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How to find the routine in new circumstances

When school environments demand so much change, it's important to carve out some normalcy.

5 min read

Educational Leadership

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During the second week of January, I had two conversations with colleagues, one after the other, that dealt with the same idea. When that happens, it usually leads me to think that the idea is a valuable one. 

We were reflecting on the fact that, although we are still moving through a pandemic, the lessons we learned last year aren’t necessarily translating into situations experienced, and actions taken, this year. That’s a tough problem for leaders to work through. Even the most innovative and flexible leaders look to lean on repetition and routine. We need something predictable to rely on, which allows us to focus decision-making on energy-intensive questions and scenarios. If everything is novel, we risk becoming overtaxed. 

The conversation was so eye-opening because, as challenging as the pandemic has been personally, it has been equally challenging professionally. The novel nature we are encountering every day is requiring more direct decision-making than we can process effectively. 

So what can we do in this situation? How can we continue to support ourselves and others to move work further in the most effective ways? I’m no expert in this area; I’m just as tired and brain-drained as everyone else. That said, I’ve found three strategies that keep me energized and focused on successful outcomes for all.

Recognize the novelty

It’s important to take a moment to grasp the scope of the novelty we’re experiencing. Not only has the vast majority of us never lived through a pandemic like this before, but none of us has lived through a pandemic like this in the same social, political and cultural constructs as exist now. Recognizing this allows us to become more comfortable living with our own stress, discomfort and failure. And, hopefully it helps us appreciate successes even more. 

To comes to terms with this, we can take the time to balance ourselves daily. We can engage in activities such as meditation, short walks or safe gatherings with friends. In so doing, we remove ourselves from the constant barrage of pandemic-related decision-making and become more capable of recognizing the truly extreme, different situations. This strategy takes time, but it’s key to helping us find balance.


With so much happening at any given time, normal barriers between work and personal lives often disappear, making it more challenging to compartmentalize. I’ve found that time limits help regain that separation. As silly as it sounds, I mark out time each evening – generally from the time I get home until my kids are in bed – to avoid looking at email or other work. Phones aren’t allowed at the dinner table. I also set a hard stop on all work items at least an hour before I want to be asleep, and I work to keep this consistent. I have learned that I need a good hour to relax and settle down. This has done wonders for my sleep patterns. 

I have also built up support compartments to help me segment my life so everything doesn’t flow together. Besides a family group and a friends group, I have a critical group of colleagues who have become great allies and confidants, as well as a new learning group where I don’t know the educators as well. Add in work colleagues and associated acquaintances, and I feel like my circles are small enough to manage without significant overflow. This bucketing allows my brain to avoid too-large thinking at all times.

Find patterns

In the absence of long-term routines, patterns can be life-saving. Recognizing my ability to engage in different elements of work at different times of day, or seeing the strengths of colleagues and how they can help move work forward, have kept me afloat. Of course, this means we have to reflect on our own work and learning and help others do the same. 

I recently was introduced to a tool called a BoT – behavior over time – visual by colleague Tim Kaltenecker. By reflecting on a behavior or series of actions we’ve taken and charting it out over a time-based graph, we can study our reactions to various stimuli. While not scientific in the traditional sense, these charts help pinpoint patterns and our responses. 

Creating these charts is easy (paper and pencil is sufficient), and the value comes from reflecting on why we see the patterns we do and then comparing them with the experiences of others. The more patterns we identify, the better we become at building new routines or fixing unwanted habits.

Eventually, the current pandemic will become endemic. Our current stresses will become a part of the new normal of life, and routines will begin to appear anew, allowing our minds, bodies and souls to focus in ways that our current situation prevents us from doing. Time will tell as to when that happens; in the meantime, these strategies and others can serve as a valuable way to keep ourselves, and others, moving forward.

Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks, and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.


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