the class nerd

Email

I was ‘triggered,’ so to speak, by this New York Times Op-Ed over the weekend —> No, You Can’t Ignore Email. It’s Rude. 

 

After reading it, I was admittedly less put off by the content than I was the headline. It’s a short one, so I wont even quote any of it here. Just read it.

 

I have have had a particularly rough year with email, mostly because I have had a rough year with time management. Simply put, I bit off more than I can chew this school year. I have had more instances of emails collecting dirt at the bottom of my inbox for weeks, than ever before, and this poor practice has even started to bleed into my text message conversations, which I often claim is the far easier way to get a response from me. It still is, but my lack of ability to respond is obviously due to time management, not email.

 

Or is it? Email, by nature, is still a part of the problem. Email is so flexible a tool, and used for such widely different purposes, that it is hard to prioritize its content. And everyone has different email practices, expectations, and writing styles, that it is impossible to know how to please anyone. I prefer the efficiency of digital text over phone when possible. But my tone comes across indisputably better in person than in email, in which I am short and to the point when I am crunched for time. It would be easy to think I am mad at you from my email messages, if you know me personally, and I am responding briefly. 

 

Tools like SaneBox and email apps like Spark mail help. Snoozing message, defering todo emails to OmniFocus as tasks, and filtering my inbox are things that have cut my email time down by an average of six hours a week. Replacing email with Slack and Trello on my music team has also helped tremendously. And using TextExpander to type default messages to parents also cuts down on hours. If you are interested in these strategies, I welcome you to check out my podcast, The Class Nerd. Episode 1 and 2 on email, episode 5 on team communication, and a forthcoming episode on parent communication tools.

 

So why am I still stressed? I find that 90 percent of the time it is due to getting ‘stuck’ on certain messages. Messages that require a careful answer, the tone to be crafted precisely, not knowing the proper conventions to which someone desires to be replied to, etc... I never get stuck on emails that are a keystroke and a click away from being dealt with, or deferred.... but I guess that’s the point of the Op-Ed. You can’t defer ‘people.’ And the emails that require the most human touch are the ones I get hung up on.

 

But still, I find the mixed conventions of email utterly perplexing. Do you expect that I reply within a day? An hour? A week? Do you want me to address the message Dear ___? Would you like me to address you with an introductory sentence? A closing thought? An email signature? Would you rather me tell you I got it, even if a proper response can’t be delivered for weeks? And how do I deal with email while still actually doing my job (which is music teaching, by the way, not sitting in front of a computer screen)? How many times a day should I check my email? Should I leave the notifications on? Should I even have the app open all the time in the first place? If I open it intentionally, how many times a day, and when? How do I respond like E.B. White when I perceive others to expect more in the modern age? 

 

At the end of the day, I think this article is a little unfair. I do not think that everyone deserves my attention, and they definitely don’t get it when they want it. But there are also some clear examples in my life of when my slow email response to others is inconvenient and disrespectful to them. So, even if I cant find a good answer to the questions in the previous paragraph, what do I do during weeks like these past few, when I am hopelessly behind? The article had a good idea: Recommending to others, when you are behind, that they find some other channel to reach you... a Slack channel, Twitter, post-it notes, etc... I love this idea, but Slack and Twitter don’t seem professional for school use.

 

So here is my proposal. A free app idea for anyone reading... I would like an app that... 

 

1. Has a user interface like a chat app.  

2. Allows anyone to reach me. 

3. Can interface with my SMS but does not give others access to my cell phone number. 

4. Has ‘office hours,’ meaning that messages don’t go through to me during hours I set. 


Something like the Remind app but that works in the opposite direction. I can give someone a link in my email signature, and they can message me through it informally, and expect at the least, a quick “I got it.” Know of anything?

My annual resume… and the things I learned from it

Holy blog-posts-I wish-I-had-posted-at-the-end-of-last-school-year-but-here-we-are-on-the-eve-of-my-new-school-year Batman! I guess its never too late to share some reflections on last school year as I look towards this one. I mention this just to caution you to read it as if I was posting it a month ago.

I am wishing my teacher friends (whether you have been back at school for days now, or are just starting) a wonderful new year!

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read):

It’s summer. I am reflecting on the school year. I had a very successful year professionally. It took a toll on me but I learned a lot. I will be saying no to some things this coming year. I also learned how to accomplish more in less time using tools like BusyCal and OmniFocus. Meal planning for the week was time efficient and healthier. Sneaking exercise into my day doubled as a teaching tool.

...

