The knot I’m tugging at: becoming a better teacher by managing my most valuable commodity: time.
My inspiration: Deep Work by Cal Newport
My working solution: Ritualize the use of time for the work that I know is important: writing, planning, reflecting – not assessing. Treat my time with respect.
In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Word, Newport defines deep work as “professional activities” that are completed in a “state of distraction free concentration” in an effort to “push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (3). The goal is to “wring every last drop of value” from our “intellectual capacity” (14). He compares that to shallow work which he labels as “noncognitively demanding logistical style tasks” that are completed “while distracted” (6). This was an apt description for most of my work this school year.
I approach the craft of teaching with the philosophy that despite my veteran (17 years) status, I know very little. There are lots of intricacies involved in teaching reading and writing to juniors and seniors in high school. Sure, I can show up every day and rely on my “bag of tricks” to fill the class. But does it all go anywhere? Does anything transfer? Is what I am teaching what they need right now?
The key phrase that stands out in Newport’s book is “new value.” This is exactly what I was seeking. The exact thing that is lacking in my teaching – the time and energy to immerse myself in a new skill areas. I needed to “concentrate on the hard things” (14). I wanted to learn more about teaching revision or immerse myself in the research on effective feedback for writers. I just didn’t have the time given the numerous demands of the job.
In making his case for the value of deep work, Newport also argues that it is very rare in the workplace. He writes that most people follow the principle of least resistance, in which lacking “clear feedback” on the work we’re doing, we “tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment” (58). If we look at teaching in the traditional way, feedback is tough to come by. We are rarely observed and most of us don’t have the desire or guts to consistently invite outside eyes into our rooms. We have enough hassles without voluntarily adding more.
But if we look at it from a different lens, we have all the feedback we need in the seats in our classrooms every day. You want to know how you’re doing with something? Ask students for specific, guided feedback. Teach them how to provide feedback. I first read about this in Originals by Adam Grant. A professor at Wharton, he often asks his students for focused feedback on his teaching, collates the results and shares it with the class for discussion. I did this recently and it was powerful and eye-opening. Everything they offered was spot on. And uncomfortable to read.
Looking back at the principle of least resistance, it’s very easy to give the test vs. really thinking about what the students in the seats need right now. It’s easier to use the same handout than find a model, get get the doc camera, and go live.
But if we ask, or at the bare minimum really just look at their reading, writing, and thinking skills, we can see what they need. We can then find a way to adjust or teach the skills rather than relying on what is “easiest in the moment.” We can adjust what is expected and/or required to meet the needs of our kids. We can win that argument with administration.
According to Newport, there are a few keys to deep work as he defines it:
- Ritualize the use of time. Determine a small number of ambitious goals to pursue. I choose to immerse myself in one area of weakness (there are many) per month. I gather resources, take notes, immerse myself in the knot for 90 minutes or more once per week. I’m up at 4:15 a.m. on morning a week. At the kitchen table. I’m a learner. By bunching my time, I’m able to add some “new value” to my teaching life. My library of teacher-resources is immense. And that’s not always a good thing. One downside is reading too much and trying to too much. It never allows me to get deep.
- Focus on lead measures. According to Newport, the big goal – or lag measures as he calls them – are distracting. He recommends you focus on WIN – what’s important now. This is helpful in using my time as well as choosing the topics to pursue. I just completed a month of revision strategies. Next up is improving feedback. As teachers, we need to focus on what our students need today and adjust our own learning and instruction accordingly. We need to control our own professional development.
- Keep a compelling scorecard. For me it’s checklists, a schedule of time I’ve set aside, and a monthly goal of researching and writing about one topic. I turn that research into this blog, which I plan to publish monthly. I write and publish the blog for me, as a written summary of the research (getting more value from my time was the topic this month). I can see the blog published. Views are irrelevant. That’s my scorecard.
- The cadence of accountability. I’m always reminding students to hold themselves accountable when they choose not to do the work. I need to use the same language with myself. On Monday nights I go to bed earlier. I get up early Tuesday. I use the quiet time for my own deep work. That 90 minutes per week on one topic – no emails, texts, social media, etc., quickly adds up.
Then he offers four simple rules to achieve deep work. What follows is an insanely over-simplified synopsis from my own notes:
- Work deeply. Be lazy. Have downtime where we don’t check email. Make a list each day of unfinished tasks to start the next morning.
- Embrace boredom. Schedule breaks from grading, messing on the Internet, etc. Schedule work time each morning based on my preps. Identify your deep tasks. Set a deadline. Work.
- Quit social media. Try a 30-day fast.
- Drain the shallows. Eliminate the trivial tasks, or at least manage them. I’ve started making a list of “shallow” tasks each morning. I schedule 20-30 minutes when I know students will be fluttering about my room and use that distracted time to complete my shallow tasks: filing, emails, etc. As Newport writes: “treat your time with respect” (227).
Newport has much to say – some very compelling points I might add – on the use of technology and social media itself. One key point he makes, and one I stress to my students all the time, is that social media use is typically driven by a “quest for self-importance” that ultimately convinces us “to thoughtlessly fragment” our “time and attention.” His ideas have definitely limited my use of social media and made me question why I have Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts. Read him and make your own decision.
The most compelling argument he makes about deep work is why it matters. Newport cites the “flow” research of Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, something many teachers strive to achieve in their classrooms. Newport argues that many conditions of flow – stretching your mind, concentrating, and getting lost in a task – are all associated with deep work.
Work completed in this state is worth completing. As Newport argues: “To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction” (86). It’s working for me. So far.