“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
-Alexander Graham Bell
One of the greatest thieves that robs a teacher or home educator of being effective in the classroom or at home is a lack of focus.
You know what I mean. Have you ever had the starring role in any of these scenarios: You have those stack of papers that need to be graded or student essays that need to be read, but instead you check your email inbox to see if something important popped up that you need to take care of “right away?”
You have that parent you need to call back who has left you that nasty voice message, after report cards were sent home the day before, and you are just too busy today to call them back?
You have an IEP meeting tomorrow and you are still staring at a blank profile and goal pages?
You are homeschooling your children and you’d rather spend more time on that fun science lesson rather than do your daily lesson on fractions with little Suzie who Hates math?
Whether you can identify with one or more of the above scenarios or not, the truth is there are tasks we need to accomplish daily that we never appear to get to because we don’t want to do them. We always find that “good” excuse to procrastinate or do a task that we prefer, which is within the range of our comfort zone.
We just can’t seem to do that one thing that will take us from being ineffective to effective. That one thing is FOCUS!
Why is having the ability to focus so important? Basically, we can get more done in less time, which frees us up to pursue the things that are valuable in life. These significant areas include: spending time with family, helping others in need, and enjoying life.
Let’s face it, nothing brings more guilt into our lives than when we did not do the things we needed to do and could have done because we got sidetracked. Then, when you leave the classroom or finish up homeschooling for the day, you feel the weight of unfinished tasks being carried around with you.
Let’s be honest, it affects our sleeping patterns, relationships with our spouses and kids, and overall piece of mind.
On the other hand, when we learn to focus and to use its power in our lives, it will not only increase our teaching effectiveness, but every area of our lives.
As a special education teacher, working with K-8 students with learning disabilities, I have a lot of responsibilities to take care of during the course of a school day. I work individually and in small groups with my caseload of students in the regular education classroom, while writing extensive Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student. Then, meetings need to be held with the IEP team (parents, administrators, general education teachers, related service providers, etc).
These are basic responsibilities, not including time needed to plan lessons, attending other meetings, and any other surprises that always come up during the school day.
I’m not mentioning all this to complain, but just to impress upon you that as an educator there always appears to be more work and less time to complete the tasks that need to be done. So, what usually happens is we have to stay late after school, bring work home, or come in extremely early to get it all done effectively.
Don’t get me wrong, there are always times when putting in the extra time is necessary during specific times of the school year. However, if this is the norm, as it had become with me a few years back, then you are headed for burn-out. A distaste for your teaching practice will creep in, and that bitterness can spread like poison.
So, how does the power of focus improve our teaching effectiveness at school and in the home? First, we can get more done in less time. Second, we feel a sense of accomplishment when we know we have used our time wisely. This allows us to leave for the day refreshed rather than burdened with what we didn’t do that day.
Finally, when we get paperwork, grading papers, and other administrative tasks out the way, it allows us to put our main focus on our most prized commodity-Our students and children. Now we can be more creative in the classroom and give that more focused energy to meeting the academic and social needs of our students and kids.
So what are some effective steps and strategies to help us harness the power of focus in our lives so we can be more effective in the classroom? I personally, through trial and error, have utilized these steps and strategies a few years back. I couldn’t stand the fact that I got to school before the sun rose and left after it set. It disgusted me and so it motivated me to seek a change.
First, acknowledge the fact that you may have a problem with staying focused and need to make some adjustments in order to become a more effective teacher. This is important because if you don’t acknowledge that it is a problem, then you will never seek a different path and it will just keep you going in circles; building a deeper and deeper self-imposed ditch around yourself.
Second, write down All your tasks and place them in order of importance and urgency for the day and week. This is really an exercise in getting mentally organized, but it’s important to see every task. Why? The reason is because there are some tasks that never get done and they continue to weigh on us subconsciously. For instance, you may have a stack of papers or items that need to be filed, but it isn’t the most pressing need at the moment. However, having it on our list of things to get done will help us complete it when we do have the time.
On way I deal with those tasks that never seem to get done, like filing papers, is to choose a time in a grading period that I know might be a bit lighter. For me that is at the end of the grading period and usually on a Friday. Every teacher is different, so do whatever works best for you as an individual.
Next, once the tasks are written and visible, look for the pockets of time you have in your schedule where you can get to work on those most urgent and important tasks first. Then, get a timer, and set it for that specified period of time. It could be 15 mins, 30 mins, or an hour. At school, 30-45 min is usually all I can get at one time before I need to be with another group of students. So, I work in those increments.
Here’s an important point: When you set the timer, that time is “sacred”. You must resist the urge to talk to your grade level colleagues, check your email, go in the teacher’s lounge to discuss the latest episode of the Bachelor or the NCCA tournament, or call or text a spouse or friend. I would dare even to say resist using the restroom. Look you make your own rules, but I know a trip to the bathroom in a school setting can turn into drive-by conversations with the janitors, administrators, other colleagues, etc… Then, before you know it, the bell is ringing for the next class, or it’s time to pick your class up from PE, music, or art. It’s valuable time lost, never to be regained.
Finally, there may be seasons of time when we may need to stay later to complete pressing tasks. If I need to stay late, I always give myself a time that I will leave regardless of whether the task is complete or not. This usually motivates me to get focused on the task at hand so I can leave at the appointed time. You get the point.
It’s the little distractions that steal our focus and diminish our teaching effectiveness.
We must be ruthless in guarding the time we can control. Sometimes, it’s not that we need more time to get tasks done, but making adjustments in how we use that time that makes the crucial difference.
Use some of the tips mentioned above and see if it doesn’t improve your teaching effectiveness in the classroom and at home.
When I need sustained mental focus and a burst of energy, I daily use this healthy, vitamin-rich alternative to coffee and soda. Get your mental *SPARK* here.
Antoine McCoy is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher as an Exceptional Needs Specialist working with children with mild to moderate disabilities. He has taught children in all grade levels (K-12) in Public and Private Schools (general education, inclusion, and self-contained classes) and worked with homeschoolers.