How many of us set out to be teachers in order to change people’s lives, the educational system, or even the world only to be thrust into a system in which we feel like we’re drowning? As teachers we go through a long process in learning our craft. The process continues throughout our teaching career. I once heard someone say that teaching is one of the few professions where you can walk into work with 10, 20 or even 30 years of experience and truly think: “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” When I reflect back on my first years in my classroom, I was caught up in a constant cycle of work. My vision was focused on exactly what was going on in the classroom that day and maybe even the following day. I could never shake myself from the feeling that I was drowning. My options were either learn to swim or be washed away with the water. I chose the former, but it wasn’t without my nearly being swept away in frustration. Throughout those years I learned a lot about the grit and fortitude that it takes to be a teacher.
In those early years, I neither had the mental space nor vision that is required for advocacy or activism. I was barely making it to the end of the day. My energy was focused on perfecting my own craft and as a result my vision was constrained to the walls of my classroom.
First year teachers enter the classroom each year with a vision of doing things differently— changing the educational system. I, like many of those first year teachers, set out to change the educational system— to throw out the failed educational models of the past and to be a model for educational excellence. I threw out all the stops. Textbooks? What textbooks? I know more about teaching than those textbooks, right? I experimented with all of the strategies that I had dreamt up while sitting in the calm of my university classroom. Our younger selves are so naive, aren’t they? The truth was, I hadn’t developed the necessary tools in order to support the way that I that I wanted to teach. I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t have a clue what the hell I was doing. This is one of the turning the points that divide those who will continue to seek the change that they wish to see in education and those that will succumb to the systemic failure that exists in education or worse— begin seeking a new profession entirely. For me, this was a time to figure it out and build a set of tools and to learn who I was as a teacher. The story is far from linear and there were times where I asked myself why I even wanted to be a teacher.
The silver lining is this: if you are a teacher who wants to create change: You Can! Be positive. Be gritty. Be Patient. It will come. “The struggle is real” . Use whatever saying that you wish. The point is you can make it through and come out better because of it.
Here are a few things that helped me and continue to help me to keep my ‘eye on the prize’:
Define Your Philosophy
If someone had told me this when I was a first year teacher, I likely would have nodded my head and shrugged them off while thinking about all of the other things that I had to do. After all, I already have a philosophy that I drew up in the clouds of college, right? When time comes to pass and things get difficult, you better have a compass and road map to dealing with these situations. Although some of our philosophical beliefs will change as we mature as teachers and have new educational experiences, it is important that we define our philosophy.
Building one’s philosophy can be equated to building the foundation of the house. We need identify our own truths and solidify the philosophical foundation upon which our classroom is built. If we do not create this foundation for ourselves then someone else will. Spending time and just sitting with our thoughts while pondering on our values when it comes to classroom management, instructional models, homework, grading, organization and anything else will make our decision making in the classroom more consistent and more fluid. In my first years of teaching I thought that I had these philosophies in place, but as it came time to make important decisions it became clear that I hadn’t spent enough time thinking about my foundational beliefs. Whether you are a first year teacher or a tenured veteran, I urge you to spend some time asking yourself the question: “What do I really believe?” If you want to be a changemaker, you should have a compass to guide you along your way. Don’t to forget to pack it before your travels.
Surround Yourself with Positive People
Teaching can be a lonely profession if you let it be. It’s important to surround yourself with people who speak and thrive off of positivity. Surround yourself with the wrong people and you begin thinking like them. The game will be lost before it has started. Teachers’ lounges across America are full of teachers who will support your frustration with their negativity. They will tell you that this is the way it’s always been and ‘those kids’ can’t do this or they can’t do that. They will tell you that you can’t change a thing. “Get your 35 years in and get out.” Fortunately, these people are the few. However, they tend to be the loudest. Block them out then take a seat and listen in. You can tell a lot about a teacher and their values by the way that they talk about their students. Look for the ones who don’t place the blame on the students and take the ownership for being better for the students. Find the teachers who still have a desire to give students high quality education despite the setbacks and road-blocks. Strike up a conversation.
I was very fortunate in my first year to be surrounded by a lot of inspiring teachers— many of which were also in their first year. These teachers, despite the many frustrations that come with the job, wanted to be good at what they do. Regardless of what happened, they kept an upbeat outlook on things. Things got difficult, but there was always a fall-back to get me through. Among the crowd, there were two veteran teachers by the names of Vic Channey and Kelly O’Shea. Words cannot do justice to what they did for me in those early years. Vic was a constant force of positive energy and philosophical thinking. He made me think deeply and helped me up when I fell. He saw in me what I knew about myself but sometimes didn’t recognize: I was there for the kids. Kelly recognized those same ideals and was always there to bring me back around from even the darkest places. She was the first to lend a hand and pull up. Problems were always met with positive solutions. I owe a debt of gratitude to these two along with many others that did the same for me in those early years. If not for them, I likely would have exited the profession.
In every school, there is a crowd of people who value the very same things you do. Search for them, seek them out, and hold on to them. They will help pull you out of some of your toughest days. I know they have helped me up more than a few times.
Reflect, Revise, Repeat
One of the most powerful tools that a teacher can utilize is their ability to reflect on what is going on in the classroom. My job for the last 7 years has been in constant revision. Stagnancy is not an option in field of education— especially when you are working with middle schoolers. In the world of middle school, things are constantly changing and you better prepare yourself for those changes. Taking the time out of the day so that we can truthfully review what has happened and take a deeper dive by reviewing the reasons for the things that happened during the day. Regardless of the day, whether it was good, bad or otherwise there lies underlying causes to the creation.
Each of us takes to our own style of reflection. It doesn’t have to be anything formal, but it should be meaningful. My best moments of reflection have always come after I have had time to make space between me and the school day. My thoughts are always most clear once I am able to think without allowing any emotions that may be brought about by the school day to interfere. Reflecting with someone from your group of positive confidants can be a powerful tool for processing. Sometimes all we need is a sounding board for frustrations to bring us to a meaningful revelation. No matter how difficult the day, we must first remember to be gentle on ourselves. It does more harm than good to place the weight of the world on our shoulders.
Take Time For Yourself
We have all heard that we cannot care for others unless we take care of ourselves. In order to be the people that we need to be for our students, we must take care of ourselves both mentally and physically. We can only give so much of ourselves to something before we begin taking away the value from ourselves. There is no surer way to burn-out than to not allow ourselves the time and space that we need in order to recharge.
In my first years of teaching, it seemed like I worked all of my waking hours. It may sound crazy and to some degree it is, but I felt guilty when it was a school night and I wasn’t engaged in something that was school related. As a result, I drained myself to a point where I wasn’t being as effective as I could be and nearly to the point of exiting the profession. Luckily, with the help of my colleagues, I caught myself before that point. Taking time to yourself, unwinding and doing the things you enjoy is not only a mood booster, but it is a necessity if you want to keep your head above water and your eye of the prize. We owe it to ourselves and our students.
The field of education can be a highly frustrating and emotionally draining profession. The art of teaching is highly personal and therefore it can lead us to a state of exhaustion that allows us to lose sight of why we came to the profession in the first place. I can remember sitting in some of my first interviews and speaking with an overwhelming amount of passion and continually being told by interviewers: “Don’t let go of your passion.” These people likely recognized how easy it is to become jaded by the educational system and just how rare it is to find someone who has continued on with the same level of passion for their profession many years down the road. If you are reading this as a first year teacher, or even a seasoned veteran who has lost their way, I hope that we can remind ourselves of why we came to the profession in the first place. In the immortal words of Pete Seeger: “Keep your eye on the prize, hold on.”