The beginning of September always fills me with promise (go back & read my blog post, “Why are we still using letter grades?” from 9/5/18 for more on that), and the beginning of October makes me think about reflection and support. It always seems like that time when “best behavior” (for students) and “I’m going to be THE MOST prepared” (for teachers) starts to wear off, which means it’s the time when we settle into what will become our routine(s) for the year. And as we start to figure out what seems manageable (from our inevitably lofty beginning-of-the-year goals), I’ve always found I needed folks with whom I could be incredibly honest. I needed colleagues and friends who would ask me good questions about what I was able to do, I needed reassurance that not doing everything I set out to do wouldn’t make me a bad teacher, and I needed to be held accountable to doing the very best I could with the time I had.
October is when I reach out to my support system.
I find myself very lucky to have a cadre of smart, honest, thoughtful folks who fill these roles for me (and I hope I’m able to be that person for them, too).
Sometimes our reflections and debriefs have happened at school, though they’re also likely by phone, or at the restaurant down the street. It seems like teachers’ brains are always swirling with their work, and so it’s important to find the people that we can do this kind of thinking and talking with at the place that’s most conducive to honest reflection.
One thing I really appreciate(d) about this group was that we asked a lot of questions, and they normally weren’t veiled suggestions. We asked each other questions to expand our collective thinking or take on a new perspective.
Here are some of my favorites:
-What’s the worst that could happen? (Not asked flippantly, but sincerely)
-How have you solved a problem like this before?
-Whose opinion would you most like to hear? What do you imagine they might say?
-What outcome are you most hoping for?
-What’s the opposite of what you’re doing? How would that change the outcome?
-What are your actions/words suggesting you care about most?
-Without any restraints, what would you want to do? How can you incorporate elements of that into what you can do?
It's also important, though, that we find moments where we can disconnect from our work and focus on what makes us feel rejuvenated (spending time with family or friends, reading, and exercising are all good examples of this kind of thing). I completely appreciate how difficult it can be to pull back from teaching and focus on yourself, but it’s also necessary. You will not be your best self (and certainly not your best teacher self) when you’re worn down and exhausted.
Here are a few things I found helpful when trying to find balance:
-Use commute time wisely: Going in to school, I would get my brain ready to go, run through my day, think through how to phrase questions I might ask or contemplate answers to anticipated student questions. Leaving school, I would decompress. I might listen to my favorite radio station, play a podcast I was excited about, or call a friend. I made sure to think about what would help me get the space I needed and do that.
-Stick to time limits when working at home: I could let school life consume me if I wasn’t careful, so sometimes I timed myself. It was easier to be really engaged in planning or assessing work when I knew I had a strict time limit. And then I also knew that what I couldn’t get done that night wasn’t a reflection of poor time management or failed multitasking but an authentic assessment of what I could accomplish in a couple of hours.
-Have a part of my weekly routine that I was genuinely excited about: Some weeks, I planned for meeting friends, other times were about lighting a candle and doing a face mask, and some were about pouring a glass of wine and making something from scratch. It mattered less what the actual task was and more that I carved out time for something that I was excited about.
-Create a “Feel Good” file: Amanda, my first teaching partner at Parker (and also one of those smart, honest, thoughtful folks I mentioned earlier) told me that I should collect evidence (in the form of notes, drawings, and mementos) that would connect me back to all of the warm, fuzzy reasons I was a teacher. I would go into my file on days that felt rough and tiring, and it usually upped my resolve to keep moving forward. I still have it and look through it because the contents are so meaningful.
Teaching is hard work and so is learning. We need to be able to reflect on our work and give ourselves space; our students have these same needs. And so just as much as I’ll encourage you to do what I’ve mentioned above, I’ll also invite you to give students a night off from homework and some in-class time to make meaning of what they’ve been able to do. I don’t think you’ll regret it, and I don’t think your students will, either.
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