Thursday, February 27, 2020

When Teachers Reach Their Breaking Point

Pushing through isn’t easy, but the alternative is much worse

One of the best teachers I know recently told me that she feels depleted and exhausted at school. The work is piling up, she’s tired, and she said the staff had reached their breaking point. She wondered aloud that if she was losing her way as a veteran teacher, how must new hires feel.

Photo by Nate Neelson on Unsplash
Teaching is tricky. A bad stretch in the first semester could be fleeting, or it could spiral beyond winter break. Less experienced teachers are more likely to fall prey to a drawn-out collapse, but experienced teachers are not immune.

I was not completely surprised by my conversation with this respected and talented teacher. In our world, the month leading to Thanksgiving represents the second leg of our marathon. With falling temperatures outside, we show up to school in the dark, leave in the dark and fall into routines. By Halloween, the anticipation and excitement of the new school year can give way to disillusionment and anxiety. Staff meetings seem longer, grading demands ramp up, and parents start checking in more.

The wins, the bad days, and the average days meld together into a fragile normal.
For teachers who stay in the profession long enough, some school years feel heavier, more taxing than others. When teaching feels constricting and burdensome, hitting the reset button requires a personal resilience that is tough to access when doubt lingers all the time. Sometimes November feels like an uphill trek into gale-force winds, and that’s what I saw in this teacher’s face when she admitted there was nothing left in the tank.

Her desperation and sense of defeat gave me pause, and I thought more about my role in the school culture where I serve as an administrator. While it is dangerous to accept the notion that “everyone” is feeling one way or another in a school, the culture is the thread that connects everyone in the school. At any given time, the ebb and flow of how one feels as an educator can be vastly different from one teacher to the next or from one week to the next.

Since that conversation, I have checked in with teachers and members of our administrative team to get a better pulse on how people are feeling where I work. My discussions, along with my experiences as a teacher, brought some big ideas into focus for me.

We are allies

We all need to lean on our colleagues from time to time, and that vulnerability and willingness to seek help rather than to go it alone will make a rough stretch more tolerable. Sometimes as a school administrator, I feel like I am caught in the middle, trying to balance my ambition to make gains in specific areas while also understanding that some staff members lack the stamina to dive in on some challenges. High-quality teaching and adapting to challenges requires a unique skill set and a team-first approach. We have work to do, and we need one another to make it happen.

Compliments are not scarce commodities

The best superintendent I worked under taught me that a perfectly timed compliment could do more to help a teacher or student than anything else during a rough patch. Giving sincere, positive recognition to others is easy, and it’s free. Sometimes, I think we hold back on compliments unnecessarily, or we assume that people know we appreciate the value they bring to the school. Let’s face it; frequently, we don’t have a sense of how we’re doing in this profession, and it can become disorienting. It never hurts to remind people about the difference they make for us and others. The worse we feel, the more gratitude we ought to dole out to others. It helps. A little love at the right time can go a long way.

Lean on your “go-to” people

We all need our go-to people who will straighten us out, give us the truth, and hold us to account. Tired, sad, happy, mad — our go-to people keep us upright and never let us off the hook. If your go-to people start to poison the well, be careful because that type of toxicity is a tough spell to break. If you don’t have positive go-to people, you better find them because it’s only a matter of time before you will need their support.

Remain student-centered. Always.

When all of that effort to stay afloat during challenging times comes back to one center — students — the rest will work out. Sure, educators have to take care of themselves to serve students, but I am talking about the work. Our struggle is anchored in the people who matter most when students are the focus. We can build out from that point.
In my career, I have endured times when I felt overwhelmed, bored, underappreciated, and not supported. The only constant that saw me through all of it was my commitment to the students and families I serve. The only thing more exhausting and counterproductive than excuses in the education profession is assigning blame to every challenge. Give yourself a chance to pull through tough stretches by focusing on students rather than getting swallowed up by negativity and cynicism.
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* This story is based on a composite of experiences throughout my career, and it was originally published on Medium in November 2019.
I am a fierce advocate for education. I taught for eighteen years, and I am currently serving as a high school assistant principal. I am a fan of ideas, bold action & learning from failure. Views expressed here are all mine. I am not repping my employer.

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