The calendar's shortest month is a teachers longest month. Sandwiched between Christmas break and spring break, the endless stream of dark February mornings can take a toll on our psyche. Hanging on and making the most of the learning experience until winter thaws requires a mindful approach.
This magnet on our refrigerator at home serves as a daily
reminder that I always have a choice about my attitude.
Sometimes the best thing we can do is to let go,
hit the reset button and move forward.
Issues in which I have no control or influence never even make it to my inbox. And when it comes to influencing others I carefully assess how I can get the most bang for my buck.
This is not an act of defiance or me thumbing my nose at leadership. I am talking about intentionally hitting the reset button and refusing to accept survival mode. I avoid the litany of distractions that seem to surface at this time of the year. In February, efficiency and fun - often seen as opposing forces - are both at a premium.
- Teacher evaluations - An inquisitive 13-year-old could see past the well-intentioned legislation and recognize that the words on paper do not match reality. In too many districts, teacher evaluations that could get to the heart of teacher growth and improved student learning have been an abysmal failure. Don't believe me? Ask teachers from different buildings and different school districts. If you really want to know, check in with teachers employed in schools where teachers are being laid off based on faulty evaluation protocols. Fixing this mess while sitting in the middle of it is impossible. Let go. For now.
- Short-sighted "quick fixes" - School districts adopt ideas without input and then we pretend to be on board until things just kind of "drift away" and new ideas replace the old ones. We do a good job of meeting the minimum expectations, which flies in the face of what we are trying to teach our students. It is difficult to get a feel for what is really important if the communication is poor and the resources are stretched too thin. The status quo is easy. Respectful inquiry with an eye on progress simply does not thrive in group-think settings. Let go.
- Frustrated Parents Playing the Blame Game - This is rare in my experience, but I know it can be a nightmare without support and guidance. When it happens I remind myself that doing right is more important than being right. These are opportunities to educate parents, and as teachers we are professionally equipped to educate and learn. Having witnessed some skillful administrators navigate these situations first-hand has helped me improve in this aspect of my craft. I am pro-active and empathetic and that defuses most conflicts. When difficult people require my attention in February I do my best to do what is right and I stay mindful of the fact that I am tired. Then I let go.
- Administrators too busy to notice - I get frustrated that many of the good things that my colleagues do appear to be taken for granted by our leadership. It's not intentional and I have the ability to shine a light on the great things happening in education (Maybe my next blog will highlight some of my colleagues who inspire me?). In other words, I cannot afford to be too busy to notice. I am not even certain leadership is taking things for granted and I remind myself it could be a communication challenge more than a gratitude deficiency. A culture of creativity and empowerment is worth fostering and that does not require a specific job title to get it going. That's on me. It is energizing to offer genuine praise to others and I turn to gratitude and praising others when I get the winter blues. Time to let go of disappointment in school leaders.
- Contract Negotiations - This is difficult because I have often felt the negotiation process is a direct reflection of how teachers are valued. Thankfully, how we are valued by students day to day has nothing to do with the employee contract and the hard work that goes into good faith negotiations. When I have strong feelings or animosity about school business I work very hard to consciously let go once I have taken some type of action.
- Bad Days - How does it go? First Attempt In Learning = F.A.I.L. So, if the bad day was due to a risk or trying something new then it probably wasn't a bad day after all. If the bad day was due to something else, it's normal with so many variables at play in teaching. I try to find the humor in those situations, especially in February when everyone seems a bit worn down. February is the time to take yourself less seriously and reach out to others and share experiences. It's also a time to focus on letting go.
- Legislation out of Lansing - Pay attention. Engage. Be respectful. Speak up. Vote in every election. Repeat.
Exploring should be part of our job description
as teachers. I decided I to create my own job
description and it has made all the difference
in my career. Photo by me.
Finding my nicheI enjoy exploring different ways to express my ideas and elevate my voice. In the process I want to help others discover their voice. I am inspired by colleagues who live their passion as educators without falling victim to a culture of compliance.
Engaging in writing and photo-journalism projects gives me an outlet and connection to a greater purpose. I value exercising professional judgment about how I manage my time and I replace the mundane with creative outlets where I can have a broad impact. This has made my career more fulfilling and I am a better teacher for recognizing and walking away from the unimportant things that suck the life out of teachers.
The time dedicated to arbitrary "school business" that has nothing to do with student success has virtually disappeared. My writing and photography help me stay focused on students and building positive relationships. Basically, I devote most of my energy to honor why I teach and how I can promote learning as a meaningful experience. I am not interested in proving I can check off boxes.
Twitter has been a risk worth taking for me and my students. I post several tweets every week with our class hashtag (#fhsSS) to supplement our learning. Students regularly contribute and I get great feedback. An unplanned Twitter community grew out of our learning and we explore class topics on student terms. I love it. Twitter gives us a voice, a community of learners and access to loads of information. I have made room for new learning by letting go of old concerns and embracing an unplanned experience.
What it Means to Let GoAs an educator, "letting go" simply means I have found a new place for the situations that were more likely to control me than the other way around. I am typically a glass-half-full kind of guy, but even I have to admit that life as a school employee has too much uncertainty without built-in incentives to take risks. I decided to write and execute my own job description and I make sure I build in some risk, laughter and time to reflect.
Moving forward together in our schools requires an honest
evaluation of our priorities. In the absence of clear priorities
we should simply create our own. Photo by me.
If we are not vigilant about recognizing our priorities, that sense of authenticity that makes our profession so great can fall victim to an institutional mindset.
February is the perfect time to step back and decide where you want to
put your energy. In the big picture, choose wisely what you let go of
today in order to avoid being needlessly dragged. Photo by me
When the teacher performance evaluations are shoddy, tracking data just for sake of doing it is futile. In some cases, administrators do not have the resources to actually carry out useful teacher evaluations that help teachers and students. In other places, high evaluation scores for everyone ensure the silent agreement keeps the district running smoothly - all the teachers get high scores and therefore do not complain.
All of that can be acknowledged and simultaneously let go ... for now. Letting go, from time to time, is a healthy choice unless you wish to be dragged.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and journalism teacher at Fenton High School in Michigan since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2003. He has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011 and he loves to travel. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students grow their passion for learning. Gregory is a member of the Michigan Education Voice Fellowship.