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The First Way to Find Balance as a Teacher

Jan 21, 2020

It’s the new year; gym memberships have soared through the roof, everyone under the sun has some kind of personal fitness goal that they are striving toward as a New Year’s resolution, so I thought I might contribute to that conversation.

Well... kinda.

The contribution won’t be about personal, physical health - although I'm totally game for a competition on my Apple watch - but instead about teacher health in general.

Over the next few weeks, five to be exact, I’ll be exploring a few topics that all have something to do with how we can improve teacher health. And what I mean by teacher health is a teacher's overall well-being including and especially their mental health as determined by things like time management skills, daily routines, mindset, and the small, seemingly insignificant choices we make on a regular basis that are contributing to poor teacher health as a whole.

Let me be more specific - what I mean by teacher health is small ways teachers can take steps to keep themselves IN THE GAME of teaching longer.

Let's face it, teacher turn over rates are through the roof!  The teacher shortage is projected to be nothing short of a disaster, and we could write a book on all the reasons that could be, but this series will not be focused on the WHY.

Well, kinda.

Here's the thing - I don't believe the necessary, BIG changes we need in order to maintain quality teachers will happen in the current construct of our education system. Honestly, I don't.  

That's a huge statement, and many will disagree with me, but let me say one thing before you peace out on this post...

The BIG changes we need in education are above this blog, and above teachers in the classroom - that's why we need teacher voices to be the loudest ones weighing in on education policy.

BUT...

I DO believe there are things we can do in the meantime, as we sit and wait (or for some of you, as you're out there MAKING the change happen - props, let me know how I can support you) for those big, structural changes to be made.

That's where I come in with this little biz I've got going here at Teach On A Mission.

It's kind of in the name; I've got a focused mission... here it is.

To empower teachers as the number ONE influence on student learning in ways that allow them to stay in the classroom longer.

That's it.

When I type it out, it seems so short.  But that's the beauty in it.  Simple as that - keep teachers in the classroom... longer.

So this series is part of that mission, and a journey on which I would like to invite you.

So that you don't miss any part of this important discussion on keeping teachers in the classroom longer, plug your email address in below so I can let you know when the next part of the series comes out.  You are welcome to unsubscribe at any time, but I'm betting you want to be part of this conversation.

Part One: The First Way to Find Balance as a Teacher

You don't have to dig very deep in the huge world of the internet to find suggestions on how to find work life balance.  And you don't have to dig much deeper after that to find suggestions specific to teachers.

Great strategies on how to leave the grading and planning at work, or how to keep your room organized without huge time investments are all valuable lessons to consider as teachers - I am all for teachers exploring those strategies.

In this post, though, I'd like to take a step back and consider one mindset shift, one daily decision teachers can make that will allow them to find the balance they seek.

It's all about finding the healthy balance between you and your students.

I mean this in quite a few ways.  From the basics of who is talking more in class all the way to who is blamed for student mistakes and failure more in the classroom -- you or them.

Phew, that last one is a toughy, but it's where we're going today.  It's a giant elephant in the room of education, and I believe in calling it out, and having civil conversations about what's best for all parties involved in education.

There is a delicate balance necessary in the art of education - that delicate balance is what most teachers spend a majority of their career searching for.  As they should in most cases.  It's the way we learn, grow, and improve, all based in the desire to find what's best for students and ourselves. 

Even once teachers have found the balance between blaming themselves and blaming students, in particular, it doesn't always stay there - it might ebb and flow one way or the other.

The pendulum is always swinging, right?  I'm hoping to help you, in this little corner of the internet to make sure the pendulum doesn't swing too far to one side or the other.

Let's consider one topic at a time.

Who Talks More in Your Class?

If you didn't get a chance to check out last week's post all about WHY you want students talking more than you in class, I highly recommend that read.  In the post, I also let you know about an upcoming Live Workshop I have on the topic of student voice, but it's focused on the HOW - I'll give practical, actionable steps to get your students to talk more than you on a daily basis.  Click the image below to check out details for that workshop.

Because of last week's post and the upcoming workshop, I won't go into to too much detail about student voice here, but I will emphasize the balancing act involved.

Here at Teach On A Mission, I am not in the business of extremes.  I do not believe that any one strategy will solve all issues of the classroom on an everyday basis.  That's just not the way the world works, especially the world inside of each of our classrooms.

So when I say you WANT your students talking more than you in the classroom, I mean it, but I also know that it won't work in all classes every single day.  That's where you, the practitioner of education in all of your expertise and development as a teacher come in to make the minute to minute decisions that are best for your students.

