Of all the habits in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the one that has resonated with me the most is Sharpening the Saw. To illustrate this habit, Covey tells the story of a man who was walking through a forest when he came across a frustrated lumberjack.

The lumberjack was trying to cut down a tree with a saw and was swearing and cursing as he labored in vain.

“What’s the problem?”  The man asked.

“My saw’s blunt and won’t cut the tree properly.”  The lumberjack responded.

“Why don’t you just sharpen it?”

“Because then I would have to stop sawing.”  Said the lumberjack.

“But if you sharpened your saw, you could cut more efficiently and effectively than before.”

“But I don’t have time to stop!” The lumberjack retorted, getting more frustrated.

The man shook his head and kept on walking, leaving the lumberjack to his pointless frustration.


When I read this story, it made me think about what it feels like to be an educator these days.  We are the lumberjacks and our skills, knowledge, and resources are our saws.  I have been the lumberjack when I felt like I couldn’t possibly be away from my students for another day to learn anything else.  I have also been the man walking through the forest as I see so many great techniques and ideas that would make the time we do spend with students more effective.

I don’t pretend to have the perfect answer, but I realize that both people in this story have something valuable to contribute.  While we should spend as much time with students as possible (lumberjack perspective) we should also take time to improve so that classroom time is as valuable as possible (man walking through the forest perspective).

What resonates with you about Covey’s story?  How do you balance the perspectives of the lumberjack and man walking through the forest?  Please let me know in the comments.


  1. Robert,
    This is such a timely and ironic post for me to read. Thank you. As you know, you are speaking here next week and for almost a year since you told me I’ve been planning to attend. As the workshop has gotten closer I’ve had some questions about it. First, I’m a weenie and it took me forever to ask my principal for permission. Finally I did and he said it was fine. Since then I’ve been trying to deal with our public school district to get the funding through Title 2. It’s been a pain. Along the way I’ve also decided to add 2 days to my NCTM trip so I can also attend NCSM. All of this has made me wonder, should I just skip the wksp, even though I’ve literally been looking forward to it for a year?

    So that’s the background and here’s how this story resonates with me…
    I have missed one day of school this year. It was to go to Asilomar. I know that taking 2 days for the workshop is not awful since I’m always at school. Even with the week in San Antonio following 2 weeks later, it doesn’t worry me too much because that week our 7th and 8th grades will be on trip and so I won’t miss them (that was a huge part of why I’m trying out both conferences this year). However, thinking about the fact that finding subs is really hard (and we have to find them for ourselves) and the quality of sub I can get in, makes me worry. It’s no surprise that even the best subs we have usually aren’t super comfortable with 8th grade Algebra 1, right? So I worry – more than I should. I think to myself, ok, well I’ll make sure to leave a test for them one day so it’s not so bad, but…. And I find myself talking myself out of attending because more than anything, my desire is always to be with my kiddos and I feel guilty leaving them with a sub.

    BUUUUT… Then there’s the other side. There’s a lot of negativity surrounding me at school. Generally, I feel like me against them, as in, I love teaching math, and my perception is they tolerate it at best. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how I can engage the K-5 teachers to try something new and engage in some interesting problems with me. I’ve spent a lot of the year frustrated that they don’t think about teaching math with enthusiasm. It gets to me. So for me, the “sharpening of the saw” is more than just learning from you, because I’ve done that. I’m lucky. Sharpening the saw in this case also relates to my need for some self care. I need to be around people who want to be better and who want to learn from the best! I need to be around people who want to sit and try out some math together. I need to feel that excitement from people other than my students. I also need to hear different perspectives from people, because maybe I spend too much time in my own head, focused on the same “why can’t they…” questions and be reminded of ways that other people engage with their staffs. Granted, if I wait 2 weeks I’d get a lot of that at NCSM/NCTM. And that’s a lot of the reason I’ve been going back and forth so much. Do I just wait to recharge my teacher batteries? I mean, 2 years ago in Boston at NCTM was one of the best weeks of my entire life, so i know it’s coming and will be there for me. But I still think that your workshop IS the right choice because maybe I will have a chance to interact with people from my area with whom I can interact more off line. I will learn a ton from you. That’s not even a question. You’re one of the most thoughtful and thorough presenters I’ve seen.

    Ultimately, what I will take back to my kiddos > 2 days of them being with a sub. I have to remember that and it’s time to focus on sharpening that saw of mine.

    Thanks, Robert, for letting me think this through. Sorry for the epically long comment 🙁 See you next week!

    • Thanks for being so open and thoughtful with your reflection. These are complex choices where you have to weigh seemingly equally important choices. I think it is natural to feel like prioritizing students is the most important. I hope that this metaphor gives more of a balanced perspective to these choices though.

      Personally, I am biased and am glad you are coming to the training. I think it will be fun. It’s hard to say how many people you will be able to continue to interact with off line, but I’m sure that your interactions with other participants while you are there will be helpful too.

      See you in a week.

      • Hi Casey, i’ve been to nctm annual mtg last year and the year before. I can’t go this year and I am gutted. Your concerns about leaving (i.e. finding your own supply) make going difficult, stressful, and require investment of time and resources to resolve. My situation is not thatdifferent from yours. It majes it super tough. I don’t downplay it at all, but my experience is they pale in comparison to the investment; what you’ll learn; and who you meet. Now that ive been, I hope this is the last year I ever miss the conference. I pay out of pocket to go, flying in from Canada. Worth every penny. (well, nickel… we don’t have pennies in Canada anymore.) Enjoy yourself.

