Tie Yourself To a Tree

Every year, I read the Shiloh series to my third graders. It’s the story of a boy and his dog. Marty Preston, an eleven-year-old living in rural West Virginia finds a mistreated beagle, discovers the owner is an abusive lout of a man named Judd Travers, and makes it his mission to make the dog his own. By the third book of the series, Shiloh belongs to Marty and Judd has made some steps toward becoming a better human being.

There’s a scene near the end of that third book that holds a valuable lesson for teachers.

The Preston parents have been called away, and the kids — Marty, his best friend, and his two younger sisters — have been left home. After receiving what turns out to be a prank phone call about a body floating down Middle Island Creek, the kids rush to the bridge to see for themselves. Disappointed by the truth, Marty turns to leave. His sister Dara Lynn has, however, climbed atop the bridge’s railing and is leaning out over the water, watching it rush beneath her, the rapids wild from a recent flood. As Marty yells at her to get down, she falls in.

Panic ensues. Neighbors arrive, alerted by the kids’ shouting. Dara Lynn manages to grab a tree branch and pull herself to the bank, but in all the hubbub Marty hadn’t noticed that Shiloh, the dog he worked so hard to rescue from his abusive owner, has jumped into the water to save his sister. Marty steps into the water to go after his dog but is pulled back by a neighbor. He watches as the current carries Shiloh farther away. The dog is just too small to save himself.

That’s when Judd Travers arrives in his pickup. From the book:

“You want to get yourself killed?” he calls, right angry. And then, “What’s the matter, Marty?” Sees Mr. Ellison comin’ up the road behind me, thinks he’s chasin’ me maybe. He gets out of the truck.

I’m gasping. Point to the creek. “Shiloh! He’s in the water and we can’t reach him!”

“Marty, that dog will have to get himself out!” Mrs. Ellison calls from far behind us. “Don’t you try to go after him now.”

But Judd crashes through the trees and brush, half sliding down the muddy bank, and I point to the head of my beagle back upstream, out there bobbing around in the current. Once, it looks like he goes under. Judd don’t say a word. He’s scramblin’ up the bank again and grabs that rope in his pickup. Hobbles down the road, fast as his two bum legs will carry him, goin’ even farther downstream, me and David at his heels. Then he ties one end of that rope to a tree at the edge of the water, the other end around his waist, taking his time to make a proper square knot, and I’m thinkin’, Don’t worry about knots, Judd — just go!

Judd pulls Shiloh from the water, redeeming himself in the process.

As teachers, we have students in our class who are like Shiloh. They’re in danger, struggling to stay afloat as the rushing waters carry them away. Like Marty, we instinctively want to help. We want to throw ourselves into the current and pull those students to shore.

So we do everything we can. We build relationships with these students, investing extra time and energy on those we know need us most. We keep in close contact with their parents. We encourage and cajole, inspire and counsel. Some of us go so far as to attend their after-school events, even their birthday parties. Recognizing their need, we might buy them snacks, or books we hope they’ll love, or backpacks full of the school supplies their parents can’t afford. We give our all to help those unable to help themselves from getting carried away by the floodwaters of their lives.

And we exhaust ourselves in the process. We put ourselves in danger. We make it more likely that we too will be carried away.

Had Marty rushed into the water to save his dog, it’s likely they would have both drowned.

Shiloh was saved only because Judd took a minute to tie himself to a tree.

That is what teachers should do. Tie yourself to a tree. Protect yourself first. You can’t be any good to your students — and that includes the ones who need you the most — if you’re exhausted and in danger of burning out.

As the start of the year approaches (or has already started), put yourself in the best position possible to help others. Do these five things:


The beginning of any year is a heady time and the enthusiasm can be intoxicating. It’s easy to rush in without thinking. Signing up for five committees might not seem like a terrible idea now, but you can be sure you’ll regret it in November. Start by not signing up for any and only join once you can gauge how demanding your teaching job is going to be. Most committee work doesn’t make much of an impact on your students, and your main job is to impact your students.

Read more: Do Not Join That Unpaid Committee

Make a Plan

Decide now when you will commit extra hours to the job and stick to it right out of the gate. If you’re coming in an hour early, don’t also stay an hour late. Draw some lines in the sand for yourself and don’t cross them. Build in time now to detach. Pick at least one weekend day when you will nothing related to your job.

Read More: Make a Plan

Say No Early

Saying yes is habit-forming. The more you agree to take on extra work, the more likely you’ll be asked again in the future and the harder it will be for you to say no. Humans are remarkably consistent and salespeople regularly take advantage of it. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of the “yes ladder” sales technique, then you know how hard it can be to say no after you’ve said yes to five other questions. At the earliest opportunity, say no to your boss. Your future self will thank you.

