For me, one of the hardest parts of teaching was the constant deluge of unexpected daily crises. Think about these three types of situations:
- Urgent: something that is immediately pressing
- Important: something that has long term consequences
- Urgent and Important: A pressing need that also has long term consequences.
This idea comes from Dwight Eisenhower who said:
What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
Here’s what urgent situations look like:
- An angry parent arrives unexpectedly at lunch to discuss a homework assignment.
- Your administrator suddenly needs a form returned now.
- The class phone rings: another teacher wants to talk about how your student broke some minor rule at recess.
Urgent situations push their way to the front because they are loud and their consequences seem immediate. They tend to be emotional issues. And they are often another person’s needs, not your own. Urgent demands are frustrating: they’re out of your control, they’re interruptions, and they force you to react without time to plan or think.
And here’s what important (but not urgent) situations look like:
- Building a task that connects a social studies unit with your science content.
- Reading the book about differentiation that’s been sitting on your shelf.
- Sharing a non-academic conversation with each of your students
- Eating a relaxed lunch.
- Working through the long division steps with a struggling students until they actually get it.
These are important! But they are also humble needs. If you don’t stand up for them, they’ll quietly make way for the attention-demanding urgent situations.
Prioritize The Important
You’ve got to protect the important, because the urgent will just keep piling up. There’s always another angry problem rearing its head, preventing you from doing what matters. Guess what? Other people’s urgent demands can wait. They can make an appointment. Find a time when it’s convenient for you both to deal with it. This doesn’t require rudeness, just a bit of assertiveness. For example:
- “Sorry, I’m in the middle of a lesson right now, but I can speak with you after school.”
- “Unfortunately, I’m on my lunch break – but leave a message and I’ll you later tonight.”
- “Ok, I’ll have a chance to finish that form up once my students leave for the day.”
And it really helps to have your colleagues on board. Together, it’s easier to protect the important from the urgent. If the school secretary believes class time is precious, he’ll take messages rather than ring your room. If your principal believes ongoing learning is vital, she’ll make it easy for you to watch a colleague teach while she takes your class. As a grade-level or department team, you can filter out your own urgent demands on each other to focus on the important.