Urgency vs. Importance

We landed in Kwajalein Atoll after two weeks in quarantine. With no grading, planning, or teaching, I was tasked with caring for my three children. Each day, corralled in a modest house, my family would have to design our day; sunrise to sunset. Would it be chaos, order, or something in between?

The Marshall Islands oozes with WWII history. Whether it be radioactive islands or sunken vessels, it’s impossible to ignore the military influence, both present and past, of living in this U.S. Army Garrison. This new reality coupled with a forced slowing of my daily, professional responsibilities have necessitated the resetting of priorities. But it’s not that easy. How was I to break old habits and create new ones out of thin air? With themes of the United States Army and teaching, I began to employ Dwight Eisenhower’s Matrix. Just as teachers do, Eisenhower famously worked in high stress environments with unenviable responsibilities, and his approach was simple: properly prioritizing urgency and importance.

I have to admit that, as an educator, father, husband, and citizen, I was terrible at this. It seemed like everyday, urgency would take precedence over importance. An email from a parent, an ineligible student, the next day’s lesson; all would pull and pull and pull me further into the urgency of the moment. Without fail, I’d arrive home each evening (and wake up each morning) exhausted from the perpetual revolving door of requests and tasks. What’s tricky is that, as educators, we’re made to believe that everything we do is vitally important. In the role of counselors we help guide our students through unfathomable personal difficulties. In the role of social workers, we report concerns with heavy personal and legal ramifications. In the role of mentors, we hold the line for the next generation of educators and students who need experienced individuals to light the way. All this, plus the daily pressures of planning, implementing, adjusting, grading, and conferring. 

But how often do we sacrifice important for the urgent? How many times do we skip eating, stay up late, grade during faculty meetings, and forget the value of investing in the long term sustainability of our personal and professional lives? Certainly we’ll never be told to slow down. Everything’s made to feel urgent and, regardless of how well adjusted you may be, the inevitable pressure to perform the urgent over the important can bend or even break you. 

Eisenhower would say to do the task both urgent and important first. Certainly easier said than done. As educators, 2020 has thrown a massive wrench in an already complicated existence. The contrast between urgent and important (and those cases when it’s both!) have never been greyer. Educators are vitally important and provide invaluable support for the day to day lives of many members of the community but, remember, that your impact only extends as far as your capacity. Caring for ourselves and taking the time to prioritize our lives can be exactly what’s needed to make the impact we all dream of making.

I’ve started a little preschool for my daughter. She’s four and has missed all the joys and trials of a pre-pandemic preschool. Let’s be clear, I’m a secondary teacher with little to no formal early childhood education experiences. But I’m a father who took a leap of faith to shed some urgency for importance. So here I am, daily fumbling and losing patience for a process that feels comically easy yet impossibly difficult. With phone pinging and emails arriving I have to choose to be present. To stick to the important over the seemingly urgent. Netflix undoubtedly plays a role when I need to “adult,” but here I am, trying to better understand importance and urgency. Since November 10th, I’ve allowed myself to breath. I miss teaching and am counting the days to my return but, until then, finger painting, logic puzzles, and alphabet songs all serve as daily reminders that balancing urgency and importance is my pursuit. As we move into the holidays and you stop to take a break, how will Eisenhower’s Matrix impact your spring?


Nate Rios

Nate Rios has been a staple of the Flowing Wells community for 20 years. Even before earning a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Religious Studies from the University of Arizona and a post-baccalaureate certification in 2007, he was a part of Flowing Wells High School, in Tucson, Arizona. Beginning in 2000, at the age of 18, Rios began volunteering to help mentor students through the non-profit Young Life. Long before teaching, he felt a calling to care for high school students regardless of their life situations. Due to his teaching experience, his values have grown even stronger: relationships always come first.
In his 13 years teaching, Rios has worn many hats. Student Council, National Honors Society, leadership retreat, department chair, new teacher induction instructor, and instructional coach are just some of the many ways he’s contributed to the high school community. In 2018 he was an ambassador for teachers as a featured educator in Tucson Values Teacher’s documentary, TEACHING IN ARIZONA. His experiences caring for students and teachers both inside and outside of the classroom have led him all over the state to speak on behalf of educators and Arizona students. In 2020, his efforts culminated in his selection as an Arizona Educational Association Ambassador for Excellence.
Ask any of his colleagues or students and they’ll tell you that he is dedicated to the betterment of the lives of every child and teacher.

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