Focusing on the Important Rather than the Urgent

Standard 1 of Teaching Leadership: Teacher leaders model ethical and moral behavior.

Dilemma:  In the demanding educational profession, how do we determine what is a priority?

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” Dwight D. Eisenhower. Charles E. Hummel addresses the struggle between determining what is important versus the idea of what is urgent.   In the field of education, it seems like Hummel’s classic booklet, “Tyranny of the Urgent” encourages us to mimic Christ in setting priorities instead of “letting the urgent things crowd out the important” (location 47).  Still, how is this possible in the educational field?  As an educator, we are at the demands of time, administration, students, parents, fellow teachers, and standardized assessments.  When attempting to calculate or determine importance in light of urgency, it does not feel like there is a way.

A comically named website indicates the following is what men should consider in their pursuit to the “art of manliness”; however, there is truth for everyone – especially educators.  When you consider that “urgent means that a task requires immediate attention [you need to realize that] urgent tasks put us in a reactive mode, one marked by a defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly-focused mindset” (Art of Manliness).  As an educator, it is too easy to look at inboxes, stacks of grading, and the endless requests from administration and feel that these items are the “important” ones when in fact, that is the furthest from the truth.  The goal of any educator is obviously his/her students and their well-being.  How, then, can we push aside those things “screaming” for attention in order to focus on what is most important?

Educators must realize that “important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals” (Art of Manliness).  It is time for educators to hit the proverbial “pause” button and determine his/her mission, values, and goals.  Professional development focuses on student learning; our new national teacher evaluation system focuses on student growth; and curriculum focuses on improvement in students’ knowledge.  When considering all the different influences in an educator’s life, does it not seem reasonable that everything that faces the teacher should focus on a student’s best interest as well?

Eric Jackson discusses the struggle between urgent and importance in his article, “The Only Thing You Need to Remember about the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”.  He explains a simplistic formula that encourages everyone to assess what is important versus what is urgent.  The following table illustrates his formula:


Jackson attests that “If you simply spend 30 minutes at the beginning of each week thinking about these 4 quadrants and what you want to spend your time on in the coming week, you will be 10x more productive than you usually are” (Jackson, 2012).  Jackson further explains, “What you’ll quickly realize is that you’ve only been spending time on urgent tasks each week.  It’s a constant fire-drill.  You’re simply trying to get one thing off your plate, so you can breathe for half a second and get to the next emergency to get off your plate” (Jackson, 2012).  By completing the quadrants and taking into consideration what is “urgent” and “important” then the rest of the table becomes non-urgent and therefore not stressful.

How then can an educator determine what is important?  He/she must revisit his/her mission and set of values as a teacher.  Unfortunately when one searches the internet for “setting priorities for teachers” nothing comes up about how to help teachers, the entries explain goal setting for students, strategies for successful students, and the like.  Or is this unfortunate?  If an educator focuses on the student and what his/her student needs to succeed then that is his/her mission.  To begin this task, an educator should look at his/her school’s improvement plan because this plan is central to the focus of all stakeholders in the school; therefore, the support is automatically built in.

Another source for teachers when attempting to assess importance versus urgency is their students.  Sometimes taking the first few weeks of a year, or a unit, to establish individual and class needs is imperative in relation to focusing on the important issues.  Pre-assessments and questionnaires help teachers establish where students are in their understanding of a subject.  While all this sounds elementary to any teacher, whether just beginning or tenured, how often do teachers actually take the time to reflect on this aspect of his/her teaching?  Google Docs® serve as simple and very accessible tools in retrieving relevant data for teachers.  Creating questions that are specific and that students can answer quickly is also important so the student sees the relevance and importance.  For example, at the beginning of the year asking questions (for a literary analysis class) that address a student’s exposure to literary terminology, literature genre, and the writing process can give a teacher a snapshot of what important ideas to cover with his/her students.

The moral dilemma in this situation is how to make sure educators cover every portion of education when focused on the important and not just the urgent.  It takes time to learn how to address items that match an educator’s mission statement and values rather than becoming overwhelmed with the urgent.  Douglas Rushkoff claims that we are “experiencing ‘present shock’ – a condition in which ‘we live in a continuous, always-on ‘now’’ and lose our sense of long-term narrative and direction.  In such a state, it is easy to lose sight of the distinction between truly important and merely urgent” (Art of Manliness).

Unfortunately, we base our lives on the “Tyranny of the Urgent” as Charles E. Hummel states, “We spend hours on the impulse of an unexpected opportunity of demand.  Then we complain that our time flies away, leaving some important tasks unfinished” (location 131).  In order to serve our students best, educators must take time to reflect on the important – their students’ success and well-being – not the urgency of someone else’s demands.

Next steps: by looking at my artifacts, reflections, and assignments from the Moral Issues in Education course, I am reminded that I cannot continually be a “slave” to my to-do list.  I entered the teaching profession to impact lives and I believe that I still do; however, it is sometimes secondary to what I feel others think is important rather than what I know to be important to my mores and my students.  I have accumulated a lot of “Mama Boas Moment” topics which address my values as an educator – student mental health; with these topics, I am going to pursue what I began last year which was sharing them with the faculty in our staff-learning sessions.


Art of Manliness. (2013). Eisenhower Decision Matrix.  Retrieved from

Hummel, C. (1967). Tyranny of the Urgent. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. Retrieved from

Jackson, E. (2012). “The Only Thing You Need to Remember About the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. Forbes. Retrieved from

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