Take Care of Yourself, Take Care of Your School

Spring 2012

By Stephen J. Valentine

Fittingly, I came to the work of Tony Schwartz after a mild energy crisis in the spring of 2011. All year, I had been “wearing many hats,” as we say in independent schools, and by spring my days were missing the pep and vibrancy that, for the first decade of my career, had made me feel like leaping into the school building each morning. Once a path to deep knowledge and deep relationships, my job as an administrator and teacher had started to feel like an exercise in stone skipping — only, I was the stone, and forces seemingly beyond my control were skipping me along the surface of a vast pond. 

I went out in search of Tony Schwartz’s book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working — and to this day I don’t know exactly why. I’m only half kidding when I say that Schwartz’s energy must have pulled me to the book. This writer, who I now know often appears on top of the “most read” list on the Harvard Business Review blog, or whose speeches end up being forwarded liberally across the Internet, claws his way into your psyche. You open your laptop one day and your fingers mysteriously start typing the address for Amazon.com, the name of “Tony Schwartz,” the title of his book…. 

And then, when the book arrives, you read a little and realize that Schwartz knows where you live and where you want to live — he understands what your workday should feel like, what you should be able to give to it, and what it should give you in return.

It didn’t take long before I realized I had to interview him — to probe a little deeper about the way we work in schools.

When I arrived at Schwartz’s Riverdale, New York, office — out of which he runs his company, The Energy Project — I was facing a highly energetic man, whose hard-won discoveries are played out and celebrated in his every movement. He’s tall and athletic, the portrait of energy. And, though it sounds distracting, it isn’t: he moved around his office almost like a tennis player. First his feet sliced up onto his desk, then he hopped into a near lotus position in his desk chair. He leaned in and then back; arched like a sail in a strong wind; opened his posture, then coiled into concentration; he fell onto a nearby couch only to use it as a springboard back into his original seat. Throughout, he made frequent mention of “sprinting” as an ideal analogy for how we should work. 

I wasn’t really surprised. Somehow, all of it makes sense for a man who makes his living helping people reach optimal states. 

Valentine: When I’m not “doing school,” I spend a good deal of time thinking about how to improve schools. Your work focusing on energy and renewal seems like it should be part of the educational conversation. In schools these days, many students, teachers, and administrators burn out. Yes, we’re on an academic schedule, but many of us crash-land into our breaks and spend the better part of them trying to stop thinking about school. I’m guessing you might know a thing or two about what we’re dealing with — and how we might make some adjustments. 

Schwartz: The first problem that we all have with work in the U.S., whether in hospitals or corporations or schools, is that the ethic that defines excellence in work is “more, bigger, faster.” So we live in a world that has accelerated at an extraordinary pace, fueled by a couple factors. Technology is one factor. Not only are we capable of communicating all the time wherever we are — and therefore overly inclined to do precisely that, and for people to seek to have us do that — but we’re also exposed to more information than ever. So the demand in our lives has accelerated.

The effect of email alone is such a change in a teacher’s life. Twenty years ago, and maybe fewer than that, you left school and nobody could communicate with you until you returned again. Now, that communication stream never ends. And most teachers — I would guess either by choice or because they feel they have no choice — feel the obligation to respond to the steady stream of questions and requests. 

As a teacher, you sometimes need to be reflective, and yet urgent demands are now constantly flooding into your life. The problem of course is that everyone’s capacity is finite, and when demand exceeds capacity, breakdown and burnout and all kinds of collateral damage occur.

Many people look at teachers and say, “Wow, they’ve got it good because they get two months off in the summer and up to four weeks off during the school year.” But what people don’t recognize is that teachers start early in the morning and go until late at night and sometimes into weekends. Working like this burns down the reservoir of anyone’s energy or capacity — and, by the way, the words energy and capacity are interchangeable… energy is capacity. Problematically, what would most characterize a great teacher — his or her creativity, effectiveness, calmness, positive emotions — is undermined by the lack of fuel in the tank.

Valentine: As a school leader, I worry about my role in, to paraphrase from your book, collaborating with others to fragment their attention. In schools, no doubt, we are often called to too many meetings. But individually we also volunteer a great deal of our time. “Wearing a lot of hats” is seen as a badge of honor. But, like any strength, the ability to complete a variety of different tasks has a shadow side. It’s a mindset that can easily lead to dysfunction. 

