Thoughts on a second read-through of “Deep Work”

Goodreads review of Cal Newport’s Deep Work here.

Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.

Cal Newport

This quote in and of itself is quite alarmist, and the reason I re-read this book. I had read it previously in 2017, surprisingly long ago. I remember trying to implement some of the practices he mentions (quitting social media, embrace boredom, work deeply, etc.) and doing some of it successfully.

I’ve been teaching from home since March 2020, with a short stint back in the buildings in October and November. By nature of my new placement in only one school instead of anywhere from two to four (and back in high school, yay!) and the layout of the building, I now have my own classroom again. While I have not spent a lot of time in there yet doing just a normal school day, I know for a fact that not having to share my space with another teacher, even one who respects boundaries, is going to help my productivity so much. My current situation with one school, in a grade level I’m familiar with and quite frankly, love, and the ability to create my own work environment are all essential parts in this puzzle.

The first question I had when reading this book was: What products are teachers tasked with producing? I know that teachers are definitely knowledge workers (and not manual laborers), but through about half the book the first time I read it, I was skeptical. How could I really boil down what I do as a teacher into a short list of goals or tasks?

The other question that came to mind was: How do you expect me to implement this in my job where my attention goes from one thing to the next dozens of times a day? You don’t get it! During my planning, I get emails from administrators and colleagues, I have meetings scheduled at the last minute, people walk in my room to ask me questions… I can’t do this.

I think the answer to the first question is that my job is to produce high-quality lessons based on standards and grade-level material that will help advance my students’ knowledge and use of English as measured by assessments (yes, plural, because there are so many.) That is my job, first and foremost. Yes, I wear so many other hats as well, but by and large, that is my number one task.

The answer to the second question is boundaries. I think teachers can say “no” more than they think they can, and consequently, save their planning time for what it’s meant for: planning lessons and preparing materials. As we know, how teachers are treated, especially non-tenured teachers, varies widely from state to state, but I would make the stand that if you say “no” to even just one committee invitation as a non-tenured teacher, you won’t get fired. I also think that everyone can benefit from not having email open every single minute of every single day. Sure, there are important announcements that come through (like next steps on bringing more students and staff back into the building) but I posit that most of the time, it’s not required to act on them right now; actually, in doing so, your precious concentration might broken (I don’t say “precious” facetiously… it really is precious).

So far, what I have strived to do in my own work (and I have a slightly different job teaching than my classroom/content teacher counterparts) is to shut down email and phone during my planning time. I need the ability to fully concentrate. Not only am I creating lessons, but I am working with new-to-me curriculum and adapting for online use.

I have noticed that making these boundaries has been beneficial to not only my production, but my mindset. Even if I get only one class (I teach two, plus a number of “push-in” lessons every week) prepped, I feel accomplished and might even be able to extend my concentration as I think about it over lunch or while waiting for a student to log on to a different session.

Saying “no” is very difficult in the education world, but not impossible. And having worked in other industries, it’s hard everywhere you go. The consequences of saying “no” in my experience don’t depend on the industry, but on the flavor of leadership – do you get a guilt trip? Or do your superiors respect your wishes? Inevitably, saying “no” must be done in some instances if you’re to have a successful career and feel like you’ve accomplished something of your own every day. On the flip side, it is also super important to be a “team player,” especially for a teacher like me who works collaboratively with so many other staff to help the students learning English. I can’t be an island, as much as I want to sometimes. There is a give and take that we all must participate in. Finding that balance between boundaries and team player has taken me a long time, and I think arriving there at a comfortable space in the middle is a hallmark of one’s career, and people will respect you for it. Another thing they will respect? High quality lessons and instruction that can be shared and adapted.

Overall, Deep Work make me think yet again about my own goals for my career, and what makes me feel successful. It reminded me to point out to myself the things I have to offer to my industry, my employer, and most importantly, my students. We do have power as employees to take back some of the power, not work ourselves to death, and still feel like we’re making a difference.