Are We Settling?

“The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.” 
Thomas Merton

I rarely watch television other than news and sporting events and it is rarer still that I notice any advertising campaigns on those infrequent occasions when I am watching TV. However, this month is probably my heaviest television-watching month of the entire calendar year due to college basketball’s March Madness, which remains my favorite sporting event ever. During this year’s March Madness tournament, I could not help but notice an ad campaign by DirecTV called, The Settlers, which plays on the word, presenting a frontier-era family in a suburban neighborhood who stick to antiquated ways such as a horse-and-buggy, making their own clothes, faceless dolls, and...cable TV. Although I have no clue as to whether DirecTV is superior to cable TV, this ad campaign did cause me to wonder: In education, are we in any way “settling” for less than the absolute best? If so, in what areas? And, in which areas is it imperative that we do not settle?

In general terms, our profession’s customers--the children who attend our schools--are simply too important to allow ourselves to settle for less than the very best we can provide. Whether we are talking about facilities, finances, curriculum resources, technology, or extra curricular offerings, our children deserve the very best available. Having said that, I do reside in the real world and can accept that there are budgetary limits in all walks of life, and education is--and should be--no different. In what ways, then, is it ever acceptable to "settle" in education and where must we draw lines in the sand, insisting we hold out for nothing less absolute best? 
  • An obvious standard for never settling is for each and every one of us to commit to giving our personal best every day when we arrive to work. This is easier said than done, of course, yet it is the one area over which we likely have the most control in terms of consciously deciding to not settle.
  • Another “no-settle” zone is to always ask, “What is best for kids?” when making any decision. We should never waver from this as the gold standard for decision-making in our schools. It may well be that budget constraints limit our choices, but once we have identified the choices available within these budget constraints, the question must always be answered based on which alternative will result in better outcomes for students. 
  • Another area where we must resist “settling” is in the area of school facilities and classroom learning environments. Once again, we may not have enough money to build new state-of-the-art schools every few years or even outfit our classrooms with the most up-to-date furnishings and equipment. At the same time, we must do all in our power (and within our budget) to never settle in ensuring that our facilities and classrooms are safe, clean, welcoming, learning-focused places in which to teach, learn, and lead.
Finally, and most importantly, at this time of year, I am reminded of another area in which we should never settle: hiring new staff. Currently, many schools around the world are in high-gear hiring mode, filling teaching positions along with a host of other educational roles and filling these just as fast as they can. Filling these positions is as important as any decisions we make for those of us involved in the process. Make the right decision and the lives of our children will be enriched, perhaps for decades to come. In addition, our own lives will improve, as we surround ourselves with new professionals who bring with them new skill sets, new perspectives, and new energy, while at the same time becoming the type of team member who fits in well with the current staff, committing to the mission, vision, and values of the team, focusing on learning, results, and collaboration with their colleagues and student-centered teaching in their classrooms. Make the wrong decision, however, and a school/district could be in for an equally-long period of time--a time marked by disappointment and frustration, as we learn the person we selected is neither a good fit, nor equipped with the knowledge and skills to succeed with their students and/or their colleagues. 

Although the hiring process is arduous--particularly if a school or district is hiring large numbers of new staff--this is a primary area in which we should simply never settle. “Never” is a rather strong and absolute-sounding term, yet I think it is appropriate in this instance. That may mean that we interview a multitude of candidates, only to find that we need to keep looking and start the process anew. That sounds like a whole lot of extra work and time. Better, methinks, to spend this time and energy upfront, than settle now and spend much more time and energy later correcting this mistake.

As important as many of our programs are in schools, Todd Whitaker hits the nail on the head when he insists that it is people, not programs, that make the difference. People are always the problem and they are always the solution. Programs themselves are never the problem and never the solution. The true variable in our schools is our people. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to never settle for a candidate who we are not 100% convinced has the skills, knowledge, character, attitude, and relational capabilities--or, at a minimum, the potential to grow enough in these areas, and quickly--to succeed with the students and parents they serve and the staff with whom they will collaborate.

I am, by nature, a practical person, comfortable living with rules, procedures, budgets, limitations, and the realization that sometimes doing the very best we can do is all we can do, even when we suspect it is not enough. However, there are some situations with which I am not comfortable. Settling for a mediocre candidate to fill any role in which the person will be working with children is one. In the ad campaign referenced at the start of this post, the father says to the son (when he asks why they cannot have the supposedly better technology), “We’re settlers, Son; that’s what we do.” Well, let’s not be settlers in our schools. As Merton suggests in the quote above, "settling" is quite a tempting proposition; however, this is a temptation we must resist. Never settling for less than the best we can do each and every day and never settling by hiring a less -than-stellar educator are more ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Fierce Intention

“A productivity ritual is a consciously created expression 
of fierce intention.” 
Tony Schwartz

For three years, I traveled 100% for work; it was both rewarding and grueling. Having the opportunity to work in widely-varying school districts across more than thirty states during those three years was an amazing professional opportunity. I learned a great deal during those years--about education, yes, but also about travel. During this time, I flew over 140 flights each year. I remember the number clearly because, at that time, to qualify for “Diamond Status” on Delta, one needed to accrue a certain amount of miles or number of segments flown during each calendar year. The perks for reaching Diamond status were pretty sweet--so nice, in fact, that when I finished my first work year with "only" 138 segments, I took an overnight random trip to Florida on December 28th to see a childhood friend--and to collect my all-important final two segments! Flying this often dramatically changed the way in which I approached my travel planning. After a few months, I had the entire process down to a science, planning each step of my journey with, as Schwartz would say, "fierce intention."

