You are dreading returning to the classroom next month.
That's it, there isn't a punchline there. If your chest aches and especially if you get a flash of irritation, or hopelessness, or just classic indigestion when you think about seeing students again...you might be done with the classroom.
But there are bills, and that so-close-and-yet-so-far retirement package, and...oh, well, just money and stability in general. And it's not as if you don't like kids anymore. You just don't know how long you can keep a room of them together, moving forward to the satisfaction of parents, administration and general public scrutiny. (At least not and still sustain normal daily serotonin levels.)
You might be a burned out teacher if you hear yourself saying "kids these days," "they don't have any respect anymore," or "it's the parents now, who think their kids can do no wrong." If you don't return emails to parents, or you can't handle the sound of your colleagues' voices or the sight of your principal's name in your inbox, you might be a burn out.
But what do you do if maybe you used to love the job and it's all you've done? If the system changed under your feet (it did, you aren't crazy), if too much on the American teacher's plate keeps you and your colleagues feeling like it's a losing game?
Many teachers want to leave but they just don't have the confidence that they could be happy and successful on the "outside." When I left the classroom I hadn't created a resume or job hunted in years. I didn't know who I could be on the outside of the school system or if I had the right kind of lungs to breathe and sustain myself in that rarified air.
This is the truth: the world needs you out there, to create your business. The one you think about all of the time, that would solve that problem that maddens you because it is so easy to fix. There are positions for educators in businesses, non-profits and philanthropy that need you for your experience as an educator, not despite it.
If it makes you sad to think of "having to keep teaching," that may be rock bottom beneath your feet. This is a great place to be. From rock bottom, you have the leverage and angle to push the hardest to propel up, up, up to the light and the air that you are craving. Craving light and air are also great things. A tolerable life of routine and apathy is just not as good as rock bottom, where you know that immobility just won't work anymore--and you finally choose to make your own momentum.
If your work does not energize you, even though it once did, you might be a teacher who deserves to look up again at the horizon. Try looking inside of yourself and being still. Meditation, prayer or just silence all work. Describe to yourself what your bliss is now, as you are now, after all of those years of investing and nurturing the students that knew you believed in them. And start to believe in yourself. You might be a burned out teacher if your heart feels lighter, warmer, hopeful at the thought.
The Pokemon Go thing has finally captured my attention. First I thought everyone had just seen an adorable or rabid bunny rushing past or hiding in a corner. Then I figured it was a Snapchat thing. A 19 year-old eventually explained that yes, everyone but I was in the loop and that I needed to pay closer attention.
The cheerful, chatty phlebotomist I met today also snuck four vials of blood out of my arm by distracting me with nonstop Pokemon talk. But he wasn’t interested in capturing the thingamajigs on his phone—yet. He was intrigued by how our local businesses are responding. On the one hand, some are drawing a line and putting their proprietary foot down with signs warning customers not to play inside of their stores. Others are welcoming customers at hosted periods of time to come into their stores and play at no charge. It’s the difference between doing something about it and doing something with it.
It will be intriguing to see how schools respond. I imagine that, as is often the case, some teachers and leaders will decide to do something restrictive about the popularity of this new thing, while others will do something with it while it’s still hot.
Businesses catching the Pokemon wave are instinctively building their brand and nurturing their culture by opening their minds/eyes/doors in this moment to see what is present for their customers. Businesses and schools which align themselves with the deep play in which their customers and students are engaged, build the kind of trust that creates sustainable partnerships. They look at their clients, their customers and their students and say “I see you.” And they don’t miss the moment.
In the coming months, some of the most intuitive teachers we know will be subtly embedding the current collective experience of Pokemon Go in their classrooms, on field trips and in examples and metaphors during instruction.
Our most effective teachers have always used what we love and care about to draw us into new learning. They invite us to play with ideas, theories, theorems and content by setting the stage, preparing the environment, using clay, crayons, music, iPads, school gardens, cooking, baseball-related word problems or Pokemon. It’s what some teachers have always done. They are the ones who open themselves up to meet their students where they are. They set the stage for our curiosity and excitement so that they might capture our imaginations where we are already deeply engaged in play.
