Exploring Busyness: Are You Too Occupied to Notice?

No Stone Unturned

“I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy,” concludes Tim Krieder in a New York Times opinion piece from last summer.

Krieder laments that everyone seems busy–too busy to call or text back, too busy to go watch the football game and eat wings on a Sunday afternoon, too busy to exercise, date, and too busy to carve out unstructured time in any form.  I agree with his assertion, but I also recognize that he writes from a position of privilege–after all, he’s managed to make a living as a writer working 4-5 hour days.  Unemployment is an issue for millions.  Many people would love to be busy, making ends meet.  His argument seems largely targeted to career-driven, well-off individuals who don’t strive for the elusive life/work balance.  

So why are some people so busy? To what extent have people chosen to be and feel so busy, versus forces seemingly outside of their control?  Is it just a false perception?  

Clearly, the forces of modernity–namely digital communication–have impacted how busy we are.  For instance, at a friend’s bachelor party weekend in New Orleans last year, one of his groomsmen and hedge-fund colleagues had to wake up at 3:00 am on a Friday because some foreign company was releasing their quarterly earnings report.  Apparently, he had to react quickly to the news and make a decision to buy or sell.   I was dumbfounded.   What a shit job, I thought, being tethered to constant communication and time-zones.

I feel fortunate I don’t have to be on call with my iPhone 24-7 for work.  As a teacher, there is no communication outside of the school day that is urgent, although I do have to choose to say no and stop working–there’s a constant scroll-like to-do list as an educator.  For me, busyness only feels healthy when I scale back the work demands and balance them with other pursuits.

My version of a productive, happily busy weekday?  An exciting day in the classroom, engaging with students from roughly 7:40-2:20, perhaps a short meeting or tutoring session after school, a workout, time to browse the internet, cook a meal, hang out with my fiancee, and maybe have another hour of so in there for reading or TV.  Like Krieder, this is a privileged position.  But I’m also active in saying no to extra job requests, turning off my phone for stretches, and generally deciding that, to me, the good life isn’t taking on as much as I can.

In addition, the American economic system values productivity and growth over all else.  When people are on vacation, they still work.  When people take lunch breaks, they still check their e-mails and Twitter feeds.  Blogger Rachel Ryan, in her response and rebuttal to Krieder, writes, “But, even if some overarching authority mandated that all offices closed at noon for a Spanish-like siesta, people could and would still work. They could go home and work there. They could keep abreast of the news on their phones. They could, oh, I don’t know, read some infuriating article and be compelled to write something on their day off and never really “rest” (which is defined how, exactly?). What conceivable democratic authority has the capacity to institutionalize “relaxation policy?”

As long as the American cultural mindset is to work to consume, then work some more to buy fancier cars and more lavish homes,  she’s right: nothing will change.  We’re not about to embrace a paradigm shift, but maybe Krieder is right when he states, “But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle. My role is just to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play.”

Lastly, a study reported on in Scientific American provides a wrinkle to this whole notion of the busyness trap.  In one experiment, researchers interrupted subjects with tasks ranging from mindless work to writing letters to sick children.  In another study, researchers “gave” unstructured time to subjects to do whatever they wanted, while another group had to use the same time to do something for someone else.   Those who filled up time in their busy lives with selfless tasks were much more likely to feel empowered and perceived having more time on their hands.  Fascinating stuff.

Will I regret it someday if I don’t pick up the pace and write one more blog post a week?  Or chair the English Department at school?  Or write more e-mails?  Or grade more papers?  Not a chance.

Where do you stand?  Do you feel too busy?  Do you have any anecdotal evidence to support the aforementioned study?  Does your job or personal habits impose this feeling on you?  Would you embrace a more relaxed American economic culture?  

Five Reasons Why Being a Teacher is Still Great

Room 137

There is no other job I’d rather have right now.

Sounds surprising, right?  Especially after the Chicago Teacher Strike, after reading daily about how awful public schools and teachers are, and after dealing with my horrendous first year teaching experience.  Then there’s the recent and provocative essay “The Exhaustion of the American Teacher,” in which the author blames all adult stakeholders–especially parents–for the demise of the American student and burning out of teachers, contending that educators are unfairly singled out and asked to change, to make heroic and impossible efforts to “fix” the schools, while parents and policy makers and politicians aren’t asked to do anything.

