills, deductive reasoning approaches, and professional capacity. Just because I can't think of one in particular doesn't mean it's not there, right?
Anyway, she told me of a skit in which the main characters response to aversive behaviors was to yell "Stop it!" at the offender. That's it. Just those two little words. It's contrary to the Nike philosophy and might even make Phil Knight jealous of its brevity, but sometimes succinct wins.
It comes to mind today because I'm struck by the amount of, um, well (what's the word in English?), crud that we do in education today. We waste a lot of time. We put our energy in fruitless tasks. We focus on the wrong things. We leave precious moments hanging in the air, twisting on whatever breeze pushes them, and then lament our loss.
So how can we straighten ourselves out? How can we reclaim that time? How can we get the biggest bang for every tick of the clock? Time, after all, is our most prized commodity. And we often act as if there's a spare reservoir waiting for us to tap.
Remember that old joke about the fellow who walks into the hospital? Bending his arm back over his head in an awkward position, he says, "Hey doc, when I do this, my arm hurts." Then the doctor hands him a prescription that reads, "Stop doing that." Well, at least that fellow knew the cause of his pain.
Many of us in education are sadly unaware of what distracts us from our real work. It takes introspection, reflection, and self-analysis to figure it out. We often don't think of why we've missed the boat; we just lament that we're still on shore, watching it sail away.
It turns out there is a veritable cornucopia of reasons why we don't have enough time, why we don't get all our work done, and why our inbox is perpetually higher stacked than the outbox. We don't prioritize. We don't focus. We don't expend our energy on the right tasks. We don't maximize every second that's available to us. There ain't no spare reservoir, people. So if this sounds like you, and if you do any of the following tasks, there's some simple advice waiting for you:
Do you check and write e-mails during school hours? Stop it! You can only supervise teachers, monitor student learning, observe authentic instruction, and build relationships around campus during the time children are in class. The e-mails will still be there after school.
Do you listen to messages and make phone calls during school hours? Stop it! Just like e-mails, these messages will still be there after the children go home. And they'll be there tomorrow morning, strangely enough. I have a 24-hour rule: I'll get back to parents and/or other callers within 24 hours. Not within 24 seconds, or even 24 minutes. 24 hours. If it's more urgent than that, you'll hear a siren.
Do you sit at your desk and do paperwork? Stop it! Did you get into school administration to be a pencil-pusher? Are you affecting positive change by filling out forms and writing stuff during the day? Do it later, take it home, or better yet -- see if you can find someone else to do it! (That's not always appropriate, but if you can, go for it!)
Do you try to be everything to everyone? Stop it! It's hard to say no, to keep walking when you've got a destination and a teacher trying to stop you for a quick question, but sometimes no is an acceptable answer. You don't have to know everything, do everything, be everywhere, and drop everything every time someone wants your ear (or your hide!). That's why we have calendars (let's schedule a meeting for later), e-mail (ask me your question and I'll get to it after school), phone messages (I'd like to hear your voice, just not now!), and keys (scratch your message into the hood of my car and I'll get back to you real quick!).
Do you go to too many pointless meetings? Stop it! Doug Reeves (in The Learning Leader ASCD, 2006) advises us to excuse ourselves from these time-wasters. If we have nothing to contribute, and if the meeting doesn't expand our knowledge and/or potential, then we could be spending our time elsewhere. I'm a particular advocate against talking-memo meetings, in which a series of visitors read a script to the audience. If that starts, just salute, smile, and walk.
Do you do other people's work? Stop it! There's a reason that I've dubbed Stephen Covey's Quadrant IV activities (from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Fireside Press, 1989) handoffs. Other people should be doing them: standing in front of the copy machine, collating packets for a professional development workshop, standing in line for lunch, ordering materials online, organizing bookshelves, filing paperwork, changing light bulbs. I know we wear a lot of hats as principals, but this is ridiculous!
Do you dilly-dally on your own time? Stop it! We all need to have things that bring us joy and keep us mentally healthy. The principalship is one step shy of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, so a little diversion is nice. But when we take some paperwork home, when we have reports to write and forms to complete, do we allow ourselves to get distracted by personal timekillers? Online chat rooms, video games, television programs, personal e-mail, sports fantasy leagues, texting--all those could conceivably fit in the personal happiness column on your life's organizational chart, but only in reasonable doses. I suggest we eschew those behaviors and actions that don't contribute to our growth and progress.
Do you worry about things that are beyond your control? Stop it! We can admire all our problems until the cows come home, but that won't help us address our most dire needs. Research studies tell us that students born prematurely are likely to be academically delayed; your district's Title I funding has been reapportioned and next year you will receive $50,000 less; parents just don't value education for their children anymore; our student mobility rate is climbing every year! There are a million reasons why our students can't succeed. We will help them realize success only when we create and implement a plan. Worshipping factors outside our influence is a fruitless pursuit. And it gobbles up our time.
With a little focus, some reflection, and personal willpower, we can create our own spare reservoir. Before the time's up.
Always strive to be a better you,
Article by Pete Hall
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