New Teachers

A Sustainability Strategy for New Teachers

To help offset the stress of teaching and make it a viable career in the long term, new teachers need a plan—this year more than ever.

November 10, 2021
SolStock / iStock

We are former K–12 teachers and have been teacher educators for over a decade. We recognize that while teaching is rewarding, at the same time it can be highly stressful—especially this year, which many teachers are finding more stressful and less rewarding than usual. It’s our hope that our students, who come to us invested in joining the teaching profession, remain in teaching and thrive despite the challenges they’ll face.

We see our role as encompassing more than delivering methods or building our students’ base of knowledge. As teacher educators, we believe our work goes beyond preparing teachers for the classroom. To that end, we are committed to supporting the pre-service teachers we work with in finding what sustains them as educators.

What Constitutes Teacher Sustainability?

Teacher sustainability involves teachers identifying, pursuing, and being intentional about maintaining the conditions that help them:

  • Nurture self-compassion and compassion toward others,
  • Find joy in their personal and professional lives and remember their humanity, 
  • Learn and grow as a teacher, and
  • Have a voice in decision-making processes at their schools.

We developed a “3 Rs to Remember” strategy—relationships, rituals, and reasons—that offers a simple way to support early-career teachers.

Look for Relationships to Reenergize You

Humans are wired for connection. In our work, we strive to make sure that our students understand and value the power of caring and supportive relationships in their work with youth. Different relationships, however, serve different purposes. The first Rs goal is for pre-service teachers to reflect on the different kinds of relationships that uplift them.

It’s important to consider relationships that are warm and supportive as well as recognize the benefit of the ones that encourage us to feel inspired, take risks, and grow personally and professionally. In reflecting on relationships, we encourage students to think of three different relationships and what they provide.

In presenting this R, Lina usually shares that she seeks her trusted friends, colleagues, and peers who challenge her thinking when she feels she needs to look at issues, ideas, or incidents in a new light. Such relationships are as important as those that provide comfort, empathy, and validation.

The first R also provides an opportunity to critically think about the relationships that don’t contribute to renewal. For example, having a space where you can vent and share frustrations is crucial. Nonetheless, when we don’t move beyond venting, we can get stuck, and that affects our ability to sustain ourselves as educators. Developing self-awareness about the role of different relationships in our lives also involves mutuality or reciprocity.

Asking yourself, “How do I contribute to my relationships?” is also part of the first R. “How do I show empathy to the people who reenergize me? How do I provide them with what they need to feel inspired and to grow?”

Use Rituals to Restore You

Our second R is about the habits and activities that help us reestablish a sense of well-being. Rituals can give us a sense of reliability, peace, and calm. Therefore, we find ourselves seeking them to feel renewed and strengthened. In our work, we encourage pre-service teachers to identify three activities that they enjoy and to think about how the activities help them feel restored. It’s important to be aware of how rituals can help with our renewal, so our goal is for pre-service teachers to become intentional about carving out time for activities that they want to make into restorative rituals as they become teachers.

For example, for both of us, taking solo daily walks, rain or shine, is one of our rituals. These walks help us reflect on our day, make plans, or enjoy our surroundings. We stress that self-care is not an extra or something to be enjoyed when time permits—it’s foundational to sustainability.

While it might appear counterintuitive in light of the many demands and responsibilities that teachers have to manage, we emphasize the importance of purposefully making time for rituals because these activities can’t be rituals if they don’t become a pattern in our way of being. Without consistency, we can’t identify their role in strengthening and renewal.

Have Reasons to Remind You

The last R ties to our values, why we chose teaching as our vocation, and renewing our commitment to it. Commitment to our reasons and values compels us to critically reflect on our work in order to assess the extent to which our teaching is aligned with our values. This commitment also allows us to identify and take on the actions that will help us ensure that what we value and what we do aren’t far away from one another. Our third R helps us avoid complacency. Our reasons keep us anchored to teaching as an ongoing process of self-reflection, learning, and growth.

In both of our classes, we invite pre-service teachers to reflect on what brought them to teaching and the contribution they hope to make. For some of the pre-service teachers we work with, the reasons that affirm their commitment are highly personal. Perhaps they remember a teacher who made a difference in their lives, and as a result, they want to build strong relationships with their own students.

Reasons can also be systemic, focused on undoing injustices and dismantling systemic oppression, and they can move us to act. For example, to the two of us, equity is at the heart of our work. So, a few years ago after a conversation on our goals, we embarked on a collaborative self-study to examine how we approached race in our teaching.

While this collaboration was a challenging exercise of self-reflection and vulnerability, it reinvigorated our teaching. We revised our syllabi to diversify the curriculum, we started paying greater attention to whose voices and stories we center in class discussions, and we started to regularly invite community members and educators committed to equity and the well-being and success of children and youth from historically underserved backgrounds.

Our reasons are our guide. Let’s frequently examine, evaluate, and reevaluate them.

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