I don’t disagree with the article’s premise.

But I do believe there are still reasons to believe in the power and efficacy of teaching and teachers.

I’ll admit I don’t have classrooms with thirty-plus students.  I don’t have to worry about excessive standardized testing in every class.  I don’t have administrators breathing down my neck, asking me to fill out countless forms to please the higher-ups.  But I do teach in a public urban high school, with many of the issues that plague our system: abused, abusing, and neglected students, too-much testing, and sometimes inflexible curriculum and scheduling.

Nonetheless, there are still many reasons to embrace teaching, and they aren’t just June, July, and August.

Seeing students apply their learning–one unlisted reason why teaching is still great.

Countless Small Wins

I’m hard-pressed to think of another profession with the potential to have so many small victories and breakthroughs every day.  Take this past Wednesday, for example.  Jujuan, Deonte, and several other students voluntarily stayed after school for English tutoring.  They helped me teach a student from another class, Rick, about appositives and complex sentences.  They raced up to the white board, grasping green and blue dry erase markers, then explained the basic structure of a literary analysis paragraph.  They wanted to be there, to get better.  I smiled inside and out.  Pretty big win.

Earlier in the day, I told Kirsten that somebody fixed my classroom speakers.  Her eyes lit up–she lives for music.  At the end of class, I played one of her suggestions off the class playlist.  Small win.

Some of my former FMD (Functionally Mentally Disabled) students emphatically fist-bumped me in the hallway, asking when they could be in my media class again.  Small win.

Demetrias, an oldest child who lives with her mom and four younger siblings, often taking on enormous childcare responsibilities, entered class with some good news.  She asked it I could help her apply for an advanced media summer program.  Bigger win.

There are still many pain-in-the-ass moments during the school day, and it’s not easy to ignore and filter them, allowing for a fertile environment for small wins and breakthroughs.  But it’s possible, and it’s one reason why teaching is still great.

You Can–And Have To–Say No

The demands keep piling up our our desks and in our psyches like an overflowing garbage bin.  We need to raise test scores.  We need to stay every day for tutoring, if necessary.  We need to call parents.  We need to sponsor more clubs and activities.  We need to fill out paperwork.

Not going to do it all.  I’m not superhuman, and I’m not able to save all souls.  I’m not going to make excessive personal and professional sacrifices to do things that parents, local businesses, politicians, and other adults should be doing more of, like helping to build character, crafting more sane education policy, and providing opportunities for youth to be positively engaged in communities.   I’m only effective day in and day out in the classroom when I put on the brakes and have peace of mind.

This point may seem like it doesn’t belong in a list of why teaching is still great, but here’s why it does:  If you can, do your best to say no to or ignore everything that isn’t directly relating to teaching and nurturing kids.  Nowhere in my contract does it demand me to FIX SOCIETY, even though that’s the explicit and implicit message us educators receive daily.  As tough as it is, we can embrace and enjoy teaching by saying no.

It’s Not A Desk Job

Some days, due to testing or being flat-out tired, I’ll spend a good chunk of my time in my twenty dollar faux-leather chair.  Most days, on the other hand, I have the opportunity to buzz around room 137 and Fern Creek’s hallways, creating opportunities for small wins.  No two days during the course of my nearly nine-years teaching have been the same.  I never wake up and think, Damn, I’ve got to face another day just like yesterday, or like last week, or like last month.  The variety of challenges and encounters teachers face keeps it exciting and, despite being exhausting at times, boredom does not come into the equation as far as work satisfaction.

Technology Exploration

I’ve used Edublogs with middle and high school students.  While I’ve retracted my more permissive stance on cell-phones in the classroom, I’ve tested out Poll Everywhere and other services that allow students to use their gadgets. Via Skype and Google Drive, I’ve connected my class with students in Miami to collaborate on writing and media work.  I’ve utilized all sorts of tools to challenge students to create authentic digital storytelling projects.

