It’s September, a busy time in the world of our teachers, parents, and students. The hope and excitement we felt for a new year--especially this one--is met with the reality of a deep dive into curriculum, IEP meetings, and reporting burdens; shuttle service, volunteering, bedtime and wake-up; homework, social pressures, and grades.
It all feels like a lot. Because it is.
We often refer to our life full of responsibilities as our “plate” and when our plate gets “full” we begin to see important tasks “fall off” the plate. When this happens, it seems to me we have two choices. The first is that we publicly beat ourselves up expressing our guilt that we dropped the ball and privately internalizing the stress that we’ve disappointed others and ourselves. The other option, not at all uncommon in Silicon Valley, is that we constantly enlarge the plate hoping that we will somehow be able to defy the laws of time and space and fit everything on the plate without missing a single task.
The reality is that neither of these options is healthy.
There is a third option that not enough folks take advantage of. Maybe the best solution to the challenge of too much responsibility and not enough time, energy, or resources is to make the plate smaller.
It’s like the difference between a buffet and prix-fixe menu--don’t cook as many items and make sure the items you put on the plate are the most important and take the time to prepare them really well.
When organizations or people try too hard to do everything, nothing gets done nearly as well as it should.
The same is true in our families, our classrooms, our schools, and our work.
As a superintendent, I’m bombarded with a myriad of problems and a whole host of proposed solutions. It’s also not unusual to be thrown several solutions, looking for problems.
When we find ourselves in times where there really is just too much, the best solution is to focus. Make the plate smaller. Manage the expectations of others (and yourself) by doing the following:
These suggestions manifest themselves in all parts of our lives.
For teachers, this looks like identifying the power standards and building learning experiences around those outcomes; saying no to unnecessary meetings; remembering that not everything that is “assigned” must be “graded” (in the traditional sense).
For administrators, this looks like narrowing the professional development focus to the two most important efforts for the year and saving all the other great ideas for a future year; canceling meetings that could be emails; narrowing the number of nighttime activities you agree to participate in.
For parents, this looks like narrowing the number of outside-of-school activities for each child to one or two of the most important; limiting playdates to one per week; saying yes to only one volunteering responsibility.
For students, this looks like choosing a reasonable course load; getting to bed early; reserving hangout time with friends for the weekend; limiting social media.
By no means is choosing to make the plate smaller easy or popular. You are most certainly going to run into people who give you the stink eye when you say, “Sorry, but no.” But it’s worth reminding ourselves that we do have a choice when considering our relationship to the plate. Sure, we can make it bigger. Or we can keep on apologizing and feeling guilty when things continue to fall off of it, but is that really the life we want to live?
If the answer is no, then it’s time to go plate shopping!
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Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.