Courage, Part 3: Focus on The Important

Tuesday is for Teachers


Habit of Courage: a series of posts to encourage teachers to “keep on keeping on”

Part 1 of Courage:change of perspective, count the gifts in each day

Part 2 of Courage: Standing for The Right

Do you spend your day scrambling to complete the latest “urgent” report for administrators? Or are franticly making copies at the copy machine before your next class arrives? No? Then maybe you’re slapping something, anything(!) up on the bare bulletin board minutes before Open House. Been there and done that too many times to count during my 33 years of teaching. My days always seemed to fly by because there were so many things on my “To-Do List”, morning ‘til night, Monday through Friday with weekends just as busy.

Today, I hope you have the courage to let some things go and focus on what really needs to be done.  Remember Covey’s square, The Time Quadrants?

  • The Important and Urgent
  • The Important and Not-Urgent
  • The Unimportant and Urgent
  • The Unimportant and Not-Urgent.

Click here to find a printable copy of the Time Management Quadrants. Sometimes it is just hard to tell the difference. If you have trouble with determining how to “Put 1st Things 1st”, read on.

Why should making this choice take courage? Because if you are a new teacher, you might believe that everything your principal wants you to do is urgent and important. From my experiences working as an administrator I can tell you that priorities change from the classroom to the front office. There could be an angry parent demanding answers in the office and that could be the principal’s Important and Urgent, but a classroom of 30 students in the middle of a crisis because a student passed out would be your Important and Urgent. It takes wisdom and discernment to figure out which to do first.

Classroom management skills frequently needed addressing with student teachers, and I often advised them to avoid getting sucked into conversations with students that kept their attention too focused. Experienced teachers know that if your “radar” is not scanning the room, mayhem can erupt in whatever corner of the room you are furthest from. Students need your individual attention but not at the expense of ignoring all other students. If the matter requires your undivided attention, see if you can postpone it to after class or between classes, so you can give the student your complete attention.

Students at each level of schools (elementary, middle, high) requires different kinds of attention. Want to feel panic? Fill in for a teacher who teaches the opposite level to yours. Kindergarten teachers focus on completely different things than 8th grade teachers. Some of the best experience I ever had in teaching was the year between my sophomore and junior years in college. I worked as a teacher’s assistant in an elementary school and filled in at every grade level at some time during that year. I taught 5th grade while the teacher was out for a prolonged illness and taught a 3rd class of reading one period a day. I learned valuable lessons the day of a fire drill with the 1st graders. When we lined up outside they asked me if we were going to grill out on a fire!

Seriously, have the courage to finish a phone call with a demanding parent by saying, “I’m sorry I can’t have a lengthy conversation right now. My class is waiting for instruction. I’ll call you right after school (or during planning period).”

You can say the same thing to an administrator, secretary, or counselor. Whoever demands your attention be taken from students and instruction can be told politely and kindly when you will get back with them. In today’s pressured schools time is fleeting. The emphasis on teaching, testing, and high performance in education today can blur the priorities for the best of us. Take a step back, if needed, and give students what they NEED.

It might help to have a sticky note on your desk or whereever you spend most of your time like this one,

Sometimes getting the right information to the right person is all you need to do to handle an Important and Urgent matter. Calling a nurse (if you’re lucky to have one in the building) or a guidance counselor or a warm body in the hall could get the information flowing to the right person to take care of your Important and Urgent.

The last tip I give on courage is this: guard yourself from cynicism.  Cynicism is a rampant condition among veteran teachers; I know, because I was one of the worst. When you’ve worked in the trenches a long time, you become cynical to the next NEW thing, idea, program, standard, strategy, curriculum, discipline plan, policy — the list is never-ending. We begin to mistrust “Central Office” or whoever is promoting the next NEW thing. Promises aren’t kept, policies are forgotten, expensive materials are discarded and our cynicism is validated once again.

Reading a passage recently in Jen Hatmaker’s book, 7: an experimental mutiny against excess, convicted me of this bad habit. Her words regarding a critical perspective were about religion, but they rang true to my feelings about education. She says, “Cynicism wreaked some havoc on my gentleness, my humility. . . Clinging to criticism has not made me happier; it just made me cynical.” (p. 25) 

It will take courage to avoid those “end-of-the-day talks in the hall” when teachers gather to bemoan the latest edict or policy. If for no other reason, inexperienced teachers do not need to hear a steady diet of criticism. I realized that it was time for me to retire when I could no longer encourage student teachers to pursue a career in the profession. But I was still guilty of too much negative talk.

Do a quick self-assessment. Are you prone to only complain to fellow teachers? Do you seek out other negative teachers to share in the criticism? Analyze where the conversations take place and when. Either avoid those places or do your best to change the tone of the conversation. Warning: be prepared for accusations of being a Pollyana. These are the times to work on your list of blessings for the day. See this earlier post.

Take courage my friends. Give someone you teach with a purple heart of courage when they need it. Remember what is important, set your priorities, guard yourself against cynicism, and above all, take care of yourself.

Counting the gifts of courageous teachers everywhere who give students what they NEED.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s