For the first three years of my career, I worked eighty hours per week. I didn't know a bit of the research or much of the craft knowledge. Rich and productive relationships with students took hours of time. I won engagement and motivation through brute effort — lots of bells, whistles, and speeches.
It's not a wonder that, though I loved my students, I quit my job after those three years. I didn't plan to return. Like all of us, I wasn't cut out for the savior thing — it just took me three years to figure it out.
This morning someone shared a story with me about a carpenter. “I make up for my lack of skill in carpentry,” he said, “by using lots of nails.”
Lots of nails.
Teaching in the twenty-first century defaults to using lots of nails — more than the human spirit can bear. The jobs of social worker and school evangelist and curriculum specialist and technical expert and action researcher and student advocate and cultural analyst and entertainer… why do we sit in gaunt wonder each year when the pressures press us beyond what scientists have long known we can handle? We must expect these things; they are the default conditions of our work.
And yet — and yet! — the default conditions need not drive us. There are things we can do — e.g., recalling Everest, constraining work — and investments we can make. Think: one hour per week invested in learning the work that matters most is bound to save us a few moments wasted on low-return trivialities the next week. When you make a habit of this — a sacred space in your schedule for building the knowledge upon which to build one's expertise — you end up, a year or so later, finding that your work is producing a bit more than it did before, and that you're working a bit less. You do this for five years, and people come into your room or they hear you speak at a department meeting, and they think, “Huh. There's something different about this person.”
What's different is that rather than being sloshed to and fro by the default conditions of our work, this person took upon themselves the disciplines of the professional — focused on Everest in a world that's forgotten how; restrained to a voluntary schedule in a world that has forgotten what schedules are for — and began investing in an understanding of how things like learning and motivation work. Over time, these practices and this investment produced a virtuous cycle in their lives — our expertise lends us greater certainty in the work that matters most, and which lends us more time to devote ourselves to these few things, which lends us more time to develop our expertise.
This is the path of professional growth — conceived of as a lifestyle and a set of disciplines, not an event or a collecting of hours.
This will save you lots of nails.
Angela Watson's 40 Hour Teacher Workweek course is a yearlong, steady-goes-it study of the principles of teacher productivity. I've benefited from Angela's work many times, and I look forward to this year's cohort of the course especially, as Angela and her team are preparing guidance for in-person, hybrid, and remote teaching scenarios — yep, all of them. Learn more and register here.