Trying to Do Everything

Wednesdays bring a special school schedule for us, with slightly shortened classes and a 40-minute time slot that’s referred to as “seminar period” or “activity period” or “advisory period.”  Back In The Day, it was used for school-wide Socratic Seminars about a common text or for intramural athletic activities (often silly ones) in which everyone was expected to participate.  But times change, and priorities change, and Powers That Be change, too.  The current approach involves student-selected “activities” one week, some kind of presentation another week, and advisory-group meetings from time to time.

Back when the advisory-group meetings were new, the Relevant Powers saw them as a panacea to avoid calling kids out of class for various types of meetings.  “There’s usually something once a month that needs to be distributed,” One Power Said, “so we can just distribute it then.”  But times change, and priorities change, and Powers That Be change, too.  And it’s often easier to call kids out of class today than to wait until Wednesday and figure out the logistics.  Ms. X and Mr. Y will moan and complain, but they’d do that anyway.  And when you’re trying to do everything, it’s hard to please everybody.

That phrase, trying to do everything, got stuck in my mind somehow on Wednesday.  Maybe it was the frantic last-minute phone call from Ms. X, who had suddenly discovered a “problem” with “her grades” for the reporting period just ended.  Maybe it was the call from a friend who’d done a particularly complex set of logistical tasks for Somebody, only to discover at the last minute that Somebody might be making other plans.  Maybe it was a lingering effect of my Tuesday afternoon headache.  Or maybe it was the frustration and confusion I could see on several students’ faces and hear in their voices.  Trying to do everything is an exercise in frustration, and not just for the person who’s doing the trying.

I’m sure that someone, somewhere, has the Big Picture of how all the Wednesday programs connect with each other and with the overall goals of the school.  Unfortunately, that person is so busy trying to do everything that the big picture isn’t communicated to anybody else.  For Ms. X, Mr. Y, and many students, that makes Wednesdays a confusing time.  “Do we go to advisory or to our activities?” asked B and B during the passing time right before the “activity period” yesterday.  “We didn’t understand the announcement.”  And B and B are intelligent seniors with leadership positions in several student organizations.  “Oh,” I said, “this is an activity day.  It was on the school calendar for faculty, but apparently it wasn’t very clear.”  Ms. X and Mr. Y had probably asked each other the same question earlier, but I wasn’t around for that.

Wednesday wasn’t a bad day for the Latin Family, but it definitely was a day when you could feel the stress and concern levels rising.  Report cards for the first marking period of the new semester go home today, and there are drop-in parent-teacher conferences this afternoon.  J, who had been sick for several days, was back, but she was clearly almost overwhelmed with the pile of make-up work Ms. X and Mr. Y had given her.  N, T, and U were loud and distracted, so distracted that they reverted to their old pattern of starting a conversation or asking a question when somebody else was in mid-syllable with something else.  “Are we going to go over this assignment?” asked N about a seemingly-simple, but really quite complex activity where you match the Roman virtūtēs with imperfect and overlapping descriptions: there are multiple right answers, and she was puzzled by that.  “Oh, good, I’ll just put something!” she half-whispered, half-shouted.  Poor N is still confused about process and outcomes, but that’s understandable when you’re trying to do everything.

And trying to do everything just has to be connected with perfectionism and micromanagement, I realize.  They’re all natural responses when you feel out of control and overwhelmed, as Ms. X and Mr. Y so often do.  And maybe that’s why More Than One Ms. X and Mr. Y waited till the last possible minute to finalize first-quarter grades and check their grade setup, and why word about the traditional catered meal for faculty in the early afternoon of parent-teacher conference day didn’t come until midday on Wednesday.  Procrastination is often a manifestation of perfectionism, isn’t it?  If you put it off and do it at the last minute, then the imperfection can be blamed on “not enough time” and “too much to cover.”  And you can even (try to) make other people share your frantic feelings sometimes.

Maybe that’s why trying to do everything, or mission creep, seems to be endemic in large, hierarchical organizations!  And maybe that’s why it’s so hard to build and sustain joyful learning communities, where the priorities are very different.  Yes, once such a community forms, it’s strong and long-lasting, but it’s so different from the mental picture you get when you think organization or businesswork or school.  There are new habits to learn, old habits to unlearn, and constant vigilance to maintain.  But when you discover how liberating it is not to try to do everything, it’s hard to imagine returning to that factory-mindset!

I wonder what new discoveries and insights await us all today.

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Published in: on March 6, 2014 at 11:40 am  Leave a Comment  

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