Schwartz: I agree. Likewise, there are people who will put in the greatest number of hours, who will “hunker down” and “burn the midnight oil” or “stay the course.” Working in this way is literally counterproductive — it undermines productivity. 

Of all the professionals with whom we at The Energy Project interact — including athletes, lawyers, doctors, and business executives — those who most vociferously resist our ideas are educators. We’ve found it hardest to generate excitement, and a willingness to experiment with some of these ideas, in schools. What’s interesting about this, by the way, is that the sense of being overwhelmed that I get from administrators or teachers is no less, and maybe greater than, I get from workers in other fields. When we’ve offered workshops to the New York State Independent School Association on reenergizing the school day, the spots fill up within minutes. But when we actually do the workshop, we feel like we are virtually at war with a very tough resistance. 

Valentine: Can you characterize the resistance?

Schwartz: I think it comes from the “you don’t understand what we’re up against” mode. Now, this is a very common response among people who feel overwhelmed in any area. I don’t want to overstate this, but… it’s the role of the victim. People are basically saying, “I’m the victim of circumstances bigger than I can control. I may agree with you and I may be suffering, but I can’t do anything about this. It’s just the way it is.” I have talked with a number of educators about this, and they all agree that academia in general, and independent schools in particular, resist change. You probably understand why this is better than I do. But it’s a resistance I can feel.

Valentine: One of my goals, as a writer and administrator, is to help people approach their classrooms with greater clarity of mind, with greater intentionality. To me, the face-to-face interaction with students should never be polluted with toxic emotions or the stress that comes from working frantically up to the second you have to enter your classroom. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how we structure and use time in schools. If you were designing a daily schedule for a high school, what would it look like? 

Schwartz: We know that teenagers are least awake at the early part of the day. Obviously, in an ideal world, it would be great to start school at noon or 1 p.m. But, okay, that’s not going to happen. So the first thing I’d do is recognize that the goal is to have students absorb and learn in the deepest and richest way possible across the school day. A primary question when designing a schedule ought to be, “What’s going on inside them that would make optimal learning possible?” You may not always be able to come up with the ideal answers, given other factors, but it’s where you should start. 

It’s generally true that teenagers are usually awake later in the mornings… 10 or 11 a.m. is when they tend to be most awake. Starting there, I would focus on putting the least cognitively demanding activities in the earliest parts of the day, for precisely the reason I tell adults to do the most cognitively demanding work at the start of the day. You’re taking account of their particular physiology. And everything begins with physiology. 

So at the start of the day, sports and athletics would be a natural focus of attention. Not only because they don’t demand as much cognitively, but also because they wake students up. Second, I’d do some of the creative subjects early in the day because when you’re a little less fully awake, the right hemisphere is likely to be more activated and the left hemisphere will follow later — and the right hemisphere is a critical component of more creative kinds of thinking. 

Third, I would create enough space between classes to give kids an opportunity to renew. We know that you have one reservoir of energy to work with, and that it gets drawn down by the demand on that energy. As your energy gets drawn down, your capacity for self-control gets drawn down; your ability to make good decisions gets drawn down. One of the critical principles that we teach is to value and honor the need for intermittent renewal. To build renewal time as just an option into the day won’t suddenly make people embrace it. What you have to actually do is build the value of it, the intentionality around it, and maybe even find a way of rewarding it or holding kids accountable for it. 

I would never start a class without doing between one and two minutes of deep breathing or meditation — in order to quiet the mind, quiet the emotions, quiet the body, and allow kids to begin class with a kind of openness that’s much harder to invoke when you’re in pure energy-expenditure mode. 

So I would build renewal opportunities throughout the day. I might even add a period of 15 or 20 minutes of rest — since the human body is designed to actually take a longer period of rest at some point during the mid-afternoon.

We’re working with teachers at KIPP schools. They’re staying even later in the day; they’re working more months of the year; they’re taking a broader range of responsibility for their students; they’re involved even in the outside school lives of their students. And they’re breaking down. They do not last in those jobs nearly long enough, despite their great passion for what they’re doing. Because of this, I suggested that they actually build in a rest period that the teachers can participate in. 

The next thing I would do is help kids understand the importance of the food they eat — not just in the caloric sense or abstractly defined health sense, but in the energy sense. When a student eats a chocolate bar, he needs to understand the difference between the energy it’s going to give him versus the energy he would receive after eating a complex carbohydrate and a lean protein. 

