Normally I find inspirational quotes corny, especially when they’re posted on walls. We in education are the worst offenders, specifically raising the sorts of dead-serious, soul-crushing mantras that make you want to duck out of fourth period Life Science to go vomit:
- “Shoot for the Stars!”
- “Hard Work + Determination = The Road to Success!”
The most cringe-worthy I ever saw was:
- “The Elevator to Success is broken. You’ll have to take the stairs — one step at a time.”
This was back in Washington, D.C. — home of a remarkably dysfunctional school system — and I always imagined the poster should read:
- “Unfortunately this is the D.C. Public School system — the stairs are also broken. We regret to inform you that there is *no* route to success at the present time. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
But years ago, I did see a poster in someone’s house that I actually liked. Perhaps its subtle mockery of the whole saccharine-sweet genre appealed to me. Or maybe it just made sense:
- “Follow your dreams; be organized.”
Now I always had a handle on the first part of the quote. Follow your dreams — much easier than trying to follow someone else’s, I’ve found. But I was never much good at the “be organized part” until a few years ago, when I became what I like to call “a veteran teacher.” By that I mean “someone who is no longer having chalk and / or pencil sharpeners thrown at him” — or “who has at least learned how to duck effectively.” I am joking! But while I was staggering through those first few years in the classroom, wondering “is it too late to go into something more relaxing — like maybe shark tank cleaning?” — I was starting to understand the importance of being organized. It was a really important revelation for me as a young teacher, right up there with “don’t ever argue with an eighth grader,” or “middle school lunch duty causes something important inside you to break,” or “also you should probably never argue with anyone whose developmental state involves dating a girl who is not aware that you are dating.” Learning about the importance of being organized was a milestone in my life, which is why it’s too bad that I’ve now taken it too far.
But let me back up. First of all, the fact that I’d ever become organized in the first place was an outrageous long shot, along the lines of Donald Trump winning the presidency despite doing a better job trying to shoot himself in the foot than anyone since Plaxico Burress.
For most of my life I was an unrepentant slob. I had the sort of room that people would walk into and say, “You don’t have a girlfriend, do you?” In my early twenties I rented a house with three other kayakers. The upstairs bathroom, which I shared with my friend Jack, was particularly vile, largely stemming from how often we took notice (“once in a while”) and from our rigorous cleaning schedule (“once in a never“). At one point during this era I specifically recall visiting the bathrooms at both Mad River Glen and Fenway Park and thinking to myself, “I don’t see what the fuss is. These are fine.”
Then there was my car: a singular mix of snack debris, wet kayaking gear, and the type of odors that cause murderous hitchhikers to say, “You know what? I’ll wait for next car, thanks.” Of course the people who rode in my car the most — other kayakers — didn’t care a whit. All they cared about was getting a ride back to the put in so they could hop in their own car — which probably made mine smell like new floral arrangements.
Right around when I traded the paddle for the red pen and started teaching — and started dating women whose main aspiration did not include getting a drysuit sponsor — I visited a place I had never been to before. It was called the car wash. They had a vacuum that you could use to slurp up the cracker crumbs that were older than Strom Thurmond residing in your seat cushions. I also began to realize certain truths — little things like:
“If you don’t leave decaying river booties in your car, there won’t always be a three-space vacancy on either side in the parking lot.”
It was a heady time.
And you know what else helped me start to quite literally “clean up” my act? A book! I’ve always been a reader, dating back to the time before I could actually read, but would just pretend (I believe I read all about Ronald Reagan’s thumping of Walter Mondale in this fashion). Now you’d think it was a book about being organized that finally changed me. Something like:
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
- She’s Just Not That Into You (or Your Smelly Car)
- Trash, Recycling, or Compost? Who Gives a Shit, Just Throw It Away!
But it wasn’t! My metamorphosis came not from Good Housekeeping, but from good writing: the classic American guide to crafting a sentence — Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
How? Think about the book’s most famous wisdom: “Omit needless words,” which I’d been chanting to myself since high school. Long before I’d begun tossing unneeded socks, I’d been tossing unneeded words — an enthusiastic (if not always observant) trimmer of tangled sentences. E.B. White’s advice came easily to me; somewhere deep down I love getting rid of stuff. If I’d been a different sort of man, I might have been one of those Donald Trump- or Michelle-Rhee-like bosses whose idea of a fun time is to get drunk and lay off whole floors of his workforce. I always had little trouble throwing stuff out. There went the old pair of shoes, there went the threadbare hat, there went the “philosopher jacket” (as my friends called it because I’d worn it so broodingly around campus) that had enveloped me during a decade of my most formidable memories, now more duct tape than coat. If it hadn’t been used in a year, I’d do what I’d always done with extra nouns and verbs: toss it. Paring a thing to its essentials — a written essay, a company, or perhaps even a clothes closet — had always seemed both clarifying and liberating. That which fails to weigh us down makes us only stronger. I never had trouble unburdening myself once I got around to it. Trouble was, I rarely did.
