A simple test for your teaching priorities

“Show me your to-do list, and I’ll show you your loved ones.”  No, Ben Franklin never said this.  It’s probably too clunky to spread.  But as school starts and teaching begins, this idea resonates with me.

To better understand my point, I invite you to do the following:

Draw a line down a piece of paper.  On the left, list your priorities.  On the right, list the activities you choose to do everyday.  (I emphasize choice, thinking that people may not prioritize their job, but they prioritize the life that it allows them, and the family that the job helps to feed.)

On the left, I list loved ones, health, and teaching.  On the right, I list talking with my wife, sleeping, eating 3-4 meals, meditating, working, commuting, and reading.  Looking further, I notice other daily patterns: eating lunch distracted, often while reading online, checking social media or websites too frequently, allowing my mind to wander as I talk to people.  Everything else varies from day to day.  Whether I like it or not, this is the truth.

Here, I remember David Foster Wallace’s words about alcoholics who struggled with concepts like “one day a time.” He eloquently wrote, “it starts to turn out that the more vapid the cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.”

This simple exercise is both disappointing and empowering.   The power comes through recognizing behaviors that have become habitual, and changing them so they align with your priorities.  The changes need not be drastic, just small and consistent.

Teachers: does this sound at all familiar? A battle between the ideas you believe in, and the truth of your daily lessons?


This post is a reminder to me to stay aware of my teaching habits, and align them with practices that I know work best.

It’s easy to let distractions cloud teaching and planning.  There’s a lot to do–or dare I say “cover”–and shortcuts and rushing sometimes creep in.  But just as with my overall priorities, my classroom priorities each deserve one thing–time.

Each of the following is a habit that I remind myself to make time for this year:

  • Listening: Pausing and waiting after asking a question shows students that deep thinking, and giving everyone a chance to formulate an idea, is important.
  • Writing Beside Them: I allude to Penny Kittle here: taking time to write with and in front of students.
  • Sharing: After writing, asking students to share in small groups or with the whole class, modeling intent listening by reporting back the details heard.  This shows students that sharing writing is not just a time-filler but a way to learn from each other.
  • Re-doing, rewinding, repeating: Spending time with a grammar or writing concept, then revisiting the same rule or skill several times throughout the year shows students that curriculum is not just for coverage, but for understanding and practical use.
  • Time (yea I said it, I’m making time for time) Sometimes students should practice reading or writing without me conferencing or interrupting them.  This shows students the connection between my class and sports–no one improves if the coach blows the whistle too often.  Thanks to Kelly Gallagher for this analogy.
  • Talk: Asking students to talk to each other in a variety of formal and informal situations nearly everyday, about a specific question, an opinion, or simply to explain their accomplishments for the day.  This shows that talking is a way to reinforce, remember, and figure out what’s important.
  • Expectations: Giving students a lot of class time to work on big projects, then holding students to high expectations for those projects.  This shows the big idea I’ve been talking about throughout this post–the more time given to something, the more important it is.

Many of these items appear consistently in my teaching, and some should appear more.  Throughout the year, I’d like to stop and ask myself to compare what I believe is most important to what students did yesterday, and what they’ll do tomorrow.

What do you make time for in your classroom and your life?  Let me know below in the comments or at Gerard.Dawson1@gmail.com.

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