Spinning in the Vortex: Is Life Too Fast in Our Schools?

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans. 
John Lennon

In a thought-provoking article published in The New York Times in 2012, Tim Kreider made an acute observation about a particular aspect of the pace of work in the 21st century. Ask colleagues, he said, how they are doing and you are likely to hear something like: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.“ Kreider’s perspective resonated with many readers and was widely shared on social media at the time. In fairness, it is probably true to say that we have all worked with individuals who like to advertise their busyness as a bid to herald their importance and place in the organizational hierarchy. The Times article’s essential point was that the apparent hysteria that characterises today’s workplace is something that we have created for ourselves, something, it is suggested, we have chosen to acquiesce to. Is this really true? In particular, I wonder, is it true in our schools where, I think it is fair to say, the daily pace can often modulate between frenetic and frantic? Do we really have a choice?

Much of Kreider’s argument made sense to me, until he underscored his perspective with the following, acute observation: “Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness. Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” While this, like the boastful-busy phenomenon, can truly exist, I can’t think of too many colleagues I’ve worked with over the years who wouldn’t happily sacrifice some of their perpetual busyness for a little, languid emptiness now and again. But Kreider’s core questions remain valid. Why are we so busy? Is it inevitable? Is it a mask against some other reality? Is there something we can do to change the pace of our working lives?

Last week felt like an exceptionally busy time in our school. I could sense that people were tired and were saying so when asked. I was exhausted. It felt like a long week. We were all, genuinely, just very busy. Ours is a very ambitious school, a place where people really want to do what is best for students. I wonder, perhaps, if we were all simply hiding from some emptiness in our lives after a long, dark winter when we determined that we should prepare intensively for a service-learning day for all students? Was it the need for existential reassurance that drove spring tryouts for sports, the arrival of a visiting author, an outdoor education expedition, and a desire on the part of conscientious teachers to provide timely formative learning feedback to students prior to an imminent vacation? Of course not. And I don’t think Kreider would think so either. So what is it about the pace of life in the 21st century and can we somehow protect our schools – our teachers and, thereby, our students – from this?

The Pace of Life is Just Too Fast
It seems that the inevitable refrain is that the pace of life today is just too fast. I actually don’t recall it getting any faster and feel no more busy in 2015 than I did when I started teaching in 1989. Sometimes my days seem insanely busy, and that’s not something I like to boast about. This was also true when I was teaching. Yet today I still try to make time on a daily basis to eat with family, to read for pleasure, to walk the dog, to listen to music, even to write a blog entry on occasion. If there is a genuine sense that the pace of life has become too fast, the blame, it would seem, lies squarely at the door of ubiquitous technology and how it has turned us into slaves to an always-on digital world. I think we have some choices here.

Technology is to Blame
There is a whole industry today in publishing, therapy, and schools that informs us that technology is ruining our lives, our relationships, and our health. There is no question but that we can become slaves to email, social media, and online distractions, if we choose to. The internet is the TV of our day. Quite often, I find, our personal disposition to learning and managing technology to serve our personal purposes is the difference between being controlled by technology and harnessing its full power. Frequently, those who articulate concerns about the all-encompassing domination of technology suggest that we need to unplug, have tech-free days, and pursue the equivalent of placing foil on our windows. We need to have more dialogue about how to use technology – like any other tool – effectively, and with balance. We have a choice here and it doesn’t require us to disengage or unplug, but that is also a valid choice for some.

We Need to Become More Mindful
Being mindful used to simply mean being consciously aware of something, but it has come to represent a state of mental being that is achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment with calmness and a sense of serene acceptance. I do believe there is a greater need for all of us to be more mindful, but in the traditional sense of breathing more and taking the time to reside in the moment. I am personally less inclined towards loving-kindness meditation as I feel mindfulness as a movement is a concession to the belief that we can’t change the pace of our lives. I support the mindful revolution in schools, but not at the cost of tackling the issues that require it. To be truly mindful in schools, I think we need to find our element and be “in the zone” as Ken Robinson suggests. By finding time for our passion, Robinson contends, we will be more present, more centred, more in the here and now. This is how we should construct our schools. It’s another choice.

