All of our tasks exist on a spectrum. On one end are the tasks that directly touch the core purpose of our jobs, and on the other end are the tasks that we ought to try skipping.
But which tasks are those? Which can we not just satisfice, but skip?
To have a chance of choosing well, you have to start and restart at the core purpose of your work all the time.
- As a world history and English teacher, it's my job to help students become better thinkers, readers, writers, speakers, and people — so that they might flourish long-term.
- As a writer, it's my job to encourage and equip educators on their paths to long-term flourishing and professional excellence.
So let's drill deeper into my job as a teacher. The tasks closest to that enduring purpose are things like this:
- Provide sound lessons that enable my students to master the curricula.
- Give useful feedback so that students can improve through practice.
- Study how people become better thinkers, better readers, better writers and so on. This means I need to spend time reading.
- Aim at expertise in all of these areas so that I can do them with increasing efficiency and effectiveness as the years go on.
(Now take special note of those bottom two bullets because they are the easiest important things to constantly put off, but they are the very investments of our time that make us wiser in how to spend time in the future.)
Example 1: Lesson planning
Even in some of these tasks, we have sub-tasks that can be skipped:
I DON'T skip:
- Asking myself, “What do I want students to learn today? How does that link with the overall unit, semester, year? What obstacles are likely to get in the way? What's the shortest path we can take as a class to get us from where we are to where I'd like us to be?”
- Going over the material we're learning that day so it's fresh in my mind.
- Thinking deeply about the key concepts of the lesson — what are they? how do they connect to the other things we've learned?
I DO skip:
- Scouring Teachers Pay Teachers for a good activity.
- Scrolling social media for lesson ideas.
- Inventing a new approach to teaching the lesson when my colleague down the hall (or the curriculum I've been given) already has a fine outline.
At first lesson planning like this can be overwhelming, but quickly it becomes a discipline that trains me to teach better and more sustainably.
Example 2: Giving feedback
Or how about giving feedback?
I DON'T skip:
- Giving verbal feedback during lessons whenever I see something specific that I want a student (or all of the students) to think about.
- Giving simple and clear feedback on certain kinds of writing (i.e., those highest on the pyramid of writing priorities).
I DO skip:
- Elaborate rubrics that my students and I struggle to understand.
- Elaborate, delayed feedback on pieces of writing (except in rare circumstances).
- Grading things when I have no clear reason to do so.
But what about stuff that's not connected to lesson planning, feedback, or the acquisition of expertise?
Now what about tasks that are furthest away from the core purpose of our work? For teaching, these could be things like:
- Committee work, especially if the committee is poorly led or lacks strong administrative sanction.
- Leading or sponsoring student clubs, especially when you can't afford the focus these will cost you.
- Reading/responding to all email (I find that 2-4% of my total work-related incoming emails are closely linked to the long-term flourishing of students).
I hesitated writing the list above because everyone's teaching circumstances are different. The point is not to make blanket-disavowals of all committee work — it's to think critically about the committee work. Does the committee have a history of reducing complexity in the organization or of creating more of it? (It is my observation that committees naturally create complexity rather than reduce it, so this is not an idle question.)
That's all of my time this morning, but I do hope that these thoughts spurred or clarified your own thinking a bit, as they did mine.