Prologue

I am nearing the end of a summer vacation that has included everything from cruising the coastline of Kauai with the top down, strolling through the city streets of San Jose with dear friends, to listening to incredible live music in the mountains of Telluride, Colorado. Summer is almost over. As I sit on the couch in Massanutten, VA with nothing in my schedule for the day other than maybe sitting here a little longer, I thought it would be worth finishing this blog post that has been sitting in my inbox for months.

It is time to take inventory of what was, by my measure, a professionally successful year. I have kept busy musically, while learning my limits and what it means to push them. This busy schedule forced me to examine stress (all stress is stress, even good stress), and manage energy and attention. I experimented with tackling tasks in short bursts of free time as well as saying "no." Teacher burnout is a real thing, but it is possible to manage a thick workload when you really love what you do. Warning: this is an out of the ordinary post for me. The following section is a potentially braggy list of stuff I did with my time this year. The tone of this post is even more conversational than usual, but also very practical. If you want to get to the practical part and skip my self-congratulating list of accomplishments, scroll down to “Learnings.” 

Here was my year in “stuff”…

My Annual Resume

Teaching band: First and foremost, if all I did this year was teach music to middle schoolers, I would consider that a success. As a whole, my music department put on over 16 concerts this year. We directed 14 performing groups, which played entirely different music on every one of those concerts. 

Teaching private lessons: The second busiest domain of my life was my private percussion teaching studio, comprised of 25-30 students. Many of these students made local and state level GT and Honor bands, performed successfully at Solo and Ensemble Festivals, made their top ensembles, and demonstrated inspiring levels of musical growth. 

Conference presenting: This year I had the opportunity to present at seven state level music education conferences on subjects: managing time and tasks effectively, getting digitally organized, using an iPad to work with sheet music, and playing in tune with the support of tuning apps. I presented at the Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York Music Educators Associations, in addition to the NAfME Conference in Texas. I consider these trips to be a great way to promote my book and continue to make connections with music educators and technology specialists across the country.

Co Directing the Elementary School Honor Band: A first for me! I had the opportunity to co direct the Elementary School Honor Band in my district, the Howard County Public School System. This 85 piece ensemble rehearsed from January through May and then put on a concert in May. It represented students from every Elementary School in our very diverse school district. 

Taking the Symphony Orchestra to Perform at the MMEA Conference: My orchestra director colleague and I got to take our extra-curricular Symphony Orchestra to our state level music educators association conference to perform. It was nice to exercise my directing skills in a music conference, as they pertain to my career more directly than technology.

Church Music Directing: For the past three years, I directed a contemporary music ensemble at the church where I grew up. I ultimately had to step down from this back in January. More on that below. 

New Podcast: Launched a new podcast, The Class Nerd podcast, with Nashville based educator, Craig McClellan. Episodes 1-10 are already out. Listen here.

Podcasting and Blogging: I managed to update my blog and podcast with content that I feel passionate about, though not as regularly as I wished. I plan to be more regular here this coming school year.

Having Fun! Finally, I managed to have a life! My wife and I went on numerous trips, enjoyed drinks with friends, kept up with a few serial dramas, and more. And I managed to get seven hours of sleep most nights.

So here are some things I learned...

Learnings

Too much stuff!!!

Wouldn’t you be surprised to know that I learned this amount of commitment is not sustainable! This year was very busy, and while I said a moment ago that I managed to have a life, I still need to have a better family balance with work. Looking back on all of those conferences, that was seven weeks out of a 40 week school year that I could have been cooking dinner with my wife, listening to music in the dining room. I don’t regret any moment of those conferences, but I would like to achieve a better balance next year.

Transition time is key

I also continue to realize how important transition time is. The colorful blocks in my calendar app had to be touching to fit all of my commitments into my schedule this past year. Having an extra 20 minutes here and there between stuff in my calendar helps me to stay on top of the logistic things that are the glue that hold the rest of the ship together. It also gives me a greater sense of calm and peace which allows my brain to better process what I have just done and approach what I am about to do with better clarity.

Just say no

I have been practicing saying no over the years. But sometimes saying no to prospective commitments is easier than those that you have been engaged with for years. In the thick of the school year, I had to let go of a job I have held for the past three years running a contemporary music ensemble at the church I grew up in. It was as an engaging task on multiple fronts, but I was ultimately not giving it the time it needed and so I had to make a choice. 

I will be making numerous other choices like this next school year. For example, I don’t think presenting at seven conferences is going to work out for me every school year, so next year I am aiming for one. And if my proposals are not accepted at any of them, I will present at none. But I will most likely pick one that has been an engaging source of professional community for me, and attend that one simply to learn.

