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Transforming your "To Do" List into a "To LEARN" List

Transforming your "To Do" list into a "To Learn" list

"I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught"  

Quotations by Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

I was recently in the library with my son, when the book "Learn Like a Leader" by Goldsmith, Kaye & Shelton caught my eye.  The book is a compilation of leaders sharing their learning journeys.  I am a big Jim Collins fan, so I immediately jumped to his story. 

Collins refers to a learning person, as one who responds to every situation with learning in mind.  He asks us to look at our current personal list of objectives and current to do list.  So I did- you can try this now too!  Then answer the following questions:

  • Do you have to do lists?
  • How many items fall into the learning genre? 
  • How many focus on accomplishing things, rather than learning things? 
I have daily "to do" lists consisting of accomplishing, achieving and performing tasks.  Collins states that "a true learning person also has a "to learn" list, and the items on that list carry at least as much weight in how one organizes his or her time as the "to do" list.  This was an epiphany for me- I needed to start looking at things through a "learning" lens, instead of a "get things done" lens if I was to grow as an educator and leader.  I reflected on this that night.
That night:

I lay in my bed reflecting on a typical day at work - try it.  Each day I enter my office and print out 2 copies of my daily schedule for my administrative assistant and me.  It is basically a "to do" list consisting of things like: classroom walkthroughs, prospective teacher interviews, lunch duty, parent meetings and discipline referrals.  I end each day mentally and physically exhausted, sit back and look over my list thinking....I accomplished a lot today!  But what did I learn?  And did I really accomplish anything if I didn't learn?  The answer is not much and no!  I concluded that I was not a true "learning person," and that needed to change the very next day.
The very next day:

The next day I immediately put this new paradigm to the test while ordering my 99cent McDonald's black coffee on my way to work.  I typically pay the cashier at window 1, proceed to window 2 to pick up the coffee, say thank you and proceed on my way.  Today was different, I was a learner.  I struck up a conversation with the young man taking my debit card for payment.  He noticed the dent in my front fender and proceeded to offer me advice on how it could be best fixed, estimated cost, trusted automotive shops and even a trick to beat the insurance companies!  He was an auto enthusiast and auto mechanic in training.  I thanked him, letting him know that I learned from him today.  I passed by him hundreds of times before and learned nothing.  I never took the time to listen and ask questions.  That had changed; I had become a true learner.

Upon arriving to school (notice how I don't call it work) I adjusted my daily "to do" list consisting of 2 columns of time and To Do by simply adding a third column "To Learn."  I then went to the bottom of the list and added some categories I named "teachers."  This list included faculty, students, colleagues, parents & community and would represent all the people I anticipated learning from.  
My first stop was a walk-through visit to a freshman World History class.  The dynamic teacher, Mr. M. had photos posted of the 4 major religious sites of the Islam religion.  Students were discussing the photos trying to decipher their name, location and significance.  I did the same, only able to recognize Mecca.  Before leaving the class I learned some of the holiest cities of Islam are Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Kabala and Najaf.
I then participated in a parent meeting with a teacher.  The parents were concerned about how their daughter was doing in this particular teacher's class.  I listened to the parents share their concerns in a respectful manner and witnessed the teacher respond professionally and compassionately with helpful suggestions.  The meeting ended with a simple plan for the child to succeed, centered on communication among the adults.  I didn't say much during this meeting, just listened and learned.  It was pure magic to see parents and teachers working together.
At lunch I sat outside in our courtyard next to a student who read by himself each day.  I often would say hi to him and ask how he was doing, but never attempted to learn anything about, or from him.  Today would be different.  I sat next to Andrew and simply asked what book he was reading.  By the end of the lunch period we had exchanged summer reading books and I learned of his trips to Ireland, Italy and England, actually feeling like I had been to Europe just from his amazing stories and details.  It's hard to imagine that during the previous 148 days I learned nothing from this interesting student, but on day 149 of the school year that changed!
The afternoon flew by, as I jotted down notes from each of my learning experiences. At the end of this day I was still mentally and physically exhausted, but when I sat back looking over my "To Learn" list, I realized that I had become a true Learning person!  Won't you join me? 

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Comment by Bill Burkhead on September 13, 2011 at 8:01am



Congratulations on your new position!  Your students, staff and parents are fortunate to have a leader that models life long learning and has the ability to back it up with action.  Good luck this school year!

Comment by Scott Shaw on September 13, 2011 at 7:10am



Thank you for sharing your ideas.  Your post comes at an opportune time for me.  I am thrilled to be the new principal at a middle school, and I am looking for as many strategies as possible to help the students and staff succeed.  Leading by doing is a motto I strive to make a reality in my life.  Leading by learning is even better!  Thanks again.


Always Learning,



Comment by Bill Burkhead on August 30, 2011 at 4:01pm
Hi Karla, thanks for taking the time to read my post and comment.  I think it is important that we teach our students what learning is, how we learn, and that we can learn all the time.  The first thing I like to do is model for them that I continue to learn and offer specific examples on how I learn.  I also let them know that I learn from them as much as they will learn from me!
Comment by Karla O'Donald on August 29, 2011 at 8:44pm

Would you encourage your students to do this as well?  I think many students treat what they are supposed to be "learning" as a to do list and not a learning list.  Maybe is the fact that they know that will be tested over it and that they must meet the standards to be able to pass.  I try to learn something new everyday, but it is interesting that you learned from a person you did not expecte to learn from.  I think I need to evaluate what is it is that I value as learning, because I think that form me is something from a book or a study or an article an not everyday knowledge.  I have to keep a open mind.


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