Productivity leads to a mind like water

[Let me start by saying thanks for checking out this post, but please know that I’m not an expert in this area of productivity. I’ll describe what I’ve recently learned/tried and hopefully you will try as well and then check out the resources I share.]

I’m an elementary school principal and feel that I’ve always been fairly organized with my materials and time. Productivity is a topic that has had my interest recently as I’m preparing for the onslaught of the typical crazy school spring. The spring is overwhelming because educators are presently hard at work to meet goals for the current school year, but we (especially admins and other school leaders) are also deep into planning (budgets, schedules, staffing, professional development, etc.) for the next year. This is my 11th year as a school administrator, yet I still find myself “just hanging on” each spring trying to survive. My students, staff, parents, and most importantly, my family, deserve better than “hanging on.” That’s not how I want things to go anymore, and I’m doing something about it.

My foray into better productivity started with listening to a podcast from Shifted Learning. Julia Fallon and John Pederson chat with Seattle principal Justin Baeder, and one of the topics they cover is David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. After I listened to the podcast, I threw my wife/kids into the family truckster, headed to the local bookstore , purchased a copy of the book, and knocked out a couple of chapters by evening.

You really need to read the book yourself, but some of the gold nuggets for me are:

First this isn’t simply just a book about “getting things done” and being busy all the time. The book helps you clear your mind of the jetsam that often deters you from being present and focused. It helps you capture and organize your thoughts so that you can move past the “tyranny of the urgent” and devote more energy to fulfilling and stimulating projects that require creativity. More than that, the concepts and strategies in GTD help you better enjoy time with your loved ones. Instead of worrying about possibly forgetting 17 work projects while spending time with your lovies, you’ll actually be able to BE PRESENT with them because your system has previously captured those thoughts and you’ve organized what you need to do to get them accomplished.

“Mind like water” is a key concept in the book and it is a simile for comparing a pool of water to the mind. When you toss a pebble into a pool of water, the laws of physics constrain the water to react “totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; It doesn’t overreact or underreact.” This is how we want our own minds to respond to stimuli. Stress and anxiety shouldn’t force us to overreact or not react at all. These situations that present to us should be dealt with in the manner that they deserve. We just get them done.

We make lists because we think that it helps us get things accomplished, but how many times have you made a list and actually felt more overwhelmed because of all that is on it? Felt anxious because that list doesn’t really help you accomplish anything? A great tip from this book (and with encouragement from John Pederson) is that when you make a to do list, begin each item with a verb. Instead of writing “Gavin’s parents,” write your list item as, “Call Gavin’s parents to tell them he’s really been working hard this week.” Instead of “report cards,” break it down into specific action steps like, “complete math grades in PowerSchool” and “Add comments for 4th hour Language class.”

The 2-minute rule is one I love. As you process your in-box (email inbox, mailbox in your office, postal mailbox), consider each item in it from top to bottom and make some decisions about what to do with each. If the action required to appropriately deal with the item takes less than two minutes, DO IT RIGHT THEN. An example of this for me would be employee time sheets. If there are time sheets in my mailbox, I shouldn’t take time to stack them up on my desk to be ignored for several days, causing me stress later because I’m late in getting them done. They take less than 2-minutes to read and sign, so do them NOW.

Email, Email, Email– When it comes to email, stop letting it rule your world and cloud your mind. Don’t check it first thing in the morning. I used to do this, and it only seemed to stress me out before I kissed my kids and wife goodbye for the day. Then the content of some of those emails would occupy my mind the whole drive from my house to school. Pick a time that is convenient for you to check and respond to email all at the same time. If you don’t have time to respond to email, don’t check it. It will only take up mental space that should be devoted to whatever task or situation is at hand. For me, I check and respond to email about 9:30 a.m. after I’ve done announcements and have made a lap around the building and walked through each classroom. Great advice to me from John Pederson was to turn off the push notification on my smart phone and set it to manual. His sage counsel is that if your phone/computer auto-refreshes your inbox every minute, that’s 1440 scheduled interruptions per day. [Think on that for a moment. Is email a tool of convenience?] 1440 scheduled interruptions per day!

I no longer have to look at that taunting red number on the envelope icon on my phone because I’ve shut down that notification. Some people have been used to me responding ASAP to emails, but they’ll just have to get used to me having a different timeline. If it’s that important of a message, it won’t come in an email. I only check email about twice per day now, and it honestly seems like I have fewer messages to deal with. I know this can’t possibly be true, but I know I’m saving time and metal energy by only focusing on email during scheduled parts of my day.