And, that's where this balancing act comes in.  Some days, your students will NEED to hear you more.  If you're a parent this will resonate with you.  Just as a mom or dad want their children to learn life lessons naturally or from others in many cases, there are quite a few important lesson that are best learned from NO ONE else other than mom and dad.

It's your decision on what those lessons are.

One word of caution here.  As you start to find this balance, which probably begins by getting students to talk more since you've been doing most of the talking, they will resist.  Don't mistake their unwillingness to talk in class as the sign for you to take over and do the talking/teaching.

Keep your reasonable teacher skepticism lens on at all times.  The same students who will con their sub by saying your classroom takes Tuesdays off to rest, and oh would you look at that, it's Tuesday and we have a sub - yea those kids... they will push back when more thinking is required of them. 

Notice I don't say more work.  Yes, thinking is work, but it's not work like in a productivity, what did you get done today kind of work which many of our classrooms, lessons, and entire days are measured on... how much did you get done determines a day's worth.  I would rather my classroom worth and value be gauged by how much thinking occurred and who was doing the majority of the thinking.

For more on this important conversation, please join me in the 2-hour live workshop coming up soon.  You won't want to miss it if the last few paragraphs have got your teacher-nerd geeking out :)

Next up... let's talk about that elephant in the room.

Who to Blame for Student Failure

 

Let's define student failure for the purposes of this post.  I mean it in the literal sense, when a student fails a test or the class, or even when many students fail a test or the class.  But I also mean it in the smaller, less noticeable sense - when a student doesn't understand a topic in your lesson today, when they just aren't getting it, or when many students just aren't getting in it, evidenced prior to a test or quiz telling you this fact.

So who's to blame in these instances when a kid fails or, less noticeably, when a kid isn't understanding the topic you're on?

Let's take this question one possible answer at a time.

It's on me.

If you answered this question with a quick, "It's probably my fault," response, I hope that you take these next words to heart.

If you're here reading this post, and you regularly consider how you impact your classroom and ways you can continuously improve... you're just dead wrong.

If that is your quick, gut answer, I believe there are some confidence issues in you that are impacting your well-being, but also your classroom in ways you might not notice.  Particularly, classroom management.

If students know that you are always looking inward to the point that you blame yourself for occurrences in the classroom, they know they will always get off the hook.  After all, it's always your fault anyway.  Right?

NOOOOOOO!

Get that firmly in your head.  NO IT'S NOT!

Now, that's not to say that you shouldn't have a healthy dosage of looking in the mirror, but looking in the mirror is a really slippery slope that you will get better at avoiding slipping on the more you get in the habit of, well, avoiding the slippery part.

There are too many elements involved in how a student performs for a teacher to always blame themselves.

Not to mention, if all we do is blame ourselves, who the heck will want to stay in the classroom in an environment like that???

There's a student's past to consider, their home life, their history of experiences in school, past teachers, access to healthcare, mentor and other adult roles in their life, peer group, neighborhood, demographics and socioeconomic status.  Phew, the list is never ending.

If blaming yourself is ALWAYS your first reaction, I hope that your word of the year is grace.  Or maybe confidence.  You are showing up everyday, and you are there FOR THEM - and you beat yourself up for them, so don't be so hard on yourself.  Stick around here for a while, get other teacher friends to help build you up (and maybe take you to happy hour on Friday).

P.S. be sure to stay tuned in this series, because in a few weeks theirs a topic I really think you'll benefit from - about teacher evaluation.

Alright, let the pendulum swing for a moment, and consider the answer...

It's all them.

Meaning, when a student or group of students fail in some way, it is completely on them.  They didn't pay attention in the first place, they didn't study enough, they didn't care enough, they talked too much in class, they didn't do their homework.

I would bet that in reading that last paragraph, you thought of one or a few students in particular.  Of course you did... because those students do exist.  But we need to get to a place where there is no judgement tied to recognizing that.

It is what it is.

That's incredibly difficult to do in the high-stakes environment of education today.

But if we don't have a healthy dose of this nonjudgemental recognition, we are going to drive ourselves insane.

We can care for our students without tying our value to them.  And I would argue that in most cases the reason why someone would answer this question with "It's on them" each and every time a student fails, it's because they've had to out of a necessity to cope with the weight of what we do.

Answering this question with blame on students every time, I would argue, is a darker, nastier place to be for teachers, and one that's harder to return from.

With the previous answer, you can do some self-care, maybe see a mentor or therapist, and get it worked out - and come to that happy balance of blaming oneself and blaming students.

