How to stay focused on what is important, when you’re waist high in sand!


  At first, the image of being surrounded by sand might be appealing. Personally, being on any beach with loved ones is one of my favorite places to be, but that is not the imagery I am going for in this post. Additionally, in the era of high stakes testing, and the burden of ultimate accountability for a school’s success or failure resting squarely on the shoulders of the building leadership - not “sweating the small stuff” is a message that can be hard to swallow. Nonetheless, if you are an urban educator you do not want to feel like you live in a sauna (no matter how difficult it is to stay out of the sand some days, weeks or longer). So, let this serve as a reminder about staying focused on what is truly important, what is going to maximize the capacity and the number of blocks you can fit in your proverbial bowl, jar or bucket. Let me also state, there are many days I find it difficult to get “off the beach.”


Regardless of where we were in our school improvement process, I found it important to take my staff through a personal and professional goal setting activity at the beginning of every school year called everything from “Filling our Bucket” and “What’s in our Jar” to “Not Living in the Sand.” In essence this activity served to frame, present, and remind my staff of my core values and to specifically state our instructional priorities - setting the tone for the upcoming school year. As we approach the common educator fatigue months that late Fall/Winter brings (especially exasperated with daylight savings when you leave in the dark and come home in the dark), it serves as a great activity to regain traction and focus (or finally take control of the focus).


You can find many different interpretations and presentations of this demonstration of priorities, most of which are about time management. The following is how I adapted it to fit my leadership style. I would dramatically start with an empty glass bowl of some sort - a round fish bowl, a glass vase, or a mason jar and I would ask my staff to identify 3-5 of the most important components of their personal life, critical to their life’s fulfillment and happiness (i.e., Family, Health, Faith). I would then take 3-5 blocks to represent these critical components and fill the glass bowl to capacity. I would then say to my staff, “These blocks represent those 3- 5 priorities in your life and if all else were missing from your life, and only these blocks remained, your life would still be meaningful and fulfilled.” I would verbally share my “blocks” with my staff: Family, Health, Service/Value-Added, Integrity.


From there, I would add into the glass bowl marbles that would fill in the space between the large blocks, until the bowl was full of blocks and marbles; and then, finally adding in sand that would fill in the space between the marbles and blocks. With the addition of each new item, I would ask my team to consider the things in life that were important to them but not essential to life’s fulfillment. I provided examples like: work, school, and participating in sports, traveling or a hobby of some sort. These priorities were represented by the marbles in our “bowls” and then the things that were of convenience to them or materialistic (the small stuff) well…that was represented by the sand in our bowl. I then acknowledged to my staff, “If we were to fill our bowls with marbles or sand first, we would have no room for our big blocks, our priorities, the things that really mattered.” I’d like to think that I always speak from the heart, and I told my staff I cared about their Big Blocks as well and they needed to make sure their “Big Blocks” always came first, and to let me help them make sure that they made that a reality by providing support and modeling it.


Next, we talked about our school wide priorities for the year, our school’s Big Blocks. What was it that we were going to fill our school jar with that if we did not get any other material in our students’ glass bowls, they would be instructionally, socially and emotionally fulfilled? Then we continued with the process of identifying our marbles (the priorities, skills and achievements we would like for our students to leave with, but at the end of the day came secondary to our blocks). Then, there was our sand representing the minutia, all the things that if we put in our student’s bowls first, we would never fit in our school-wide priorities. I found this was a mighty powerful way to keep my staff motivated and on point, and a great way to keep us laser focused on our priorities throughout the school year. It also allowed great opportunities to say, “no more sand,” “not living at the beach today,” “not sweating the sand today,” “focused on my blocks,” or “are you thinking about your blocks?” These phrases often came out of my mouth when adults would attempt to engage me in discussions, requests or complaints about the need or desire to impose misaligned consequences on students or make decisions based on adult convenience over student’s needs or best interests.



Some years I would display our bowl all year long in a common place like our Main Office where staff signed in each morning to serve as constant reminder of the need to focus on and take care of our Big Blocks. I would also bring the bowl back out during our School Improvement Plan/ Action Plan monitoring sessions, a constant reminder why we set the priorities. I would like to add that there is one additional item for the traditional Prioritization Jar activity where you add a glass of water to the seemingly full bowl…my staff would often joke that should be the final component to our bowl - to demonstrate there is always room for a drink after work. Point well taken - be sure to celebrate growth and accomplishment and take some time for team building. Make sure that celebration of growth and accomplishments is minimally a marble in your glass bowl (or you can bet your message will fade by winter). Not everyone’s personal glass bowl will be the same, but everyone’s school blocks need to be identical. Take care of your blocks and stay out of the sand! May your daily acts be focused and aligned with your personal and school-wide priorities.