Slice of Life 7: The Tyranny of Lists

Even though we had no school on Thursday and Friday thanks to Winter Storm Thor (a name my superhero-crazed sons appreciated), I haven’t gotten much done with the extra time. As much as I enjoy the time off—and the customary sledding, hot chocolate, and pajamas-all-day—I always foolishly think of snow days as days I can “get things done.”  After a record number of snow days last year during which I was equally unproductive—and that resulted in a school year that ended on June 31st!—I should really know better.

I used to be someone who liked lists. When I was in high school and college, I loved writing things down in my planner just to have the satisfaction of crossing things off when I finished.

I don’t like lists anymore. At some point, my lists became so long that I felt defeated just looking at them. 

Nothing can ever really be finished. Not grading, certainly. The minute I grade one assignment, three more piles make their way to my desk. My “to-read” list has become so ambitious that I would need to make reading my full-time job for three years to tackle it (yes, I once calculated this). And even then, each time I finished a book, I’d probably find at least two more to add to my list. At home, as one set of freshly laundered clothes gets put away, more grass-stained jeans and t-shirts pile up in the hamper. Shuttling to and from soccer practices in the fall make way for basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. Piano lessons continue year-round; music knows no season. 🙂

Or maybe it’s just that the things I want to do now aren’t so easily accomplished.

When I first started teaching, one of my friends asked me if I would ever consider moving into admin. I thought about it. My answer then—which I suppose is still true today—was that I’d only consider it if I felt I’d outgrown or mastered teaching.

Of course, now I realize what a crazy idea that was. Master teaching? I don’t think you can ever master teaching, at least not the way you can master other skills (or maybe even other jobs). There are too many variables—students, standards, curriculum—which demand that teachers constantly revise lessons, reflect on their pedagogy, and sometimes, even reinvent and remake themselves. It’s difficult, but rewarding work.

So you see, a list with the task, “master teaching,” could never be complete. Even if my list just included “be a good teacher,” I still don’t think I could ever cross that item off. Even on my best teaching days, days when I’m feeling Robin-Williams-Dead-Poets-success, there’s always room to improve, and every experienced teacher knows that best days stand right next to mediocre ones, too.

The things my 20-year-old self listed in her planner included things like: edit term paper, meet with study group, stop at bank, sorority meeting at 8pm, and return library books. I suppose my lists today could include the same sorts of things. And they would be easier to cross off, too. But when I think about writing a list that matters, it’s things like “be a good teacher,” or “be a good mom,” or “be a good wife” or even just “be patient and practice kindness” that come to mind. And those things aren’t ever finished.

slice of lifeThis post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 200 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit


  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. We were also out this past Thursday and Friday and I never get as much done as I expect I should either. I have yet to meet anyone who really does. I did manage to read the new Kelly Gallagher book, so those days off weren’t a complete waste. 😉 Thanks for sharing. It’s good to know that others hate those never ending lists of stuff that in the long run doesn’t really matter.


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