“I love teaching” she repeated to herself.
Or, he repeated to himself. You get the idea.
I want to preface this blog post by saying I truly love my job. Anyone who knows me personally or professionally knows that I love my students, my athletes, my colleagues, and my online community that I am lucky to collaborate with via social media. I love creating new activities, and I love being an excited and goofy presence in my students’ lives every day. I love believing in them and being a champion for them (a la Rita Pierson’s “Every child needs a champion”).
If I am honest, however, my 5:15 alarm is my worst enemy. It is my lowest point in my day. I lay in bed, angry that I have to leave the sleeping dog and even my snoring husband. I know that I will be happy once I get to school, but during those moments when I am warm under my covers my brain goes to all of the worst case scenarios. What if that difficult student chooses today to lash out at me? What if I forget to go to my lunch duty? What if I just have a “bad day?”
At certain points in the year, it can be hard to remember why you love being a teacher. Teaching is a hard job at any point in the year, but especially after a week or two of winter break, where you were snuggling on the couch at home with your husband and your dog. Sometimes it can be even harder at the start of the year, after enjoying the sunshine and time with your family for a few months.
When I start to feel down, I try to take some time to reflect and share on the top 5 things that have helped me feel rejuvenated, refreshed, and confident in my career choice over the years. These are things that help me at any point in the year, but especially during those cold winter mornings or during the back to school frenzy.
1) Reflect, -5 to 5
A few years ago, I opened up to my non-teacher friends about some anxiety I was experiencing about my career. I explained to them how I often feel stressed, or how I sometimes feel like I’m not good at my job, or that I even find myself thinking that I’m not enjoying teaching. This was in my fourth or fifth year teaching, I believe. I felt overwhelmed and I felt unhappy.
Since they are good friends, they had been paying attention. Which means, they had noticed all of the positive stories I had shared about teaching, and they weren’t about to let me focus on my own negative self-talk. One friend, an engineer, suggested I start ranking my days if I was really seriously doubting myself and my love for my job. I assumed he meant like on a scale from 1-10, but he explained a different type of scale.
He suggested that in my planner, before I leave school every day I write down a number that I felt reflected my day as a whole. Instead of a number from 1-10, he suggested that I use a scale of -5 to 5. He said that this way, I would be able to give a value to my days that actually had meaning. He explained that 5s had to be reserved for days that were perfect in my eyes, and -5s were for the worst days of the year. He said he was going to check in with me after 2 weeks to see how many of my days were in the negative vs. how many were in the positive.
What I shared with him after those 2 weeks surprised me. At the end of every day, I had done as Andy had suggested. I didn’t think too much about it, but instead quickly assigned a number to my day before heading off to cross country practice. Would you know that not only did I not have any negative days, but that I didn’t even have any days that were a 2? Every singly day had been labeled a 3, 4, or 5.
Now, you may be thinking “Ok, but that was just two weeks. I’m sure over the year you have many days that are a -1, -3, etc….” But here’s the thing. I don’t. Even on my worst days, the good moments in the day always convince me that my day is truly a 3 at the worst.
Under all of my stress and unhappiness, it is not that I have days that deserve to be in the negatives; it’s that I just thought that I did. I let myself think that I wasn’t happy as a teacher, and I let myself think that I must be doing something wrong. In reality, I simply wasn’t taking time to reflect on how much I was actually enjoying every day.
Whenever I am feeling down throughout the year, I mentally think of this scale. “Ok, so what was my worst day lately?” And I can never seem to pick a day that is less than a 3. If that ever changes, I will assess my career choices. But until then, I will focus on this “job” where it seems like every day ends up being a 4 or a 5 when I really take the time to think about it.
2) Call Home
When I started making positive phone calls home instead of just negative ones, my entire outlook changed. I mean that seriously; I do not say that to be dramatic. My entire outlook about my career changed, after being in that career for four or five years already.
It changed because on my very first positive phone call home, the student was in the car with her parents. They didn’t tell me right away, and had me on speaker as I spoke the highest praise about their quiet, diligent daughter. At the end of the conversation, Dad said “Jeanne is in the back seat right now and I wish you could see the smile on her face. Thank you so much for making our night. We are heading out to dinner, and now we will all be celebrating Jeanne.”
I could have cried. Instead, I vowed to make more phone calls like that.
