Teaching Tip: Fire Management

I’ve been trying to put together a teaching tip for the past two weeks, but every time I think I might have time to do it, I get interrupted.  Students who need help, faculty who have a great idea to share, friends and family with important news.  How am I supposed to focus with all these interruptions?  And “just say no” is not an option – these are all GOOD interruptions; I want to be involved with all these things and people.  While searching through my emails for inspiration, I came across this Tom Robbins quote in an article by productivity guru David Allen:   “True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced. A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.”  Wow, doesn’t that sound like an awesome state of being?  Allen offers up the fire department as an example of an organization that by its very nature has to achieve this kind of stability, since it must maintain order and organization but be able to drop everything immediately to perform its most important duty.   I think faculty are more like park rangers dealing with forest fires – a controlled burn is healthy for the ecosystem while both raging forest fires and complete fire suppression turn out to be unhealthy.

So, I’ve been trying to think about how we can maintain that true stability Robbins describes, or at least get closer to it.  In my personal quest, I’ve experimented with just about every type of productivity enhancing gimmick and gizmo out there.  Some work for me, some others may work for you.  If you want some specific ideas, I’m happy to share them.  But mostly what I come back to is an attitude adjustment – this IS our work.  Our job is to help students grow and develop as learners and as people.  We are the park rangers; balance is what we do.

So what are some ways that we can balance more effectively? In the classroom I find that pre-planning course activities very thoroughly and having backups for the times when the technology fails or an activity bombs gives me the confidence to try something new that might not work.  I know if the fire gets out of control, I have resources to bring it back under control.   But if I get too attached to my plan or my syllabus, then I don’t take advantage of those learning opportunities that arise unexpectedly, no spark gets lit, and my class becomes rigid, dull and overgrown with weeds.  Stopping, asking questions, listening closely to students and reading their nonverbal behaviors can tell you if they are lighting up or not.

Outside of class, maintaining a good balance between order and disorder for me means trying to find technology that makes my life easier, like using Gmail labels and stars, saving files in Dropbox so I can access them from anywhere, and using an online to do list (I use Toodledo, despite the stupid name).  It’s doing a regular “mind dump” of every single thing I am supposed to be working on and then identifying what actions need to be taken when.  It’s building in Friday afternoon reflection time to tie up the loose ends, update the list for next week, and then allowing myself some down time.  We all have different ways of maintaining balance. Some people only check their email at certain times each day.  Others prepare a week’s worth of food on the weekend and live on the leftovers.  None of these strategies always works but at least we’re acknowledging the issue and trying to figure it out.  The important part again, is not getting so rigidly organized that your life goes up in flames when a student or a colleague or a family member suddenly needs more time than you expected.  If you have systems in place, you can quickly figure out what’s most important and bookmark the rest so you can get back to it when the crisis is over.   And you can share your strategies with your students too, as you help them figure out how to structure and prepare for your course.

Sometimes though, the fire just gets out of control.  Then we often ignore, rationalize and intellectualize the situation to avoid that anxious feeling of being overwhelmed.  When students do this, we shake our heads in disbelief.  How could they not have anticipated this problem?  Didn’t they see the smoke? Then we go and do the same.   But most of them have a lot less life experience than most of us do, so why do we expect that they will know what to do?  What helps you when you’re in an overload situation?  Could that same strategy help your students?

So how is this post a “teaching tip”?  Good question.  As I write I think the message I’m getting from that big teaching tip generator in the sky is that we should have more compassion for ourselves AND our students as we juggle the demands of 21st century living.  Faculty and students alike try, succeed for awhile, get behind and then have to recover.  We hope it’s an upward spiral but it’s certainly a lifelong learning process. Could it be that one of the most important things we need to help our students learn is how to balance order and disorder in their lives? Especially for freshmen, helping students develop better life management skills is critical if they are to succeed in their classes, at the University and for life.  Some people will undoubtedly think that this should not be our problem.  Students should have learned this already, they shouldn’t need us to “hold their hands” or teach them things we learned on their own.  All I can say is – our students are where they are.  If this is what will help them learn more effectively, that’s what they need.  We have to deal with the fire in front of us, not the well-tended garden we think we ought to have.

According to Allen, “your ability to deal with surprise, elegantly and proactively, is your personal and organizational competitive edge. You just need to ensure that your systems can keep things under control from any angle, with appropriate distinctions between what’s movable and what’s not. Then turning on a dime is an effortless spin instead of a clumsy crash and burn.”

How did you develop life management skills yourself?  How can we help students develop theirs?