This is the third and last part of my series of tips and thoughts for new teachers. I you haven’t read my previous posts but would like to, you can find the first post here and the second one here. As always, I’m excited to hear from you especially if you are a new teacher or considering becoming one. This last part of the series focuses on a part we forget all too often: our own wellbeing. The United States has a teacher shortage, and almost half of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. There is no question: Teaching is challenging, especially for those of us new to the public school classroom. And that makes it all the more important to talk about a few ways of addressing the most pressing challenges.
10) Don’t Burn Out!
This can be easier said than done, especially when everything is new, and every task seems to be taking forever. As I mentioned last week, it took me a while to streamline lesson planning and feel comfortable asking for help, but once I did, both of these things were game changers. However, this is only half of the story. Finding work-life balance is just as important as growing professionally during the first year of teaching. I am a perfectionist, so it was hard for me to just drop everything and take a weekday night or a weekend off sometimes: no grading, no IEPs, no lesson planning. But this was another one of those situations where my grad school experience helped me make decisions that have helped me not burn out before my first school year was over. In teaching, just as in research, there is always more work to be done. Always. And even though we know that, sometimes we fall prey to the illusion that we can “just finish” our work and then relax. We end up dragging ourselves through tasks that may have taken half the time, had we taken a break in between. And in the process, we get ever more stressed out and exhausted. This is the direct road to burnout. And the one thing that has helped me not go down that road again has been something that may seem counterintuitive at first: scheduling time off. Just like I schedule tasks for work, I schedule time to relax. For instance, my Friday nights are sacred. They are reserved for spending time with my husband, the dog, and our family. No matter what I have not accomplished by then, it will have to wait. Every person is different when it comes to their most productive time of day, planning habits (I will write more about this in a future post.), and ways to relax. However, the one thing we all have in common is that our bodies and minds need to relax for us to not exhaust our energy resources. So whatever you like doing in your free time, put it on your schedule and make it happen. Just like you cannot simply stay home on a regular school day, don’t give yourself permission to cancel your downtime in favor of more work. For me, this has not become any less challenging, even though I’ve been intentional about scheduling free time for years. But it has proven to be a way to make time for myself, my family, and my friends. Without having a life outside of work, I would not have emerged from this first year of teaching public school with as much enthusiasm as I had going in.
11) Get Organized!, Pt. II.
Organizing when it comes to respect for your work as a professional educator is no less important than staying organized in your everyday routines. Since the recent Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court decision, public sector employees, including teachers, are no longer obligated to pay union fees. Does that mean you should still join your local and/or regional teachers union? Absolutely! Unions are one of the most effective ways of making our voices heard, both for the sake of our profession and in the interest of our students. Demanding respect for our work as educators is neither pointless nor egotistical. Research shows that while teacher salaries have been declining for years, those teachers hit worst were those without a union and thus no opportunity to meet their district at eye level at the bargaining table. Adequate pay and benefits are just as important for our wellbeing as work-life balance. In fact, it is not uncommon for teachers to take on second jobs. However, unions do not only defend the interests of teachers but also stand up for the interests of our students, organizing around issues including smaller class sizes, adequate staffing of schools with mental health professionals, special education funding, access to a quality public education for all students regardless of neighborhood, and many other issues. If your district has a union, I encourage you to read the union contract and your union’s political positions. You may not agree with all of them, but the only way to make your voice heard is by participating in the political process. After all, being part of a union means more than just paying dues. It’s not a service institution; it’s a participatory organization. Working with your union can provide lots of opportunities to be involved in shaping educational policies that directly affect your work in the classroom. In my union, an area that has been of particular interest for me has been bilingual special education, i.e. how to best support the bilingual development of students with particular learning needs. I will also be my union’s chapter chair at my school in the next school year (and will make sure to write more about that experience). However, you don’t have to jump all in right away. Familiarize yourself with your union’s work and take it as a starting point to explore areas of education and educational policy that interest you most. If anything, being involved in political decision-making that affects both teachers and students models the kind of civic engagement that is so fundamental to the concept democracy, one of the core values of public education.
12) Limit Social Media
This may seem unrelated to my previous two points, but hear me out: I had quit Facebook about a year before I started teaching. I deleted all remaining social media apps (Twitter and Instagram, in my case) from my phone and closed my Twitter account while I was in the planning stages for my blog and did not really need it. All of these changes made a huge difference in terms of productivity and balance. Like most members of the millennial generation or younger, I would check Facebook incessantly. And after I had closed my account there, Instagram took its place, until I deleted that app from my phone as well. Since then, I have noticed that I have more time for those little breaks. The moments when I can just let my mind wander, read a few pages in a good book, or intentionally read the news, instead of just mindlessly scrolling through Facebook’s preselected version of them. Why do I think this has been useful with regard to my work as a teacher? Firstly, it has made it easier for me to take the time to actually relax and not just use social media as a pacifier to distract myself from feeling stressed out without actually doing anything about it. Secondly, I think it is important to not only teach our students the responsible use of digital media, but to also model it. We know that children learn through imitation. So “Do as I say, not as I do” is a terrible teaching approach. I find it hypocritical to enforce the strict no-cellphone policy I have in my classroom if I am unable myself to stay a way from my cellphone for several hours in a row. Deleting my Facebook account (more about that in a later post) was a good first step and felt liberating.. But it still took commitment and resisting that urge to check Instagram or Twitter. However, it has made me realize how much time I used to spend on social media every day, and having that time to do other things has not only made me more productive but also generally more balanced. So if using social media more mindfully is something you are interested in trying out, I highly recommend this talk by Cal Newport, a computer scientist who researches productivity—and has never had a social media account. I also found this early podcast by The Minimalists really useful to help me frame my own thinking about what it means to use social media mindfully. For me personally, it meant to quit it entirely for a period of time, but you may decide to use social media more mindfully in a different way. Just try it out! I’d love to hear about your experiences!