Focus for a New Year

13moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

–Ecclesiastes 3:13

There seems to be more cynicism than usual about New Year’s Resolutions this year. Or perhaps I’m just paying more attention.  I have heard sermons and read articles and listened to radio interviews about how we will all keep our resolutions for a month and then feel guilty because we have let them go. 

Even Peter Bregman, the business efficiency expert, author of 18 Minutes, and definitely not a cynic, argues that “resolutions are set up for failure.” In this article, He argues that instead of setting goals, we should choose “areas of focus” for our lives.   He makes this distinction:

“A goal defines an outcome you want to achieve; an area of focus establishes activities you want to spend your time doing. A goal is a result; an area of focus is a path. A goal points to a future you intend to reach; an area of focus settles you into the present.”

I will admit to setting goals at the New Year.  Two years ago, I set the goal of reading 100 books. I read 95. Last year, I determined to purchase all of my clothing second-hand. With the exception of undergarments and two scarves, I did all of my shopping at Goodwill.  Neither of these “goals” was completed perfectly, but they did change me in some important ways, and the attempt created a sense of accomplishment.  I actually do pretty well with my goals; however, these goals are personal rather than professional. 

This year, 2013, I want to try Bregman’s advice.  Instead of setting a goal for my professional life, I have chosen an “area of focus.”  Anyone who works in education knows that goals are probably futile anyway.  As soon as I have determined that I will turn in all my lesson plans on time, the district will change the submission system.  As soon as I resolve to keep my web page updated, the web pages will change to some completely new online communication system. As soon as I resolve to grade 20 essays in a day, I will get called to two meetings and receive a parent phone call.  If there is any goal to be set in education, it’s to learn to create incredibly flexible goals. Or perhaps just shift to “areas of focus.”

The reading for New Year’s Day from the Revised Common Lectionary includes Ecclesiastes 3:13:

 13moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

So often I focus on productivity in my teaching: getting to school early, making to-do lists, organizing my day to accomplish tasks at certain times (difficult grading in the morning, easy grading while I eat lunch, photocopying for the next day during 7th period, answering e-mail after school, etc.)  But this year, I want to focus on taking pleasure in my toil.  Keeping in mind that productivity measures do keep me sane and thereby facilitate pleasure, how else can I focus on just enjoying my work?

Two days ago, I scored 120 timed essays. Yesterday, I scored 120 more.  I have about 90 literary analysis process essays to go right now for that class, 27 definition essays from a different class, and 14 fiction projects for my creative writing class. The semester ends in two weeks. In addition to the grading, I have meetings to attend and parents to contact, events that will ensure I cannot accomplish my grading while I am at work. 

Sounds like the makings of pleasure, doesn’t it?

External factors also create a definite lack of pleasure in teaching. Each year, the total number of students that I have continues to increase while politicians (and others who don’t teach) justify this trend by saying that there is no research to support the value of smaller class sizes.  The profession, like most public sector professions, is undervalued by American society while that same society scratches their heads at our low education rankings when compared to similar industrialized nations. 

In spite of these challenges, I love my work.  I really do. With the exception of hours spent grading papers, I am satisfied with the work I have chosen to do. 

An informal survey by Daniel Gulati indicated that the top career regret of a group of business professionals was that they regretted taking the job just for the money.  Because classroom teaching is not the most lucrative of careers, I admit to periodically reevaluating my career choice and considering higher paying options.  However, in all honesty, after this regularly scheduled soul searching, I cannot think of something that I would rather do than teach literature and writing to teenagers.  For real.

So this year, I will focus on taking more pleasure in my toil. I will attempt to take pleasure in the moments that give me joy: a conversation with a student after school, an insightful discussion comment, a paragraph full of uncanny wisdom from a 17-year-old, a satisfying lecture or presentation, and laughter, lots of laughter. (That’s a secret that many people don’t know about teenagers: they can be incredibly funny.)

I am blessed to work with some of the most talented, intelligent, compassionate people I have ever known.  I will enjoy the time I have with this amazing group of people who encourage, challenge, embolden, and entertain me daily. 

I don’t know what this will look like exactly, and I know that the stress will rear its head periodically.  With this as my area of focus for 2013, I can search for small ways to make my work more enjoyable and satisfying.  When I find these small niches of pleasure in my toil, I’ll be sure to share. 


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