In one of those delightful diagrams that’s survived the ages, teachers are led to believe that the school year will ride a natural, annual, feelings roller coaster that is to be expected, acknowledged, and accepted. This image is often trotted out by the well-meaning to placate the struggling. While I appreciate what I assume is the normalizing intention of that time-worn infographic, I think it neglects the nuances of the job in a way that’s dismissive at best, and potentially isolating, demoralizing, and hope-slashing on the other end. Depending on the day you’ve had, right?
In case you haven’t heard, this job is hard. Always.
I don't care if it’s your first day of your first gig or if you are retiring in June, if you came to work, did your best with what you had, and made it home to try again tomorrow, you are to be commended. Maybe everything is coming up Milhouse in your neck of the woods: your building just received copious funding for pet projects, collaborating with colleagues produced amazing results, and you were able to meet each student’s needs. Awesome, enjoy it! Maybe you are struggling to access learning materials from this century, you spilled coffee all over yourself, and you have a meeting scheduled after what seemed like the longest work day, ever. You are not alone.
However you came to this career, whatever variables flavor this day/month/school year, know that you are in a relationship with teaching, and how you choose to nurture that bond will affect the future. In John Hari’s fantastic book, Lost Connections, he spends an entire chapter outlining how influential this relationship is to our mental health which has profound effects on our physical health. Many of us know these effects first-hand, and I in no way seek to diminish or neatly tie a bow on complex situations that require deeper work. I do have a few suggestions that have helped me when I needed just a little reminder of that original spark.
Hari’s text further highlights the effect of loneliness on our well-being. Acknowledging that one can be lonely while physically surrounded by people - in our cases, masses of staff and students - he paints a dire picture of the effects of loneliness. “Every human instinct is honed not for life on your own,” Hari writes, yet how many of us have heard a colleague describe how their strategy is to retreat to their classroom and close the door, or that teachers work in silos?
Whenever I get gloomy about the state of things, I think of the opening scene of Love Actually and hear Hugh Grant’s voice in my ear, reminding me that if I look for it, connection can be found. I take this to heart if I’m ever feeling disconnected and look for opportunities to reconnect with those around me. Find your folks at the building and plan to eat lunch together, get to know a staff person with whom you’ve yet to exchange much beyond pleasantries, or plan a unit with someone teaching outside your grade or content. Join the social committee. Start the social committee. Jump on Twitter. In short, seek a human who is familiar with your 9-5 and spend time together.
Play the Role of Cyrano
I only half joke that I learn more from my student teachers than they learn from being in my classroom. Over the years I’ve had the honor to support many of the hopeful as they embark on an epic quest that will prove full of joys and sorrows like no other and the experience is reaffirming, enlightening, and humbling. When you take on the role of a Cooperating Teacher, your job is not only to baby step someone into the profession; you must also be the safe place for failure, the bringer of hope, and ultimately, bring your A-game to representing the profession.
My student teacher this year came from the film and television industry. She knows large scale project management like no other, is more accepting of personalities than most, and holds me accountable for the details in my craft. The last one is huge. If you’ve been doing anything for a while, it can become second nature and you pay less attention to the why and how. When you are forced to articulate those specifics to another person, you are in effect reminding yourself of all the magic you infuse to every classroom move you make.
Plan a Mixer
In my second winter in the Pacific Northwest I noticed that the mood in my building had shifted to gray like the clouds outside our windows. If you live in the sunnier belts of our planetary orb, I’ll clarify that I wondered if Seasonal Affective Disorder had taken over, if we were all feeling a dip from the aforementioned graph, or something else was shifting the energy.
So, rather than trying to sort out the psyche of the masses, I committed to do something to bring in a little sunshine. Each February since, I’ve planned and hosted a couple of fun activities, open to any who want to play along. Whether it’s a food competition, a challenge that gets everyone up and moving, or a kindness campaign, I’ve found that if you build it, they will come. Better yet, most years I find a couple of like-minded people who want to join in or add to the menu (see my first suggestion).
Consider Your (Other) Options
Okay, so you want to break up. As one of my mentors once remarked upon hearing the news that one of his best teachers was disenchanted and thinking about leaving, “let her go.” Let me be clear, he was sad for the students who would miss learning from this teacher, absolutely considered her tops in the craft, and absolutely respected her as a person. He just knew that sometimes the only way through is out.
A few years ago, overburdened by a failing school system in Arizona, my sister quit teaching to become a case manager and grant writer for women transitioning out of the prison system and into the workforce. She loved the work, learned much about systemic problems and generational poverty, and enjoyed her coworkers. Then she went back to teaching. Mariah learned that while she was good at another job, it didn’t match what she got from her best days as an English teacher.
I’m not saying that everyone will come back - will admit to my bias to keep you in the profession because we are absolutely hemorrhaging quality educators faster than we could ever replace them. My sister’s story aside, I can think of half a dozen teacher friends who left and stayed gone, happy to meet their needs in a new situation. What I’m saying is that switching jobs (or just thinking about doing so) may be what you need. With some space, you will get a different perspective that will inform your choices. Also, a little cost-benefit analysis may be all you need to make the decision. Either way, there is no shame in honoring that tug on your heart in whatever format makes sense to you.
Be the Change
This is absolutely the science teacher in me - if you want different outcomes, introduce a new variable and observe the results. However small or big the variable in question, know you are worth the sourcing.
Pick any platitude about love that you like to personify our profession and you’ll have a missive with which to gauge your passion. Motivated? Frustrated? Like any fire, sustaining this profession requires tending throughout your tenure. Whether you are hoping to revive a metaphorical Hawkes from the ashes or just feeling like an old three-chord Fuel song, know that the flames will burn brighter or out, and choose your fuel accordingly.
Have a teaching love story for the ages? Share below, and keep the love alive.