The change happened slowly. What I know is this: it was motivated by fear. Fear at first that I would lose my class’s attention if I wasn’t well planned, and never get it back. Then a fear that if I did not plan out my classes carefully, my students would depart into the world with the literacy skills of adolescent water buffalo.
At first this fear burned itself off in fanatically detailed lesson plans, the type of things that are planned out to the minute. I’d even write it all out on the overhead PowerPoint in comically didactic steps:
- “Next you will pick up the pencil with your right hand . . . ”
- “You will hold it between your thumb and forefinger . . .”
- “You will resist the urge to throw spitballs at the new kid . . . ”
It got so bad that my coworkers were teasing me. They asked me if I wrote out minute-by-minute schedules like that for my wife at home. Of course not, I assured them, the schedules I write for her are only hourly. (“12 pm: get indignant about husband’s blog post.”)
Soon I began whipping the physical space of the classroom itself into organized shape. Again, it was fear: on a paper-strewn desk I’d all-too-easily misplace my plans, leading to horrifying dead-air time, leading to the inevitable flurry of misbehaviors. My mental thought process went something like this: “If I don’t keep things straight around here, I’ll lose my plans. If I lose my plans, I won’t have anything for kids to do. And if I don’t have anything for kids to do . . . they might start SEXTING!”
At some point I looked around and realized I was more organized than not.
I wasn’t the only one. Public school teaching is a humbling profession, and I began to look around in meetings to see that I wasn’t the only one fondling his planner like a beloved stuffed animal. There are plenty of teachers who swagger in and spend Year 1 trying to “go with the flow,” or “following where the students lead.” Those teachers usually spend Year 2 applying to law schools. Being up against 100 adolescents every day makes even the most ardent improviser look for a nice, wide, well-marked path to follow.
But it wasn’t until maybe a year ago that I took things a little too far. By then I had things humming. Work was methodically collected, shunted off into labeled folders, graded and entered into the gradebook according to a set priority during set times, and distributed back to the student, all with mechanical precision. Worksheets were printed a day ahead of time, organized in a special place, distributed, then any extras saved according to a strict “Noah’s Arc” policy: keep two of each kind, then send the rest to the bottom of the bin. Student absences — the bane of any organized teacher’s existence — were hardly an issue. If a student missed a quiz, his name was immediately slapped on a blank copy in hard, red ink and shuttled off to a special place where he knew to pick it up on his return. Late assignments were accepted within a week and no longer. In time I put all assignments on Google Classroom for absent students to make up. After a time, it was like clockwork.
Even my time was brutally organized. Where once I’d lounged around with my feet up, drinking coffee and talking to students who wandered in, now if anyone came into my room in the breaks between classes, or even during lunchtime or after school, I’d look at him like I were a highly efficient Swiss rail conductor and he a herd of cattle that had stopped on the tracks. I suddenly realized that I was becoming too organized.
The problem is, being too organized can turn you to stone, can cause you to look askance at real, live human interaction — so unpredictable and noisy compared the surgical precision of a well-executed teaching plan. Instead of pausing to linger in the doorway to talk with students about the Warriors, about their driver’s tests, or about how their older brother was doing in college, I was busy routing their homework into the appropriate bin, or goading them to find their seats so we wouldn’t waste time. During free periods students would wander in — ostensibly to ask about the details of some assignment, but really because they wanted attention, wanted to be heard by another human being. Yes, I wasn’t bringing home extra work on the weekends, but was I missing out something better — the kind of beautiful, unscripted moments with children that inspired me to teach in the first place?
So that’s why I’ve been trying to scale it back this year. I’ve told myself: there’s no need to have *every* minute planned. Because human beings are messy, and sometimes what you really need to adapt to this is a kind of studied messiness. It’s good to have a plan, but just like in whitewater paddling, you have to be prepared to amend that plan. I’m not talking about going back to winging it like I did my first year. I’m talking about an even deeper, more audacious kind of organization: planning things out so well that you’ve built in some time to be bothered — some time to react to life as it comes at you in all of its wonderfully unpredictable swells. Time for people, time for listening, and, yes, a time for going with the flow.
The unplanned stuff — that should all be part of your plan.