What Could We Do Differently?
So, if these are the main challenges that confront us, what are some of the choices we can make to slow down this spinning vortex and liberate ourselves from the manic maelstrom of daily life? Here are just five things that I think could be good for our schools to give careful consideration to.

Bridge the Gap Between Those Who Mandate Change and Those Who Teach
It’s time to bridge this gap. It’s so easy for those who “want change” to keep pursuing a change agenda without having an understanding of what this feels like in the classroom. The next, new thing is just too alluring for some who do not take the time to understand current realities and demands on teachers. I am a firm advocate for change, but I also believe that major change needs to be managed, supported, and phased appropriately. The pace at which change is adopted in schools and the potential for groupthink around change management that requires greater procedural mindfulness should become a significant management focus in schools.

Set Clear Personal Guidelines Around Our Technology Use
I generally find that technology saves me a lot of time at work. Many issues that used to require meetings can be dealt with through an efficient email. I try not to let email run my life. We all need to do the same. There is a time when we do not need to check work emails. We never need to reply to an email that we are cced on, and we should resist the urge to reply-to-all. But as a recent BBC report has found, we lack discipline when we use email and tend to use it selfishly: “People dump tasks into each other’s inboxes without thinking about whether they are being considerate.”  We have a choice here. I also use technology for recreation and find that I can learn a lot professionally from 15 minutes on Twitter, for example. I enjoy connecting with other educators. There is for all of us, I would suggest, a balance to be found between technology as a tool and technology as an intrusion into our lives. It’s all about our outlook and our self-discipline … it’s not about the technology.

Demand That Meetings Have a Purpose and Are Run Efficiently
We have all been invited to meetings with no clear purpose, agenda, outcome or value. Perhaps it is time to start declining such invitations, much as David Grady suggests? We all have a responsibility in this context. Meetings should be carefully planned, tightly run, and participants should not only understand the purpose and outcome, they should participate. Scheduled meetings should be cancelled if the agenda is not pressing. Administrivia can be managed in shared Google Docs. Sometimes a walking conversation is better than a meeting. Sometimes cancelling a meeting and inviting colleagues to have a breather instead is a better choice.

Approach the Panacea of Data-Driven Decision-Making With Caution
Data-driven decision-making is the new buzz-phrase in education these days. I am all for informed support of students, but even the phrase “data-driven decision-making” should sound an alert to educators. We don’t need to be driven any further. An increased obsession with outcomes and results is not the way forward. The fact is, our schools are already swimming in data, but we have little time to evaluate its meaning or purpose. We do need data to inform learning in schools but, I would suggest, we need a people-centred approach to running our schools more than anything. We must get the order of these imperatives right. That is a choice.

School Leaders Must Take Responsibility For Managing the Pace
Can whoever turned the treadmill on please switch it off or at least slow it down? Who among us is responsible for taking responsibility for the frenetic pace in our schools and doing something about it? Is this not the work of the school leadership? In their book, The Mindful Leader, Brown and Olson make the point that reflective practice is something that many leaders are simply not good at: “Although many of us are charged with leading learning organizations, and learning theory describes the importance of reflection for consolidation and scaffolding the next level of insights, in education we tend not to create pauses for thinking and feeling in our learning and leading, or do so only superficially.” Mindfulness, I would suggest, needs to start and be modeled from the top.

As with most of my thinking around schools, I feel school culture is perhaps the key to altering the pace of how we work. We need to cultivate a culture around human relationships and nurturing the ecology of our learning environments so they are hospitable to face-to-face conversations, supportive innovation, and timely celebration. We need to admonish our leaders when the pace of change is poorly managed. We need to remind ourselves and our students that being healthy and happy is the key to learning effectively. We need to breathe. We need to stop doing the things we have always done because we have always done them. We need to grade less. We need to collaborate more. We need to scrap excessive content and engage in stimulating, creative learning that places us in the zone, in our element. We need to alter the conception of success as someone who spends all day in the office to the individual who works smartly and leaves the office or classroom with enough time to do something that sustains a personal passion. We need to breathe. We have choices.