Peter DeWitt

Sharpen the Saw

Life can be very stressful. Many of us are so happy to have jobs that we feel the need to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When we are not working more and more hours, we are on the Internet searching for the most current education practices to help us in our classrooms and school buildings.

If we're lucky, a thunderstorm comes through from time to time and we lose power for a few hours, which forces us to sit in silence or play a game from our childhood. When is the last time you picked up a deck of cards to play Pitch, Go Fish, or some other card game? We have candles in our cabinets that are begging us to use them and significant others and children who want to have conversations with us that do not revolve around education.

In our society, we have a real issue unwinding, which means that we have a generation of adults (and kids!) who are becoming increasingly stressed. The only time we relax is when nature forces us to do so.

Sharpen the Saw

"The essence of renewing the physical dimension is to sharpen the saw, to exercise our bodies on a regular basis in a way that will preserve and enhance our capacity to work and adapt and enjoy.” (Covey, 1989, p. 291)

With 24/7 media and social networks constantly calling for our responses, we can all feel as though we have too much going on all day, every day. In his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Stephen Covey wrote that effective people know how to "sharpen the saw."

Sharpening the saw means that we disconnect from the outer world to take time and recharge our own batteries. With so many outside influences coming at us on television, the radio, and the Internet, we never really take time to connect with ourselves, which is why sharpening the saw is so important. More concerning is that we are in jeopardy of losing a connection with the loved ones around us.

Connecting with Childhood

If effective people know how to disconnect and sharpen the saw, does that mean there are millions of us who are not effective? We have a generation of students who do not understand the concept of disconnecting. They sit at the dinner table with their cell phones texting to their friends, and when dinner is over, they run to their bedrooms and call their friends or talk with them through Facebook or some other social media outlet.

There are school systems that are replacing recess with more academic time, which means that there are school systems that are taking on the responsibility of robbing children of the opportunity to sharpen the saw. More concerning than that is they are teaching children that academic time is much more important than taking the time to play and have fun with friends out in nature. In education, we seem much more concerned with teaching students how to connect with peers from around the world than we are with getting them to go outside to connect with themselves.

"Whatever form recess takes, opportunities for recess are being minimized. The momentum from this trend may be due to the fact that politicians and school superintendents see this as a way in which to get tough on education." (Pellegrini, 2005)

There must be a balance between both. To truly connect with peers from around the world, students must have the opportunity to go outside and play. They must connect with their childhood, reconnect to their inner child, and sharpen their own saws so that they can reenergize and find success. If we provide students with the breaks they need, we will see direct benefits in our classrooms.

"The immaturity of their nervous systems and their lack of experience render children unable to perform higher-level cognitive tasks with the same efficiency as older children and adults and directly influences their educability." (Pelligrini, 2005)

Practice What You Preach

It is a constant struggle for me not to grab my phone to answer a text or check my personal e-mail. I have become fascinated with Twitter and found an elementary chat group that signs on together and shares information on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings, depending on where you are in the world. I found myself excited that I was able to find a group that talks about elementary education on Saturday nights. THAT is a problem, because I should not be talking about education on a Saturday night!

A few years ago at a faculty meeting, I asked my staff not to check work e-mail late at night or on weekends. I promised that I would limit the time I take to check e-mail during the same time frame. My request was not a top-down mandate but more out of concern for them. When you are doing work at home, you are ignoring a loved one. I feel that my faculty deserves a life outside of school.

The reality is that when you check e-mail before you go to bed, you are affecting your sleep patterns. If you read an e-mail in which a colleague asks you for something, you spend some time figuring out how you can best help that person and it prevents you from going to sleep at the time that you should.

How do you feel when you receive an angry e-mail from someone? It takes your breath away, doesn't it? Imagine if you read that angry e-mail right before you are going to bed. Your sleep pattern, and that of your partner, is negatively affected because you need to process the e-mail. It's easier, and much more beneficial, to check e-mail in the morning. Perhaps you can check e-mail before you leave for work so that you can reflect on it and process your answer on the way in to school.

How Will Children Sharpen the Saw?

Children will never be able to sharpen the saw if we do not allow them to. They need "brain breaks" throughout the day so that they can unwind from a hard lesson and reenergize before the next lesson. Without proper break time, students are not at their best.

We should limit the amount of recess we take away from children, because it does more harm than good. Many times I feel that we are robbing our children of their childhoods to get them to get better results on tests and in school. The reality is that those increased results, if they really do happen, are a short-term result. The long-term result is that we will teach a generation of students that the outside world only truly matters through the lens of a computer screen.


Tips for Children

  • Limit the amount of time they spend on the Internet.
  • Make them leave their cell phones downstairs before they go to bed.
  • If they are participating in a sport, try your best to limit that to one sport per season.
  • Children need to go outside and play.


Tips for Adults

  • Do not check work e-mail at home. If that is impossible, limit the number of times you do it each evening.
  • Go outside and play. Take a walk or go for a run.
  • Limit the amount of time you are on the Internet.


Peter can be found on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt, but if you find him on there too often, tell him to turn off his computer.



Covey, S. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Pellegrini, A. D., & Bohn, C. M. (2005). The role of recess in children's cognitive performance and school adjustment. Educational Researcher, 34(1), 13–19.  Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Peter DeWitt, EdD, is an elementary school principal. He writes the Finding Common Ground blog for Education Week and is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press). Connect with DeWitt on his website and on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.

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