A funny thing happen to me this year as the Thanksgiving break ended and I was faced with returning to work Monday morning for the long winter haul.
I thought about the nights that begin with darkness at 4:30, the freezing cold mornings, and the lack of all things that make summer great like BBQs with family, Hersheypark, Country concerts at Bethel Woods, hummingbirds, and actually having enough time in the day to read…..for pleasure!
It was then that I realized that I was looking forward to Monday morning and going back to work.
This was even after my good friend who teaches 6th grade incredulously announced that he couldn’t believe we had four straight weeks of school without a break!
I have always thought I had it good and enjoyed my job, but it was still a job and this was normally the time of year when a wave of anxiety and a touch of depression set in.
How would I make it through the next six months without seeing leaves on the trees, green on the grass or the ice cream truck strutting happily down the road? Why is it now I almost felt giddy about the thought of getting back into it, about making a difference, about digging in and working hard? How did I get to this place of inspiration, contentment, and happiness?
And, more importantly, how can I stay in this blissful state?
When I first started my career as a 22 year old Physical Education teacher and Varsity Basketball coach, I was certainly a student centered educator who always tried to put kids first. It seemed normal to me to pull kids out of study hall during my off periods to play ball in the gym or stay after school to open the gym for kids.
I didn’t realize how uncomfortable this made some of my colleagues until a couple of Union reps came to me and claimed it wasn’t good for the Unit that I was giving up my free time without compensation.
They snickered when, in my obvious ignorance with Union jargon or politics, I stated “I am letting anyone play, not just the first unit.”
After they got over their their laughter at my expense I was told, in no uncertain terms, to stop pulling kids from study hall to come to the gym and, if I plannned to stay after, to make sure I got paid.
At 22 I was a bit brash, certainly confident, and if I am being honest, maybe a bit arrogant. Crass is another adjective you could use to describe my younger, less polished self. So, when I told them, in no uncertain terms, that they could go f*%$ themselves, I obviously made no friends with Union leadership or with many of the “old guard” teachers in the school.
I liked my interactions with students and had a true passion for coaching, often working 60-plus hours a week scouting, planning, practicing, and studying the game of basketball.
Despite all of this, it was still a job–a great job, but a job nonetheless. I still got a pit in my stomach late in August and still got giddy with the thought of what is considered by many educators and students alike as the ultimate pinnacle of happiness …..the snow day!
The next step in my career was as an Athletic Director and Assistant Principal. I remember–and I am embarrassed to say–that I was most excited about getting my very own office! I couldn’t wait to see it after I was hired.
On my first visit to the school I met my boss, the Principal, Paul, who turned out to be one of the most intelligent, moralistic, and talented administrators or people that I had ever met. He gave me the rundown of the school, the position, and a little bit about what to expect. I didn’t really comprehend too much of what he was telling me, in part because I couldn’t wait to see my office, but mostly because I had no idea what the heck I was doing as a first time administrator.
Finally, we got to the part I was waiting for. He started by saying, “At one time your office was the Superintendent’s office.”
I couldn’t contain my smile! This is going to be amazing. My imagination ran as I pictured a beautiful space complete with windows, shelves, and a beautiful desk.
We walked into my shoebox–I mean office– and I immediately noticed the timeless dark wood paneling and popcorn ceiling. He must have noticed my face because he said, “well, it was a bit bigger before they split it into two offices. The psychologist is on the other side of that wall.”
One positive was that I had my very own bathroom! That’s when Paul broke the news that it was technically my bathroom, but, actually, the main office staff used it as a faculty bathroom as well.
This wasn’t as bad as the community copy machine that was stationed in my office–not by my office, but in my office. On days that the main copy machine was broken it didn’t matter what time I arrived to work; there was a line snaking from my office through the main hallway.
This is exactly what you want to see at 7:00 AM: teachers jockeying for position on the copy machine, grinning and expecting praise for arriving to work early so they can make more packets of rote work for students to complete.
This may, in part, explain my ongoing disdain for worksheets.
I have become more polished in my approach over the years. Back then I would say things like “how many worksheets are you going to give them?” Or, “can’t you find anything more meaningful to do?”
Now I can be heard saying, “I love how teacher X is having students answer questions such as the most important concept we learned in class today was….rather than assigning worksheets for HW…I think they said they got that strategy from you.”
To which, Mr. Worksheet inevitably replies, “yes, yes I have done that.” I then pour on the praise and subliminally give a few more strategies I have heard they were doing.
I found the latter approach to have a much better effect on improving instruction and relationships as well. My wife refers this as the Jedi Mind Trick strategy. This was one of many strategies I cultivated in my time in that position.
Again I learned, made excellent friends, and would like to think I had a positive effect on the school and, most importantly, the students. Despite all of this, once again, I viewed it as a job and a stepping stone to the next position along the career path.
That next position turned out to be a position in my current District, a more diverse and much larger educational establishment. It didn’t take long for me to feel at home here. North Rockland is a place that really gets the relationship part of education and community. Our Superintendent can often be heard saying, “no one wants to get sick or face adversity, but if it is going to happen, there is no better place for it to happen then North Rockland.”
This is certainly true and true because of the type of leader she is. She puts kids and people first and knows how to prioritize what is important. I can go on and on about her excellence, but that will be for a future blog post.
