Maintaining balance - SmartBlog on Education 7.21.2014

For most of us in the field of education, summer is a time that we wait for all year. During the months of July and August (or, for some of our colleagues, June and July,) we relax and recharge. Perhaps we are doing some summer school teaching during these months or use the time to plan for next year. Still, we enjoy our time away from school and its many demands. In this context, it is pretty easy to feel balanced and unstressed.

Of course, the challenge for us is to maintain a sense of balance and control once the new academic year commences. At that point, we will again be inundated with our core responsibilities as well as the many ancillary components of teaching, such as planning, assessments, record keeping, meetings and communication. This is in addition to the responsibilities that we have towards our families, particularly for those of us with relatives (children and parents) to care for.

Many of us struggle to achieve and maintain proper balance in our lives. We seek to succeed in the work arena while simultaneously being there for our families and loved ones. We have a strong sense of community and want to give back to those around us while also ensuring that we also attend to our health/emotional/spiritual needs on a regular basis.

Despite our best intentions, however, our many aims oftentimes come into direct conflict with one another. We simply cannot give as much time as we would like to each of these areas in a manner that is fully satisfying, especially when our professional workload begins to mount. How can we manage to strike the proper balance between these oft-competing realms in a manner that is both responsible and fulfilling?

For starters, it is important to take the time to identify and prioritize your core values and aspirations. Once you arrive at some answers, you can see how they fit into your present reality and adjust as needed. This Wheel of Life Tool can help.

Another valuable technique is to learn to identify where professional tasks sit in the “urgent/important” matrix. This matrix was presented in”The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Many of us feel overwhelmed by the many tasks on our to-do lists. We struggle to meet one deadline after another, no matter how hard we work. Oftentimes, important projects get sidelined by the smaller “fires” that we need (or feel the need) to put out. Perhaps we forget about appointments because we don’t have the time to check our schedule first or write things down.

While it may be true that certain seasons and situations present us with an inordinate workload (such as the end of a term), we can still make meaningful headway in working through our punch list by plugging them into Covey’s formula. At that point, we can better identify priorities, and then organize and execute around them.

Naturally, the list of what’s most important will vary by person. Since we each have our own unique set of goals and responsibilities, there is no single formula that works for everybody. Knowing clearly what your job duties are, together with your personal commitments and aspirations, will go a long way in offering clarity and providing direction.

As Covey sees it, every task falls into one of four categories, or “quadrants.” An urgent matter is defined as visible and timely; it is the incoming phone call, the colleague or parent standing in your doorway or the looming deadline. These matters are often not particularly important. Importance refers specifically to something that contributes directly to your job, mission, values and goals.

Covey’s research suggests that 90% of most people’s time is spent in Quadrant 1 — urgent and important — while the remaining 10% is spent in Quadrant IV — not urgent and not important. Ideally, people should make sure to spend most of their time in Quadrant II — important but not urgent, dealing with less stressful and demanding activities as relationship-building and planning. You not only get all your tasks completed, but you also build a strong foundation for the future by putting your time where it will reap benefits.

To maintain balance and increase productivity, spend a few moments in the morning evaluating your priorities. Write each of your daily tasks in whichever quadrant it belongs. Try to identify which quadrant(s) you spend the majority of your time in and you’ll have a clear picture of what’s most important to you. Then, all you have to do is get in the habit of evaluating each task with this chart in mind.

Maintaining balance is about choosing what to do and what not to do. No matter what your goals and pressures are, remember that your time and actions are under your control. Once you get comfortable evaluating the usefulness of your tasks you will see an immediate increase in your productivity, your success, your energy and your balance in all areas of your life.

Summer is also for learning - Huffington Post 7.16.2014

Summer vacation is well upon us. We waited so long for perhaps the greatest perk of teaching and are delighted to be far removed from many of the challenges associated with our craft, such as lesson planning, continued assessment, classroom management, faculty meetings and administrative demands.

Because of the "shut down" nature of the school calendar, it is easy for us to quickly engage in similar mental cessation at this time. In fact, many of our colleagues seek to completely shift out of teacher mode during the summer. In my humble view, this is a mistake. We just experienced 10 months -- breaks and vacations not withstanding -- of continued work and engagement. There were great moments and lesser ones. We succeeded in some -- hopefully most -- cases to engage our students and foster a controlled, supportive learning environment for our students. But there were also times when we failed to do just that. And who wouldn't want to have those moments back for a chance to try again?

Of all the letters in the alphabet, perhaps none is more associated with education as the letter "R" (as in reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic). The 4 R's below can help us stay fine-tuned over the summer and launch us into the next school year primed and ready to go.

