Teacher Wellness

Restoring the Joy in Teaching

It can be tough to find a way toward joyfulness when you’re overwhelmed, but you can reset and reignite your energy for teaching.

July 19, 2022
SolStock / iStock

I love my job. I’ve been an educator for 18 years. I’ve been in teaching roles and administrative ones. This year, after searching for what would give me joy, I’m making the choice to return to the classroom. After some needed and continuing intensive mental health therapy, I examined my values. In personal discovery, I realized that I went to college to be an educator—not to chase titles. As educators, we can’t control everything around us, and I struggled with that so much in my career. But this article is about what we can control.

As individuals, we can look within ourselves and focus on healing and restoring our own love and passion for our profession and our schools. I invite you to work individually and collectively to look deeply into your values and within your heart to locate the reason you became an educator. We can create ways to pour those feelings of resilience we fostered from within our hearts and into our classrooms.

Sorting Out Our Values

Yoga training has taught me the importance of settling in and breathing. I think this practice also applies to working in schools. We need the summer to recuperate, and the first few days before the students come back to class is a good opportunity to take  time to settle in and focus on our breath. In our profession, between spring 2020 and spring 2022, we didn’t get time to recuperate or to settle in. My own inability to heal from the trauma that I faced in the pandemic just made wounds bigger. A personal breaking point led me to seek support through therapy. This was something that I could control.

Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of courage. As I started to accustom myself to the help, my deep past unhappiness surfaced. Weekly, I found myself considering a different profession and all sorts of businesses I wanted to start. My family and friends were exhausted listening to me. They were a great support system, but I was just moving so quickly from idea to idea that it was hard for them to support me when I was jumping from thought to thought.

My therapist came into the picture and advised me that before I made any sudden transitions, I needed to try to look deeply within my values. She had me complete a “values sort.” I was skeptical at first.

She handed me three envelopes and the Personal Values Card Sort, a list of 100 values—duty, fun, integrity, love, and more—created by William R. Miller, Janet C’de Baca, Daniel B. Matthews, and Paula L. Wilbourne. The goal is to figure out which values are important to you. I invite you to try it at home in solitude and when you are content. People see self-care as having a massage, but in this case, I think it’s really about giving yourself time to think about your values.

It’s best to print the document and then cut out the value statements into rectangles, for easy sorting. On another page, create a table with three columns: “Most Important to Me,” “Important to Me,” and “Not Important to Me.” The guide gives you an option of five columns, but I think three is more practical. I limited my “Most Important to Me” values to 10 rectangles, which pushed me to make some tough choices about what I really value.

Doing this alone ensures that you’re making decisions about what’s important to you and not anyone else. Once you complete this activity, you can have a conversation about what those values mean to you with a therapist or trusted friend.

Recentering Our Hearts

It’s helpful to know how our values root us in our day-to-day activities. We really don’t take the time in leadership retreats to follow up on the sorts we complete. We just check the box. It’s important for this type of adult social and emotional learning professional development to be consistent and for all school staff. To do a “values tree,” you can draw a tree or write an outline.

Write down the activities that your values are guiding you to at this point in your life (on the trunk or as headings). Next, write your goals (as branches) and finally outcomes you hope to see (as leaves and fruit). In my drawing, I wrote down my 10 “Most Important to Me” values. My bark had my most important activities. The clouds represented what I desired to carry on with in life. The sun, or self-love, helps growth. The branches I drew displayed my needs. The fruits on the tree were outcomes I hoped to see.

Restoring the Joy in Our Classrooms and Schools

What can we do to support ourselves in transferring that joy to our classrooms? Here’s what I’m doing:

  1. Spend time now to work on a small project that excites you for the following school year. Moving back into the classroom and setting up my space is exciting for me to begin with. I can’t wait to implement flexible seating again! I’m also creating a five-senses self-soothing station that kids can utilize for self-regulation in my classroom. It contains different bins that provide students with a variety of activities that appeal to the five senses in order to support self-regulation in the classroom.
  2. At the beginning of the year, it’s important to take your time to get to know students with activities that foster relationship building and cooperative learning skills in your classroom. Try not to jump into rules and syllabi right away. Find ways to have students help you create the physical classroom environment with their artwork and their ideas.
  3. Find more ways to integrate student-centered, hands-on learning with design-thinking-based passion projects. I’ve always tried to find ways to work with kids to design projects that support a passion they have for themselves or the community.
  4. Use music to make connections in your classroom. I always play a song of the week that was a transition from the hallway to classroom. It’s usually a song that matches themes in our learning, but I do take requests from students as well.
  5. Prioritize finding ways to bring in more kinesthetic learning. Gallery walks, moving jigsaw assignments, and academic games are great ways to get learners engaged.

Joy is hard to find when you’re nervous and moving nonstop. Slow down. Remember the phrase “It’s OK” in order to give grace to your students and yourself. This isn’t easy, but we can control the time and space we give our hearts.

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