Time and energy management

One of the challenges that increased the intensity of all of the above commitments was that my work day frequently only included one period of planning a day. This was a choice I made to see more of my students in instrument sectionals. It is hard to appreciate my own decision while in the weeds, but I think time will prove that this was a good choice.

This left me with some options… Wake up earlier and get some extra work done. This requires me to go to bed earlier. Which I never did. So the cycle would continue onward and I would wake up late. This means that I only have lunch and a planning to do any prep work for my day. Which also means I need to catch up after the school day which is actually when my mind is most focused on what I need to do. The problem is that two nights of the week I am running straight home to teach private lessons. The other three I am teaching an after school Jazz Band or Percussion Ensemble, then I am running straight home to teach lessons. Some nights I was not able to catch up until as late as 8 or 9. But then I am too tired to do anything other than watch Netflix. Not to mention I am too removed from my school day to meaningfully reflect. So I sit on the couch. And then maybe after an episode of Westworld, I take care of some email and tasks. Then I go to sleep late. Not too late to get a solid 6-7 hours, but too late to wake up early and get a head start the next morning. 

Of course, this includes little time for cooking or exercise. 

So how did I manage this? Barely… but I made some progress…

Cooking and Exercise

Exercise ended up getting the shaft towards the middle of the year. As I mentioned earlier, I am too tired at 9 pm, so I have to do it at 5 in the morning or most nights it wouldn’t happen. 

I was motivated to do this only if I was working towards something. So for the first half of the year, my wife and I registered for what felt like every 5K offered in the state of Maryland. This got me running whenever I could, even during small 30 minute cracks of transition time in my schedule.

I am also very competitive with my orchestra teaching colleague. We both have the Nike+ Apple Watch and during the months of fall would constantly compete over who could run more miles by comparing the Nike+ leaderboards every day in class. Finding a friend or coworker to work out with can be very motivating, especially when you talk about it constantly throughout the day.

We also learned to “cheat” by turning things into workouts that might otherwise not be considered exercise. We have to tear down the entire cafeteria table layout and set up 85 chairs and stands every Tuesday and Thursday morning for our before-school Symphony Orchestra rehearsals. If you do this really fast and run an Apple Watch “Other” workout, you’d be surprised how many calories you can burn. We got that routine down to seven minutes by the middle of the year. And I can do it in 16 by myself. #proud

When it got cold outside, we decided to change it up. Our principal had a pull up bar sitting in his basement. We asked for it and decided that we would start doing pull-ups at the turn of every class period. Educators as we are, we decided that we would use this as a teaching tool. Much like playing an instrument, if you do something in small increments consistently, you get better. Who knew? Not our students... they continued to think our leaderboard of pull-ups was a competition until the last day of school. But some of them caught on. We were modeling how to develop skills with consistent work ethic. It is a good message to put on display. And my upper body got way stronger.

Alright, to my final work out hack. Fact: Young wind instrumentalists don’t know how to breathe properly. To make a good sound, you have to take a deep and relaxed breath in. Kids don’t know how to do this. But the body knows how to do it naturally… when it is out of breath. So for a sectional lesson or two a year, I try to put my students into this state by making them work out as a warm up. It started with jumping jacks, but I found that didn’t wear their energetic little bodies out enough so I took this 7 Minute Workout App (this is another great way to sneak workouts in to your work day, by the way), and projected it onto the big screen in my room. I did this for an entire rotation of sectionals this year (which is seven school days long). And I teach three sectionals a day. That is three high intensity workouts a day for a week and a half. Those kids have never made a fuller, fatter tone (that lacks any sense of control whatsoever... you kind of have to tell them that, and then express the need to breathe deeply but then have a consistent airflow out).

The 7 Minute Workout app.

The 7 Minute Workout app.

On to food. My wife is super generous about cooking dinners and picks up a huge weight there. But we don’t have any time to cook the other meals of the day. So what do we do?

Our grocery list starts with the following...eggs, onion, green pepper, salmon, chicken, sweet potatoes, avocados, and asparagus. Some weeks we stock up on yogurt and nuts. I am a creature of habit and can eat the same thing every day for a while before needing to change it up.

So every Sunday, we buy all of this stuff I just mentioned. Then 1-2 dozen eggs, an onion, and a green pepper go into a bowl with salt and pepper. Next, we pour this mixture into these silicon muffin tins and cook for 20-30 minutes at 425 degrees. I eat two of these with a half avocado every morning. I can make close to the best cup of coffee imaginable in under seven minutes with Blue Bottle coffee, an Aeropress, a Baratsa Virtuoso grinder, and this kettle

This is a slightly fancier recipe for the eggy things. By the way,  Paprika  is a killer app for recipe planning.