There is no end to the possibilities that technology affords us.  Some tools are better than others, for sure, but this is part of the journey.  Like the idea that teaching is not–or shouldn’t be–redundant, stagnant work, technology tools offer us opportunities to innovate and experience variety on a daily basis.  Some courses and curriculums are better equipped to utilize technology, but every classroom experience can be enriched by the digital world.

Professional Networking/Development

Many teachers–including myself–have griped about inflexible and mandatory professional development within their school districts.

There is good reason for the discontent, as often teachers are excluded from the design of the training sessions.

But teaching is still great is you tap into online communities and independent organizations like ASCD that offer outstanding networking and professional growth potential.  Twitter has also become a lifesaver for some educators, who set out in the sea of 140-character messages and links from educators around the world to share and build on ideas.  Personally, I’m fortunate to be a part of three organizations outside of my school district that help recharge my batteries, so to speak.  They are Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Teacher Network, the National Writing Project, and the Teacher Leader Forum.  I’ve met dynamic folks in person and online through these organizations.

Teachers don’t have to feel isolated within buildings and school districts, but the onus is often on us to find the professional networking and development that suits our needs.

If you’re a teacher, why do you embrace/not embrace your job?  What are some other reasons why we can still be optimistic and satisfied with our profession?   If you’re not a teacher, what do you have to do in order to ensure work/professional satisfaction?  What can be done so more educators feel valued?  How else can other stakeholders truly contribute to making public education better? 

Striving for Balance–Enforcing Work Boundaries

No Stone Unturned

I’m sitting on my front porch in a refinished Adirondack chair, enjoying a warm afternoon breeze and a glass of ice water.  I’d rather post to Mindful Stew than grade papers or check my work e-mail.  Or call parents.  Or attempt to get ahead on my lesson plans.  Or log on to Edmodo to respond to some student posts.

Grading these essays will have to wait.
Image from http://www.philnel.com

Teaching never ends during the school year, but I’ve found that I’m most effective and energized during the school day by limiting the time I work, despite the fact that the “To-Do” list will never end.  I want to and have to turn off my job.

I thoroughly enjoy teaching, but not so much that it will drastically interfere with other endeavors that keep me sane, fulfilled, and content.  During the fall, I bow-hunt.  This is a demanding hobby, requiring hours practicing shooting the bow, scouting deer in fields and forests, and spending hours sitting idly but alert in a tree.  Combine hunting with spending quality time with my fiance, cooking, blogging, brewing beer, and watching football, and there’s not many hours left in the day.  But I’m fortunate to have enough time to do all of these things, only because I choose to stop working.

In this Ted Talk, Nigel Mark provides a pointed take on work/life balance. 

He states, “There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet screaming desperation where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate, to enable them to buy things that they need to impress people they don’t like.”  A bleak assessment, and I feel fortunate that I don’t fall into that boat.  Unlike many people, I’m able to make decisions about how much I work outside of school hours without worrying about providing food, shelter, and care for any dependents.  That said, I wonder how much our society’s expectations relating to work, child rearing, and lifestyle affect how much time we feel we need to work, in addition to how much money we must accumulate to pursue satisfying lives.

Marks also contends that “we have to be responsible for setting and enforcing the boundaries we want in our lives.”  Last year, a coworker had the audacity to tell me that I needed to have less work/life balance in order to do more curriculum work.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was teaching my ass off.  At that moment I realized I needed to set more boundaries, not be afraid to say no to coaching or other committees, and to guard my own time in an attempt to create my own vision of work/life balance.

Mark continues, “…commercial companies are inherently designed to get as much out of you as they can get away with.”  I think about–and feel sorry for–those who are attached to their cell phones due to the need to compose and respond to work e-mail.  I will never sign up for a job with this requirement.  How can one reasonably expect a work/life balance in that situation?

The problem for many people seem to believe that career success must solely be measured monetarily.  And in an economic recession, the topic of this post may be irrelevant and even off-putting to some.  Nonetheless, it’s worth discussing.

Do you have a job that’s tough to turn off?   How do you accomplish, or struggle with, a work/life balance?  What’s your idea of a perfect day in the context of work/life balance?  Did you watch Nigel’s Ted Talk?  What do you think?