Related: Why Teachers Should Object

Focus On What Matters

Your job is to teach the kids in front of you to the best of your ability. There are 100 things you can do as a teacher that have very little to do with student learning. The hour you spent on that pretty bulletin board just so parents would be impressed (maybe) for six seconds at open house could have been spent in better ways. Same goes for a number of tasks that could be done by students. Don’t peel the cellophane off 25 workbooks, neatly write student numbers on the covers with a Sharpie, and place the books into student desks when students of any age can do those things themselves. Think hard about how you use your time and save it for the things that matter the most.

Read more: Slash Your To-Do List


I write about all the above and much more in my books Exhausted (which will explain why you’re so tired after teaching and will offer the solutions you want) and Leave School At School (which could also be called “Optimizing Your Teaching”). I’d also recommend Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, which will help you understand why you keep doing things that you later regret, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, which will get you thinking hard about what you’re focusing on and how you’re using your time, and Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which will help you decide what to care about (and it’s funny).


Wanting to help others is noble. No one can question Marty’s intent to rush into the water to save his dog. But good intentions can lead to horrible outcomes if we don’t think through the likely consequences. You aren’t much use to someone who’s drowning if you are drowning right next to them. Protect yourself first. Time yourself to a tree.


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2 Replies to “Tie Yourself To a Tree”

  1. This is excellent! Again, another great article. It’s so crucial to seriously consider the things you mentioned above at this time of year. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of that.

  2. I’m in my 70th year Murph – and I had tears in my eyes as I read your Shiloh series teaching point to your students. Of memories of a time teaching (in Australia) before the time-wasting of pointless committees – looking good on one’s curriculum vitae pointlessness – but as you write – leaving time for concentration on making those important students central to the teaching professional life. I’ve taught in various corners of the world – Germany, Spain, Japan and in NSW in rural parts and in the big city – at a place, too a popular coastal resort destination. For a period in the city in a special unit teaching English to refugees and immigrants. Those students are now nudging 50 to mid-50s. Recently in Sydney – that city – I had the chance to catch up separately with three of those students (and their spouses) – all from different classes. One is an architect with a major firm in the city, another after graduating as an engineer has ended up very successfully as a realtor and the oldest in partnership with brothers in a successful hardware business. When the latter was my student – at a sports afternoon – he told me that his mother and younger siblings were having some difficulty with getting back the bond they had had to put down in order to rent the place which they were in the process of leaving – which if the place were in good condition should have been automatic. I suspected something not quite right and was able to organise a civil mediation process which brought forth half the amount – a better result than expected. Some years later my wife and I were invited to attend his wedding – a splendid affair. The youngest of the three had organised with his parents to take me to an end-of-school-year (near Christmas/summer in Australia) celebratory/thank-you luncheon in China-Town. This was incredibly unexpected – made a huge impression on me. Some years later that student was at the UoNewcastle – among his first year subjects – Japanese I – which as part of a cohort of regional teachers I was also enrolled in studying. Teacher-student become fellow students – life has some intriguing twists and turns. And a further number of years later – returning from visiting members of his family in Germany – he visited me in Japan – staying with my homestay family – before continuing on to visit another of his classmates then working in Osaka. And the middle one – part of a Three-Musketeer-like group – they came to visit my wife and I with dozens of “cha gio” (VN spring rolls, etc for a luncheon) and some years later when the three were at university – the three came for a week-end to that coastal resort town to visit us – bringing the makings of VN food with them. What a terrific week-end – walking around the rocky point – and looking to the great sand-dunes lying immediately behind our house – so wide that a number of films set in North Africa were filmed there – one starring James Belushi. A WWII drama. By the time I was at that resort town high school, though, committees were the thing. Unavoidable. But I chose one which appealed to me – being the teacher-liaison between the school and government programs supporting the parents and students of Indigenous background – which was how I met the mother of one of my own kinsman among those students – but that’s another whole story. Anyway from there I headed to Japan – and given my various positions and initial lack of workable Japanese (which I’d only begun to study myself aged 40) never again a member of any regular committee! Hallelujah! (And somewhat the envy of my various Japanese colleagues at different institutions – complaining – mock and seriously – about the time-wasting of the committee meetings they had to attend. No doubt a system imported from the US. Thanks again Murph – keep on writing – the primacy of the teaching of students – of caring for them above and beyond the classroom – of the nonsense of the committee system. Oh…I never climbed that career ladder – never wanting to take myself away from the teaching. (So lacking in ambition – NOT!)

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