• In Other Words

In Other Words: To-Do Lists—Your Best Friend or Worst Nightmare?

October 20, 2011
I love a good To-Do List. Most of the time, there is no better feeling than admiring my color-coded week and reveling in all that productivity. Just look at what I’m going to get done! It’s going to be amazing! I’m going to be amazing! Crossing items off my list is going to be amazing!

Usually, when I am feeling crazy and unbalanced, list making somehow calms my nerves and reassures me that everything will be okay, that it will all get done. (This last sentence implies that there are times when I am feeling balanced, which we all know is basically an impossible feat for a teacher save for perhaps the summer. But I think you get my point.) A good list gives me a clear plan and as a teacher, a clear plan is everything.

Friends, it pains me to type this next bit, but I have to admit it’s true. Lately, it feels as if my To-Do List has grown to such epic proportions that it has rendered me less effective and robbed me of the joy I used to feel in the classroom.

Is it just me, or did I hear gasps from the crowd? Yes, I think that was definitely a collective gasp.

As teachers, our plates are becoming so very full that they are more like troughs filled with responsibility, accountability and just-get-it-done-ability. Not only are we all pulling our hair out wondering how it is all going to get done, we are becoming robots. Programmed to make a dent in the Almighty To-Do List, I notice myself and others around me just getting through the day, unable to think about turning our classrooms into spaces filled with wonder, excitement, and joy.

Let’s use the read-aloud as our example. The read-aloud is what I consider to be one of the most important parts of the day. It’s what we all fantasized about when we were naïve education majors dreaming about our future classrooms. It’s what we all remember from our own days in the classroom. It’s pretty much one of the best parts of the day. And on more than one occasion, it has been my sanity.

Do I need to remind you how painful it can be to sit through a bad read-aloud? Just the other day, I listened to a teacher who was so determined to cross things off her list that it sounded like she was reading the instructions that come with a piece of DIY furniture rather than giving a rousing rendition of INTERRUPTING CHICKEN.

I watched as she encouraged the class to dig deeper! Turn and talk! Stop and jot! Chart your thinking! Mark that place with a Post-it! (Talk about an interrupting chicken.)

Despite her wonderful intentions and good instincts to actively engage her students, there wasn’t any joy left in that room. Not for the teacher and certainly not for the students. When I spoke to the teacher later, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said simply, “Sometimes it’s all just too much.”

It is too much. There is too much on the list. The list is no longer our friend. But we can’t throw the list away because that would be unprofessional and we are better than that. We are teachers! We walk into our classrooms every day ready to work it! We strut our educational stuff, don our superhero capes, and do more work in a day than most people can fathom.

I may be pretty fabulous, but I can’t wave my wand and give you five extra hours in the day, or supply you with enough caffeine to put down a horse. (Besides, you probably do just fine with that last part on your own.) But I can tell you what I’ve been doing.

When I choose a read-aloud, I pull from books that I love because they make me laugh, or make me cry or make me want to scream from all that juicy picture book goodness. I take that book and perform the living you-know-what out of it. I use voices, dramatic gestures, and facial expressions my mother tells me are going to give me serious wrinkles. I work that book until we all feel the joy.

Then, in the true spirit of the teacher-who-must-get-it-all-done-and-do-it-the-best-way-she-knows-how, I come back to that same book another day and mark it, turn and talk it, and dig deeper. I will make sure we cross things off that list and I will relish the moment that I do just that. But first, always first, I make sure we feel the joy.

I know some of you are shaking your heads right now and thinking, “Wow, Mrs. Mimi has finally cracked. What’s with all this joy talk? What’s next, hemp necklaces and patchouli?”

I haven’t lost it, friends. I’ve just decided that the joy of reading and learning and investigating together needs to trump everything else. Because, honestly, all that other stuff on your To-Do List isn’t really going to get done very well in a classroom that feels like a factory.

So go buy yourself some new list-making pens in a rainbow of colors that puts a smile on your face. (Admit it, a good pen makes every teacher smile.) Uncap your favorite color and put “Feel the Joy” at the top of your list.

Cross that off and then we’ll worry about everything else. Because we can do it all.

Mrs. Mimi is a pseudonymous teacher who taught both first and second grades at a public elementary school in New York City. She's the author of IT'S NOT ALL FLOWERS AND SAUSAGES: MY ADVENTURES IN SECOND GRADE, which sprung from her popular blog of the same name. Mimi also has her doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

© 2012 Mrs. Mimi. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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