break it down break downs

“Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” 
― Audre Lorde

My friend John Spencer recently explored and wrote a wonderful piece about the “superhero” culture of teaching. It’s targeted toward new teachers, but his advice and insight are valuable for us veterans, too. I’ll pick up the conversation at that point–some advice for us more seasoned teachers.

Although, if I think about it, I am not a good source for advice on this topic. Currently, my stress and worry levels have maintained a steady red-zone cortisol bubbling brew in my brain.

Justin Minkel recently wrote an article for EdWeek: Finding the Courage to Teach Past the Fear of ‘Getting in Trouble’–and it shook me.

And the recurring advice I’ve received over my 13 years is ‘shut the door, teach, get to know your students, and do what’s best for them.’ All that is true. But something else is true: when you do shut the door, take note of what is going on–be your own observer. Walk into your classroom with fresh eyes. Sit in the seats where your students sit. Work next to them. What is it like to be a student in that room? Ask them.

“A lot hinges on the fact that, in most circumstances, people are not allowed to hit you with a mallet. They put up all kinds of visible and invisible signs that say, ‘Do not do this,’ in the hope that it’ll work, but if it doesn’t, then they shrug, because there is, really, no real mallet at all.” —Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals
I have always been a teacher who fears the mallet. I worry about “getting in trouble,” a phrase that seems more appropriate for children than adults, which I nevertheless hear from fellow teachers with alarming frequency.
Seventeen years since I started teaching, I still get nervous when my principal walks into my room with a clipboard or laptop for an unscheduled observation.
I love my principal. I know she’s not out to get me. Yet the anxiety—sweaty palms, a tight throat, a sudden awareness of how incredibly messy my classroom is—has not faded with time.

I, too, get nervous when admin comes in the room. I’m sure she’s not out to get me, either, no more than any teacher, but her first priorities, as they should be, are that all students are learning. And what ‘learning’ might look like to one educator versus another is critical to objective conservations. Admin come from a wide variety of teaching and instructional experiences, and even if they spent years in a classroom will still come to other teachers’ classroom with bias and judgment. Because they are…wait for it…human. As is everyone in that room. The teacher. The student. Everyone. Some things get checked on the clipboard, and some things do not.

Oh–and the self-care thing? The hardest thing about that is to not let another’s mallet beat your spirit. I have witnessed young teachers say “I don’t want to get in trouble.” Heard them break down in anxious tears. And for some of my younger colleagues, I have become a cautionary tale–that when you get older, it won’t matter how much growth on test scores your students have gained: if admin doesn’t “like you,” you’re out. Painfully, heartbreakingly, in a long-protracted battle.

Let’s find out what happens.
Will we get fired? Will we get a written reprimand that goes on our permanent record? Will we get the stink-eye from our principal for the rest of the year?
Or will we keep our jobs, because the teacher shortage is real, and it’s really real in high-poverty schools? Will it turn out there is no permanent record, and even if there were, nobody “above” us in the hierarchy has the time or inclination to write up that reprimand? Will we find unlikely allies, including administrators who prove their own courage and commitment to the children in our care?

Yes, actually. You might get fired. The teacher shortage is real but not: districts don’t want to pay the salary scale for veteran teachers. It’s all about the money. But it feels personal and raw. Being on a provisional contract this year is more terrifying than I could have ever imagined. With the information I had, I based my decision to change districts; I’m an NBCT, National Writing Project Fellow, WABS/STEM Fellow, provided PD for colleagues, multiple attendances for the NCTA, and am currently attending Mentor Academy for teaching mentorship. None of that matters if my learning targets aren’t properly worded. But heck, if even Tom Rademacher can be let go, who am I?And his post on keeping good teachers is spot on.

A few weeks ago, I was informed that even if I hit Distinguished in all categories, I could be non-renewed. At that point, what is the point? Do I just give up? Of course not. Being a teacher, to me, is a sacred duty. It’s my Night’s Watch vow. And most days, I love it, and some days I don’t. Both moments require reflection: this is key. Reflect on when things go right as often as when they don’t.

Self-care requires mindfulness:

Keep in mind: everyone has an agenda and mission. Take a moment and clarify, write down, what you think the mission statements are: your admin’s, colleagues, students, parents, and yourself. And then check in with each stakeholder and see how close you are, and adjust.

  1. Seek clarity from admin if you truly do not understand what they are requiring from you. It’s their role to be clear, objective and precise and offer instructional support. That’s their job.
  2. Seek clarity and feedback from your students, and make transparent and public. Middle school kids can be downright mean and if you have a disgruntled student (thinking of one right now) who whispers and derides you (your age, clothing, mistakes, etc.) call it out in a future moment and make general. Use it as a teachable moment.
  3. Seek clarity from your colleagues: if you participate in a functioning, supportive PLC, include 20-second celebrations. Ask them for advice and insight: what are they seeing, or not seeing, where you might have a blindspot? If your PLC is not functioning or safe, seek out a network on social media.

Most importantly: remember your ‘why’–it is a beautiful and inspiring why. Our “why’s” are our heartbeats–not just our teacher selves, but our whole selves. What we do and believe for ourselves, our families, friends, and then our work.

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