Wednesday, August 31, 2016

My Best Back to School Advice for New and Old (I mean Experienced) Teachers

We're officially back to school.  We're doing our teacher week and the students will arrive on Tuesday.

It won't take long to remember how tough teaching can be.  No one goes into this profession for the money or the fame.  We become teachers because we love kids, our subject matter, and want to make a difference. Unfortunately, no college course or training can quite adequately prepare you for just how challenging your work will be in the classroom.  We all have to walk through the fire and find our way.

Teachers are always striving to be better. We read and take trainings on best practices in our field, classroom management, culturally-relevant teaching, mindset, mental health, and on and on.  We fret when lessons don't go well.  We experience heartache when students and families struggle.  We care immensely.

Sometimes we care so much that we get stuck.  We get overwhelmed by the needs and start to get pulled under.  At the end of the last school year, I was at the edge of burn out.  I was almost out of energy and not taking care of myself.  And, I wasn't at my best for myself, my colleagues, or my students.

This year, I resolve to keep on track to the best of my ability.  To stay strong physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  To forgive myself.  To know that I can't solve all the problems of my students and their families.  And yet to understand that I can still make a tremendous difference in their lives.

Join me in making this a remarkable teaching year.  Here is my 9 point listicle for a healthy and happy teaching life:

1.  Laugh hard and laugh frequently.

My teaching partner and I laugh a lot.  We laugh when things are funny and we laugh when things are ridiculously hard and stressful.  After three years together, we know each other well, and we know which buttons to push to make the other laugh.  Sometimes all it takes is a raised eyebrow to make us dissolve into laughter. Science tells us that laughter releases endorphins, the body's feel-good chemicals.  So, even if the problems are still there (and they probably will be), you will feel better. It's great medicine. It's free and it's always available for you to access.

2.  Reflect on one thing that went well in your teaching every day.
Even better, do it with a colleague.  Better yet,  write it down.  It's easy to get in the venting habit and the "what went wrong today" routine, and those things have their time and place.  But, I think focusing on what went well can cause a shift in mindset about teaching.  Your daily thing can be something huge, like a student having a major academic or behavior breakthrough.  Or it can be something small, like a student remembering to bring a pencil to class for the first time.  The important thing is that you take time to notice it and honor it.

3.  Decide to have a positive attitude and mindset.

You don't need to be a Pollyanna, but do be positive. Sometimes my teaching partner will chuckle as I'm spinning how some terrible situation could actually  be a positive.   Sometimes I challenge myself to see just how positively I can reorient an issue. It's a good mindset to have when you consider the alternative.  And, it's contagious.

4.  Share your insecurities about your teaching practice with someone you trust.  

Chances are the person you're sharing with will say something like, "Oh, me too.  I feel like that all the time."

"Me, too."  Some of the most powerful and compassionate words in the English language.

Everyone has insecurities and struggles in life and in their teaching practice. For the most part, we're all doing the best we can.  And, we're not robots.  We need to talk and connect over the difficult aspects of our profession.    And, then, after you commiserate, maybe you can move into some problem-solving.  

5.  Choose your battles.  

One of the biggest surprises I've had in my job as an English learner teacher is how much I've had to be an advocate for my students and even the necessity of my profession.  Turns out not everyone thinks what I'm doing is important or even understands the need.  

So, I've had my share of struggles because of those attitudes.  If you try to address everything, you'll exhaust yourself and annoy others.  So, there are issues I'm wiling to let go after I've professionally said my piece.  And, there are also issues that I'm willing to go all the way with, where I won't back down.  Mountains I'm willing to die on.  (well, not literally)  Think and reflect on what really matters when faced with thorny problems.  Weigh and consider carefully the importance.   Learn when to let go gracefully and when to stand firm.

6.  Choose your "extras" carefully.

You'll remember that Mr. Husband is a principal.  He talks to new teachers about thinking carefully about what  additional responsibilities they may take on at school, such as  coaching or  advising student groups.. He tells them to take on extras that they find  energizing and enriching.  It will still be work and it will be tiring,  but if they enjoy it, they'll get something out of it.  It might help them build better relationship with students and it should enhance their overall experience of their job.

 I think this same philosophy can apply to committees and and other extras we may volunteer for at school.  I used to volunteer for almost everything, and it eventually led to burn out.  I like to be generous with my time and talents, but I've learned that I need to carefully consider where to use my energy.  So, I try to just carefully choose a few extras that I'm really passionate about and where I can truly make a difference.

7.  Have relaxing and nourishing rituals with your colleagues.  

We still have this set of espresso cups in one of our classroom cabinets.  At one time, many years ago, my colleague and the teacher before me would take a break some days and have espresso. We've never done that, because we're so busy.  I look at those cups longingly when I open the cabinet. They look so elegant and they evoke the notion of relaxation and connection.

I've decided that the end of the day after the students leave would be a good time to get back to the espresso or the tea or whatever.  There's something really lovely about sitting down with your co-workers with a hot mug of something and chatting for ten minutes before moving on to the million things you need to get done.  These rituals are important and they'll likely make you feel relaxed and energized, and therefore more efficient and productive when you do get back to work.

8.  Figure  out what combination of practices keeps you healthy and happy.

You are not a robot. Teachers' days are very intense and we all need to find healthy ways to decompress at the end of the day.   You know best what works for you.    For me, I've made a commitment this summer to work on my health and I've found that I feel best  when I'm getting enough sleep, eating well, running, and maintaining a mindfulness and meditation practice.

9.  Do the best you can.  Then, go home.

That is the exact advice one of our incredible volunteers gave me one day.  I was walking out with him and it had been a really rough morning..  I was telling him all the hard things and expressing my feeling of overwhelm and even despair.  He listened carefully, said a few kind things, and then wisely gave me that simple yet brilliant advice, "Do the best you can.  Then, go home."  I've never forgotten that advice. I add to it, "Rest. Renew.  Come back tomorrow ready to teach with an open heart." I repeat these words in my head, take a deep breath,  and just crack my heart open a little wider.

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