Do You Want To Survive Or Do You Want To Make A Difference?

It is easy to spend too much time in a frenzied state, hopping from one fire to another, convincing ourselves how important we are, and how our class, school, or district would fall apart without us.  

The world is busier; we are busier and no matter what your job is, despite all the technological advances available with the intent of making our lives easier, for some reason life just seems harder and faster.  

Have you ever come home exhausted, anxious, unable to give your family your best you, the you they deserve? Feel guilt? Feel unproductive? Check, check, and check!

The good news is you are not in the minority, even if it is hard to believe thanks to all those perfect families on Facebook. Let’s not forget that Facebook is not the real world, that the big bright smiles on our kids faces are often bought, bribed, or threatened into existence.

How do we get better when there is not enough time or energy to get everything done in a day, let alone focus on trying something new?

Where do we start when there are just so many things to do, so many books to read, so many accomplishments to achieve, so many shows to binge watch on Netflix, so many places and people to visit?

With millions of real or imagined balls in the air, I catch myself daydreaming about a time when life was simpler. I think back to the days that my friends and I called the “blacktop days.”  

To this day, anytime I drive by a road being paved or a driveway being done, the smell of blacktop brings me back in time and I am flooded with memories.

As a young teacher in the late 70’s, my father, always looking for a way to make an extra buck, decided he was going to start paving driveways.  To him, it seemed like the perfect way to supplement a salary that, at the time, was barely enough to raise a family.

He parlayed an old dump truck, the confidence to take a risk, some good old fashioned hard work, summer break, and a giant set of balls into a successful forty year business.

A business that provided some of his teacher buddies the opportunity to make good money during their summer away from school and provided lessons in life and hard work for at least three generations of Marlboro teens. Not to mention stories upon stories, some of which are a bit too R-rated to share on an education website.

I always had a love-hate relationship with blacktopping. It was hard, hot work often made more difficult by the boss’s insistent yelling, mind games, and inexplicable insistence on cutting corners, not in the quality of the job, but rather the costs of maintaining equipment and following basic construction regulations and rules. Yet, time with friends and mentors helped me to develop skills and learn lessons that I would not have learned otherwise.

I know Diesel fuel is a great way to prevent grass from coming up through your driveway; I am just not as sure that the DEC would approve, one of the many agencies Frank always had us on the lookout for.  

Get a truck that was legal to hold 12 tons of blacktop?  Nope, you stuff 12 on a truck legal for 7 and you make a game of avoiding the dreaded “scales”, random stops that weighed trucks to ensure their load was not too heavy.  

The lengths at which Frank would go to beat the system were on full display early one morning in the summer of 1980 something. I was riding shotgun in our beat up tool truck, acquired one day in exchange for a blacktop basketball court. The vehicle had failed to pass inspection due to dangerously bald tires, which screamed for mercy on each and every turn.

Logic would say, get new tires, pass inspection, don’t think about it again. Yet, logic and Frank did not go together. You see, getting new tires would have cost money, taken time, and possibly meant losing a day of work.

So what did Frank do?  He put his only child in that truck and spent the better part of the summer avoiding traffic stops.  

On the day in question, he was ahead of our caravan, getting a jump start on preparing the driveway with some tractor work, driving his dated fire engine red dump truck complete with a trailer (without working lights of course).  The trailer barely held his over-sized tractor.

Once he crossed the bridge, he became panicked when he saw local police manning an inspection check.

Always quick thinking, he got off the closest exit and swung the truck around, surely taking out a few garbage pails and small animals in the process, then raced back over the bridge trying to warn us of the danger ahead.

Of course, I didn’t know all of this had occurred while sleepily working on my first coffee of the day.  My friend Marco was charged with driving this death trap part because he was a natural when it came to driving and part because I was not and part because he was one of the few workers on the crew that could start the damn thing.  

Marco’s smooth driving was interrupted with an uncharacteristic jolt, followed by a “what that F*** is that?”  

I looked up, startled to see what seemed to be a giant bear standing on top of the toll booth of the bridge, frantically waving its arms back and forth.

When we got a little closer we both realized what we were seeing.

Somehow, my large, yet surprisingly nimble father, had parked his dump truck close enough to the booth, climbed to the top of the dumpster and then onto roof of the booth in an effort to save us from a ticket.

At the time I thought why not just get a damn inspection, but thinking back I wonder how Frank did not get arrested for this stunt, and secondly, how did he not realize that this was a much larger transgression than a failed inspection?

I have thousands of “blacktop” stories that seem to defy logic; insanity became our normal.