Commitments and agreements–Allen’s section of the book that discusses negative feelings was very poignant. We often think that stress and anxiety come from being busy and having a lot of work to do. The GTD author suggests that these negative feelings actually come from failing to meet agreements and letting others down. If you don’t have a good system for capturing/organizing your thoughts into action steps, things don’t get done and then you break an agreement that you had with someone else. That broken agreement (often with yourself) is likely the source of the negativity. Allen then goes on to cover how to (1) not make the agreement, (2) complete the agreement, and (3) renegotiate the agreement.

Another great section of the book was the importance of a productive and inviting physical work space where you will “get stuff done.” I’ve always been a lover of a clean desk and organized filing system. To me, the clean desk is a metaphor for a clean mind. Everything is organized and where it belongs so you can quickly and effectively deal with new work that comes your way.

My newly cleaned GTD desk.

Envious co-workers trash my desk less than 24 hours later. 🙁

I appreciate you checking out my thoughts on productivity, but please go straight to the best sources on this topic.
David Allen’s book Getting Things Done
Justin Baeder’s blog posts on principal productivity
Merlin Mann’s blog 43 folders
Shifted Learning Podcast with Justin Baeder
OmniFocus application (highly recommended by Twitter friends John Pederson and Neil Ringrose)
OmmWriter is a great word processing app that I use when I need to focus and just crank out ideas in writing.
Another great article about getting stuff done from the Illuminated mind blog. (HT to Pederson)

Making the move from teaching to Administration

[This was originally posted in March 2011, but has been updated for the reality of 2012, and with additional insight from Adam Truitt.]

As spring officially begins within a few weeks, so begins the hiring season for many schools. Budgets are being put in place, and staffing plans for 2012-13 are being organized. For many teachers, this is also the time when they consider making the move from the classroom to a position in school administration. Rarely does an educator go straight to an administrative position without spending time working directly with students as a teacher.

Perspectives on Changing Career Paths
Teaching is a challenging and rewarding profession, and it’s not usually an easy decision to step away from the classroom to take an administrative position. For some people, it is part of a career plan to move into administration as soon as possible. For others, like Jay Posick, an intermediate school principal in Merton, WI, becoming an admin was a gradual move.

I wanted to be a teacher first and foremost. I had aspirations of being an athletic director and went into a Masters program for an administrative degree. While taking admin classes I was asked to fill in for the building administrators if they were out of the building. I got to know students and staff in different ways because of these opportunities. I saw an opportunity to reach more than just those students in my classes, as well as an opportunity to work with staff to improve instruction and classroom management.

While becoming a school administrator was part of Jay’s eventual plan, Jessica Johnson, elementary principal in Juneau, WI, didn’t initially plan on being a principal.

I actually had no intentions of moving into administration. I wanted to get my masters and joined some colleagues that were going into admin. During this time my principal convinced me to become an instructional coach. I enjoyed my role as an instructional coach, because I was able to impact learning for more than just the 30 students in my class.

Adam Truitt is a first year associate principal at an elementary school in Colorado.  Preparing for and taking an administrative position has been a logical step in his career.

For me, it was the “Force” that truly drew me to the “Darkside” of education.  Wearing the black cape and mask, while sounding incredibly powerful via a deep breathy voice towards those that were under my instruction – SOLD!  It’s funny when I hear that metaphor of the “Darkside” and school administration.  I’ve been in the position for only a few months, but I have yet to see anything dark about it. In fact, it’s always sunny and exciting in my school.  Since my teen years my career path has always been centered on education.  From afterschool programs and summer camps to residential treatment (Wilderness) and the elementary classroom – education has given me the drive that no other flight, I think, could have produced.  Honestly, I had no desire to go onto grad school unless I truly knew the direction I wanted to go.  AND through much discussion with family, friends and mentors, I anted up and pursued program in Educational Leadership and Administration.  Although I compare this part of the journey as walking down a cracked sidewalk – tripping and jumping along the way – I couldn’t be happier with the choice and new direction.

Finding the Right Job
No matter your reason for wanting to move on from full-time teaching duties, landing that first admin job is not necessarily an easy task. There are many administrative jobs posted each year, and potential candidates should look for the right fit between their own skills and interests and the needs of the school. Find out whether your disposition, experience, passion, and goals line up with what the school needs. They will certainly interview you, but be sure to interview them at the same time. Posick and Johnson began their administrative careers as associate principals. They were good situations in which to get started, but both have since moved on to positions that better match their professional skills, family life, and current philosophies.