      • I don’t know if the following applies to this story, because the lumberjack will come back after sharpening the saw.
        What about going to buy many saws and give them away to other lumberjacks?
        I would love to become a teacher trainer, to reach more students, but without having direct contact with them.
        Don’t you miss having groups (all through the year?

    • One word for you Casey.


      Your ‘epically long comment’ resonates with me. I couldn’t have articulated your struggle any better, even though it is exactly the same struggle I have for any day away from students.

      I do think we need to know when enough is enough, though, and we need to take the time to use the saw we have sharpened instead of feeling there is always a better tool out there to sharpen more and more.
      The advice to only change up to 10% of your practice each year is solid and sustainable. I think that is the source of the huge increase in stress on teachers AND parents this year. This is like our first year of teaching when it was ALL new. We are forced to change more than 10% this year because it is what it is, a new world. For those who were already providing a flipped class, the change may not be as big or stressful, but we are all dealing with new expectations from administrators on one side and parents on the other who ALSO are new to this. No wonder we want to pull out our hair, lol.

      At the end of the day, I have settled on knowing that I am the expert teaching professional in my classroom with my students. I will try to check off as many required boxes for walk-throughs and observations, but when I do EVERYTHING with the focus on student learning, rather than satisfaction of any other pressure, I can sleep better and defend my choices when they are not respected by well-meaning people who aren’t my students.

  2. Dear Yoda TOSA:
    Super powerful & wish I knew the words that could make everyone see their value as an educator. Keep them coming, because you always make me think deeply about my choices!

    • Thanks for the laugh Lybrya. I liked this metaphor for the same reason. It really helped me gain additional perspective on this complex choice.

  3. I know some teachers who will only do PD during the school year and will not do any in the summer. This confuses me. I can get lots of good stuff done over the summer, and on evenings and weekend, especially with all the asynchronous media out there. It’s rare for me to go a whole school year without a MOOC, and the resources I get from the MTBOS are incredible.

    That said, I did take 2 days off last month to go to a conference and it was well worth it. I learned a ton and got things that I could bring in to my classroom immediately, so the very kids who missed me for a couple of days will benefit from my learning. I guess it all comes down to how likely you feel the school is to shut down without you. While I certainly feel like I am an important part of my faculty, I know that they can get along just fine if I’m out a day here or there. And what better reason to be out than to sharpen my saw?

    • Hi Kathy. I can totally relate to everything you said. Scheduling PD in my own school district is fairly tricky too. So many competing initiatives. It’s understandable why teachers would feel burnt out. I also get that teachers want to have summers off so they can be with their family and/or recharge.

      Maybe MOOCs or other online courses provide a nice alternative going forward.

    • That was a really good talk Alex. I can see the connections you made between the two zones and this blog post. I appreciate you taking the time to let me know about it.

  4. Love the metaphor.
    “Given 10 hours to cut down a tree, I shall spend the first 8 sharpening my saw. “-Abraham Lincoln.

  5. This definitely resonates with me! I read the Stephen Covey book about 20 years ago and it is timeless. It relates to all areas of life. I started to play tennis a decade ago and I absolutely love it. Back then, I had more time to take drills and sharpen my saw. It 100% improved my game to invest in that time. Now, being back to work full time as a teacher after being “home” for eleven years, I don’t have the time to invest in both play and drills given the time demands of teaching and keeping balance in my life.

    This year marks the 4th year of the second part of my teaching career and I find myself on three committees as well as being a grade level team leader. While I have always dreaded making sub plans and being away from students, I’ve adopted a new perspective. This is a time for me to refresh, refine, discover, uncover, and perhaps restructure. The portion of my time spent on reflection has increased and I hope this translates to better practice in my classroom. Though at first glance, many would describe me as a “seasoned” teacher in years, my mind feels young and energized. I am hungry to learn and sharpen my saw. Perhaps this is because I had a second launch in my career after time away. Perhaps this is who I am due to personality. Either way, I appreciate the professional development more than I did before. I very recently started a math vlog to share what inspires me, to think deeply about math and how I teach.

    My experiences with students are a source of sharpening as well! I am not an experienced vlogger so I feel vulnerable and exposed. Maybe a way to sharpen our saw is to put ourselves out there in a new way, to be a bit uncomfortable because we lack expertise in an area. All the while, we are honing this new skill or area with professional development. That reality for each person is as unique as the person is.

    • Thank you for beautifully articulating your journey towards finding balance between sharpening and sawing. It’s not easy and there is no single right answer. Glad you are realizing that investing in yourself is worthwhile!

  6. A few years ago, I was teaching high school math and physics. I was busy. SO busy that my room became an unorganized mess. Piles of papers on the window sills. Cabinets with no organization.

    I decided to set aside 15 minutes every morning to clean up. I set my timer every day for 15 minutes and sorted through things and filed or threw them away. If the timer ended, I stopped. No extensions. I promised myself I would stop after 15 minutes.

    Two weeks later, I was running out of things to do during the 15 minutes and my classroom and cabinets were very organized. No more piles on the window sill. Amazing!

    I expanded the idea to my home, and it worked there too.

    • This is a beautiful way to approach it. I’ve done similar, albeit less strict things. For example, when I was writing my book, I often felt like I did NOT want to do any writing. So I told myself I would write for 30 minutes. Some days it was a struggle. Some days I made it. Some days I kept working right past it. But that goal felt attainable and made a difference over time.

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