Here are just a few steps I took each time I flew in order to
maximize my time: First, I would leave my home exactly 127 minutes prior to my scheduled departure time. From experience, I knew this was the precise number of minutes necessary to ensure I would have enough time, even if traffic became an issue, to drive to economy parking, take the tram to the terminal, check my bag, get through security, and make it to the Sky Club lounge, where I would wait until it was time for boarding. My next intentional decision was where to park in the always-busy economy lot at O’Hare. I took the exact same route through the parking lot each

time, knowing exactly what my first, second, and third tier choices were for best available spot. Then, I would do the following:

  • Place my parking ticket in the console of my car for safe keeping.
  • Grab my luggage from the trunk, lock the car, and immediately place my car keys in a specific pocket of my briefcase so I would know right where to find them upon returning.
  • Walk to the tram and enter the last car of the three-car train (because upon arrival at my terminal, the last car would be closest to the escalator I needed to ascend to the terminal).
  • Once on the train, I removed my drivers license from my wallet and placed it in my right front pants pocket, then putting my wallet away into a specific spot in my briefcase.
  • Then, I would take out my phone and open my mobile boarding pass; for the remaining time, I would peruse my Twitter feed, favoriting resources I wanted to come back to later.
  • When the tram stopped at Terminal 2, I made sure to position myself so I would be the first person to exit and immediately board the escalator, mere steps from the tram door.
  • I immediately proceeded to the priority baggage drop area, dropped my bag, and made my way through security.
  • Once through security, I made a beeline for the Sky Club lounge, where I showed the attendant my drivers license and boarding pass. Once I did this, I retrieved my wallet from my briefcase and placed my license back inside.
  • Next, I went to the rear of the lounge, set up my laptop, grabbed a water and some snacks, and began working.
  • Then, at precisely six minutes prior to the stated boarding time, I packed up, visited the men’s room, and headed to my gate down the hall.
  • Once seated on the plane, I took out my Kindle and read until the moment the flight attendant announced they had closed the cabin door.
  • Then, I closed my eyes and fell asleep (amazingly, I was able to do this almost every single flight).
  • I was always awakened by the announcement--preceded by the dinging chime--that we had reached an altitude of 10,000 feet. As soon as I awoke, I immediately took out my laptop and began working, which continued until informed we were descending and laptops had to be stored.
I practiced similarly intentional (OK, maybe rigid or even obsessive) ways of deplaning, retrieving my luggage, getting into my rental car, and checking into my hotel, but you get the idea. I planned out with fierce intention every step of my travel journey for each and every trip. Why did I plan so intentionally? To be honest, I spent so much time traveling for this job that I simply needed every possible minute I could find to do the actual preliminary work necessary prior to arriving at the schools and districts I served. I did not have a minute to waste if I were to get everything done that needed doing. As an added bonus, I found that the more work I could accomplish while en route, the more relaxed I could be when not working and the more I could be renewed on the rare occasions when I was at home and not on the road.

How does all this apply to teaching, learning, and leading? Let’s deconstruct Schwartz's quote form above into three key components, keeping great educators we know in mind as we do so:

“Productivity rituals.” Great educators establish rituals or routines and follow these consistently to minimize the possibility of wasting time or the likelihood of unexpected events from occurring.

“Consciously Created.” Great educators do not happen upon such rituals and routines by chance; instead, they learn from experience how best to set up their schedules--and those with whom they work--for success and purposefully go about adhering to them.

“Fierce Intention.” Great educators who consciously create productivity rituals do so because it is part of their very nature and indicative of the passion they have for ensuring those whom they serve succeed. They are determined to succeed at whatever it is they do and plan accordingly--even “fiercely.”

Honestly, many of the finest educators I have known--whether administrators or teachers--are also folks I would characterize as fiercely intentional. All teachers know what I know: there is simply never enough time to get everything done that we want and need to do during the school day; great teachers respond by rarely, if ever, wasting a single minute available to them and by establishing specific routines for themselves and others in order to best meet the needs of the students they serve.

Great educators are very busy people engaged in the most important work I know: shaping the future of our nation’s young people. Because every minute matters when it comes to our kids, they consciously choose to make the most of each precious one. Consciously creating productivity rituals and following these with fierce intention--are ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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