The Picture-Day Shirt

My mother didn’t know my brother wore the same shirt for school pictures every year. The blue-plaid shirt was a hand-me-down from an older brother, who also wore it for school pictures. And not until she caught up on scrapbooks a few years later, did my mom discover the “picture shirt.”

But my brother had nothing on Dale Irby. A physical education teacher, Irby started his yearbook picture protocol by mistake. He realized too late that he had worn the same shirt for picture day two years in a row.

 On his wife’s dare, he wore the same outfit the third year and then the fourth. And soon it was no longer a decision. What started as a mistake became his practice. It was just what he did.

This simplified picture day for Dale Irby. That’s what routines do. They let parts of your life run on autopilot so you can save brain energy for more important matters.

As a beginning teacher, I lacked routine. And soon I was drowning in work—papers to read, messages to answer, lessons to plan, discipline reports to file, tests to write, and grades to record. I’d look at my mounded-up desk after school each day and spend too much time figuring out where to start.

Why, I wondered, did some teachers—good teachers—leave school with cleaned-off desks in time to get home for dinner?

I watched these teachers and discovered their tightly-held routines. Barring bomb threats or pneumonia or snow days, they planned lessons on Monday, made copies on Tuesday, answered email right after school, packed a bag of papers to grade every single evening, and came back to school each morning caught up and ready to do it all again.

They wasted no energy bemoaning work, no thought about what to do next, and no time flailing around trying to get started. They rid themselves of routine work as quickly as possible. And with all these recurring, short-time tasks subdued, they had space to become creative in their teaching.

I don’t know Dale Irby. But I can imagine my brother on picture-day mornings—using up the energy he saved to solve an extra math equation or to sing with solfege.

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