Research and Reflections, Tools and Resources

Prioritizing Your Work During Times of Overload

A process for unpacking priorities for educators

We are working in difficult times. Many schools are elbow-deep in the complexities of managing the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff for in-person learning. Acceleration has become a worthy goal for many teachers, and most educators are working hard to support the social-emotional learning needs of their students. In addition, as always,  teachers have their own professional goals for themselves and learning goals for their specific students that they are trying to manage. 

When everything you do (or want to do) as a teacher is a blur, how do you even start to determine your most important goals? One thing we can do is engage in the practice of priority listing.

We have developed a priority listing activity that we use for ourselves and coach others through when the experience of overload becomes too much. Priority listing supports us in getting a realistic accounting of all the goals we keep obsessing over. Oftentimes, when we are experiencing overload, we live in a dense mental fog — feeling a heavy yet vague pressure, watching individual goals float in and out of our minds over and over. This experience in itself increases our stress because we know there are so many things to do that we are SURE to forget something. If you are feeling this sense of overload, try the following priority listing activity.

Start the process by setting aside a few minutes of quiet time to list all of your current goals. Sometimes these lists are quite exhaustive, but other times, you may only be able to generate a few items. 

Next, you will number your goals to find clarity about your priorities. Start this process by asking yourself a series of three questions:

  1. What is most pressing?
  2. What is most important?
  3. What is another goal that would make a difference for your students?

“What is most pressing?” brings to light a goal that needs to be met soon. The purpose of the question is to uncover your primary stressor. Sometimes this goal can be taken care of quickly, lifting a great deal of stress. We call the answer to this question “The Stressor,” and label it with a “1.”

Next, ask yourself what feels most important. Your response usually connects to a personally meaningful goal. For teachers, this goal is usually focused on classroom instruction or curriculum. We call the answer to this question “The Big Picture.” Sometimes what is most pressing is also most important, which is great because it sharpens your focus. However, if there is a different goal that emerges from the “most important” question, this goal should be marked with a “2.”

Then, identify another goal that would make a difference for students. This question often reveals a passion you have for meeting students’ needs (which is why we often call the answer “The Passion”). If there is a third goal that arises from this question, label it with a “3.” 

You now have a ranking of somewhere between one and three goals that are your main priorities at the moment. You can begin working through them. But you might have a bunch of other items on your list. What do we do with those? Well, we have a few more questions that will help you sort through them. 

Look at your list of goals again, and ask yourself these three questions about each of the remaining goals:

  • Are there serious repercussions for me professionally if I let go of this goal?
  • Do I have the time right now to meet this goal?
  • Will meeting this goal improve the quality of my day-to-day work for students?

If the answer is “no” for all three questions, then the goal should be crossed off the list for now. For some educators, these last questions can drastically reduce their lists. These are really “Distractors” that can be relinquished so you can focus on what matters most.

Now, you have a list with some numbered priorities and some goals crossed out. What about the leftovers? They may still be important, but they are not your focus at the moment. We call these particular goals the “Not-Nows.” They may be worth pursuing in the future, but in order to meet your most pressing and important goals, they need to be tabled for now.

Post your list where it is highly visible to you for a few days as you make progress on your priorities. Of course, once you have met some of your goals labeled “1” through “3,” you can return to the list and identify the next round of goals to focus on.

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About the Author: Kenny McKee is the co-author of ASCD’s Compassionate Coaching: How to Help Educators Navigate Barriers to Professional Growth. He works as content designer for NWEA and as a social media consultant for Student Achievement Partners. Prior to his current roles, he served as a high school literacy and instructional coach in Asheville, NC for over eleven years. Kenny is also a National Board Certified Teacher. His professional interests include literacy, teacher leadership, instructional coaching, and social-emotional learning.

About the Author: Kathy Perret is the co-author of ASCD’s Compassionate Coaching: How to Help Educators Navigate Barriers to Professional Growth and The Coach Approach to School Leadership: Leading Teachers to Higher Levels of Effectiveness. She is the founder of Kathy Perret Consulting and strives to empower teachers, coaches and school leaders through onsite and virtual training and coaching. Prior to her current role, she served as a school improvement consultant in the areas of teacher leadership development, literacy, and English Language Learners. She has also been an elementary and middle school instructional coach.