Sometimes when bad things happen, we start to question our beliefs, the road we’ve taken, or even what we think we know about ourselves. We scrutinize our choices; reexamine our priorities. While the questions we ask ourselves are important, the process of answering often prompts deeper reflection and self-discovery. What matters most is not that we’re questioning ourselves; what matters most is how we choose to answer.

Hurricane Katrina provoked these kinds of questions for many of us in 2005. Without electricity, running water or cell phones, we congregated on our front porches, helped neighbors cover damaged roofs with blue tarps, and shared meals as we grilled the contents of our defunct freezers. In the midst of the devastation I got to know my neighbors and discovered there was more to our street than front doors and fences.

I enjoyed having conversations where I focused on someone else without interruption. No cell phone. No Internet. Not even guilt over waiting laundry or dirty dishes. Undistracted, I found myself visiting daily with Miss Nell, an elderly shut-in next door. Her wonderful stories of growing up in the 1930s fascinated me. She even taught me to play bridge. At the time I started questioning how I’d spent my time pre-Katrina. Why it had taken a natural disaster to make me slow down and focus on the people around me? Why had I let work and school become more important than cultivating relationships?

Weeks passed. Life returned to a semblance of normalcy. Modern conveniences restored, we retreated to our air-conditioned homes and soon settled back into the rhythms of our lives. I still visited Miss Nell, but less and less frequently. I was too distracted, too busy to play bridge anymore. Answering my own questions about priorities and choices grew less important with each passing day; I simply didn’t have time to think about it.

Whenever we experience loss, I think we tend to become more reflective, more deliberate in our appreciation of life and our loved ones.  But as I experienced in the aftermath of Katrina, it’s easy to soon find yourself back in old habits, too busy or distracted to fully engage with the people around you.

Case in point: when students come by my room during my planning period or lunch break, I am glad to see them (I love my kids!) but am usually knee-deep in professional reading, writing for publication, or preparing for a presentation. Often they just want to hang out and talk, but I don’t set my work aside and focus on them. I keep working, listening with one ear, often contributing little more than an occasional “um hum.” The outcome is invariably the same: I’ve been neither productive nor listened well. But what else can I do? My students are important and I’m glad they want to spend time with me. But articles don’t write themselves and presentations don’t come in cans. How am I supposed to accomplish everything I want to do if I don’t utilize every minute? After all, I still have to teach and raise a family. Time is a premium commodity.

I’m not suggesting that pursuing learning opportunities or writing for publication shouldn’t be priorities. In fact, all these pursuits generally make us better teachers, which is good for students. But should they take higher priority than relationships? Do students deserve our undivided attention even if they don’t want to discuss something we consider serious or important?

Perhaps better questions would be: What do I ultimately want to accomplish as an educator? What matters most to me?

I attended a student’s funeral yesterday. I didn’t know him well, but many of my students did. Friends shared memories. His youth pastor brought the eulogy, illustrating how the student had gone from a shy little boy to a charismatic young man with an infectious smile. As I listened, I wondered why I hadn’t known him better. He had given me plenty of opportunities.

He’d drop by my classroom periodically to say hello to other students or empty my recycling box. I liked him instinctively – he had the best smile you’ve ever seen – but because he wasn’t my student I’d remind him he was there for the box, not to talk. He often helped with our service projects because his best friend was in my class. Now that I think about it, how many teenagers volunteer to work just to spend time with friends?

I came home from the funeral, questioning my choices and priorities. What is really important in my life and career? Would my time be better spent really getting to know the students who cross my path? I mean really getting to know them, their aspirations and dreams, their fears and concerns, their families and extended families? Making relationships my priority even if it means I don’t pursue every professional opportunity that presents itself?

A decade ago, I left similar questions unanswered as I re-immersed myself in school and work. I am not without regrets over that choice. When I start a new school year in August, I want to be deliberate about what takes priority and feel good about it. I’m not a martyr, and I have no desire to “sacrifice” my goals to avoid feeling guilty. But I need to determine what those goals ultimately are and what I want to accomplish as an educator. Knowing why we do what we do, choosing what is great (not just good) for our lives, and having a clear sense of purpose in where we’re headed is the result of answering these questions. I need to know what matters most and live it.


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