Perhaps to a degree never before, teachers this year are going into very difficult circumstances. The pandemic has unnerved everyone, vaxed and unvaxed alike, and the social, economic and emotional toll of the Covid-19 era weighs heavily. We also continue to exist in politically uncertain times, and depending upon what state you live in, teachers may be facing health problems, employment issues, student advocacy issues, and simple workload challenges. All this chaos and anxiety, and little of it comes directly from the need to educate young people. In fact a record number of our colleagues are calling it quits, which is completely understandable and may often be the best thing to do in a district or state that seems more concerned about political power than the health and well-being of students. Those of us who are staying need more resources, more strength, and more savvy to make this year work. How do we do it? Not with “toxic positivity.” By taking care of ourselves and each other.
How Do We Do This?
How can teachers continue to work, to put their students first, and not only survive but thrive as professional educators? The truth is that we have to accept that no one outside education is coming in to rescue us. We teachers have to take care of ourselves like never before and we must do so in ways that keep us mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy, so we can be there to help students who are suffering even more than most of the rest of us.
A colleague and professional friend of mine, Professor Nancy Mack, recently retired Professor of English from Wright State University in Ohio, is one of the smartest, hardest-working, and most positive teachers I have ever known. That’s why when I became editor of English Journal in September of 2008, I asked her to write an article to help all us teachers get into the right frame of mind.
Nancy Mack’s suggestions in her “Energy and Enthusiasm: Don’t Start the School Year without Them” are still tremendously relevant and useful for starting the school year off well. Here, I remind us of her suggestions and I reflect on their value.
Nancy Mack’s Suggestions to Maintain Energy and Enthusiasm for Teaching
- “Identify What Makes You Happy in Your Classroom.” You spend hours in your classroom every day. Make sure you build your classroom and curriculum in ways that make you personally happy. Design assignments, tasks, and methods that you will enjoy. Read and teach content that fulfills you as well as educates your students. If you are happy in your classroom, it’s far more likely that you’ll engage students in positive ways and unlock some of their enthusiasm. If you like your students, this is pretty easy. If you’ve found yourself too distracted these days–and understandably so–take some time to remember what you love about being with students.
- “Keep Learning from Your Students.” Young people are constant sources of fascinating takes on the world around them, and they can be genuinely original, funny, and wonderfully sensitive. Yes, many of them can be a bit self-centered or caustic (hazards of adolescence), but these are hiccups for the most part and we get to see students grow out of them. Design classroom activities that invite students to create new knowledge in ways that excite them and can educate you. If you’ve never said to a full class of students that you truly learned from them–and meant it–you’ve never seen the confident smiles one gets in return. These moments are gold, and they offset so many bad moments. So make opportunities for as many of these moments as you can.
- “Cherish Your Literacy.” Most teachers do not have the time or energy to do a great deal of reading or writing on their own time during the school year, but we should remember to “cherish” our literacy. Mack suggests reading shorter books and pieces, listening to audio books, and writing short pieces or letters to friends and family–all to keep us in touch with the literacy practices that almost certainly drew us to teach English. Even just a few pages a night of something funny, positive, enlightening, or just entertaining can help us practice our literacy and give us experiences to share with our students and colleagues. We are so fortunate to be able to teach a subject out of love for it. Don’t take that special gift for granted.
- “Find the Courage to Develop New Ideas.” With so much going on just trying to keep up with students’ progress, ever shifting school policies, and fraught discussions with students, colleagues, administrators, and parents, it’s important for us to remember to continue to develop new ideas. Sure there is an attack on teaching about race and equity in schools. But do it anyway. You know it’s right. Align your work with standards and provide students the opportunity to ask questions and develop their own topics in classes. Don’t let fear, exhaustion, or frustration stop you and your students from having exciting and relevant discussions. Students need us to keep pushing new ideas and methods.
- “Find Joy in What Students Accomplish.” When you allow students to direct their own learning as much as possible, you will be amazed at what they accomplish. Make sure to take the time to celebrate students’ successes–as a group and as individuals. And make sure you look seriously at those accomplishments. Every day of teaching is getting harder and harder. So focus on why you do it: student successes. EVERYONE is happy when students succeed. Let that success buoy your spirits, and model for your students how to take joy in their accomplishments. Take a day once in a while to celebrate with your students; reflect together on their (and your) successes!
- “Seek Things Other Than School That Give You Energy.” Remember to have a life outside school, even during the year. Dinner with some vaccinated friends, hobbies, walks in the woods, enjoying a movie or card game. All these activities and more can help you rejuvenate yourself for a new day and week of teaching. Honestly, this is the hardest of Mack’s suggestions for me to follow. When I’m not actually teaching, chances are I am writing about teaching (Hello, I’m writing a blog about teaching right now!), talking with my lovely wife about teaching (she’s also a teacher–in the same department as me!), or reading books and articles about teaching or in a content I plan to bring to students. It took a therapist to convince me that it wasn’t necessarily unhealthy for me to spend so much of my time and energy on my work, because I get so much out of it and I don’t feel anything missing from my life. But still, getting away for a walk or a kayak ride or to go out for drinks with friends, is a worthwhile use of my time–even if I have a lot of work I’d like to get to.
Good Luck this Year!
I offer all my teaching colleagues the best of luck in what is sure to be a challenging year of teaching. I hope you are able to concentrate on the many positive things you’ll encounter as an educator, and that you are able to stay healthy and strong, despite the pressure you may feel from circumstances well beyond your control.
I expect I’ll have a lot to say as I begin picking up the number of Edukention blog posts again this school year. I’ll be writing about teaching as subversion, about managing curriculum in this pandemic, and I’ll be writing more and more about teachers’ responsibilities and how they can reasonably fulfill them in these, frankly, urgent times.
But for now, take a deep breath, feel your strength–and our strength as a professional community–and be happy to jump back in. Summer vacation is fantastic, but it’s nothing compared to making a real difference in young people’s lives. Thank you for sticking with them.