Three Ways To Reclaim Your Joy As A Teacher

Jose Vilson Education, Featured, Jose

This weekend, I had the joy and pleasure of keynoting the ECET2MA2016 conference in Cambridge, MA. Weird wasn’t even the word. I was a Yankee fan in the middle of Red Sox town and had a Macbook in a Microsoft building. I’ve railed on a number of occasions against the founder of the company that hosted this company. Yet, a space where two or more educators are gathered is a space I need to be in. I always appreciate the passion that any set of educators have for coming in on a weekend to professionally develop each other.

The creators of our school system didn’t have joy, collaboration, and creativity in mind, especially in the spaces where our most marginalized students need that from the adults the most. As complicated as it was for me to go there, I know that is part of the work we do collectively.

I was blessed to see that the audience took to my speech on student power, teacher voice, and relationships. The conference featured some of Massachusetts’ most enthusiastic educators, but there was a sense that the primary foci of learning and teaching gave way to any number of priorities ranging from binder organization to bulletin board aesthetics. The multiple layers of tensions we educators face on a daily basis often trickles down to our students too, which ultimately leads to an unhealthy classroom environment. Too many higher-ups, including administrators and policymakers forget that “socio-emotional learning” for children doesn’t work if the adults in the building don’t also get to be a part of that inner work.

That’s why it’s called a school environment. When a principal feels horrible, so will the teachers and students. When teachers have low morale, the students will start to see the school as a form of prison. When students aren’t happy, the adults will feel like they’re teaching twice the number of students because those classes drag instead of pop.

But there is hope. From a historical standpoint, we have every right to think this work is hopeless. We’re often asked to give a lot more than we’re capable of, to surmount society’s obvious flaws even as we’re products of (and subject to) said flaws. I’m always reminded of the super-human expectation so many of us put on our shoulders even as we are deeply flawed. That’s a source of strength, though, because it means so many of us can relate and endure together.

Reframe Your Situation and Re-prioritize Accordingly

Too often as educators, we let other people take control of our emotions. We want to be empathetic and compassionate, but when we take on the stressors of others, we often become dispossessed. It’s especially true in place where every move feels like high-stakes. The formula usually sounds like “If we don’t mandate x, we won’t move the test scores!” It’s an awful way to think about schooling, but it’s also more prevalent than we want to hear.

Instead of listening too often to the constant beating of a drum that usually leads nowhere, it’s better to take back the feelings that got us into this work to begin with. Sometimes, it means closing the doors. Other times, it means reflecting on our own students’ joys and passions. Our students are unfiltered barometers for happiness and learning. For me, I believe my time is better sent on grading assessments with feedback and listening to students’ participation in class. These give me regular windows into their learning. If and when other items come across my desk, they get taken care of in due time, but not to the detriment of my other priorities.

Come Together Early and Often

The educators who came together on a rainy Saturday to learn from each other were models for the sort of learning that needs to take place. In most school spaces, collaboration is forced, so the natural flow of collaboration is stunted by cultures that continually force conversations to happen when the culture isn’t there. True collaboration means everyone’s contributing to the collective work of teaching students in that school. Our system, especially these days, can keep us isolated from one another. Our physical spaces make it so it’s one adult against a classroom of students. Any time we can break down the metaphorical walls, we take our work a few steps forward.

Take Some Time For Yourself

There are a billion ways to practice self-care. Whether you’re a casual athlete going to the gym or a social person getting (a moderate number of) drinks after school, you’re finding ways to de-stress from the taxing work. When we give and give without getting some form of replenishment, we can get burned out too early, too often. Here are some things I do in order to take time for myself:

  • Turn off the Internet for as long as I need to. I did it for a week this summer and it felt great.
  • Spend more time with family and friends. +1 if it’s in person.
  • Create a network of people (a PLN) that are ideologically connected to your work, but not connected to your work place per se.
  • Meditate. (Full disclosure: I’ve been using Headspace for the last week and it’s been excellent.)
  • Take a long walk after class.
  • Take a mental health day. Sometimes, we adults need to get recalibrated with our inner selves to see things clearer. There’s no pride in working when your mental health is at risk daily.

These are just some of the ways I keep joy front and center, because the work is difficult. We’re asked to go above and beyond for our students. Some say it’s a job and that’s to be expected. Yet, the fact that it’s a job doesn’t take away from the arduousness of what we do, especially in places that are hostile to our self-composure.

It’s OK to admit you’re not feeling joyful either. There’s a ton of people who feel just like you. We got this.

What do you think? Leave other thoughts below.