This is a slightly fancier recipe for the eggy things. By the way, Paprika is a killer app for recipe planning.

Next is lunch. Easy. All of those other vegetables get roasted with coconut oil, salt, and pepper, until lightly browned. Then the chicken and or salmon goes in the oven until it is just barely safe from poisoning me. I pre-pack these into my Prepd lunch box modular containers and all of it fits in my backpack. No need to bring a lunch box. I supplement with nuts and RX Bars.

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Tech Tools

Now on to time and energy management. Tools that help me manage the many events in my day and the tasks I squeeze in the cracks. BusyCal is my go to on the Mac. It looks and feels like the macOS Calendar app in nearly every way with a ton of great power features on top. It has weather integration, the ability to tag events with people, and more. My favorite is a persistently open “Info” panel on the right side of the screen. Instead of double clicking events to see the notes and location I have assigned them, I click once. And instead of a floating modal box, I can always see the contents of my events. This feature alone is worth the 50 dollars for me. Especially because I use the notes field to track what my private students are working on and I hate clicking so many times in the standard Calendar app to get this info to show up in those modular pop-over windows.

Each lesson, I type student’s assignment into the “notes” field of their block. My “Lessons” calendar is in Google Calendar, and I have published it to a password protected part of my website for private students only. This way, they can log in to see when their next lesson is, and also what I assigned them recently. Now there is no excuse for them to say they forgot what I assigned. And it cuts down tremendously on unneeded parent communication. 

Check out the right side of the user interface of BusyCal. Reminders and an edit window can be persistently visible on the screen.

Check out the right side of the user interface of BusyCal. Reminders and an edit window can be persistently visible on the screen.

OmniFocus has been my “todo” app for years. OmniFocus has a great feature called Review where you set your task lists to be reviewed every “x” days, weeks, or months. Every day, it rolls up projects that need to be reviewed. If I wake up up early, this is what I do the moment I sit down at my desk. But it is also possible to do in little spurts throughout the day. This ensures that things don’t slip through the cracks. 

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OmniFocus just released their version 3.0 for iOS. This introduces some killer new features. First of all, the Forecast view now shows your tasks inline with your calendar so that you have better context for when you should be working on them.

Next, OmniFocus 3 supports a tag that will show something in the Forecast even if it is not due. While Reviewing, for example, I simply swipe left on the tasks that I want to be thinking about for the day, and it adds them to the list. 

Forecast view shows me my todos in context with my calendar events.

Forecast view shows me my todos in context with my calendar events.

OmniFocus now allows you to assign multiple tags to the same task, so I have began including tags for energy level. “Low,” “Medium,” and “High” help me to filter items based on my current state. If I have five minutes, and haven’t eaten in a while, I can look at all the “Low” energy tags and get one or two done. 

Conclusion

I don’t have a grand way to conclude these 3000 words other than to say that I am very proud of my year. I am hoping that next year looks different. I’d like to be less busy, but more importantly, I want to be more focused. Chopping off “domains” of life should afford the opportunity to do fewer things better and with more peace of mind. For now, I think I am going to go for a run and try to enjoy this last week of summer. Please reach out to me if this post was helpful to you in any way shape or form. It took a lot of time to write. I thought about keeping it in a journal for only me, but was encouraged that it could benefit other teachers who are at similar risk for burnout or simply want to increase their productivity.

Expect more blogging next year! Until then, enjoy these final days of summer and have a wonderful school year!

 

Recent Podcast Episodes - "Noteflight Marketplace" and "Going Paperless"

In case you do not subscribe to either of my podcasts, each had a new episode published this past week. They are good ones...

 

Going Paperless (Semester 1, Episode 8) | The Class Nerd - 

This week, The Class Nerd breaks down their paperless process. In this one, we cover scanning apps, file organization, PDF annotation apps, and handwritten note apps.

 

Noteflight Marketplace, with Friend John Mlynczak (Season 3, Episode 6) | Robby Burns + Friends -

This week Robby catches up with John Mlynczak, Managing Director of Noteflight, about their new Marketplace platform and the state of digital music publishing.

The Class Nerd Podcast (Sneak Peek)

I am excited to share a sneak peek of a project I have been working on for the past few months.

Nashville based educator, Craig McClellan, and I are launching a podcast later this summer called The Class Nerd. Our hope is to introduce teachers to some really cool technology tips and workflows that will help them on their path to being better educators.

As we sort out all of the technical details that come with managing a podcast, check out "Episode 0: Tech Origin Stories" where Craig and I discuss our paths to becoming classroom tech nerds.