Sunday, May 17, 2015

The 32nd Friday: Have To's vs Must Do's

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Stephen Covey

Last week, a colleague from another district called to chat about some struggles he was facing with his current job. During our conversation, he shared his frustration with a few trivial aspects of his job that were taking his focus away from the primary parts of his job about which he was truly passionate. I know this person to be one of the finest educators with whom I have ever worked, so I mainly just listened. If I offered any advice at all, it was not unlike Covey’s famous quote above, suggesting that we simply must “keep our eye on the ball,” with the ball being “doing what is best for the students and colleagues we serve.”

When I was principal of a middle school in Georgia, our staff had many similar discussions about all the demands pulling on our time, both as individual educators and on the school as a whole. Eventually, we decided to intentionally address these competing demands upon our time by separating them into two categories, which we called:

  1. Our Have To’s and...
  2. Our Must Do’s
The “Have To’s” were things that we simply had to do, regardless of our passion for doing so. Collectively, we agreed on several school wide “Have To’s” such as duty schedules, crisis plans, cafeteria protocols, etc. Although we all agreed that these were important things we "had to" do, none of us became educators because of allure of these tasks. Individually, some staff members’ “Have To’s” were other team members “Must Do’s,” which was a fortuitous thing; since our staff was comprised of many unique individuals with unique--and complementary--skill sets and passions, we rarely neglected any professional responsibility. As but one example, we came to lean on Tony Collins, a 6th grade math teacher, when we could not figure out how to devise the perfect master schedule. None of the administrators were particularly passionate or expert at this. Neither was anyone else--except Tony. Tony was both passionate about scheduling and had a mind that worked in a way that was always able to create a schedule that fit our needs. For Tony, scheduling was a “Must Do.” For the rest of us, it was a “Have To,” and we were, therefore, hugely thankful for Tony’s interest and capability in this area.

It seemed as if every teacher at that school had a unique “Must Do,” about which s/he became the school’s resident leader and expert. We were all thankful for these individual passions, or personal “Must Do’s.” However, what made this school truly special was not our individual “Must Do’s,” but our collective agreement on what were “Must Do's” versus “Have To's.” It may sound trite and corny, but Working Hard, Having Fun, and Being Nice were absolute “Must Do’s” for every staff member at this school. When kids or staff were falling short in any of these areas (which was, of course, inevitable during the course of a long school year), we immediately reminded them that these habits were commonly shared core values and picked each other up. In addition, when faced with tough choices, asking, “What is best for our kids?” was another collective “Must Do.” To be honest, there were other responsibilities that we considered mere “Have To’s” and, as a result, we did not necessarily gain a lot of recognition for how we performed in these areas. We realized they were still important to some extent and took care of them, but never forgot they were not nearly as important as our “Must Do’s.”

I am glad my friend contacted me this week to share his frustrations; it was a nice conversation and caused me to reflect on a time almost a decade ago when an entire school discussed similar frustrations and how best to address them. In addition, it caused me to think about the current six schools I serve and how similar they seem in this regard to the school I served back then. I love that our schools are staffed with passionate educators who adhere to both individual and collective “Must Do’s” while always making sure to address the “Have To’s.” Such schools handle both tasks well, but always subordinate in importance the latter to the former.

As we begin yet another week of teaching and learning in our schools around the globe, I ask you to reflect on your individual “Have To’s” and “Must Do’s.” What aspects of your job do you complete (albeit well) simply because you have to? Conversely, what aspects of your job do you tackle because your passion, pride, zeal, and drive combine to prioritize them as “Must Do’s”? Finally, how do you manage your busy schedule to ensure that you take care of the “Have To’s” while never letting them take precedence over your “Must Do’s”?

Thanks for knowing what is most important about your job and keeping that focus Job #1 while also taking care of the less glamorous or fulfilling aspects of your job. Being intentional about “keeping the main thing the main thing”  is another way we Teach with Passion!


  1. This is a great reminder and I think one that we too often forget. I think far too often we feel as if we must be good at everything and when we fall short it drains us and takes time away from us accelerating within our strengths. It reminds me of Maxwell talking about how he knows what he's good at and he knows where he's weak. He delegates the tasks he is weak in to others. kind of like your schedule guy, and he spends time working within his strengths. I may have gone off topic a bit, but your example reminded me of his talk. I must get better at this and I absolutely love it when others step up and help me in areas in which I am weak. I am not offended, but rather relieved. Thanks for the reminders.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jon. I could not agree with you (and Maxwell) more about recognizing our weaknesses--and knowing what to do and NOT do about them. Better use of our time to maximize our strengths. That does not mean we ignore our areas of weakness, but we should not attempt to turn them into our strengths. Thanks again, my friend!