Recently, I was sitting with a group of teachers, talking about how 2021 was more difficult than 2020. This seemed ironic to me. I would've thought 2021 would be an improvement: we had made great strides in online and hybrid pedagogy.

But things were different in 2020.

When we went online in March 2020, things were new, and we extended a great deal of grace to our students, to each other, and, perhaps most importantly, to ourselves. Over the course of the next 18 months, however, all of that grace dissipated until we were left with this odd feeling that we somehow weren’t doing enough.

As I reflected on this conversation, I realized that the expectations put upon teachers has ballooned in these last couple of years, such that we are now expected to solve the world’s ills and, if we can’t, then we must be to blame for them. At least, this is how it feels. I’m not, by the way, saying this literally. I know that would be irrational. I’m just speaking to how it feels to be a teacher these days. To show up in your classroom is, it seems, an act of defiance against an increasingly polarized world. Teachers are expected to be unbiased harbingers of knowledge and skills, devoid of political opinions and ethical systems more nuanced than “do no harm” or "present both sides."

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Tressie McMillan Cottom writes about how we are all expected to be "experts" on everything now. She writes:

When Covid hit, we were knee-deep in spoofed phone numbers slamming our cellphones about fake car warranties. We were wading through emails trying to steal our identities. We were triangulating Yelp reviews and Consumer Reports summaries with testimonials and marketing research just to buy a new mattress or an air fryer. We were checking out our own purchases at the grocery store and waiting on hold to replace the credit card that got hacked for the umpteenth time…And when we complained — to a manager, to a clerk, to our spouses, to the internet — someone was all too glad to tell us how we could have prevented all of this if we had just become an expert in everything.

It is no wonder that so many of us think that we can parse vaccine trial data, compare personal protective equipment, write school policy and call career scientists idiots on Facebook. We are know-it-alls because we are responsible for knowing everything.

While Cottom is writing about scams and how we're expected to know everything to avoid scams, I feel like this know-it-all ethos definitely pertains to the field of education. I’m expected not only to be an expert in my field but also a counselor, confidante, a player in office politics, expert on both foreign and domestic policy, a guru when it comes to understanding how state laws are enacted in education. I’m expected to know everything and to comport myself in public in a manner worthy of a saint. least...this is how it feels...

To be a teacher in 2022 feels like a graceless situation in which mistakes aren’t welcome, stumbles are vilified, and the proverbial skinning of one’s knee feels akin to catastrophe.

Amid all of this, I’ve been reading Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. If you’re looking for a dry, British, philosophical take on time and being, well, Burkeman’s your guy. Currently, I’m putting it up there with James Clear’s Atomic Habits and Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection as, potentially, the most thoughtful and influential books of my adult life.

Want to stare time in the face and really understand what it's about? Four Thousand Weeks has you covered!

Burkeman begins with a simple premise: we have about four thousand weeks to live. What should we do with them? He then plays a kind of statistical game where he makes some really important points:

  1. Every time we choose to do something, we should recognize that we are doing that thing in exclusion of all other possibilities. Therefore, though we are having this experience, we might recognize there are an infinite number of experiences we are not having. Why does this matter? Well, if you realize that most of what the universe has to offer will never come into your realm of experience, then you might stop worrying so much about how you spend your time. You might just start enjoying the experiences that you do have.
  2. We will never run out of tasks to complete and goals to accomplish. Therefore, we should identify the most important things we’d like to accomplish and go all-in on those.

A propos this conversation about teaching in the pandemic, I feel like Burkeman’s thoughts about time and being are particularly salient. Teachers cannot be all things to all people. No individual human can meet the demands or the needs of every child who comes into their orbit.

Therefore, we must choose…

What are the three or four things that are most essential to you as a teacher? What do you see as the three or four areas that you can best meet demand? What are those areas where you believe your work to be meaningful? Where do you think you’re really making a difference?

Identify those and concentrate on them.

I did this exercise for myself, and here’s what I came up with:

  • Helping students to see that they can translate their complex ideas into language.
  • Providing students a model for a life built around service rather than financial gain.
  • Helping students to see that the world is much larger than the place they frequent.
  • Creating an open space for students and colleagues to try out new ideas without judgment.

This is a lovely list, at least for me. It spells out what I enjoy about teaching. I enjoy seeing students craft a beautiful sentence; I enjoy helping students understand that money isn’t everything and that the world is much larger than what they’ve seen thus far; I enjoy sitting with students and colleagues and dreaming up new ideas.

You’ll note, however, that this list does not encompass some common bugaboos of modern teaching life. I’ve got nothing on here about:

  • manufacturing grades
  • enforcing dress code
  • telling students to put their masks back on
  • answering emails
  • etc.

Does this mean I shouldn’t do these things? Well, no, not exactly. Here’s what it does mean: those should not get in the way of the more important list above. If I’m distracted from my strengths as a teacher because I’m answering emails, well, it stands to reason that I shouldn’t answer emails. (And, really, what’s the worst that could happen if I fail to respond to an email or two?) If I’m distracted from my strengths as a teacher because I’m manufacturing grades, maybe I should figure out a new system (e.g., put feedback on papers — a practice I value — while not assigning them a grade).

Yes, yes, yes, I know we all work in different schools with different policies. I’ve worked in places, for example, that had an email expectation: email would be answered within 24 hours. But are these ballooning expectations really distracting you from your best work? I’d wager that they are.

Therefore, craft for yourself a list of what you deem most important, most life-giving, most world-changing as an educator. Do that work FIRST.

If there’s any time left over (and there probably won’t be…), then you can answer those emails.

For more on Four Thousand Weeks, a really excellent read, I highly recommend Krista Tippet's interview with Burkeman. What a delight!

Oliver Burkeman – Time Management for Mortals
The journalist invites us into a new relationship with time, technology, the power of limits — and thus with our mortality and life itself.
If your supervisor asks you why you aren't answering email, just send this link.