Legendary football coach Bobby Bowden used to tell his players, “Everybody wants to win, few want to do the work to be a winner.” Such an attitude applies to activities far beyond college sports and includes teaching as well as most other professions. Clearly the vast majority of those who teach work diligently to perfect their craft (I have to admit to being humbled by some of the lengths teachers go to in their attempts to do a better job.) So telling someone who puts the long hours into teaching that there is something they can be doing in five minutes that will change the way they teach is a very bold statement. Let’s just see if it is worthy of consideration.
No less an authority than Socrates is quoted as saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” For most of us, such a thought does not fit well with our busy works schedules; yet Socrates is adamant. He doesn’t say, “The unexamined life is less meaningful,” he says, “Not worth living.” Of course he is talking about growth, both personal and spiritual, which is something most of us don’t give a lot of thought to in our daily machinations.
And what of George Santayana‘s famous statement, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Such a statement should give us pause; how often do we find ourselves making the same mistakes again and again. Does that not suggest we are not learning our lesson the first time? (It is one of life’s little axioms that we tend to get served the same lessons over and over until we finally learn from them.)
So, what does all of this mean? Can this discussion pass the “so what” test? Is there a way that we can do a bit of self examination without sinking into deep and meaningless navel gazing? I think we can, but we need to put limits on it to make it effective. I would suggest we spend just five minutes at the end of each day to consider how our day went and what we could have done to make it better. And since we are teachers, I would suggest we write it down. However, and here is the big caveat, we have got to limit the time and scope of this introspection.
Most of us spend hours and hours mulling over the dealings of the day in the back of our minds. Most of us use this time to beat ourselves up. If you are afraid this will cause feelings of guilty, then you need to pass until another time. The idea here is to learn from our mistakes, to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. None of the teachers I know need any more abuse, from outsiders, from other teachers or administrators, and most especially not from themselves.
We also need to limit the time we take for this process. Five minutes is just a tiny fraction of our day, yet it could bring huge benefits. Could you do it in three? Probably. Would ten be better? Probably not. Don’t get hung up on the time, just spend a few minutes with yourself thinking about what you could do better. Then, most importantly, stop thinking about it and focus on the many roles of you play in other parts of your day.
I carry one of those little notebooks with the little elastic straps on it. At the end of each day I jot down a few notes about what the challenges of the day were; what worked and what didn’t. The benefits to doing so come in two flavors. The simple act of putting these thoughts to paper help clarify my thinking while the day is still fresh in my mind. Plus, there is the added benefit of being able to review these notes days, weeks and months later to see my progress, to see how I have grown and to see how I handled things in the past.
One of the strange facts of life is that we often find something that works, use it for a season, and then abandon it. As one might expect, the old problems resurface and we wonder why. Looking back at your notes will sometimes reveal that there was a time when you had this problem solved. What were you doing then that worked better? Can you do it again, or some slightly modified version of it? We are working with human beings and humans by very nature are complex and capricious, yet there are certain things that work again and again in a way that makes a bit of introspection well worth the effort.
How you do this doesn’t really matter. In the past I have used a little program on my computer to take notes for this purpose. After all, most of us have our computers up and working during the day and it is often the last thing we turn of at the end of the day. Why not spend a few minutes polishing the apple? How you choose to do this isn’t important, the fact that you do it is.
My mother, one of the wisest women I have ever known, used to say, “What we do today doesn’t matter nearly as much as what we do every day.” Clearly this is one of those habits that we do every day that can have a profound effect on our year, our career and our life.