I would also build a portion of the curriculum that introduces kids, in a developmentally appropriate way, to how they work. How does your brain operate from the point of view of cognition? Of emotion? How do you actually learn to build self-control or self-

regulation? How do you manage emotion when it moves into the fight-or-flight mode that neither serves you nor others well? How do you take care of your physical body so that the core sort of energy you have is available throughout the day? How do you understand attention and the difference between absorbed attention and what kids think of as multitasking? How do you introduce this idea of really paying attention to what kids, in individual ways, are passionate about? And how do you nurture that and support that passion and give them opportunities to pursue it, in addition to the things you’ve decided they must complete? 

Valentine: Some of that sounds like a really good advising program. Or maybe a health program or a program centered on wellness. 

Schwartz: At some schools, we’ve looked at putting this curriculum into advisory periods. But if you call this “health” or you call it “wellness,” you’re a sitting duck. It’s as true in schools as it is in corporations: if you give the practices the wrong name, they get marginalized in the minds of the people. So we avoid terminology that we know would undermine the likelihood that good practices would take root. Language is such a critical component, whether it’s for kids or adults, in how people respond. Even the term “physical education” carries a lot of baggage for some people. 

Valentine: The passages in your book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working that I found most enlightening were the ones where you told stories about your own development or the development of some very busy CEOs. I loved the details about how you all moved from working incessantly, skipping lunch if need be, and logging endless hours to engaging in more positive rituals in your workdays — incorporating fitness, breaks, and strategic thinking. What’s more impressive is reading about the resulting improvements in productivity, in relationships both at work and at home, in creativity, in all the indicators that matter. How would you coach me, a typically busy school administrator, on how I might change my work habits to include more of your principles?

Schwartz: When you get to talking to people about moving from a general agreement that conserving their energy would serve them well to actually changing the way they work, that’s a big leap. If you’re a school administrator, every minute of your day is already occupied. You have a series of meetings, an overflowing email inbox, emergencies that arise unexpectedly and that you cannot avoid, and you have multiple constituencies to deal with. So it’s incredibly easy to make the assumption, to feel, in fact, that there is no way of changing this.

“Here’s why I can’t do it,” to “Here’s what I can do now.” It’s not asking, “How do I do everything?” but, “What is it that I actually have the potential to influence?” The answer to the latter question is the only place you should invest your energy. There are certain principles that are inescapable… you could call them universals or, in some cases, simply physiological facts. For example, we know that 90 percent of the population have the highest level of energy first thing in the morning — and that that reservoir will get drawn down throughout the day, and that the more continuously you work, the more it will get drawn down. In contrast to students, your highest energy as an administrator is in the morning. So one of the first principles for adults is: Do the most important thing first. 

This is applicable to any person in any occupation, but it would apply well to administrators. The challenge we all face is to be more intentional than we’ve ever been. If you have sufficient capacity, you don’t have to be that intentional for everything to get done. But if you have finite capacity and high demand, getting things done requires more intentionality. You need to define, both on a weekly and daily basis, the highest value work. And, to the degree that it is possible, do that work at a defined period of time as close as possible to the first thing in the morning. 

Because of the second principle — that we need to regularly renew energy and that we have a limited amount of time to fully focus on any single thing — you should do that work for no longer than 90 minutes, long enough to get immersed in it, and then take a break. What I believe, and my own experience bears out, is that if you work that way, you will get more done during the allotted time period than you will at any other comparable period throughout the day. The things that you need to schedule, besides meetings, are the things that won’t get done if you don’t schedule them. You don’t have to provide schedules for those things that feel urgent. They will take care of themselves — because they’re urgent. 

For an administrator whose job description is built in part around being a strategic thinker, it is critical to have time during the week that is sacrosanct. Obviously if the gym or school is burning down, all bets are off — but it’s sacrosanct because the time for strategic or creative thinking is scheduled just as meticulously as things that are more regularly demanded. It’s paradoxical that in order to think creatively you have to intentionally and systematically build space in which to do so — but it’s true. I know it in my own life — I run a company, I’m like a school principal — I could spend all day putting out fires. Much of the most valuable contribution that an administrator can make comes from a more reflective, strategic, complex kind of thinking that is easily lost if a boundary is not created around it and if there is not what I call “fierce intentionality” to make it important. It’s easy, again, to tell yourself that, when 10 emergencies are sitting at your door, you are justified in making them your ongoing priority. But spending all of your time putting out fires comes at a cost to doing the kinds of things that only you can do.