If I am ever having a difficult day, I open my planner and add “3x phone calls” to my to-do list, no matter how long it is. Taking those 10 minutes before I go home means I will be ending my day on a good note rather than a grumpy one. Even if I don’t get ahold of the parents, and I have to leave a voicemail, it still makes me happy. Sometimes I will get a thank you email later that night, or a call back the next day. Sometimes a student will thank me the next day, and I can feel that our relationship is even stronger. They feel seen, and I feel like I am making a difference.
Even if the phone call is never returned or acknowledged in any way, it is still valuable to me. I know this because I have seen the weight a simple conversation can have in a students’ home and personal life.
3) Assume the Best
I find that often, my stress comes from assuming the worst is going to happen. A coworker (and close friend) shared something with me last year that she had taken away from a session with her therapist.
She said, “She told me I am always preparing for the worst. I spend so much time worrying about things that never actually happen. What would happen if instead of assuming the worst… I assume the best case scenario will happen instead?” She said she wanted to do this more in her personal and professional life. I told her I would try it with her.
If either of us was feeling anxious, we would be there to remind each other:
“Imagine the best case scenario will happen instead.”
“What if tomorrow is the best day ever?”
“What if it goes really well?”
“What if it DOES work?”
“What if you DO succeed?”
4) Allow Yourself to Say, “I am not a teacher right now.”
Earlier this year, my school’s PLC met to discuss the topic of teacher self care. We discussed the amount of work we bring home, and we brainstormed ways to set limits for ourselves.
Many wonderful ideas were shared, but there is one that has stuck with me and I think will stick with me for a long time. A colleague said that when she is at home, she sets a timer for herself. She does not let herself work for too long, because she deserves to enjoy time with her husband and her family.
She said that when the timer goes off, no matter what she has left to do, she puts it away. As she closes her computer, or puts her grading in her bag, she says these words aloud. “I am not a teacher right now.”
I think this is so valuable for us to hear, and for us to tell ourselves. For us to allow ourselves. We often feel like we have to be a teacher every minute of every day, and that is just not fair. We owe it to ourselves to care for ourselves and our personal lives. We deserve to invest in ourselves, and in our happiness by setting limits and allowing ourselves to stick to those limits.
One last thought from that meeting was something from another colleague of mine. She said, “As teachers we are so giving. We give to others all day long, and yet we feel guilty when we give to ourselves.”
Remember not only to give to others, but to give to yourself as well.
5) Choose One Student
In those hard moments in the morning, or at any point in the day, I try to picture one of my students. I focus on him or her for a moment, and reflect on why I care about being there for them every day. I try to choose a different student each time.
Honestly, it is OK to choose to think about one of those kids that always works hard, makes you smile, and makes you want to come to work every day.
It is so easy to think about the bad moments we may have at work. It is easy to think about the management techniques that haven’t worked. Or to let your thoughts linger on the student who is always on their phone, or always ignoring you. It is easy to think about that negative encounter (from last week or even last year) and to let yourself replay it over and over in your head.
When you are having a hard time, remind yourself of the good ones, too.
During class time, we obviously focus our energy on our more difficult students. We do our best to reach them, to get them focused on the lesson instead of their phone, to engage them. We invest our time and our energy in all of our students.
But on your own time… choose another student. All you need is one. Instead of thinking about something that brings you down, think about a person that lifts you up, instead. And if you feel like spreading the joy, tell that student the next time you see them. “Hey, Cory, thank you for being you. You are so creative, and thoughtful, and I love how you are always determined to do your best. I really appreciate you.”
I guarantee that doing so will improve your day, and theirs.
6) Ok I know I said 5 but if you’re just having a really hard day…
Let yourself take time for you.
“Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” (From my mentor, my first year teaching. I don’t know where he originally found the article he sent me, but it changed my teaching life for the better.)
If you want to be alone, take time alone.
Go outside. Go for a 20 minute walk. Maybe with a friend, maybe with your dog, maybe alone. You’ll be surprised how different you might feel after.
Give to yourself. Give yourself time to read, to play video games, to just sit and listen to music.
Watch your favorite show. I openly admit to watching the Bachelor and Bachelorette. It is mindless and relaxing fun for me, for some reason. No shame.
If you want a glass of wine, have a glass of wine. If you want tea, have tea. No self-judgement.
Stop talking negatively to yourself. Be kind to yourself.
Thank you for reading, and here’s to a great year!