But this one, this one's harder.

You probably know at least one, if not many more, teachers whose answer is this in every scenario.  And it's easy to judge them.  It's also probably hard to be around them, but often times this teacher's blame of students is hidden behind a great sense of humor.  We can both value them as teachers, and recognize this perspective that's ultimately harming their longevity and effectiveness in the classroom.

I don't want to seem so dark and ho-hum.  Because I also believe there is a way out for those teachers.  It's through you.

You, the teacher who is here reading this blog, who is doing some self-reflection with the intention of making yourself better for your students.... that's noticeable and it's contagious.

It's contagious without even talking about it.  It's contagious in the repeated conversations about individual students and how you approach those scenarios with the balance between blaming yourself and blaming the student.

But HOW?

So how do we come to that balance?

You've seen the cartoon with the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, right?

Of course you have.  Picture it with yourself in the middle, and you on each side.

Your devil is still you, but it's you in that dark, overly skeptical, hate-my-job, it's never my fault place.

Your angel is you, but it's you in that timid, weak, lacking confidence, it's always I'm fault place.

Both of those statements seem harsh, but they are the extreme, so they need that full harshness.

Here's what you do... the next time you have a meeting about a student who's failed your class (or just a test), or maybe it's before they meeting and you're recognizing the trend of their lack of success, you give your devil a moment to talk and you give your angel a moment to talk.

If you can do this out loud that would be great.  Shut your classroom door, and go to each of these places and say what they would say in this given scenario.

Let me demonstrate.

The Devil:

He's barely ever here, and when he is he doesn't shut his mouth.  He doesn't give a flying rats ____ about this course or how he does in school.  His parents probably forget he's living in their home at this point.  And, let's face it, he's not going anywhere in life, so there's nothing I or this school can do to help him.

Phew, harsh. Yep, so you can't stop there.

The Angel:

I didn't differentiate my lesson enough to make it obtainable for him.  O man, I definitely needed to make it more interesting with more engaging lessons and tasks that he would've bought into, and I probably assigned too much - there was no way he could've gotten that much done in the amount of time I provided.  And, let's face it, I was awful at delivering the content, so I wouldn't want to learn from me either.

UGH!  Wow that sucked.

But, in speaking from both of these perspectives OUT LOUD, you see how ridiculous they are.

BECAUSE THEY ARE!

However, it's easier to recognize the balance when you understand both extremes.  And, giving yourself the space to briefly live in each of these perspectives, it's a bit freeing.  It's like a vent session with yourself - just get it out of your system in a safe space, and then get back to holding yourself accountable for living in the philosophies and values that you hold dear in your career.

The next step you need to perform is recognizing where the middle ground lies.  Please know that the balance in each scenario might look different, and that's ok.  But as long as YOU are balanced in your perspective of the scenario, you'll approach the solution more soundly and in healthier ways for everyone sitting at the table.

To find the balance, take each fact and find the middle ground.  For instance...

"He's never here" - yes, his attendance is awful, meaning he'll never get more than a D in my course, but did I or the school take necessary steps to communicate with him and parents about the gravity of his truancy?  If so, there's nowhere else to go with this point.

"He doesn't care" - true, he's never had a reason to care.  But no lesson, no matter how engaging or interesting you make it will resonate with him before some personal conversations are had and connections are made.  Have you spoken with a counselor about his apathy?  There's no need here to blame yourself and what you do in the classroom, but at a minimum, a conversation with the student about life in general, connecting with them on a topic outside of school is important.

"There's no way he could've gotten the work done in the time I provided" - woah, let's not let the student completely off the hook.  After all, that's why these children are not in charge of their own education.  Are there less necessary assignments he could be exempt from to make the class more doable for him?  Probably, but let's not make the path to success in this course incredibly smooth to the point that he believes all roads he takes in life should be easy-peasy.

Even in going through these scenarios, you'll see that it's not easy.  It never is.  That's because we're all human. The child in human, and all the adults trying to make an impact with this kid are human.  Recognize that it's not easy, and recognize that you can control your perspective, and you can make it one that is balanced.

Deep breaths my friend.  Keep fighting the good fight - that fight is for all of your students, for each of your individual students, and for you as the number one influence on their learning.  Yes, you should fight for them AND yourself.

If this conversation around teacher health is something that you want more of - more new ways to think of your teacher day, more strategies to get yourself in the right frame of mind that makes your career more sustainable, then I want you to grab my free PDF just for you called The Teacher Health Reflection Guide.

Until next time, my friend.

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