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How We Spend Our Days

How We Spend Our Days
Head for the Edge, November 1996

Time management is a big business these days. Stephen Covey’s book admonishes us to “put first things first.” (If I could just find the time to read it.) The local Franklin store sells us ever larger and more complex calendar address book/notebook/goal setting/to-do-list/project planners all wrapped in genuine calf skin - guaranteed to organize our lives. (Now where did I put my pen?) Every week brings another seminar offer promising to help us reach our objectives, prioritize our priorities and eke at least 26 hours of work from every 24 hour day. (But I have conflicts every day the seminar is offered.)

All educators, especially those involved in media and technology, are stressed by ever increasing job demands. Ironically, our very successes have increased our workload. Convincing every teacher to do resource-based units means more time spent planning; creating an inviting atmosphere in the media center means more time helping students; lowering the student to computer ratio means more time trouble-shooting; learning to administer the LAN means time maintaining passwords and making backups; and creating that school Web site means time keeping it updated. Some days I wonder what I did with all my spare time before there was technology.

A pundit once observed that no one on his death bed ever wishes he’d spent more time at work, and my guess is that he’s right. Operating then under the assumption that most of us would like both to be responsible educators and have a life outside of work, we have to make tough decisions about how we spend our discretionary time. Here are some things you might consider when ranking the the items on your to-do list:

1) Should someone else be doing this task?
As a taxpayer, I hate seeing a professional educator get paid a professional salary to install software, fix a printer, checkout books or babysit with videotapes. When no one else is available to do an essential clerical, technical or paraprofessional task, the professional often winds up doing it. If the professional spends too high a percent of her day on these tasks, guess what? The position gets “right-sized.”

I would rather manage two media centers or technology programs each with a good support staff than try to manage a single program alone. Consider it.

2) Am I operating out of tradition rather than necessity?
Yearly inventories. Weekly overdue notices. Shelf lists. Seasonal bulletin boards. Daily equipment check out. State reports. Skip doing a task for an entire year and see if anyone really notices. When you’re asked for numbers, estimate. A job not worth doing is not worth doing well.

3) Is this a task which calls for unique professional abilities?
John Lubbock once wrote: “There are three great questions which in life we have to ask over and over again to answer: Is it right or wrong? Is it true or false? Is it beautiful or ugly? Our education ought to help us to answer these questions.”

Computers are wonderful devices, but even the most powerful can’t even start to help us answer these questions. A computer can’t evaluate good materials, comfort a child, inspire a learner, write an imaginative lesson, or try a new way of doing things. If you can be replaced by a computer, you should be. I hope every task you do each day - from helping a child find a good book to planning a district wide technology inservice - taps your creativity and wisdom.

Teachers and principals are wonderful people, but you should spend your time doing what they don’t have the training, temperament or skills to do. What is it that you understand about information use that makes you a valuable resource? What productivity software do you know better than anyone else in the school? What communication, leadership or organizational skills do you bring to a project that really get things moving? Ask yourself what it is that only you can do or that you can do better that anyone else in your organization and spend as much of your day doing it as possible.

4) Is this a job that will have a long-term effect?
In a management class I teach, an interesting discussion revolves around whether a professional should help an unscheduled group of students find research materials, even if it means skipping an important social studies curriculum meeting. It is in our nature to help those who seek our help, and that’s exactly as it should be. But too often, the minutia of the job pin us down, like Gulliver trapped by the Lilliputians, and we make small progress toward major accomplishments. Remind yourself that that the big projects you work on often have more impact on your students and staff than the little attentions paid to them. Spend at least one part of everyday on the big stuff.
All these suggestions are easy to say, but difficult to practice. But it is important to our patrons, our organizations, and to ourselves that on a daily basis we consciously evaluate how we direct our energies. As Annie Dillard reminds us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”. Put that on the cover of your DayTimer.


Most of my Head for the Edge columns, updated and edited, can be found in my book School Libraries Head for the Edge. Buy it and I might be able to afford a nicer nursing home one day. Thank you.

Posted on Friday, July 6, 2007 at 01:29PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | CommentsPost a Comment

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