Differences Between Admin Life and Teaching
Once you move full-time into the world of administration, there are experiences from the classroom that you might miss. It is not as easy to see that daily progress that students make and you aren’t a part of that close-knit atmosphere that develops among students and their teacher. Curt Rees, a Wisconsin elementary school principal, describes it this way:

Having my own classroom was like a family and you all really get to know one another quite well. There is good and bad to it, but that intimacy is more positive than negative. You see a lot in the course of a day. A kid might be driving you nuts at 9 a.m., but by 2:30, they’ve done so many other great things that you hardly remember what irked you earlier. As a teacher you really notice the relationships that develop among the students. As an admin, you certainly notice (or are informed of) the negative relationships, but don’t often have the opportunity to see those healthy interactions among kids.

But as an admin, it’s crucial to stay connected to the learning of students. Johnson still works with a 3rd grade math intervention group, and Posick makes time to be a tutor, yearbook advisor, and dissection assistant among other things for his students.

On the plus side of the responsibilities of being an administrator, the schedule can be more flexible to allow you to go into several classrooms each day to see the great work of teachers and students. You can talk about learning with the kids during their classes and then have even better discussions with teachers after watching them interact with their students. These conversations with teachers serve as reflection and positive analysis for both the administrator and teacher. Spending time in classrooms with master teachers will enlighten you more about quality instruction than you could imagine. While you might miss out on the daily successes of kids in the classroom, you have the opportunity to develop relationships that span the several years a student and their family are in your school. It is enjoyable to see all the positive changes that happen in those years and you develop a great sense of trust and understanding with the family, especially if they have multiple children in the school.

Truitt has greatly enjoyed his first year as a school administrator.

I’m now entering the spring of my first year as an Assistant Principal of a K-5 public Elementary School.  This has been one of the most challenging and yet rewarding experiences of my career.  This is the first position that I can say gives me an opportunity to reflect daily.  I reflect upon my interaction with staff, students and members of the community.  I reflect upon instructional practices that change students’ educational experiences.  I reflect upon what is best for kids and try to figure out if data or politics are truly driving our decisions.  I work at an incredible place, with driven and committed teachers and students that are ready to learn.  I work in a school that promotes a culture of achieving, belonging, and caring.  I love what I’m doing, and with the benefit of my in-house colleagues and those that are part of my PLN (Professional Learning Network), I can’t wait for what’s in-store around the corner.

Future Challenges and Opportunities
Just like for teachers and other school staff members, the near future for school administration looks to be a time of uncertainty. The US education system is under a lot of scrutiny right now. Accountability through high-stakes testing and educator evaluation systems are constant news items. Funding for schools across the country is being cut (drastically in many states), but expectations for student success never get any lower. Administrators need to be creative to be able to do more with less, just like their staff members. There is no opportunity to coast in the principal’s office. Positive leadership and creativity will be key in order to meet the needs of students in these frequently turbulent and unpredictable times. All of that being said, it’s an exciting time to be a school administrator. Public schooling will have to change to meet all of these realities, and administrators will be (and should be!) right in the middle of all it.

Still Unsure?
A question that curious candidates frequently ask is, “When is the time right to make the move from my classroom?” If you are already taking on leadership roles in your school (committees, mentoring, leading staff development, etc.) and you enjoy seeing the positive impact it has on the staff and students, you might be ready. Take advantage of opportunities your school/district might have for you in an admin internship program or as a substitute for admins away from the building. Take advantage of any “aspiring administrator” programs your state administrators association may offer. Don’t try to make the decision on your own and be sure to discuss your thoughts, questions, and concerns with your friends, colleagues, and mentors. Also be sure to think about how the new job, complete with additional time and stressors, might impact your spouse and children.

Great school administrators are retiring every year and they need to be replaced by equally skilled leaders. Will you be one of them?

Jessica Johnson is an elementary school principal in Juneau, WI. This is her 4th year as a principal. She began her teaching career in Minnesota, but then moved to Arizona where she continued to teach in the classroom, moved into the instructional coach role and then as a middle school Assistant Principal for one year.

Jay Posick is an intermediate principal in Merton, WI. This is his 10th year as an administrator. He began his teaching career in Waukesha, WI before becoming an assistant principal in the Elmbrook School District for five years. He is completing his 4th year as principal in Merton.

Adam Truitt is an elementary associate principal in Colorado. This is his 1st year as an administrator, but he has been teaching for nearly 15 years.

Curt Rees is an elementary school principal in Onalaska, WI. This is his 11th year as an administrator after being an elementary classroom teacher in New Mexico and Illinois.

