Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

January 1, 2009

Looking Inward: Valuing Reflection in a Multitasking World

Looking Inward: Valuing Reflection in a Multitasking World

By William Sterrett (VA '08) and Laura Marshall (VA '08)


As the principal sat in the second-grade classroom, surrounded by writing samples and eager seven-year-olds waiting their turn to share, his work cell buzzed. Glancing up at his laptop screen, where he was inputting data during his walk-thru observation, the principal realized he had not even been in the classroom for one minute and was already being summoned as the school's "first responder." After the crisis settled, he tried to resume the observation and saw that 12 emails had accumulated in his inboxin less than 10 minutes!

"Amazing," he thought to himself, envisioning what was waiting at the end of those mouse clicks. The principal shook his head and re-focused on what is of utmost importance to today's principal: student learning. A second-grader handed the seated principal his writing sample and proudly grinned.

In today's 21st-century educational climate, principals and teachers alike are bombarded from a variety of angles and we risk missing the forest for a few electronic trees if we are not careful. In a world of myriad professional (and social) networks, numerous email accounts, text messages and the steady onslaught of issues and crises that must be addressed, today's educator can easily lose focus of the central necessity to reflect as a leader and as a learner.

Recent studies point to the danger of multitasking. Christina Rosen1 noted that multitasking is really about attention and "how to exercise judgment about what objects are worthy of our attention" while noting numerous studies that indicate that today's "hustle and bustle" may be taking a toll on us professionally and personally. Likewise, Stanford researchers2 have recently noted that our "cognitive control" may actually be impaired by today's lightning-quick tech tools. Again, finding balance is the key. As young educators we have found that three areas of reflection are essential in growing as a leader — and in maintaining our sanity.

Professional Reflection

MONO-TASKING. Principal Sterrett spends some focused time and effort with a student, free from distractions.

In a high-paced environment where principals and teachers can easily be seen as fluttering about "like butterflies on speed,"3 it is essential to carve time out for professional reflection. Finding time to reflect on our priorities, take stock of our accomplishments and growth areas, and carefully select what conferences, professional development or professional reading to engage in can truly shape our next steps as educators.

Taking time to write, lead a discussion group, share at a conference and present in local university classrooms can help sharpen our focus while sharing a much-needed practitioner's perspective in an ever-changing professional landscape. We have to be sure that our time and efforts are fully cycling back to our basic need and goal: our children and their needs. Students need to be challenged in their thinking; did the lesson accomplish that? We need to make sure that our email accounts are addressed, but put on hold while we think about just how the day went and where it needs to be taken tomorrow. We are leaders of the learners — we need to embrace that charge as educators.

Collaborative Reflection

Our roles as successful principals and teachers also include creating and maintaining "a climate of sustainability"4 and continued growth for the school community. Successful teachers continue to observe each other and learn, grow and change in high-performing schools. As principals, we can foster this growth and encourage it by highlighting successful strategies and approaches in our faculty meetings, empowering teachers who are leading by example, and by taking time to grow in our own principal professional learning communities5.

Embracing our roles as lifelong learners and collaborating with colleagues makes for a rich and positive working environment. Even the greatest of lessons improves tenfold once chewed on, thought through and seen from a variety of viewpoints. In the end, the biggest winners are our students!

Personal Reflection

Let's face it; we live in a fast-paced world and there is no sign it is slowing down. As educators we need to be right there keeping up with today's learning, research and technology (we know the students are). As our days are fluid and ever-changing, so should be our lessons. We should envision ways in which to grow: learning a new language, thinking of next steps professionally and finding ways to enjoy our work. We should strive, above all, to find and maintain balance in order to live and lead a healthy life. We should wisely appraise opportunities that are before us and find ways to contribute as well.

HELPING HAND. Third-grade teacher Laura Marshall tends to a student’s question diligently while instructing her class.

As leaders in the field of education, our voice is important to enabling our students to meet the evolving demands of a "flat"6 world. We must be prepared to learn, grow andshare. This is not to say that we must jump on each bandwagon that comes our way; instead, we should stop and think about what is around and going on to better our products. In some cases that product is our lesson, our presentation, our cell phone or our diet; but in the best of cases, that product is our future.

About the authors

William Sterrett is an elementary principal with Albemarle County Schools (VA) and can be reached at Laura Marshall is a third-grade teacher in Chesterfield County Public Schools (VA) and can be reached at Both are 2008 Milken National Educators and are involved in the Virginia Milken Educators' Network.

1 Rosen, C. (2009). The myth of multitasking. The New Atlantis. Retrieved on September 26, 2009 from

2 Gorlick, A. & Hubbard, J. (2009). Media multitaskers pay mental price. Stanford Report. Retrieved on September 26, 2009 from

3 Connelly, M. (2007). Harried principals aren't helpful principals. Principal, 86 (5), 32.

4 Sterrett, W. (2008). A Principal Looks at 30. Principal Magazine 87 (5), 64. Article retrieved from link on November 12, 2009

5 Sterrett, W. & Haas, M. (2009). The power of TWO. Educational Leadership, 67 (2), 78-81. Article retrieved from link on November 12, 2009.

6 Friedman, T. L. (2005). The world is flat. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.


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