Valentine: I want to focus on teachers, too. If you were talking to school leaders now, what can they do to set the tone or to create an environment in which teachers can perform at an optimal level? 

Schwartz: At The Energy Project, we often talk about people in the role you’re describing — administrators, principals — as the Chief Energy Officers, because they have a disproportionate impact on the energy of the people for whom they have a responsibility.

It really doesn’t matter so much what you say as a leader; it matters what people feel being around you. If you communicate, both in your own behavior and in your body language, that taking time for oneself is something you value — and you’re willing to put this activity before some of the other things that feel more urgent — then you’ll have a disproportionate and positive influence on their likelihood of doing it. 

The way this plays out for an administrator is different from the way it plays out for a teacher because teachers are locked into the schedule of their classes. There’s less freedom in the daily schedule for teachers and students than there is for an administrator. This reality demands more of what we would call “meticulous rituals”: more intentional building of highly specific behaviors that serve the movement between expenditure of energy and renewal of energy, and between more transactional items and more strategic, reflective, thoughtful work.

Valentine: I’d go further in describing the demands on a teacher’s schedule. In many independent schools, teachers are also expected to have an open-door policy in their offices. Even when they’re not teaching, they might be providing extra help or meeting with an advisee or talking to a parent. Teachers can spend long stretches of their day going from task to task to task. 

Schwartz: Of course the notion that a teacher wouldn’t be available to students is unworkable. On the other hand, it’s equally nuts to think that a teacher should always be open and available to students. That’s why college professors have office hours. It really depends on the intent of the head of school and the culture of the school. There needs to be a belief that there are other skills and value that a teacher can generate beyond the classroom experience and being available to students. Deepening one’s knowledge of the subject area, creating a better lesson plan, and simply renewing and refueling in a skillful way are all important. And, if you believe this, then you have to create a schedule that makes it possible. 

It’s very similar to the challenge that a school faces with students. Would you rather have a kid attend a short class with 100 percent of his attention or a longer class with 60 percent of his attention? You don’t have to be very good at math to figure out that, in the long run, you’re better with 100 percent attention. So, one of the primary shifts that I’m talking about is to move away from this notion of continuous expenditure of energy — away from the marathon mentality that you’re always on, and thus always conserving energy because you know you have to keep going and going and going. 

I advocate for being more like a sprinter. When you’re engaged, you’re fully engaged; you’re burning down the reservoir of energy at a very high rate because you see a finish line. That finish line is not a permanent finish line; it’s a temporary finish line, just like it would be for a sprinter in a race. They’re going to sprint again. So it’s a shift from being partially engaged all of the time to being fully engaged for relatively short but intense periods of time, offset by recovery. 

Valentine: I’ve introduced the idea of rituals for recovery to some folks in my school, and we’re trying to hold each other accountable, but I often worry that they’ll be thinking, “Steve only has one class to teach every day and then this vast-looking ocean of time that he can schedule, so it’s easier for him to experiment with these principles.”

Schwartz: But you see how easy it is, even when you think about it on someone else’s behalf, to fall into victim mode on their behalf. Every single human being has a different amount of control. You have to get that issue off the table by saying, “I don’t want to know or address the parts of this that are uncontrollable for you. All I want to address are the parts where you could exercise some kind of influence.” Very small shifts can affect very significant changes in experience. For example, you would generate significant changes if you taught teachers to dedicate two minutes, four times a day, to complete recovery, where they really quiet their minds or even shift all of their focus or attention into physical movement rather than cognitive activity. That’s a total of eight minutes a day, and there’s no teacher or student in your school who doesn’t have eight minutes in his or her day.

Valentine: That’s a great point — although they might not feel like it.

Schwartz: Well, one of the reasons they don’t feel like it is because they’re going continuously. And by the way, you don’t think as well when that happens; all you feel is overwhelmed. 
Stephen J. Valentine

Stephen J. Valentine, an administrator and teacher, works with great people at Montclair Kimberley Academy (New Jersey), blogs at www.refreshingwednesday.com, and is the coordinating editor of the Klingenstein Center's Klingbrief. He is the author of Everything but Teaching (2009) and coauthor of Leading Online: Leading the Learning, Leading by Learning (2014).