Remember the Lonely Work

By Michael R. Pinto, IPLI Leadership Team & Cohort 8 Mentor, Principal at James Cole Elementary School

As a school principal, I benefit from being married to a practicing teacher. My wife teaches second grade high ability which offers me a first-hand look at how a lot of what happens in a school affects the teachers and their daily instructional mission. What I find interesting is that many times my good ideas, when viewed through a teacher’s lens, turn out to be not so good. Sometimes these ideas are just downright bad.

The other benefit I have as a principal married to a teacher is the constant reminder of the painstaking time and effort that go into the craft that no one sees. I call this “The Lonely Work” because it is often done in the dark of the night or in an empty school building on a weekend afternoon. It is work that no one sees, but it’s the work that if it doesn’t get done, everyone notices. It’s also the work that takes hours to complete but finished, you sometimes say, “Really? All of this work for that outcome?”

I had one of those “Really?” moments the weekend before school began. My wife is teaching a hybrid section which includes in-class students and virtual students. Just like your teachers, the challenge of opening a school year is difficult. The challenge of having some or all students virtual is even more difficult. And the challenge of keeping children safe is almost mind-blowing. Which leads us to base-ten blocks. Math is a subject best taught with hands-on and concrete examples. But in this time of COVID-19, communal supplies are a hazard, and having enough material for students at school and at home is even more of an obstacle.

While scrolling through Twitter, I stumbled across a teacher who had ordered these plastic grids that she cut into ones, tens, and hundreds blocks for student use. I shared this idea with my wife who did what all teachers do – ordered some online for her students. When the sheets arrived, they just needed to be cut into their proper designated units. I volunteered for that task and began cutting. I cut all night. All the next day. All the next evening. And finished up the following late afternoon. What I was left with was an unimpressive pile of 25 baggies holding these little manipulatives.

My hand was sore. I had a blister on the top of my thumb which was the result of so much repetitive motion. There were little green specks all over the floor and seat cushions that were the result of having to cut, then trim the pieces to make the ones, tens, and hundreds look just right. In the end, the baggies will wind up in the hands of students who will use them in math daily throughout the year to learn. All of those students and the parents who see them being used will have no idea about the expense, time, and effort that went into the baggies. Lonely work is like that.

As I cut what felt like my 3000th 100s block, I had time to reflect and time to think. I rested the orange-handled scissors on the counter and then reached into the pile and retrieved one 10 x 10 array from its perch. I opened my wallet and placed it inside. I then got back to work – because as you know – The Lonely Work waits for no one. During my opening staff meeting, I paused. I opened my wallet and retrieved the array. I held it up much like a priest with a communion wafer and thanked the teachers. I pledged to them that I would keep this array with a century of one’s spaces in a prominent position on my desk. It will serve as a reminder to me throughout this year that I cannot forget how hard it is to be a teacher and how much time is not acknowledged in his/her daily activities.

Leaders must lead. They must make decisions and stand tall when the chips are down. They must also never forget that those who lead will follow when trust and compassion are evident through action. It might not be a green 10 x 10 array that sits on the computer hard drive in your office, but think of something. Find something that will ground you and remind you as well that you were once that teacher who was putting in The Lonely Work. You also were that teacher who sometimes wished her boss would acknowledge the time or appreciate the effort. Then at times throughout the week, let it serve as a reminder to you to remember the hard work that goes into being a teacher. Then head out on what author Jessica Johnson refers to as “A Treasure Hunt” in your building and in your classrooms. Look for examples of Lonely Work and effort. Then offer what you can which means the most – a simple written or spoken affirmation. As a leader, our jobs require us to always remember what it was like to be in the classroom and do everything in our power to support those endeavors. For me, a green 10 x 10 array of plastic will help that cause this school year. I encourage you to do the same.