The crew was always playing catch up, trying to complete all of the jobs and trying to earn as much money as we could before the summer ended, forcing the crew back to their teaching jobs.

The funny thing is most times we got the job done, and got it done well, without anyone getting hurt. That is, if you do not count third degree burns caused by errant flecks of blacktop.

Because or despite of our dysfunctional leader we pulled together, we picked each other up, we knew our roles, and we did not want to let the rest of the crew down. So, we all did our part.

Despite the struggles and dangers, there is a great sense of satisfaction when you push your body to its limits in the unforgiving heat of summer, smelling of fuel, tar, and sweat.  

Seeing a finished product, something you and your team created with good old fashioned hard work and determination is certainly one of life’s simple pleasures.

Although he never talked about it, I know my father felt that pride as well.  He often went back to the driveways he had paved long after he was paid to check on the quality and to make sure the owner was satisfied.

If he was lucky, he would be invited into the home for a dish of spaghetti or a “nice” steak.  He was lucky more times than not, as he seemed to have the uncanny ability to time these check-ins just as the family was about to sit down for dinner.  

I understand why our unorthodox leader kept pushing us, kept pushing himself, kept using shortcuts to fix his already Fred Sanford-esque equipment.  The job had to get done. There wasn’t time to stop, to fix, to upgrade. He was working against an unforgiving clock.

I wonder if he got too caught up in the hustle and bustle of the day. The adrenaline rush of the pace. The quick decisions that needed to be made, and of being the king of his small, but productive crew.  

Would he have been able to pave more driveways, make more money, build better relationships, save his marriage, spare his health had he taken a different approach?

Taking a day here and there to make sure his equipment was legal may have not only saved him aggravation, but possibly made for a more productive operation.  

Investing time and money into developing a new technique or learning how to use upgraded equipment probably would have cost in the short term, but paid great dividends in the long run.

Had he used some of the money he earned to take his family on vacation been worth the lost opportunities to tar?  Could it have helped to save his marriage? Contribute to a better relationship with his son? Set his priorities straight? Could this have helped him find joy in the different pleasures our world has to offer?

These are questions I am sorry to say I cannot answer because he never did take time to slow down, to improve, to grow, to enjoy the finer aspects of life.  

He just kept plowing forward, kept going at a frantic pace, never realizing that things were falling apart until it was too late.  Life played it’s cruelest trick on him, it sped away at a breakneck pace, leaving him asking where did the time go?

Why didn’t I do things differently?

The most valuable resource we all have is time.  No matter how strong you are, no matter how smart you are, no matter how powerful you are, you can not escape the fact that life changes, time is precious, and, if we are not careful, it will pass us by, leaving us with bitter regret.

That is why as educators and as people we need to invest the time needed to figure out what is truly most important.  

We need to take the time to fix a problem rather than just pushing through it.

We need to learn new skills, utilize new resources, grow and get better.

There is never enough time as a educator to stop.  Our kids need us more now than ever. We have so much to do and so much to balance, we keep spinning on the treadmill of life, of work, rarely stopping, rarely learning, rarely reflecting or contemplating what it all means.

If we are not careful we will wake up one day wondering what went wrong. Asking how did I become so negative? How did I become so set in my ways? So mediocre, so callous, so antiquated in my thinking?

I am often lured by the seductive pull of the action, of feeling important, of forgetting what really matters.  As I have gotten older I have gotten better at forgiving myself and adjusting my routines, my normal in an effort to become the educator I want to be and to being a person my family deserves.

Here are a few strategies that I try to keep things in perspective and slow things down:

Get In Or Out Of The Schools

As a central office administrator, one of the most valuable things I can do is to get out of my office and get into our buildings. Interacting with students and staff helps to keep me from becoming out of touch. It is easy to forget how busy a building can be, how needy students, parents, and staff can be. When I get into the buildings, it helps brighten my day because I get to interact with kids, yet it also reminds me how hard our teachers and administrators work every single day.   

Just as it is important for me to see what is really happening in our schools, it is equally important for those who work there to step away and take time to grow, think, and make bigger picture decisions.

I completely understand what a pain it is to drag my administrators and teachers out of their buildings or classroom. They have so much to do and it is never a good time. Yet, if I never push them to take time for  professional growth, to make collaborative decisions, to learn, to read, to think, I am not doing my job. I am doing them a disservice. The challenge is knowing when to get out of the way and let them do their thing and when to be the pain in the neck that takes them away from their kids because it will make them better educators in the long run.

I have to realize that if I am taking their time, I better make sure I am working my hardest to provide them with a worthwhile experience.  