In my time at North Rockland I was Middle School Principal at a time when we had three Middle Schools, Middle School Principal when we consolidated the schools, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and, now, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services. There was a period of time when I changed offices four times in five years!
If the me of 15 years ago could see the office I have now!
I love my office, which has a large table, plenty of bright windows that let my collection of plants prosper, and, my favorite part, a back room that has a full library.
Yet, as much as I love my office, it is not all that important to me anymore. The work has become my ultimate goal; helping kids has become my ultimate priority. Changing school for the better has become my ultimate mission.
So, I continue to go back and try to analyze the question, “what changed?”
Finding A New Routine
North Rockland has been an amazing ride for the past 11 years. I have learned from so many great people, made a difference for kids and staff, and have a great work life.
It hasn’t been until the last year and a half when I realized that I stopped worrying about offices, promotions, and prestige. My ultimate “Why” changed from moving up the educational ladder to making schools better for kids.
I have reflected and searched for the answer and have come up with five changes that have made a world of difference for me and my work. Those changes were simple, but took a bit of habit forming steps that has not only made my work more enjoyable, but, I believe, better at what I do.
The first, and I feel the most important change, was my commitment to meditation. Each morning I listen to Alex from the Headspace APP take me through a 10 minute guided meditation exercise.
It is easy to be embarrassed by meditation; it can seem weird, or even weak. That is until you realize that the most successful people in the world take time to mediate. From Oprah, to Michael, from Kobe to Barrack, business leaders, athletes, actors and actresses. If you don’t believe me look it up. The list will amaze you. The hardest part is to just get started and make it a habit. It gets easier and the benefits increase every day.
The second was to complete a gratitude journal every day after I read a passage from the Daily Stoic. Tim Ferriss is an author who I have started to get more serious about reading and listening to. This is where I discovered Ryan Holiday, another author I highly recommend and the author of The Daily Stoic. I complete this ritual every morning right after eating an egg white omelette. It takes five minutes to complete and is, without a doubt, worth the investment of time.
The third change is a priorities list. Right after completing the gratitude journal, I list one priority for the day in each of the following areas:
I put tasks that are the number one goal in each of those areas for that particular day and limit it to one. At work, it may be something like complete the planning for my administrator retreat or be friendly and engaging at the Honor Roll Breakfast. It helps me to understand what is most important for that day.
What I have found is, once I complete my one task, I am more likely to be more productive and procrastinate less.
The fourth change is a bit different. Some of it comes from Covey; I call it task timer. I use a timer from my phone, Alexa, or my computer to designate 10-15 minutes to a particular objective I have.
I try to keep it to that short amount of time to avoid my adult ADD from kicking in. I started using it for professional reading. I sometimes put in my priority list to read or learn and found I struggled with staying focused, staying off my phone, email or the other thousands of distractions that challenge us in today’s technologically advanced society.
What I do now is commit to 15 minutes of professional reading a night and set my timer. It lets my “monkey mind” stay focused and stay present. It is easier to realize that for the next 15 minutes this is what I am supposed to be doing rather than my mind running wild with everything else I should be doing.
I find when I do this I often find myself reading more and for better understanding. By staying committed to just 15 minutes a night one could read 15-20 professional books a year.
I had so much success with this strategy for reading I have taken it to other work and home tasks. I find it easy to get started on a project I may be putting off if I trick myself by saying I am going to work on it for 15 minutes, which often turns into much more time than that committed to the task. It is so true when the all knowing “they” say the hardest part is to get started.
The 5th change was my afternoon break. I was finding that I was coming home from work with my mind racing at a million miles per hour. This was not the mindset I wanted to have or that my family needed from me. I decided to take 10 minutes for me and, in turn, time for my family so I could be a better dad and husband.
It starts with push ups (I started at 10 and now am up to 75). I then take two minutes of silent meditation. Then I set the timer to six minutes and read a book with a positive message. Some favorites have been Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” “Love Does” by Bob Goff and “What I know for Sure” by Oprah Winfrey.
What I know for sure is that I am becoming a better person, a better advocate for students, and a better family man. I am sure a lot of this has to do with having a wife who is an incredible person and who makes me want to be better every day. It also has to do with having a boss who I can look up to and inspire to be more like.
I am sure that getting older and all of my experiences has contributed to my improvement. I am also sure that I am lucky to have met and worked with so many great people who have helped me to grow.
And, there is no doubt that my commitment to my routine has made a huge impact on my improvement, with a minimal time investment:
10 minutes- Meditation
2 minutes- Priorities list
15 minutes- Profesional reading (or other task timer exercises)
10 minutes- Afternoon break
That’s a total of 42 minutes a day (for those that struggle with math), one class period in a traditional secondary school. The payoff has been great and can be great for anyone.
The challenge I face is to keep getting better. What I have explained is that I have grown, gotten better, gotten kinder, gotten more mindful. What I failed to mention is a still have so far to go!
I recently mentioned to someone that I meditated and they said to a mutual friend “Kris meditates? He doesn’t seem like the type he is so intense.”
That was a bit of a deflation, but I put it in perspective and replied, “imagine how crazy I would be if I didn’t!”
We all have good days and bad days, struggle to live life to the fullest, and want to be happy. If we can get a little better each day and stop racing to the finish line, I believe we will all be better off.
I hope you can use some of the rituals I mentioned to help you to grow in your quest to improve. I know they have helped me.
But, if I am being completely honest, I really do love my freaking office!