Professional Learning

Teachers: Staying Positive in Trying Times

September 30, 2013
Image credit: Veer

She was a mentor. She was an innovator. She was a fighter for students, academic rigor, and achievement. I use the past tense not because my colleague has passed away but because her positivity has. And in so doing, administrators have lost a mediator, the staff has lost colleague, and the students have lost a guide.

All staffs are made up of great teachers, good teachers, indifferent teachers, teachers who are in progress, and teachers who should have never been kept on. Versions of these categories are in every industry. But there is also another category of teacher: the one whose heart was in the job, but who had that heart broken after years of professional disappointment. I have, for the first time, been witness to that de-evolution from start to finish.

The De-Evolution of Positivity

This woman spent years building up her own knowledge, pushing herself to learn more and more. She is brilliant in her knowledge of educational technology, has multiple credentials, and has earned multiple degrees, all in the name of lifelong learning. She made an impact on many, but her impact wasn't enough to keep her heart aloft through years of deflated morale. Her talents were never tapped or appreciated.

Her spirit died because of the problems that feel insurmountable: the budget, the villainization of teachers, the over-emphasis on testing. And as the federal government gets muddled about their mission, so do schools. The government dictates blander directives and schools feel the pressure to replace innovation with standardized scripts. And it's chipping away at our sanity.

Since her positivity collapse, she has closed her door to helping other teachers. And while I know that she is still teaching her heart out with her students, doing what she can with so little, I also know that unhappiness trickles down to the students whether we want it to or not. I don't blame her. Teachers are bruised and our bones are broken fighting for the minimum to do our job. But I do wish we could have helped her before her heart's demise.

Keeping Optimism and Hope Alive

Now, while Edutopia is about honesty, it is also about solutions. We are not just an online corner in which to vent our frustrations. We are a community of educators seeking to make improvements in both the system and our practice. So in her honor, and in the hopes that we catch others like her before they hit a place where smiles are in drought, I wanted to post a short list of advice in how to preserve happiness even in these difficult times.

1. Pinpoint what you love about education and live in it. I love the kids. So I open my door during my lunch and spend more time with them. I hate the paperwork. So I've devised ways to lessen my load. For one thing, I've gone paperless, and as a symptom, my learning curve keeps me distracted from the scholastic smog.

2. Find others who can offer solutions, not just an ear. We need people who will listen when we are down. But being an ear doesn't solve the problems, and it's important to surround yourself with colleagues who push you to think in new, innovative ways.

3. Pick and choose the news you read. I'm not telling you to cut off your supply of news stories and bloggers and headlines. I am suggesting that you ask yourself if you need a barrage of educational news all the time. And what quality is that news? Is it always reporting the negative? Is it a feed that only vents or one that inspires forward movement? There's a difference, after all. Pick the feeds that help you, not those who only serve to stoke your anger.

4. Know your limits. Know how big your plate is and protect its edges. You need to say yes sometimes, but you also have the right to say, "so what's coming off my plate if I take this on?" You can at least ask before you say no.

5. Never close your door to collaboration. You know how they say that moving elderly people into the hospital can quicken their demise? Closing your door to colleagues is rather like that. The act begins to deteriorate your ability to see the good. When you close the door, you are moving access to positive practices into hospice care.

6. Be supportive of one another. That means you shouldn't add to the smog of negativity or help propel the riot mentality of anger that can be ever-present in a staff lounge. Instead, it means helping a new teacher or answering an email asking for advice. Helping others also helps you. You'll feel better at the end of the day if you've spent it being neighborly to other teachers.

7. Pick your battles. I'm not saying, "don't fight." Of course we fight. But know what you're fighting about, and make sure it's something that you can rebound emotionally from, or you risk losing yourself.

8. Don't get sucked in. As we watch some of our colleagues down sad and angry paths, try to help them, but also find those who haven't gone there yet. Smiles will help keep you aloft, even if the solutions to greater problems are still in progress.

Look, I know that shutting down is a sort of peaceful demonstration. If we as teachers didn't shut down when lines were crossed, if we permit stakeholders to assume that we will always keep the boat afloat even when they take away our deck, you're right. We will continue to be taken advantage of. But we need to find ways to be happy in our day-to-day lives. We need to find ways to continue to support one another and to maintain our positivity.

During a hard day, what gives you reason to smile?

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