In horror and ghost stories, facing our monsters and calling them by name is the key to neutralizing them. We root for the heroines and heroes who stop running or hiding and summon the courage to face their fears. And becoming a hero is a two-step process.
The fearful would-be heroine decides at some point to look her monster in the eye and then she speaks its name out loud. She is transformed in this moment: no longer full of dread, running or hiding, her potential threat is vanquished by her willingness to see it and call it by its true name. She is unburdened of her fear and is elevated to someone we can look to when we need to find our own courage.
Of course when she — and we — do this the ghost always evaporates. The fire-breathing dragon writhes in pain and crumples down into itself, disappearing into smoke (or even better, turning into a manageable baby lizard). The silent, staring demon coolly turns and glides away, less demonic, more detailed and in focus…and if we look carefully, sometimes even wearing Birkenstocks or checking its phone.
And so it goes for us as staff members and as parents in our kids’ schools. Or rather, so it goes in our own heads, as we interact with each other on behalf of them and often inadvertently, to their detriment.
But the catch is this: we can’t identify the name of what we fear, and sometimes feel angry about, until we take in its details and look it in the face. We know this. This is the heroic leap of faith that we admire in each other. Our transformation to heroine does not occur when we vanquish our fears, it’s in this breathtaking moment of vulnerability when we turn around and face the Other. This leap of faith, of risking everything and being small, allows us to become bigger, badder and calmer than whatever we hide or run from. And with the calm we find in ourselves real power.
In our public schools there are alliances and successes among stakeholders but there is also anger, fear, hiding, accusations, blame, suspicion. Adults live with dragons and demons that aren’t actually what they appear to be: a parent who fires off an angry email to a teacher without asking questions first; a teacher who doesn’t phrase her student feedback with much kindness; or the principal with favorites and penchants for staff meetings and new demands.
The real monsters in schools live inside the adults and haunt us from the inside. They chase us with awful possibilities. That we are not respected. That we will be judged harshly as teachers or leaders. That our child, career, income, or dignity are at great risk. Schools are not filled with bad adults, they are filled with decent adults with un-faced fears.
Before we turn to each other in partnership or can move through conflict consciously for the sake of our students, we have our demons to face. Fear of conflict. Fear of the complexity of challenging relationships instead of summarily dismissing each other. Fear of being found lacking.
If our students knew how afraid their circle of adults in schools often are of each other, they would root for us to turn around to face and recognize each other for who we actually are: well-intentioned, caring educators, parents, teachers, leaders…all with differing obligations to our students yet nearly each one wanting to do right by students. They’d root for us to de-monster each other in our own heads, to be brave and calm, and to become heroes for them so that they might learn to do the same when they need to be heroes, together, for someone else more vulnerable than themselves.
I’m taken by the simplicity of this from Seth Godin, on the difference between wanting to be “better” or wanting to be “safer”:
“If you as a leader or boss are wanting your employees to be ‘better’ and they want ‘safer,’ it’s not going to work.” What a thought when considering the struggle & differences between public school administrators and public school teachers since NCLB and Common Core. For administration, the marching orders are absolutely to get better. And for teachers, there has been a decade-long outcry about not feeling safe — due to being monitored, pushed, measured — rather than being trusted to do the job as fixed experts, respected & appreciated.
For 20 years I worked on both sides and we definitely have, for the most part, both hardworking district & school site leadership that feels safe professionally only when they can show specific school improvements & academic outcomes — and hardworking teachers, defended by their unions, that as a group often articulate the need to feel safe before they will invest further into getting measurably better — perhaps the way an oxygen mask drops in a plane overhead and the adult uses it first in order to help a child.
The “aha” for me is that few administrators, staff or teachers seem to really feel we’ve gotten better or safer as K-12 educators or improved the conditions and outcomes of our overworked & over-tested kids.
It’s a great question my colleagues may consider in conversation with each other: for each of us, does better or safer come first?