Business or Busy-ness

I didn’t post in the month of May. Ironically, last month marked the one month anniversary of this blog. I should probably feel a certain way about that, but I don’t. Over the last year, I have learned to trust the ebb and flow of my energy more. Sometimes I have a lot to give to a particular area of my life, and sometimes I don’t. Forcing it never made anything better. 

I am DEEP into these rest practices, ya’ll, and I have never felt more whole. 

Now that I am vaccinated all sorts of things feel like a possibility again. Except being too busy. Before the pandemic my personal and professional lives felt very chaotic. Things looked pretty good on the outside, but all of the scheduling and details and logistics were making my mind a messy place to live. A gift of the stay-at-home orders was a hard reset. At work, I was over involved in committees and initiatives and projects and professional development. If there was a pot lying around my hand was in it! My to-do list was never ending, and I always felt like I needed to be working.  Even when it was late.  Even when it was the weekend. Even when I was exhausted.  I relaxed by doing way too much too! I ran all over town attending concerts and book talk and dinners and happy hours and networking events and conferences and work groups. I did not manage the resulting stress in healthy ways. I developed Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder. I tore my meniscus. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I am not sure any of this would have stopped.  

This pandemic has taught me that so much of the BUSY-ness of American life is self-imposed. And what does need our immediate attention – like climate change or global hunger or reparations or our health – rarely gets it. I can see now how much of the activity of the Before Times was just momentum or ambition or performance. Start running because everyone else is. Well, I don’t want to do that anymore.

It would be a mistake to just get back into the swing of things and business as usual. That swing often felt like a wild ride. In the After, I want to embrace the spaciousness of an unbusy schedule. The kind of schedule that allowed me to start this blog and dream of writing more. Time to rest. Time to think. Time to get bored. I want to be more discerning and more ready to decline. I recently told someone I was anti-urgency. As I watch people start to travel and dine out and BBQ again, as kids activities open back up, as birthday parties and weddings get scheduled, as we start to look towards the future again and plan, plan, plan,  I am reflecting on how to say “no” to busy-ness with zero guilt, thus honoring the joy that creating space brings.

How does this impact my students? Well for one, I am thinking about how to avoid assigning work that I am not actually interested in, that doesn’t relate to important projects or allow me to assess their growth. I am done with the busy work. You know, the stuff that was more about time management or “rigor” or honoring a relic of the past or another teacher’s interest. This year, we simply didn’t have time for it.  When we gain back instructional hours in the fall, I want to be super careful about what we do with the added time. How can there be more choice time and more exploration? If we start to go off on a intriguing tangent, I would love to be able to say, yes, there is time for that. If there is something urgent going on in the world, I would love to be able to give space for response.

I also no longer penalize work that is turned in late. If work shows up before my grades are due, I will usually give it full or almost full credit (sometimes there are extra points available for turning it in on time).  The truth is I rarely grade assignments the day they are due anyways. And kids are busy too! Teaching them to prioritize means allowing them to tell me that my essay simply isn’t as important as the national Latin exam or the math final or a big science project. As a grownup – I should be able to hear that. Of course, I also tell them that our next unit and more work is on the way. A natural consequence of letting things pile up is having several items to take care of instead of just one. For most kids, this is enough to stay on top of things. The ones who don’t do their work usually need further support in some capacity anyways, and they shouldn’t turn the work in until they have received it. Allowing students to experience organic deadlines has become an important part of building an intrinsically motivated classroom, which is my ultimate goal. Plus, when I say, hey I need that – they know I mean it. 

As we consider the ways in which a more normal version of school will return in the fall, I hope there are parts of this big life lesson that we will keep. For me, it is about the connection between time spaciousness and a mind that is more creative and at ease. As monk and Buddhist teacher Haemin Sunim says:

We know the world only through the window

 of our mind.

When our mind is noisy, the world is as well.

And when our mind is peaceful, the world is, too. 

Teaching Without Ego

What would it mean to

TEACH WITHOUT EGO?

Since returning from Lake Qinghai and the grasslands of Tibet. I have been contemplating this idea deeply, using it as a mantra to keep me grounded in a variety of scenarios.

Because, as a teacher, it’s amazing how often I bump into my ego.  Not to mention the egos of my colleagues.  The worst is when you encounter two egos in the hallway duking it out, however politely. You know it’s time to back away slowly.


What is “ego”?  It is a projection of the self, a self that is separate and different and special from the other selves in this world.  It is the source of identity and self esteem.  It is the driver of the question, “Who am I?”  Its importance is culturally constructed and particularly celebrated in modern America. 



It is also divisive and a barrier to compassion.  It is at the root of exclusion, indifference, and hate.  It breeds insecurity, fear, jealousy, and competition.   And as teachers,  it can be a detriment to our practice.

There are a good articles on this idea, from teachers of various disciplines:

“…the role of teacher is one in which you gain satisfaction through observing the learning of your pupils.”

But it’s hard.  Because don’t we teach who we are?  Don’t we need to guide [students] with a strong sense of self?”

The danger is this:

The ego can exist in two states – one, wherein it is aligned with the higher consciousness and the other, where it is not in alignment with this consciousness.
When the ego is aligned with the higher consciousness, there is just a quiet assertion of the individual self in a particular direction, which it knows intuitively is right for the fulfilment of its life purpose. This assertion is based on love and faith and leads to a harmonious state of goodwill and cooperation for the greater common good. When it is not aligned with the higher consciousness, the ego can really wreak havoc. It can misguide and misinterpret. Propelled by emotions based on fear and insecurity, it can cause action motivated by the desire for applause, attention, getting ahead of competition, reaching the finishing line first, proving one’s superiority over others, etc. Here, the ego is intensely conscious of the other and derives its identity in comparison with the other. The individual self asserts itself purely from the need to create a position of unassailability from which it cannot be dislodged.
When I joined my current school I entered into a team teaching situation that I greatly underestimated for its difficulty.  I have come to realize that 99% of any angst I feel at work can be traced back to my ego.  Desires to be recognized, respected, and right can be strong. Self-preservation seems sensible and competition seems healthy.  A twinge of resentment over a close relationship or individually achieved success seems normal. Suspicion of new colleagues and initiatives seems expected. Giving priority to the activities and topics I prefer seems logical. But when these emotional responses interfere with my ability to focus on what is best for my students and their learning, my ego is the one that needs to back down.  

In those moments I am learning not to fight, not to defend, not to protect, not to promote.  I am learning to let go.  When “I” am at the center of my practice, the world my students and I are creating together feels fragile and destabilized, tilted in the direction of a self-concerned perspective.  When my students are at the center of my practice, our world seems infinitely more solid.

In pursuing this idea, I meditate on these questions:

  • In what ways does my ego support  the development of my teaching practice?
  • In what ways does my ego impede the development of my teaching practice?
  • In what ways does my ego improve my relationships with students and colleagues?
  • In what ways does my ego make relationships with students and colleagues more difficult?
  • In what ways can I work with greater compassion?