Try A New Tool At Least Once A Month

The great thing about advances in technology is that there is a plethora of tools available to educators. And, with the internet, the world has most definitely shrunk. The problem is with so many options it can be overwhelming. If you are like me with too many options swirling in your head, you may not know where to start so you don’t. I have tried to commit to trying a new tech tool or strategy that I will look to incorporate into my work for at least a month. This helps me to determine if it is something that works for me or not. I have discovered that Google Keep makes me more efficient and organized, Twitter helps me learn, connect and grow, and Google Classroom can be just as effective for administrators managing teams and initiatives as it is for teachers who use it with their classes.  Some others I have on my list to try or circle back to are:

Nearpod

Flipgrid

Instagram

Peardeck

Breakout EDU

Take A Break

No matter how much there is to do, how many people are counting on you, there is still time for a break.  Shut your door even if for just five minutes to breathe, listen to a song, eat a piece of fruit. If you are like many principals, I know this break may be interrupted by a light tap on the door followed by “Do you have a minute?” If that is the case, escape to a private place in your school, walk to the playground or even go for a quick spin in your car.  Those short breaks will pay dividends and help you get more done in the long run.

Empower Others

Those who work with kids have a great responsibility. So many count on us; when we do it right, we affect so many lives.  One of the unintended consequences of this is that we feel we must do it all. When you take the time to teach others, and then trust them to do the the job you have taught them to do with without micromanaging them, you have not only helped yourself to become a better leader, but you have also helped to develop another person into become a leader as well.

Prioritize

You have to be intentional about what is truly most important.  Just like there is enough curriculum to teach to kids for 26 years, there are enough things to do in day to take up 48 hours. You cannot teach it all; you cannot do it all. Take some time to determine what is most important, write it down, and go back to your list the next day.

It Is Always About People

Do not forget that the most important thing anyone can do is to help others be the best they can be, to pick them up when they need it, to be honest when they need it, or to show them you care.  The students, teachers, secretaries, parents we interact with each day give us an opportunity that we are lucky to have. We have a chance to make a life better, to make a life happer, to inspire, to comfort.  Getting your grades in on time, correcting that test, preparing a killer lesson are all essential parts of being a great teacher, but sometimes that all has to be put aside because a student or colleague needs you to be there for them.

If You Want It – Do It

If you want to accomplish something, you need to get started, you need to, as Nike says, “just do it”.  There is never enough time to get a doctorate, to learn a new language, to implement a new program, to teach that class, to take that trip.  If you truly want to accomplish something and you make it part of your life, before you know it you will have accomplished your goal and you will be ready for the next one, ready to take on the world.  The hardest part is always just starting.

Be Brave

Making schools better for kids, being the catalyst for change, taking a different approach is not easy.  It takes time, it takes energy, and it comes with arrows aimed at your head. Ask yourself, do you want to be the type of person who ducks and dodges and survives in a system that can be better or do you want to be a rockstar who is brave enough to believe in something, to have a desire to make things better and actually do something about it?

Read, Listen And Learn

Finding time to read at least 10 minutes a day can help you to expand your knowledge, slow your mind, and see the world from a different perspective.  Schedule 10 minutes into your day to read. Bring a book to the doctors office, listen to an audiobook on the way to work, play your favorite podcast as you shop for groceries.  I often catch myself zoning out, playing with my phone or scrolling through endless emails because I “only” have ten minutes before my next meeting. Imagine how much more I would know if I put all of those “only” ten minutes to good use!

Play

You can work hard, be a hard worker, and still take time for yourself.  Listen to your body, listen to your family, listen to those who care about you.  Sometimes you need to slow down, to disconnect, and to play. Research supports the fact that students need more time to play.  It helps them to be better learners, helps them to be less anxious, helps them to be kinder.  

We know it is good for kids, but we forget that adults need to play too.  What is it you truly love doing? Take more time doing that. It will make you a better educator and a happier person.

I recently had the pleasure of spending the day with Jimmy Casas.  As always, I was impressed with his knowledge, his conversational skills, and, of course, his unrelenting motor.  Listening to him coach some of the leaders in our District brought me to the realization that no matter how busy educators are, we need to cut through some of the noise and dedicate time to solving problems at their root rather than just patching the dam each day as holes pop up.

It’s hard to do when you are in it everyday, when you come home exhausted each night. Some days feeling like you didn’t do enough, couldn’t do enough.  

Yet, if we never take steps to change the paradigm, to let certain things go so we can fix others long term, I fear we may wonder someday where the time went, filled with regret because we didn’t take the time to get that inspection or upgrade our equipment.

I ask you to ponder one question, do you want to survive or do you want to make a difference?


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