  1. Reflect. The summer gives us a great opportunity to reflect. We can detail our highs and lows -- privately or with a supportive peer or mentor -- and brainstorm for continued growth. We can take the time to measure ourselves against last year's goals and set new ones for the fall. We can read, research, dialogue and attend classes and workshops that can help us further hone our craft.
  2. Read. As noted above, the summer is a great time to read. While some of the reading can certainly be recreational, there should also be some learning-related reading occurring. Set goals for yourself. Perhaps create a small book club with peers that will create accountability and opportunity for dialogue. We know how important reading is to our children. It is no less significant for us, particularly in an educational environment that is continually shifting and evolving.
  3. Re-imagine. Teachers are notorious for operating in a "if it worked well until now..." mindset. Who likes to redo lesson plans or update materials? Most of us don't and are oftentimes willing to engage today's students with the same approaches that we used for their older siblings, if not their parents. The summer is a great time to surf the web or visit a library for new ideas and forms of engagement. In many cases, the material already exists and can be obtained for free or a small charge. No need to reinvent the wheel, but there is a definite need to reinvent ourselves from time to time.
  4. Return (the favor; paying it forward). Undoubtedly there was at least one person who took you under her wing when you first got started. She helped you navigate through the complexities of the school schedule, professional responsibilities and the like. In all likelihood, there is at least one rookie -- or at least one inexperienced -- teacher entering your school or district in the fall. Volunteer to help her out and show her the ropes. Become her mentor and guide. Not only will she thank you for your graciousness and magnanimity, but you will also develop a deep sense of fulfillment knowing that you made yet another difference in the lives of children (and the adult that teaches them).

Of course we need to rest, relax, refresh and perhaps even run away. We also need to remember how brief and fleeting a summer can be if not well utilized and how rotten we would feel if we entered the next year no different in terms of ideas, tools and engagement than when we walked out in June.

Staying in Harm’s Way - The Jewish Press 7.16.2014

One of the saddest elements of Operation Protective Edge (as well as prior Israeli responses to Gazan missile attacks), and the part that may contribute most directly towards twisted anti-Israel sentiment, is Hamas’ willingness to use their civilians as human shields. They build command centers in residences and position weaponry near schools, hospitals and other communal institutions. Throughout each military excursion, Israel has demonstrated incredible restraint, avoiding civilians wherever possible (including not attacking strategic targets as a precaution) and even notifying innocent bystanders of impending attacks (at the risk of compromising their war effort). It’s as if Hamas has pulled a page out of Pharaoh’s handbook.

We are well aware that Pharaoh had no desire to let the Jews walk free from Egypt, despite numerous pleas from their leadership. He even went so far as to challenge God’s supreme power and His right to demand His nation’s release. “And Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel out.” (Exodus 5:2)

Of course, God could easily have compelled the Egyptian monarch to let the Jews out. But that would not have achieved His true purpose of teaching Pharaoh and his people how to see the folly in their ways and seek atonement. In the words of Seforno (Ibid, 7:3):

God desires the repentance of all men, not their destruction… (His goal was) to bring the Egyptians to teshuva through showing them His great power… If God had not strengthened his heart, Pharaoh would have released the Jews, but not out of any desire to turn to God… rather out of an inability to stand up to the pressure; and that would not have been teshuva at all… This was a lesson to klal Yisrael… to teach that God does go a distance with a human being in order to bring him back to true repentance…

Only after the seventh plague, that of hail, did Pharaoh finally acknowledge his error. “So Pharaoh sent and summoned Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘I have sinned this time. The Lord is the righteous One, and I and my people are the evil ones.’” (Ibid, 9:27) “Never before did Pharaoh say that God is just. This was achieved only here at barad.” (Tanchuma, Vaeira 20)

What was so special about the hail as to cause this seismic change in attitude? And why were we now dealing with a conversation of righteous versus evil, rather than a straightforward clash of wills?

A close look at the warning that preceded the plague actually indicates that something special was on the way, something that would force a paradigm shift in the way that Pharaoh approached the Jewish G-d and His people. “This time, I am sending all My plagues into your heart and into your servants and into your people, in order that you know that there is none like Me in the entire earth.” (Exodus 9:14)

In fact, God was setting Pharaoh up for an expose, in which his true rebellious intentions would be revealed.

If you still tread upon My people, not letting them out, behold, I am going to rain down at this time tomorrow a very heavy hail, the likes of which has never been in Egypt from the day of its being founded until now. And now, send, gather in your livestock and all that you have in the field, any man or beast that is found in the field and not brought into the house the hail shall fall on them, and they will die. (Ibid, 17-19)

With a clearly articulated option to avoid damage, one would have thought that Pharaoh and the Egyptian people would have sheltered their animals. But they did not. “He who did not pay attention to the word of the Lord left his servants and his livestock in the field.” (Ibid, 21) “This refers to Pharaoh and his people.” (Exodus Rabbah 12:2)

As the plague approached, Pharaoh found himself in a bind. He had committed, ideologically and addictively, to a path of rebellious resistance. “Are we now going to pay attention to Ben-Amram after all this?” (Midrash Shochar Tov, 78:14) He had no choice but to hold out further, knowing good and well that everything left outdoors was doomed. When God’s promise came to pass, Pharaoh was exposed as a true rebel without a cause; he had no choice but to admit to the wickedness of his actions and reverse his position. So much so, that this same person would one day rise again as king of Ninveh (Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 176), and would serve as a paradigm for proper repentance (see Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 42).

The situation in our holy land is acute. After nearly three weeks of searching, praying and doing everything possible to bring a positive conclusion to the kidnapping saga, our people now endure an endless barrage of rockets, physical as well as in the political and journalistic arenas. Let us hope that the outcome that we witness will contain some of the same redemptive qualities as the last time that our foe put his own people in harm’s way to fulfill his twisted agenda.