George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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Chrisoula's picture

These tips were wonderful! I will do my best to improve on not taking on so much. I need to take baby steps and not be afraid to say 'no' once in a while. Thank you, for all the great suggestions!

Veneshaw's picture
High school teacher in Anguilla (The Caribbean)

It is indeed true that we as teachers never have enough time or always have too much on our plate, but are we doing ourselves an injustice when we try so hard to do right by others? The efforts that we so badly want to exhibit is basically an action that will eventually cancel itself out because you can no longer keep the momentum or the efforts you output are so mediocre that you might as well don't.

I will have to agree with the tips Elena shared. It is imperative that teachers slow down and really reflect on things being down or things being said. Just take a day, say forget school and everything related to it and treat yourself to something you enjoy most. These things are the only way you can truly be re-energized. For me personally, as a secretary and coordinator of groups, I found the first few tips very helpful and hopefully they give an improvement to future meetings.

In observation, I have noticed that many teachers have a big problem with time management. With effective time management and knowing how to give oneself an honest break and just slow down, one will have the space in their schedule to do much more. Many if not all the teachers that truly love their profession have ideas that that can improve their classroom, their school and student learning, but it's always, "I just don't have the time."

I am no different and will definitely be putting these tips into effect! A teacher recently passed away from my school and was no sooner replaced. I then realized that we are replaceable and although some may mourn for a while, life goes on. So, I have to preserve myself in order to do the great things that I have in mind.

Kelly's picture
first grade teacher

I love your ideas for slowing down. As teachers this is something we have a hard time doing. I know this week is crazy busy with all the stuff that is due at school this week. This article helped me to take a breather and enjoy the moment. Thanks!!!!!

Sami's picture

Each of these tips are amazing. The tips can truly help a teacher become a better teacher. Each tip also helps a teacher become a better leader. Like the meetings, a teacher leader needs to be in charge and make sure everything is covered. It could change who is in charge each time instead of always the same person. Another thing a teacher leader is great at doing is planning and creating goals. These two tips are great and very useful in the classroom. By doing these few things, it helps teacher leaders become better and not as overwhelmed.

Kathy Morlan's picture
Kathy Morlan
High School English Teacher

I have 5 personal goals for myself this year:
1. Keep my desk/work area neat
2. Bring lunch 3/5 days
3. Drink more water and less caffeine
4. Eat Breakfast at home
5. Leave work within an hour of the last bell 3/5 days
I had the same goals last year and the last four were hardly ever met. But HEY my desk was mostly neat!

Pat's picture

Great list which raises lots of discussion points. My first is how we are able to reduce stress, workload and time pressure when SLT keep adding additional pressure for rigorous progress and often 'unmanageable' targets?

cpenner's picture

I must admit I have been guilty of not taking a sick day. My excuse? Sometimes planning for a sub (especially if you are at home) is harder than just going in. But I'm given a certain amount of sick days per school year and never come close to using them all... so when I start feeling sick I'm going to take the 30 minutes to plan a day from home so that I can get better!

Confessions of a Modern Day [ex] Substitute Teacher

Abigael Rourke's picture

This is such valuable information. With overwhelming standards playing such a large part of teachers day to day routines, time for reflection is easily lost. That reflection can not only be beneficial for the wellbeing of the teacher, but also to foster growth for students. You talked about pruning goals, calendars, and agendas. Do you have any thoughts on using different forms of technology to help make space and prune these? For example, should we be eliminating some meetings and communicating through google classroom, etc.?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

My school has worked to eliminate some meetings as well as prune down meeting agendas by doing more communication through Google docs and email. We found that we were having so many nuts and bolts type meetings about things that didn't always involve the whole staff. We thoughtfully talked about how much of a time waster it is, and have worked to minimize the impact of some conversations by moving them online through email dialogues or into a Google doc. We were having 4-5 staff meetings a month and 2-3 were typically nuts and bolts type meetings. Now with the online tools, we are down to 1 at most a month. This has freed up our staff meeting times to now become PLC/instructional practice meetings which are a basically a combination of small group collaboration and professional development meetings.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Abigael,
Yes, our school has also used Google Docs (and Forms and Sites) to better communicate so that our meetings can be more productive. However, I heard an interesting response to that strategy. I was going to be attending a meeting with some teachers and admin from across my district. We were going to be talking about some concerns that a number of teachers had. I was worried that we would spend too much of the meeting on one or two topics and wouldn't get to our whole list, so I created a table in a shared Google Doc, listed some concerns and asked all the attendees to add theirs so we would be ready to meet. One of the teachers said that communication like that frustrated him because it meant that he had to take time to read and respond to the email and doc, which meant that our "meeting" time was pushing into his time outside of the meeting. I think that's a danger of our ability to always be connected -- we end up working more when we think we'll be working less.

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