For me, one of the hardest parts of teaching was the constant deluge of unexpected crises that prevented me from making progress on my true goals. 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 (supposedly) said:
What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.
I think this distinction is pretty darn (yes) important, especially if you’re feeling burnt out (and what teacher isn’t teetering on burnout?). We have to learn to fight for what’s important to us and be confident enough to ignore what’s merely urgent to others.
Here’s what urgent situations look like:
- Your administrator suddenly needs a form returned right now.
- An angry parent arrives unexpectedly at lunch to discuss a homework assignment.
- The class phone rings: another teacher wants to talk about how your student broke some rule at recess.
- Another teacher calls (during class!) and needs their printer working immediately (I got these calls happened all of the time!).
- An email appears from a boss, asking for help with something ASAP.
Urgent situations push their way to the front because they are loud and their consequences seem immediate. They tend to be emotional issues. And, importantly, 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 ask you to react without taking time to plan or think. Lots of urgent demands blow us around like leaves and disrupt our plans.
If I’m feeling overwhelmed/burnt out/stressed, it’s almost certainly because of urgent tasks. I’ve learned that I have to put the urgent to the side or I’ll never get anything meaningful done.
This means being ok with saying no, asking folks to come back later, or simply ignoring things. And that means irritating some people (but folks with lots of urgent demands are also usually irritating people, so 🤷♂️).
Here’s what important (but not urgent) situations look like:
- Reading the teaching book that’s been sitting on your shelf.
- Observing your colleagues teach and meeting afterward to get better together.
- Eating a relaxed lunch.
- Actually planning out a cross-curricular unit that will connect your science and social studies content.
- Reading a chapter from a novel out loud to your class after lunch every day.
Gosh, those sound nice!
Why? They are important! These have positive long-term consequences. They’re the things we know we should do. But they are also humble needs. If you don’t stand up for them, important tasks quietly stand aside and make way for the louder, attention-demanding urgent situations.
Important needs become the things that (for many of us), just… never get done. They sit on the “to do” pile for, literally, years.
Ignoring the Urgent, Even When It’s On Fire
We must actively fight for the important because the urgent will never relent. There’s always another angry problem rearing its head, preventing you from doing what really matters.
Consider firefighters arriving on the scene. Yes, there’s a pretty darn urgent situation in front of them. But I’ll bet that they don’t just start shooting water on whatever flame looks hottest. I bet they take a moment to do nothing but observe. They need a plan. They need to figure out what’s important in this situation, not merely urgent.
If a firefighter can ignore a fire in order to do their job better, we can ignore our own urgent problems until the time is right!
To Those Who Focus On The Important
Thinking back, the teachers at my school who walked this walk were also the ones that I naturally respected the most. They ignored the urgent and focused on the important. They were never involved in lunchroom teacher drama (they rarely even ate lunch in the lunchroom!). They didn’t get obsessed with the latest district initiative. They weren’t on a bunch of committees. They were almost invisible.
And yet, and yet, I’d walk into their classrooms and… wow! All of that energy I was using up by spinning my wheels, they were putting into instruction!
As with Bruce Lee’s “be like water” philosophy, these teachers would quickly return to their natural state after a disturbance. They knew that the current urgency would pass, just as it always had before. As a result, they were pushing forward on important ideas with much more consistency than me
Do you know these folks at your own school? They’re worth paying attention to, even though they don’t call much attention to themselves.
Make Some Lists
At the end of the day, I try to always write down what I did that day. This brings a whole lot of clarity. Often, I struggle to even remember what I did that day. That’s a bad sign! Or if my list is just “I did email,” then I probably need to re-evaluate.
Another tip which I’ve found helpful: make a “To Don’t” list. That’s a list of the things you’ve actively stopped doing.
And, of course, it helps to write down your important goals and break them down into manageable chunks. Then I know what I should be doing.
So… what have you wanted to get done for, say, the past three years and haven’t made any progress on? Let’s change that!
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