How do you respond when someone asks how you are doing?
“Things are a little crazy, but I’m doing well.”
“I’m doing fine, just really busy.”
“Good, although I’ve got back to back meetings this morning.”
I’ll speak for myself when I say that there are countless temptations every day to refer to my level of “busy-ness.” Markers of “busy-ness” show up in our choice of vocabulary and topics of conversation. Both in our professional and personal lives, “busy” can become shorthand for how we talk to each other.
“Man, life is busy” could be innocuous small talk. Just a friendly way to build on common experiences with the people we interact with each day. But sometimes I’m suspicious that the constant talk of more to do then we have time to do it reveals something deeper. I’m not a psychologist, but I wonder if it has to have something to do with an emotional need to present our contribution as valuable, or perhaps to remind people that we’re pulling our weight. In a highly regulated labor environment like public schools and classrooms, we associate value with time worked and not necessarily with outcomes achieved. It’s baked into our contracts and our professional culture. In Santa Ana, we even share a funny line about how employment is measured in dog years – every year in Santa Ana is the equivalent of 7 years somewhere else.
It could be that we happen to work in an profession and environment as teachers and educators where we feel starved for the public recognition and financial support that our work deserves. In other words, our individual need to prove our worth is a miniature version of our collective need to prove that education is a real profession on par with other professional fields. It could be that the expectations for what an educator should be responsible to accomplish – singlehandedly overcoming the impacts of intergenerational poverty, systemic racism, or family disfunction, for example – are not entirely reasonable.
Even if some of that existential need to share how busy we are is the result of legitimate stresses of the work we do – I think expressing our busy-ness actually makes the situation worse. The way we talk influences the way we think and feel about our work. Our language seeps into and shapes our classroom, school, and organizational cultures. And it doesn’t build empathy in the way we think and hope it does. At best, it reinforces a sense that value is measured in hours worked and not on impact. We start narratives about teachers who leave early or stay late, without much good data to inform us who, actually, is making a bigger difference in the classroom. At worst, we’re perceived as whiners, setting us up collectively for the inevitable comparisons between other industries and professions and our relatively short working days or calendar years.
As a former high school principal and currently as a supervisor of principals, I know firsthand that running a school is a time-intensive endeavor. I have a lot of empathy when a principal shares the extent of their busy-ness – and I don’t have to doubt their frustration that they simply can’t do it all. At the same time, the ability to manage a resource as precious as your time is a marker of your leadership skill set. Everyone is busy. Everyone is overworked – and yet in that context some leaders move organizations much further than others.
So yes, I’m busy. Life is crazy right now. But it’s the work I chose and the work I love – and I have just as much time as anybody else.