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I work in education.  It is without question the most rewarding, engaging, and important work I can imagine.  We are entrusted with the care and teaching of people’s children. We show them facts and figures.  We empower them to think and learn things on their own.  And we shape what they believe and who they will become.  It is an awesome responsibility, and it is an enormous joy.

In classrooms, our focus should be on helping students develop the knowledge, skills, and character traits necessary to be the best versions of themselves.

In schools, our focus should be on empowering teachers and supporting students and families in order to meet the needs of everyone as they enter the classroom.

In districts, our focus should be on providing the resources and support necessary to ensure that each student has a successful school experience.

Steven Covey says it like this: Put first things first.

My roles in education have changed over the years.  I was a middle school teacher for thirteen years.  In that time, it was not always easy to put the first things first.  I set challenging objectives, designed engaging lessons and developed authentic and meaningful assessments.  I got to know my students on a personal level and tried to establish relationships.  But without fail, every year, there were things that got in the way of what I knew should be the first things.  Some of my students didn’t have enough to eat.  Some of my students had anxiety or depression or just that painful funk that often accompanies middle school.  Some of my students would misbehave and make it hard for everyone to focus on the lesson.  There were metaphorical fires to put out at times.  And in those times it was hard to put the first things first.

As a building administrator, those issues seemed to grow.  A disagreement between students in the neighborhood at night would spill over into first hour English class and end up in my office.  Those students who didn’t have enough to eat would stop in my office to grab a pop-tart on the way to class.  Sometimes a student who just needed to cry would take up several hours of the day.  I knew that my first job was to be the instructional leader in our school.  I knew that I should be in classrooms watching lessons and providing feedback, but it was not always as easy as I wished it would be.

As a district administrator, I know that putting first things first means being present in our schools and at activities.  I know it means being in classrooms watching lessons and ensuring that our curriculum is sound, our instruction is effective, and our assessment is driving instruction.  But there are still those metaphorical fires that get in the way. Staffing issues, discipline issues, and other emergencies (that many times are actual emergencies) get in the way of me keeping the first things first.

So what to do about it?

I’m not sure I have the answer, but I know that we need to give ourselves and each other grace when what we perceive to be the most important thing that someone should be doing doesn’t get done.  We need to recognize that there may be any number of things happening in our classrooms, in our schools, and in our district that are a more immediate need than what we shared as a necessary task.  We need to accept that our most pressing issue may be minor in the work that others are doing at a given time.  Sometimes putting the first things first means taking care of a hungry student, a frustrated parent, or a building principal who is asking for help

And then we need to refocus our attention, reflect on how we are spending our time, and design systems that support our work and allow for both the emergencies and the deeper leadership that guarantees all students succeed.

Nobody said this was going to easy.  But it is definitely worth it.

2 thoughts on “Keeping the First Things First

  1. We are finishing up a year of “first things first” and truthfully? It has taken a toll on both students and staff. When we, those trained to be educators, take on the role of social workers, it’s a drain that is difficult to rebound from or even sustain. I’m not saying we shouldn’t stop caring; my concern is a teacher’s prime directive is to teach. I’ve noticed in the last couple of years we are spending more time reaching out to students than teaching them in the classroom. There is a balance to be found or perhaps this is an indication of where our social structure is headed and teachers need a different approach when they are preparing in college. I wonder if this explains the current teacher shortage epidemic. Teachers are having to fill in the gap of parent, nurse, therapist–big shoes to fill.

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