If you have been an educator for a while you understand that there are many ups and downs in the work we do. Some days you feel like a rock star and, others, a failure. Some days you go home energized from making a difference and, others, you go home exhausted, feeling like you fell short. It is the nature of the business; when you do important work–work that really matters–it can be an emotional roller coaster.
Self awareness of these ebbs and flows is the first step in avoiding burnout, or worse, making a mistake that will damage your relationship with a student or colleague. I realized many years ago as a first year principal that one of the most challenging times for educators is from late winter to early spring. I am not sure why this is. It could be the winter having taken its toll; it could be the pressures of the pending assessments (3-8 tests, AP exams, Regents etc..). Or, it could also be the realization that time is running out for our opportunity to help our students get where they need to be.
If you are not cognizant of this potential pitfall it can become like a dark cloud over a classroom, school, or district. Mistakes can be made that have the potential to undo all of the good work you have done throughout the year. The results of this challenging time in our school year often means more discipline incidents, more tears, less patience with people, and a desire to just put your head down and get to June. The problem is we still have so much more time to influence our kids, still so much time to learn and hone our craft, and so much more time enjoy the great job that we are lucky enough to have.
This year I have had one of the most rewarding years of my career. I am lucky enough to work with a boss who I respect and admire, who not only teaches and mentors me, but believes enough in me to allow me to pursue some of my crazy ideas. I work with administrators, teachers, and CSEA staff who I learn from each and everyday, true professionals that want what’s best for kids. And, I have made time in my work this year to spend more and more time with those who matter most…the students. I feel our amazing District getting better and better everyday.
So yes, I am lucky; I work in a truly special place. I look forward to going to work everyday, yet I still can sense the ebb we have been facing the last few weeks. Stress levels have increased, people have been on my nerves and me on theirs. The longggggggggg winter and lack of a spring break, I am certain, have not helped. Just when I started to feel a bit down, a bit dejected, I remembered that this too shall pass. In fact, it has started to lift a bit with our recent spring-like weather in New York. I realized and reminded my co-workers that by the middle of the month, with great weather, long nights, and summer just around the corner, we will all forget the challenging month and look back at what a great year we had and how much we were able to help the kids who need us so much.
I have like to think I have grown as a leader of the years. I have thankfully added some tools to my tool box that have helped me in my pursuit to improve, that have allowed me to not only survive during this challenging time of year, but to actually thrive. These strategies can be helpful anytime you are feeling down or just need to get your mojo back.
The first step is to recognize that you may have gotten a bit off track, a bit negative, or simply let a little self doubt enter your mind.
Self Care On The Job
Being an educator is a tough job. If you are passionate about the work you do, it is a mental and physical marathon. It is important to take some time during your work day for yourself. It is not selfish; in fact it’s selfish not to. You cannot give your students everything they need if you are not at your best. Some simple things you can do that do not take a lot of time are:
Go Outside- commit to stepping foot outside at least once or twice a day. It doesn’t have to be more than one or two minutes to make a real difference.
Walk- Take a walk around the building. Go say hi to someone you haven’t seen in awhile, see your students outside of your class, or just put some headphones on and escape to some great tunes or a favorite podcast.
Take A Minute– Shut your door, set the timer on your phone for one minute, and do nothing. Just sit in silence, clear your mind, and just be. If you’re into mindfulness or are considering dipping your toe into that water, check out the Zen Teacher by Dan Tricarico, a great resource with simple strategies.
Take A Break– Take a break during your lunch or prep to forget about the pressures of the job. Read, write, watch a funny video, call a friend, visit a colleague, dream of your summer vacation. Whatever it is, realize you work hard and it is ok to take a short break. It will recharge you so you can be on your game for the next lesson you deliver.
One of the best parts of any job is the people you work with and the relationships you develop. Take some time to be a good friend, and to reconnect with the people you work with. Some ways to reconnect with colleagues are:
Have Lunch Together- You can go out, bring in, or even just chat if you are on a crazy diet that most of us try at some point, but be inclusive, be friendly, and be positive.
Start A Walking Club– Pick a time to get outside and walk with your co-workers. It can be before school, after school, or during lunch, but taking the time to walk with others is not only healthy, it fosters great professional and personal conversations building upon the relationships you already have with others.
Take The Time – Ask about families, remember birthdays, celebrate special occasions. Families, friends, and milestones are important. Take the time to recognize it and embrace it.
