October and November are often characterized by teachers as a period of survival mode or a time when feelings of disillusionment come to the forefront -- the work is hard, the hours are long, and no one has had a break in quite a while. Come on, Thanksgiving break!
Now seems like a great time to talk about teacher wellness and retention. Specifically, about how teachers, new and veteran alike, can take care of themselves in order to remain the fabulous teachers they are for years to come.
Read on, weary teacher. You can do this.
Tip 1: Find Your Marigolds
This is a phrase I borrowed from a past resident teacher in the Public Education and Business Coalition’s Boettcher Teacher Residency. She told me that in any endeavor, it's important to find your marigolds. Marigolds are hardy yet beautiful flowers that grow resiliently, and are often planted in vegetable gardens because they naturally repel many common pests and improve the overall health of other plants. In your professional work as a teacher, you'll have colleagues who are marigolds, those who repel negativity and improve the work and mental health of those around them.
You'll also have colleagues who are most decidedly not marigolds. Find the marigolds in your building and lean on them for support. Surround yourself with people who will help you see positives and possibilities, rather than only the challenges. You may very well find that if you spend enough time with marigolds, you'll become one, too.
The Marigold Effect is a concept first outlined by Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy and later developed as one of the ten "hacks" in the book, Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School, by Mark Barnes and Jennifer Gonzalez.
Tip 2: Find a Way to Prioritize You
Teachers sacrifice their time and energy in order to make a difference in the lives of the students they teach. This is a noble sacrifice, however, it's important to make sure you don’t sacrifice too much. At times, it can be easy to feel as if there's a direct correlation between how exhausted you are as a teacher and how much time you spend on students. I would argue, though, that an exhausted teacher does not equate to highly enriched students. In fact, there's probably a negative correlation between these elements.
While it's easy to fall into what I call the "teacher martyrdom complex," try your best to stay away. You have to take care of yourself in order to offer something meaningful to the young people with whom you work. Really work on figuring out when enough is enough, and prioritize the practices that are truly high leverage and let go of the ones that are nice... but not essential.
After much reflection in my own teaching practice, I finally got to the point where I asked, “Why am I doing this?” every time I made an instructional decision. If my “why” provided a meaningful outcome for students, then I was willing to make sacrifices and invest the time and energy it took to bring the idea to fruition. If I couldn’t find a “why” that was truly better for my students, I let it go and bought myself back some time and sanity. It really is all about the students, but that doesn’t mean you have to be miserable.
Tip 3: Find Your Passion Points and Remember to be Creative
Give yourself permission to start small -- you don’t need to chuck out your entire curriculum and redo everything. In fact, for your own sanity, I'd highly recommend not doing that. However, I'd encourage you to figure out how to put creative energy into a rewarding element of your work.
Maybe it's simply sprucing up a corner of your classroom to make it more inviting for both you and your students. Perhaps it's a new classroom ritual or routine to help build better relationships. For instance, during a rough year with a particularly challenging group, I started writing short, personal notes to students in their science notebooks while grading them. I'd ask them personal questions unrelated to curriculum and invited written responses for the next time I checked their work.
Students were reluctant to respond at first, but with time and persistence, they started to open up to me on paper. While this process did cost a bit of extra grading time, I found the relationships I built with students on paper eventually transferred to other areas of the classroom, and that the process was energizing rather than draining. Whatever you decide, make sure it's something that allows you to spend some time and mental energy focused on the reason(s) you became a teacher in the first place.
As you deal with a sense of disillusionment or need to enter survival mode this year, continue to ask yourself, “What feeds me most about this job? How can I spend more of my working hours doing THAT?” And most importantly, remember that you are valuable and the work you do matters so much. Please take care of yourself so that you can do what you do for many years to come!
Rachele McCawley Robertson has experience teaching both middle school and high school science in public schools in the Denver Metro Area. Currently, she is the Director of Urban Residency for the Public Education & Business Coalition’s Boettcher Teacher Residency, which prepares people to have exceptional teaching careers through a hands-on licensure program. She lives in Denver with her husband and fur baby.