This article is also cross posted at

The kissing spot

My favorite spot to kiss you while you sleep is your temple where tousled hair meets tender skin. Curled among the babies and blankies on your bed, your sweet kissing spot tastes of sleepy perspiration and berry scented shampoo. It is 10 p.m. Saturday night, but your 6-year-old body has been retired for hours. A day of giggles, “doing art,” tantrums, and dancing has earned you this sweaty respite. You mumble and moan due to a dream whose storyline is unknown to me. I wish I knew what made you stir so fitfully, but I don’t wake you to ask. After a few moments your body and mind are at peaceful rest again. I linger on the edge of your bed to listen to your tender breathing and watch your chest rise and fall. I make sure the faded nigh-nigh blanket is secure in your grasp before the kissing spot receives one last contribution. Good night sweet girl.

Go beyond Twitter to deepen your PLN and knowledge

I’m pleased to see so many educators using Twitter to share ideas, resources, and best practices with one another. Too many educators (teachers and admins) never have any professional conversations other than a handful of chats within their own school each week. Social media enables connections with other educators all over the world. Twitter is a great tool to get that connectivity started (some call it a gateway social medium), but to truly make an impact on your practice, take it a step further to deepen your knowledge of a particular topic or to strengthen your relationship with people who share resources online.

This is not a knock on Twitter at all. It is a service that has done incredible things for education with messages limited to 140 characters. For me, Twitter is too shallow and disjointed to really get to know and understand a person or a topic at any meaningful depth. I always like to think in analogies, so here is my attempt at explaining my point for this post. Trying to understand a person or topic thru Twitter would be like if a book was written on thousands of individual post-it notes and then those notes were scattered somewhat randomly around the book store. If you look hard enough, and if the notes haven’t fallen to the ground, you can pull all these together for a reasonable understanding of the person or subject.

To really understand a person’s or organization’s stance on learning, take a look at what they share on their blog or website. If you like what someone shares on Twitter, then find their blog and subscribe to it. I user Google Reader to keep track the blogs that I like to read, but there are other services that do the same thing. If you really dig a post, make sure you leave a comment and then share the post with a tweet of your own. I subscribe to a few dozen blogs, but the ones that really get me thinking are Brad Saron’s Cognitive Interfund Transfer, the Paper Grader’s blog, and elearnspace from George Siemens.

One of my favorite ways to really dive into a topic or understand a great thinker in education is to listen to podcasts. There are many educational podcasts out there, but here are a few that I follow: TeacherCast, Eduleadership Radio, and Ted Talks. Rather than only listening to countless hours of NPR or ESPN Radio in my car, I frequently play these on my iPhone while traveling back and forth to work. My absolute favorite podcast is Shifted Learning from John Pederson and Julia Fallon. (Yes, John and Julia, it’s official. I’m stalking you.) Their interview subjects and topics are really engrossing and the issues they address really start you thinking about different ways to view the world of education and technology. Another analogy for you: listening to John and Julia’s talks with their guests is like eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation among friends at a bar or coffee shop.

The Philip Seymour Hoffman of ed-techers. He's everywhere and he does it all well.

They both have a great sense of humor and the technical production of the show is very good (some podcasts out there sound like they were recorded on a CB radio).

Each of their episodes are entertaining and will really make you think, but my favorite is probably the interview with Gary Stager. The description of the show in this image says it all.

Thanks for reading this and please make some time to check out the blogs and podcasts of all the motivated educators out there on the interwebs.

It’s made of people! People!!!

I’ve had a couple of different Twitter accounts over the past 3ish years and I’ve never learned a single thing from Twitter. Millions of tweets get spewed out each day and I don’t learn anything from this pervasive networking service that started back in 2006.

“What!?! The WiscPrincipal dude who seems to spend way too much time on his computer and has over 6000 tweets himself, disses Twitter? Is this his Fonzi jumps the shark moment to get more attention?”

No. I don’t hate Twitter. I love what I’ve learned through Twitter. I love what I’ve gained from the people I follow and those who follow me. I have met (virtual and actual meetings) countless brilliant passionate educators thanks to Twitter. But Twitter doesn’t do anything other than connect people.

The power of Twitter and all other social media services…??? It’s people, it’s made of people! Don’t forget what makes this whole thing work for educators. Social Media is the connector that enables you to interact with other impassioned and engaged educators. You have the ability to connect with people in your own school and community, but the vast connectivity afforded by social media allows that amount to expand exponentially to reach across time (you don’t have to interact live) and around the world.

iPads and Twitter accounts won’t save education and lead to a more learned world culture. Real live human beings do that. You’re one of them and you are doing it right now. So go share something good and help make the world a better place.

As always, my hats off to John Pederson for leading the “people not tools” chant. Check out his Shifted Learning podcasts with Julia Fallon for some fantastic brain bending conversations with some really interesting and smart people.

For those of you who understand the video clip, you are my kind of people.