At first, the image of being surrounded by sand might be appealing. Personally, being on any beach with loved ones is one of my favorite places to be. But in the era of high stakes testing and the burden of ultimate accountability for a school’s success or failure resting squarely on the shoulders of the building leadership, not sweating the small stuff can make it difficult to stay out of the sand some days, weeks, or longer. Let this serve as a reminder about staying focused on what is truly important.

Regardless of where we are in our school improvement process, I find it important to take my staff through a personal and professional goal-setting activity at the beginning of every school year. Called everything from “Filling our Bucket” and “What’s in Our Jar” to “Not Living in the Sand,” this activity served to frame, present, and remind my staff of my core values and to specifically state our instructional priorities. It also serves as a great activity to regain traction and focus—or finally take control of the focus—as we approach the common educator fatigue that late fall and winter brings.

You can find many different interpretations and presentations of this demonstration of priorities, most of which are about time management. Here’s how I adapted it to fit my leadership style. I started with an empty glass bowl—a round fish bowl, a glass vase, or a mason jar. I asked my staff to identify three to five of the most important components of their personal life which are critical to their life’s fulfillment and happiness (e.g., family, health, faith). I then took three to five blocks to represent these critical components and placed them in the glass bowl. I said to my staff, “These blocks represent those priorities in your life, and if all else were missing from your life, and only these blocks remained, your life would still be meaningful and fulfilled.” I shared my own “blocks” with my staff: family, health, service/value-added, and integrity.

From there, I added marbles that filled in the space between the large blocks until the bowl was full of blocks and marbles. Finally, I poured in sand that filled in the space between the marbles and blocks. With the addition of each new item, I asked my team to consider the things in life that were important to them but not essential to life’s fulfillment. I provided examples like work, school, participating in sports, traveling, or a hobby of some sort. These priorities were represented by the marbles in our bowls, and then the things that were of convenience to them or materialistic (the small stuff) were represented by the sand. I then acknowledged to my staff, “If we were to fill our bowls with marbles or sand first, we would have no room for our big blocks—our priorities, the things that really mattered.” I told my staff I cared about their big blocks and that they needed to make sure those always came first—and that I would provide support and modeling to help them make that a reality.

Next, we talked about our schoolwide priorities for the year, our school’s big blocks. What were we were going to fill our school jar with so if we did not get any other material in our students’ glass bowls, they would be instructionally, socially, and emotionally fulfilled? We continued with the process of identifying our marbles (the priorities, skills, and achievements we would like for our students to leave with, but at the end of the day were secondary to our blocks). Then there was our sand representing the minutiae, all the things that if we put in our students’ bowls first, we would never make our schoolwide priorities fit.

I found this a powerful way to keep my staff motivated and on point, and a great way to keep us laser focused on our priorities throughout the school year. It also allowed great opportunities to say, “no more sand,” “not living at the beach today,” “not sweating the sand today,” “focused on my blocks,” or “are you thinking about your blocks?” These phrases often came out of my mouth when adults would attempt to impose misaligned consequences on students or make decisions based on adult convenience over student needs or best interests.

Some years I would display our bowl all year long in a common place like our main office to serve as constant reminder of the need to focus on and take care of our big blocks. I would also bring the bowl back out during our school improvement plan and action plan monitoring sessions, a constant reminder of why we set the priorities.

There’s one additional step to the activity, where you add a glass of water to the seemingly full bowl to demonstrate there is always room for a drink after work. Point well taken—be sure to celebrate growth and accomplishment and take some time for team building. Make sure that celebrations of growth and accomplishments are at least a marble in your glass bowl—or you can bet your message will fade by winter. Not everyone’s personal glass bowl will be the same, but everyone’s school blocks need to be identical. Take care of your blocks and stay out of the sand. May your daily acts be focused and aligned with your personal and schoolwide priorities.

Kristina MacBury is principal at Sarah Pyle Academy in Wilmington, DE. She is an author, speaker, leadership coach, and advocate for school happiness agency. She is a 2018 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year and in 2017 was named a Top 30 Technologist, Transformer, and Trailblazer by the Center for Digital Education. Follow her on Twitter at @MacBuryKristina and visit her blog, Educate 4 Hope.

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