Dwight Eisenhower supposedly said:
What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.
I think this distinction is pretty darn (yes) important, because one of the most frustrating parts of teaching is the constant deluge of unexpected crises that would prevent me from making progress on my actual goals. The urgent would get in the way of the important.
Here’s what “urgent” 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 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.
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.
Here’s what important (but not urgent) situations look like:
- Reading the teaching book that’s been sitting on your shelf.
- Watching a colleague teach and then meeting afterward to discuss what happened.
- Eating a relaxed lunch for the full 40 minutes.
- Finally 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 just never get to because the louder, attention-demanding urgent situations always shove them out of the way.
Important needs become the things that just never get done. They sit on the “to do” pile for an entire career.
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 the nearest flame. They take a moment to observe. They make a plan. They 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, I can ignore my urgent problems for a moment.
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 weren’t obsessed with chasing the principal’s latest bugaboo. 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!
They knew that the latest urgency would pass, just as it always had before. So they were pushing forward on important ideas while I ran around putting out other people’s fires. They were getting better at teaching.
Do you know these folks at your own school? They’re worth paying attention to, even though they (purposefully) don’t call much attention to themselves.
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!
- Answer two questions: what’s giving you life and what’s draining life from you?
- Quarterly or yearly, I reflect and plan with these four lists.
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