School supplies have been given special aisle status in retail outlets for over a month now. Commercials for the hottest shoes and trendy clothes are saturating all media. Announcements have gone out to teachers for required professional development and back-to-school conclaves. There is no doubt about it, we are about to embark on level 8 of Jumanji – middle schools will reopen soon.
Much like the school years prior to the COVID pandemic, most teachers will be heading back to face-to-face, fairly maskless, not quite so restrictive social distancing circumstances. And yet, it doesn’t feel much like those years before the pandemic when the majority of us felt that rush of anticipation (dare I say even excitement?) for a new school year full of another troupe of kids and the prospects of our greatest year ever. (And new markers, let’s not forget the rush of opening a new pack of markers). But this year feels different. Over the past two and a half years our education-nation has been deeply shaken with tension generated by the pandemic, divisive political and cultural debates, and distrust from those both within and outside our communities. Many have chosen to leave our profession, and those who stayed are reporting a significant decline in morale and job satisfaction.
Recent surveys have quantified what most of us already knew – teachers ended the last school year feeling overwhelmed, undervalued, and less than optimistic about the status of education in this country. Several educators I worked with recently told me things like, “I still love being a teacher, but I’m starting to question my drive. I don’t have the zest I usually feel this time of year. I think I’ve lost my fire.”
The thing that concerns me the most about the current negativism directed towards teachers is what has happened to our collective efficacy as well as to our individual feelings of worth and power. I’ve seen some of the most competent, committed teachers I know shake their heads with self-doubt and defeatism. I want to throw my arms around them and say, “Please don’t give up. You have what it takes to make this work. Yes, it’s different now, but middle school has always been about navigating a shifting terrain, and that’s what you’re doing now. Don’t fret. You’ve got this!” For teachers having mixed feelings about the 2022-23 school year, I want to offer 3 tips to help regain the joy in teaching.
Fretting is a high state of agitation or anxiety over past events or anticipated problems over which one has no control. It can be observed anytime you witness teachers having the “Ain’t it awful” conversation. There are legitimate problems in schools right now. Time spent agonizing over events or decisions beyond our control breaks down our resilience and depletes our resourcefulness.
It is possible to acknowledge there are problems while remaining hopeful and confident we can make things better. We can work to fix the fixable and deemphasize the unfixable by coping with it or deemphasizing it. When we intentionally focus our attention and energy on solutions, we are far more likely to get the results we want or at least make the problems less formidable.
The media would have us believe that our schools are facing insurmountable struggles. We cannot allow ourselves to buy into that line of thought. True, we have lots of work to do, but who can handle it better than this nation’s teachers? This year do whatever you need to do to stop fretting – turn off or limit your time with the media, whiners, and colleagues who perpetually see themselves as victims.
Take Back Your Power
Teachers need to see ourselves as visionaries, not victims. Most of us have a lot more power than we realize. Think about the students whose lives have been enriched because of you. Consider the times you thought you couldn’t cope with some of the challenges in your job, but you did. To maintain our optimism and our self-efficacy it is essential that we regularly reflect on our areas of achievement and growth.
Stretch yourself and try new things. Recognize and appreciate your valiant efforts. Nothing is more empowering than hard-earned success. Give yourself credit for even incremental achievements (“Today, I didn’t flip out when the 7th grade boys jumped up to slap the door frame.”)
Also pay attention to the successes (even the small ones) of those around you. In your community make it a priority to speak well of your school and the people in it. When people ask you what you do, proclaim, “I am a teacher!” with the same gusto Frasier Crane uses when he tells people, “I went to Harvard!” It is an honor to be a part of this profession; let’s act like it.
Build relationships like never before
Every year when I got my new class rosters I received a cumulative folder with the students’ scores, rankings, teacher appraisals, discipline narratives, etc. If I had it to do over again, I would only read the information I needed to maintain the health and safety for each of my learners.
I would give every single middle school student an unqualified fresh start. So many times, I was influenced by other teachers’ opinions and labels stuck on students as early as kindergarten. Often the so-called troublemakers turned out to be some of the sharpest, most well-behaved kids in my class, and I delighted in being one of the first to pick up on what sparked their attention or the hidden talent that loomed just below the surface. Being an advocate for those who “march to the beat of a different drummer” has all kinds of inherent rewards.
This year it is particularly important to build relationships with and among our students. Social and emotional skills took a hit when students were mainly interacting online. Common courtesy and manners need to be reintroduced and reinforced as we weave appropriate social- and self-skills into student learning. Building a considerate, caring environment is as good for the teacher as it is for the students. Let’s work to restore civility in the places we control – our own classrooms.
We must rise above the naysayers who are determined to undermine our educational institutions. Yes, we’ve experienced some obstacles, but we can work together to tell the cynics, “This is not how the story ends.” I don’t know the author of this quote, but I think it’s something all teachers need to remind themselves, particularly as we embark on the challenging upcoming year (or “the next level of Jumanji,” if you prefer):
“Sometimes the strength within you in not a big fiery flame for all to see; it is just a tiny spark that whispers softly, ‘You’ve got this, keep going.”
Debbie Silver is a Retired Teacher. Author. Consultant. Speaker. Humorist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.