Why Teachers are Their Own Worst Frenemies

When I was in high school at a retreat, one of my leaders shared an important illustration about priorities and what “really” matters.  She provided each group of students with a large glass container, many large rocks, smaller rocks, sand, and water.  The challenge was to be able to fit all of these into the glass container at the same time.  

Let’s just say that this illustration was a messy process that left some containers overflowing, some with wet sand but no rocks, some with little rocks and no big ones…no one was able to get just the right combination.  

Until the leader stepped in and demonstrated the recipe like a master chef making crêpes suzette:

First, the large rocks, then the smaller rocks, then the sand, and last the water.  Bam!

It seemed so simple.  

Big Rocks vs. Little RocksGrowth Mindset Goal Setting Activity

Let me ask you this:  How often do you feel rushed, completely drained of all zest-for-life, just praying that the weekend will come so that you can do more grading and more planning and catch up before the next week starts so that you can do it all over again?  Phew.  I know that I have been there, still live there too often, and need to post reminders like this one I just wrote on my desk (with a purple sharpie pen, of course):  “Big Rocks vs. Little Rocks.”

Break it Down

Let’s break down the metaphor, shall we?  

  • Big Rocks = the “non-negotiable” things and people and tasks that must be present in your life, the values you hold.  For the sake of clarity, I’m just going to focus on teacher world here.  That makes my big rocks student learning, rigor, and creativity.  These are my non-negotiables.

You’ll probably notice that I’ve limited the number of “big rocks” because, after all, even though we think some things are non-negotiables, not everything can be.  This is a tough idea to wrap my teacher brain around because we teachers are programmed to go, go, go like robots and often guilt ourselves into making big rocks out of everything.

Does this type of thinking sound familiar?  

  • “Every lesson has to ooze creativity and Pinterest perfection.”  
  • “If I don’t provide extensive feedback on every paper, the students won’t learn.”  
  • “If I leave my bag-o-guilt, a.k.a. grading and planning at school, I’m not a good teacher.”  

The list goes on and on, as does the metaphor.  

  • Small Rocks = the “related” things and people and tasks that you need in order to keep the big rocks in place. In teacher world, my small rocks include use of technology, student engagement, formative and summative assessment, meaningful collaboration and coaching, and time for creation (i.e. activity and resource development). These help me to ensure that the big rocks stay in place, i.e. that I am able to prioritize and accomplish what I value most.  

This is where it gets tricky.  There are so many things, right?  And, if you’re like me, you want to do all of the things.  I know you’re saying, “what about the grading and the data collection and the paperwork and the meetings and the pineapple charty chart that a coworker has been trying to get you to fill out because it’s important that you observe other teachers and the phone calls and the pile of books you’ve been meaning to read just sitting on the corner of your desk and…and…and…

Yes, these are all things that should be accomplished in an ideal world, some of them even useful or personally beneficial, but they’re not small rocks, much less big rocks.  As my grandma used to say, “there’s a time and a place for everything.”  Focus your energy in the direction of your values and everything else will fall into place, which brings me to the next category.  

  • Sand = the “gap fillers” that smooth everything over, sort of like Mary Poppins’ “spoonful of sugar.”  In teacher world, my sand is parent communication, contractually-required meetings, and, of course, grading (it had to come in somewhere, people!).  Here’s the cool part, though.  Because these are gap-fillers, they must go in the space allotted to them.  In other words, I need to make sure that I structure these activities so that they can be flexible and not take up more space than they need to. Let’s take a look at what this looks like for me:  
  • I’m going to have a system in place to proactively communicate with my parents so that I don’t have to spend a lot of time “putting out fires” that result from poor or inconsistent communication.  I send a “weekly update” at the beginning of each week which communicates the daily agenda, homework, and upcoming assessments.  I also use technology platforms like Google Classroom which allows parents to get a glimpse of what is going on in my classroom. That, coupled with our district’s electronic grade book puts the ball in the parent’s court to respond back to me if they have a question. If I receive a parent email, I respond within 24 hours with an email or phone call.
  • I will participate in meetings, and leave without feeling obligated to sign up for a committee or participate in optional professional learning activities.  
  • I structure my feedback to students in a way that is respectful of my time and allows me to ensure that students are learning for themselves (“big rock” connection).  I don’t spend time providing feedback on summative assessments, create student-friendly checklists and choose from a bank of pre-written, skill-based comments when responding to formative work.  Most importantly, I dedicate a consistent time during the school day to this task so that I’m not dragging the bag-o-guilt home with me. I am not going to spend time reading student work before actually grading it (am I the only one who does that?), nor am I going to spend time thinking about what students will feel like when they receive a certain grade (again, am I the only one who does that?).

Last, But Not Least

  • Water = the “nice-to-have” things and people and tasks that “cement” everything together. What happens when water flows over the already-existing rocks and sand in the container?  It magically “fits,” and as it does it transforms the contents from dry to wet.  So, what is it for you that can be a game changer in your teaching life?  Is it professional learning?  Sign yo self up! Is it building relationships with students?  Create those opportunities for classroom culture to flourish.  Is it having time and space for you?  Go for that jog, read that book, take that nap so that you’re refreshed.  

After all, real and metaphorical water is life-giving and rejuvenates you for what really matters.  

Obstacles to Teacher Zen

  1. Not taking the time to reflect on your core values and priorities.  
  2. Stress.  For me, this is usually related to emotion, whether that be an ideological disagreement with a co-worker, an unfair comment, the negative emotions of others, or the feeling that I have to do everything right now.  I find that when I’m stressed I tend to forget about big and little rocks, sand and water, and go for the chocolate instead.  This, of course, is a terrible plan.  
  3. Lack of planning and organization.
  4. Fear.  Because, you know, fear leads to anger, anger to hate, and hate to suffering.  (Just kidding…well, kind of…Yoda might have had something there.)

How to Apply the Metaphor to Teaching Life

In the end, I’m still figuring out this work-life balance and I’ve been at this gig for 12 years.  Here’s the summary of what I know to be true:  

  • Take some time to reflect on what it is that brings you back to the classroom day after day. What is it that you need at this point in your teaching career?  How do these things gel with your personal obligations and goals?   
  • Take some time to plan.  In what ways could  you automate those “sand” tasks to free up time for your small and big rocks?  Maybe you want to steal my idea (which is really an idea that my ever-so-wonderful instructional coordinator friend gave to me) of creating checklists and pre-written comments for student feedback.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear what other organizational tools and ideas you come up with, so leave a comment to help a girl out!  
  • Take some time for your personal life “big rocks.” Is your work/life balance out of whack?  Are you ready to move to France where they just won the legal right to ignore work email outside of office hours?  Set up some boundaries here.  For me, it starts with my phone – work email is no longer allowed to invade my personal time.   

Wrap it up

In the end, I hope that you’ll join me in having a bit more teacher zen this year through goal setting and giving yourself permission to let some things just be the sand that falls into the cracks once your rocks are in place.  If this blog post resonated with you or was helpful, feel free to share with others on social media.  Also, if you’re looking for a companion resource to help you reflect and set some goals, a.k.a. “big and little rocks,” check out this one.  It works for teachers and students alike and is available in print and digital formats.  

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