I know you’ve got to get your mind focused on those kids that are about to walk through your door, but first, let's talk about how you're doing, teacher.
Sometimes, that week before the kids get back - when you’re just preparing for the year with your colleagues - can be just as stressful if not more than that first day or week back with your students. The uncertainty. The endless materials to get together and prepare. Not having enough desks or chairs. Schedule changes. I could go on. But I won’t, because you get it. You’re living it. I’m living it. It’s easy to be in your overwhelmed teacher era before the school year even begins.
And that’s not a healthy place to be. Teacher overwhelm doesn’t do anyone any good. Now, this beginning of the year season will pass, we’ll get into a routine, and the school year with all its ups and downs will chug along.
Want to listen to this message instead of read? You can hear the audio version in my podcast or click the Mp3 below.
But what if this year could be a little bit - just a little bit - different? What if you didn't have to live your life as an overwhelmed teacher? Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, maybe your year is going to be way different that last year for other reasons and no advice is going to prevent you from being a teacher who is overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious.
But please give me a chance. I’m talking about how you feel. How you respond to your stressors. What you prioritize.
I’m usually not into doing a "word of the year." But this year, I have one, because teachers are quitting left and right. The stress and overwhelm of teaching has pushed many to their breaking point - and they aren’t wrong for their choices. We all have to choose what is best for our lives and for the people in our lives, the people we’re accountable to and for after the last bus pulls out of the parking lot. I will never shame any teacher who makes that choice.
But there’s got to be a better way to do things. Where it doesn’t get to that point where teachers are so overloaded that they can’t continue go on. You deserve to live a purposeful, productive life you want to wake up to each morning.
So my word of the year is…sustainable.
(Aren’t you glad it’s not grit or rigor?)
The meaning of sustainable is “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” A synonym is bearable.
You see, nothing gets better if we keep accepting the same old, same old.
Staying after school until 6:00 (or later).
Grading papers every last waking moment until you fall asleep.
Documenting, communicating, planning.
There has to be a better way, because the current way isn’t drawing people to the teaching profession.
If we want to attract better, feel better, DO better - the word of the year needs to be sustainable.
You can’t do things until you break. Oh, you can. Trust me. I have. And I broke. I am a card carrying teachaholic in recovery. It was a long downward spiral to the bottom and a not so fun climb back to the top.
But I’m in a place now where I can say “that’s enough for today.” Or, “Wow, this is too much. Time to back off.”
A teaching practice that’s sustainable looks like this (or at least this is how I envision it):
It starts with realistic expectations as a teacher. What can you take on that won’t strain you, stress you, and make you resentful of your choices?
That means - how do you manage your time as a teacher to do the things you need to do each week? Having a “theme” day, so to speak, where you plan, grade, enter grades, etc.?
That means - setting time limits. Even if certain things appear to take forever to do, amazingly when you have a limited time to get something accomplished, you tend to work more efficiently!
That means - saying no. You know yourself, your limits, and how you need to divide your time between your professional and personal life. Having boundaries does NOT make you the bad girl or guy. We are all made of different stuff. Better to be upfront and temporarily uncomfortable disappointing someone than taking on tasks and responsibilities you can’t sustain.
You see, sustainability builds stamina in an overwhelmed teacher.
I don’t mean that to sound like you should just increase your work load as much as your body and soul permits it, but…let’s be real. Teaching is an endurance sport! And by October, you’re going to be a little bit tired and disillusioned. Come the doldrums of winter, you’re really going to be dragging your tail…if you don’t make sustainability the name of your game. If you start now at the beginning of the year with the mindset “this is the way it needs to be,” you’re allowing yourself to preserve the energy and resources you’ll need for when the going gets tough (and it will) later on in the year.
And you know who wins the most by taking this advice to stop living life in a perpetual state of overwhelm? Besides the teacher - the students.
They need the best version of you - and the ONLY way that is going to happen is if you are happy, healthy, and whole. No other way. You have to admit - you do a better job teaching and maintaining the everyday classroom craziness when you aren’t feeling like you’ve been fried to a crisp.
The magic ingredient, the solution to some - not all - of the issues that surround teacher retention and attracting teachers is modeling and creating a sustainable practice. And when we can build up and maintain a teaching force that can recognize and act on their needs as teacher and as human beings, the kids benefit.
So that is my word and my challenge to you. Let’s build a sustainable practice. One that lets us balance the responsibilities of our job with the demands of being a real life, flawed but well meaning parent, spouse, and friend.
One that allows you to be committed and passionate about helping kids learn about the world and themselves, while being equally investing in your goals and plans for the future.
One that focuses on what matters most and appropriately prioritizes or eliminates everything else. It’s a process, but this is the way to a better future in the teaching profession. This is the way if you want to love you job and love yourself.
As we part for today, just know that I care about you. Whoever you are, wherever you are - your wellbeing means something to me. The work of loving and teaching our students starts with loving and teaching each other within our profession. There are no easy answers to how we do this very important job better, but there are lots of ideas. Better doesn’t always look like more - sometimes, it looks like less. It’s more efficient, better balanced, and much more realistic. I invite you to try some of these with me, and remember - you are loved.
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