Teacher Leadership

Teachers: 10 Tips for Slowing Down

photo of a woman looking at an autumn landscape
Photo credit: Heidi via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Since my last Edutopia blog post, How Slowing Down Can Lead to Great Change was published, I've received dozens of messages asking for suggestions for how to slow things down in schools. The premise behind the following suggestions is that if we slow down, we'll have more opportunities for reflection -- to think about what we've done and how it went, to consider next steps, and also to listen to each other and therefore, strengthen our connections. Here are some steps that anyone working in schools can take to slow down:

#1. Prune your goals

Examine the goals you've determined for yourself, your students, your school, your department, etc. Prioritize them. Now, if it's within the scope of your decision-making powers, strike out the last one on the list. The primary obstacle to school improvement that I see is the problem of "doing too much." Districts have strategic plans with 27 initiatives, schools have four annual goals, teachers have six professional practice goals, and so on. This is not an effective way to make change. If we could all prune our goals (and I am aware that many of us don't fully have control over this) we'd focus and could slow down. Even if you can't prune goals, raising this as an obstacle and addressing the inefficiency of working in this way is important.

#2. Prune your calendar

Most of us overschedule ourselves, not necessarily because we want to, but we feel pressured or obligated to do so. Take as many things off your calendar as you can. For some of us, taking one thing off is all we'll be able to manage, but if you can prune it down to the essentials, do it. You don't need to go to every sporting event at your school in order for students to see that you encourage their non-academic interests, nor do you need to attend the school board meeting every week in order to stay informed of decisions. Reduce what you do and the information that comes in. Slowing down is about creating space for reflection, thought, and awareness. Don't fill every moment.

#3. Allocate time to opening meetings

If you facilitate meetings, allocate 10 to 15 minutes to the opening. Give participants a chance to transition from their previous activities, to preview the agenda and understand what they'll be doing that day, and to briefly connect with others. This takes less than 15 minutes, and yet I often see teams leap into the content of a meeting. What can happen when there's a lack of clarity on what we're doing today and why, is that teams get side-tracked and derailed. How many teachers rush from their last period of the day to a department or leadership team? When people haven't been given a chance to physically, mentally, and emotionally arrive at the meeting, then they can't be fully present and able to participate effectively. A simple opening routine can ameliorate this.

#4. Allocate time to closing meetings

Similarly, participants need routines to close meetings. They need to reflect on what happened at the meeting, what their next steps are, what they learned during that meeting, and they need an opportunity to give feedback to the facilitator. Closing routines provide a critical moment for participants to make sense of what's happened and determine the most effective next steps. This takes some time and can't be rushed.

#5. Prune the agenda

If you plan and facilitate meetings, apply your pruning skills to your agendas. Most agendas I see (and this was definitely my tendency) are too packed; when they're implemented, we always run out of time and have to cut activities out on the spot. It took me many years to learn that I needed to ruthlessly cut and prune my agendas. For every item on your agenda, see what happens if you add a few extra minutes to your estimation for how long it'll take. I've found that when I prune and then pad my agenda, I stay on time, feel more relaxed, and participants in the meeting or PD pick up on this -- activities don't feel rushed, people have a chance to make sense of what we're doing. It's a much more satisfying feeling and it helps us slow down.

#6. Ask a colleague a thoughtful question

Set a goal for yourself -- one a week or once a month -- to ask a colleague a question that requires a thoughtful response, such as, "What's something you're feeling really good about this year?" Or, "What's been your greatest accomplishment as a teacher?" Or, "Tell me about a student you felt you made a difference with?" Ask this question at lunch or after school or in a moment when he or she will have time to respond. This kind of an interaction will require slowing down and exploring thoughts and it will connect you two more closely.

#7. Ask a student or a parent a thoughtful question

Repeat the previous activity with a student or parent. Ask:

  • What's something you'd like me to know about you?
  • Tell me what you feel really good about?
  • How can I understand you better?

#8. Eat lunch

Most teachers and administrators I know either don't each lunch at all (chips and coffee don't count) or they eat while grading papers, checking email, or making photo copies. Start with one day per month (a realistic goal) or if you're bold, one day per week, to eat lunch and just focus on eating. No multitasking on work. This is a perfect example of how slowing down is nourishing, literally. And if you were to eat lunch with a colleague, you'd also connect with another person which would be additionally nourishing (with one caveat: no complaining about students, administrators, or work in general. Complaining is draining).

#9. Take a sick day

How many of us go to work when we're sick? Unless we're burning with fever, we go, sniffling and coughing for days. Next time you're sick, don't go to work. Sleep, rest, and drink fluids. You know the routine. I am aware of the possible risks of taking a sick day ("The kids can't handle a sub, or the sub can't handle the kids," "Administrators said too many teachers are out," or, "I have to teach this lesson or we'll get off the pacing guide") but don't go. You can't reflect and make intentional decisions if you're sick.

#10. Practice self care

Audre Lorde, the poet and activist, said, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." These are words I live by. I know that if I don't take care of myself, I'm useless in this struggle to transform our schools. Again, make a small goal to incorporate doing little things to take care of yourself. This blog post describes my strategy for self care this year. When we take care of ourselves, we begin the process of carving out time to reflect on what we're doing. This is the foundation for the Slow School Movement: to be intentional about what we're doing, why we're doing it, and how we're doing it. This kind of thought would be transformational in our schools.

Please share any other ideas you have for how we can slow down.