Be A Bucket Filler- We work hard to teach our students to be nice to one another. We explain that when we do something kind for others we not only make them feel good, but we also feel good. Take the time to do something nice for those you work with for those same reasons.
- Send a nice email or leave a note that gives a compliment
- Surprise your team with coffee or snacks one day
- Anonymously leave candy with a nice note in everyone’s mailbox
- Have a pizza delivered to the office or custodial staff
- Make a donation to your school
- Go visit someone in their classroom just to say hi
- Smile at someone
Show Empathy For Your Students-We all get frustrated with students sometimes, especially this time of year. It may be because we know they can do better, they spoke back to us, they disconnected, they didn’t do their work, or, maybe, they were downright rude. It is important to understand that, just like us, our students have “stuff” to deal with and because they are just kids they may not have the skills to deal with their “stuff” as well as we do.
Try to realize what it is they are dealing with and understand that it, most often, is not about us and it’s not personal. Consider an exercise that teacher Kyle Schwartz turned into a book and more importantly a educational epiphany. Asking that simple question can really open our eyes to what our students may be facing. This time of year, after building trust and rapport with them, they will be more inclined to open up to us. We may not be able to solve all of their problems, but we sure can try, and sometimes just being empathetic is enough to help. Take some time to speak to your students one on one, to ask no school related questions, to help them, not just as a student, but as person. Helping our students and having empathy is a good way to remind us how important the work we do actually is.
Change It Up
Try different strategies, different topics, different structures. It is often scary, at first, to abandon what we know works, to do something out of our comfort zone, especially if you are or work in a school that is obsessed with test scores. I understand the pressures of getting the kids ready for the Regents, the AP, finals, or whatever you are preparing them for. That being said, I truly believe our students perform better when we take a risk, try something new, let them explore encourage innovation. It not only helps us, but it can recharge educators to devise or execute a new and progressive approach. I have seen some great teachers try some of the following ideas to switch it up:
Walk And Talk– Let your students debrief and discuss while getting outside and walking.
Play– Give your students some time to play. It can be on topic, or just free play, but when kids have some time to be kids, to run, to play, to have fun, they are more inclined to be motivated and ready to learn. This isn’t just for elementary students, our AP students probably need this stress relief more than anyone
No Homework Week- No surprise that I would take the opportunity to promote less homework. But, would it really be that detrimental to abandon homework for just a week? Think about how nice it would be not to grade or mange homework for a little while. Not to mention the pressure relief it would provide to our students and their families.
Hands On-Try more hands on, more student centered activities. You may find it hard to give up control at first, but you may also find that this may be a better way for our students to retain material in the long term.
Get Out Of The Room- It can be a field trip, just going outside, or even a walk to another portion of the building. Changing the venue once in a while can keep it fresh for you and your students.
Ask The Kids-Ask your students for ways to change it up in your classroom. You may discover some great ideas and some future teachers in your classes.
Take Care Of Yourself Outside Of School
As educators, by rule we are usually givers, but, again, it is essential to take care of ourselves outside of school. Consider forming new habits or doing things you always want to do, but sometimes forget to do such as:
- Join a Gym
- Write in a journal
- Call an old friend
- Plan a vacation
- Build a lego
- Learn an instrument
- Enjoy your family
- Read a book
- Watch an old movie
- Binge on Netflix
- Start a garden
- Learn to paint
It is important to continue to grow as an educator, to never rest on our laurels. The very best educators or open to trying something new, to honing their craft. They know doing different doesn’t mean they have been doing wrong all along, but rather constantly evolving and improving.
Learning something new or hearing a new voice can not only help us grow, but can also help us get our mojo back. Try reading professionally for 15 minutes a day (George Curous, Katie Martin, and Evan Robb are three great blogs to start with), listen to a podcast on the way to work, go see another teacher you respect teach. It can be invigorating when we learn something new or try a different approach.
I have seen some already incredible teachers go to conferences and come back on a high, ready to do even better work than they are already doing. This type of positive energy that not only helps those who attended and their students, but can also be infectious and spread excitement throughout a building. Make a commitment to growing professionally, even if it is only a few minutes a day.
If you are feeling a little tired, frustrated, annoyed or down this time of year, know that it is normal. You should also know that it will pass. In a few short weeks you will be able to reflect on a great year, on all you have done to help students, and realize summer vacation is right around the corner. This little bump in the road will be long forgotten, yet if you need to get your mojo back now or anytime during your year, try some of the suggested strategies. I am sure you can find one or two that are right for you.