Opinion
Federal Opinion

Teacher’s Work: Addicted to Busyness

By Kirsten Olson — February 26, 2009 6 min read

During a school visit I am conferring with a first-year principal. This individual is a dedicated, deeply thoughtful school leader committed to improving the conditions of teaching and learning in her building, and to intensifying professionalism among her teachers. In this meeting, we have set aside time to talk about her—about her new role as a school leader and the job’s many structural and interpersonal challenges.

Our meeting is cut short by another meeting that runs late, and the principal tells me she must stuff ballot envelopes while we talk, so that students can vote on who is most professionally dressed in an upcoming advisory meeting. She stands up behind her desk, so that she can stuff envelopes faster. She pauses to take a call from the executive director (from a phone she wears at her waist), then says she has to run to the front of the building to speak to a student who is out of dress code. (Could we talk while we walk through the hallway, she asks quickly?)

Most educators have almost no day-to-day socialization or support for sustained attention to or focus on their own learning.”

The principal wants to discuss test scores, but this will have to be put off until we meet next week. She wants to confer about the professional-development plans she has for later in the day, but we don’t get to that. Her observations about herself in relation to her new leadership role are raised in a variety of ways, but our conversation is jerky, truncated, on the hoof. I need a rope to lasso in all the topics that wander into the sagebrush during our “meeting” time. This principal, it is important to note, is well acquainted with the literature on the quality of attention in the teaching profession—she and I recently discussed how, for teachers, external interruptions in the classroom dramatically reduce what one writer in the field has called “opportunities to engage intellectually with important ideas.”

In another setting, a group of superintendents and school leaders have gathered for an eagerly anticipated workshop on creating professional networks for collaboration in their districts. The meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. By 9:10, perhaps a third of the audience has already been up and out of their seats, checking their Blackberries or talking on their phones in the hallway. Participants are constantly coming and going, talking among themselves, and passing papers. Later in the day, snow threatens. Superintendents spend hours on their phones conferring about the weather.

At a small professional-development meeting, middle school teachers have come together to discuss the reluctant learners in their buildings. These students, say the district leader, are a critical priority. Building administrators, those with the most positional power, sit in the meeting for only a few minutes. Then they get up and move to the sidelines of the room to talk among themselves. The murmur of their voices, as they stand with arms folded across their chests, is a constant background to the day’s proceedings.

Busyness, multitasking, continuous partial attention. The education sector is addicted, and not just because it is experiencing more accountability pressure than at any time in American history. “Occupations shape people,” wrote Dan C. Lortie in his classic study of the teaching profession, and most educators have almost no day-to-day socialization or support for sustained attention to or focus on their own learning. This fracturing of focus is now coupled with intense performance demands based on standardized tests. It is a blunting brew. “I came into the superintendency wanting to bring reflection to every aspect of my job,” a school leader recently told me. “I feel like I’ve lost that right now.”

I became aware of the hostile, undermining quality of busyness and constant multitasking when I attended a very different kind of workshop recently, one devoted to quiet reflection and deep inner work through the practice of silence and listening. In this workshop, a kind of focused, reverent induction to the meeting was practiced. It was understood to be serious time. There were no cellphones, no laptops, no iPods.

Busyness is the enemy of change, and multitasking is a roadblock to the satisfaction of focused, sustained attention.”

The agenda was not overpacked. As a participant, you could sit on the floor or on a chair, but you didn’t leave—your presence was part of the gift you gave to everyone else. You were instructed about how to listen, how to quiet your body, and how to ask questions to which you did not have the answer. Uncertainty about the process was considered an “invitation,” not a problem to be solved.

There were school leaders in this room, many searching for new ways to work with their staffs, because they felt they had not been successful in the past—not getting at what really needed to be done, as one of them put it. It was one of the most powerful learning experiences I have ever had, a time of going below the surface with others and pondering big questions—a time of reflection and renewal because, in part, each person was paying attention to nothing else.

So I began to wonder: Is the busyness of the adults in the teaching sector a form of resistance, a way of pushing away meaning and focus? Teachers and administrators have never had more demands placed on them in terms of accountability and performance, and a great many meetings are unfocused, time-wasting, and unrelated to the pressing work at hand. Many have “adapted,” however, by aggressively responding to e-mail, looking at phone messages, getting up and down to go out of the room, announcing that they will have to leave early. Those moves, while perhaps reasonable adaptations to real conditions, are rude and fracturing, not only to other participants but to individuals themselves.

Focused leaders in other sectors are moving toward the so-called “law of the vital few,” the idea that constant choice and activity in professional learning do not produce greater gains. The education sector’s addiction to busyness is both a reasonable adaptation and a terrible dysfunction—a hostile and nonempowered way of dealing with the maddening conditions of the work and the disrespect they feel from the larger world.

We won’t solve these problems by getting busier. The most productive meetings in schools I ever observed were in a school district in New York City in the late 1990s. School leaders had drastically pared down agendas—only one or two topics were allowed per meeting, with unrelenting focus on teaching and learning. No announcements, no facilities talk, no discussions of budgets or schedules. Like my recent personal workshop, these meetings were a revelation to me. Yet I’ve almost never seen them replicated, because they require so much focus and discipline.

Attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit.”

“Attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit,” observes the former Microsoft executive Linda Stone, who coined the term “continuous partial attention.” Teachers and administrators dislike and feel disrespected by continuous partial attention from students, yet this is very frequently the attitude brought to their own learning and thinking about their work. “You need time ... to find solutions to the dilemmas that face you,” writes Adrian Savage in his blog Slow Leadership. To make real change requires deep, devoted, unconstrained attention.

Busyness is the enemy of change, and multitasking is a roadblock to the satisfaction of focused, sustained attention. Our addiction to “doing” may make us feel engaged, active, and in control, when really, we are spinning ever more out of control and moving farther from the real conditions that can change our work.

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