At the end of this past school year, I reaped the sour fruits of saying yes to too much during the preceding few months.
Yes-itis is not a noble condition, despite what 25-year-old Dave Stuart might tell you. Saying yes to too much is the epitome of foolishness; it consigns us to survival mode, where the work isn't our best and the urgent replaces the important. You don't get better at teaching or living or fathering or husbanding when you're in Survival Mode — take it from me. You just exist, eking out passable performance a day at a time.
(Man, I like what I just wrote. So bleak.)
So here's what happened:
Four months ago, I was invited to be an online AP World History reader — there are thousands of them each year. The commitment seemed fair enough — in a week's time, I would need to read and score 1,870 student responses on the AP World History exam. I could do the scoring at my leisure, any time during the first week of June.
It seemed like a good choice back in February when I agreed to it:
- I'd get an inside look at how AP World History essays are scored, and I could use this information to help my students.
- It was online, so I wouldn't need to travel away from my family or miss the final days of the school year with my students.
- There was a bit of pay involved, so my family would be compensated for the added time I'd be taking for work that week.
So, I said yes, and I moved on.
In April, I received an email from my publisher, Corwin Literacy. The gist was that my book proofs would be reading for final comments just before June, and I'd have until the end of the first week of June to make comments. (Proofing is the final stage of the publishing process.)
There wasn't really a choice to be made here:
- The book is set to be out on July 24, but for that to happen, everyone involved in the process has to meet their deadlines.
- The book is easily the most polished, time-consuming (on my end) project I've put into the world of teaching, ever. Of course I'm going to take the proofing stage seriously.
So, I said yes (no other choice really), and I moved on.
As May approached, I realized that if I wanted anyone to participate in the Student Motivation Course over the summer, I was going to need to let them register for it. Since I'm basically a one-man operation at the moment, this meant I needed to get the sales page ready, the opt-in information emails written and scheduled, and once registration opened, all of the questions and purchase orders and miscellany fielded.
I didn't see much of a choice here, either:
- The Student Motivation Course is really cool, and it seems to genuinely empower and equip educators to work through thorny motivation issues without driving themselves insane.
- The SMC means I get to help teachers promote the long-term flourishing of kids while also being at home with my family. I love speaking, but I love my family even more. 🙂
So, I said yes, and I started doing the Student Motivation Course work when I wasn't doing teaching work. I set registration to close on (you guessed it) the final day of the first week of June.
Once the end of May arrived, the perfect storm had brewed. I was in the thick of end-of-year insanity in the classroom, pushing to have my students debate and read and write and think at higher levels than ever before. (After all, that's the job.) My blog wasn't loaded up with scheduled blog posts a month or more out like I like it to be, so I was writing those in the spare minutes I could find between fielding Student Motivation Course needs. Just the word “email” created a knot in my stomach as the unread counter ticked up by dozens each day. And, oh yeah — in a week, I would need to have my entire book's worth of proofs read for These 6 Things, and I'd be grading 1,870 AP World History essays.
As the first week of June arrived, my wife said, “Hey, is there any way you can back out of the AP grading? It just seems like a lot.”
Silly Crystal, I thought. Doesn't she know all those good bullet point reasons for doing the AP reading in the first place? Those bullets are still real! Here, Crystal — here are the bullets!
I said as much, and she refrained from murdering me, thereby moving her one step closer to inevitable sainthood.
The week arrived. In every “spare” minute (spare including many minutes when I should have been sleeping at night), I was working. When students wanted to stop by my classroom during prep to reminisce about a great year, my door was shut because I was getting end-of-year checklists completed for my school because there was no margin anywhere outside of my teaching day to do anything else but grade AP essays and read book proofs and manage registrations for the Student Motivation Course. On the final day of the school year, I think I graded 1,000 AP essays — I had a few hundred graded before the school day even started, and as soon as school was over I grabbed a pot of coffee and graded straight until 11:45pm when the online system closed. When I should have been taking Haddie and Laura out for ice cream to celebrate the end of their school year, I was working.
There's no glory in working like this, no special merit. If you've been reading my blog for even a second, you know that this is not what I'm about. The greatest teachers aren't the ones who work the most hours — they're the ones who do the best work. You don't do your best work when you say yes to everything.
I wrote this article partially out of selfishness — it's a postmortem analysis for me, a chance to consider how I might have made a wiser string of decisions so that I might do so in the future.
But I also wrote this for you. First, I want those of you yes-addicts to know that you've got a brother here in Michigan. And second, I want to encourage you to do better — to make your yes's fewer and better.
(For more on saying yes less, see my article “The Most Dangerous Word to Your Sanity (and How to Stop Saying It.”)