Last month, I had a chance to travel to New Orleans, LA, and Gillett, WI, to learn with teachers about focusing our work on what matters most. As usual, we used These 6 Things as a diving board into focused, professional learning.
As is often the case these days, our learning cohered around the fundamental task of all learning environments: creating the internal conditions in which our students can do work with care. As I remind my readers and myself as often as possible, this isn't more complicated than five key beliefs.
Interestingly, in the talk on student motivation at the International Literacy Association's conference in Louisiana, the slide folks were most intrigued by was the one that shared this data from the most recent Gallup survey on “teacher engagement.”
I use this information to remind colleagues of a thing we forget: human performance is not unlimited. When people experience too much pressure — and nearly all educators do — the human soul wisely disengages. It's either disengagement or destruction. The heart cannot indefinitely stay emotionally connected to work that is always screaming, “MORE MORE MORE!” And so it is that only 30% of teachers tend to be engaged in their work.
The good news, of course, is that much of the pressure we feel is self-inflicted. We didn't sign a contract at the outset that we would be the savior of our students. No — quite differently, we agreed to be professionals. Just as doctors seek the best for their patients in alignment with an age-old oath, so too the teacher seeks the best for his students.
But the doctor realizes that to be a medical professional is not to be omnipotent. In every patient's case there are many players: the doctor, the patient, pre-existing conditions, genetics, the environment growing up. All kinds of things affect outcomes. The doctor, as a professional, understands this reality and simultaneously seeks to bring her expertise to bear in providing an optimal outcome for the patient.
Is there a way to be a doctor and to be miserably over-pressured? Yes. Are the circumstances of a doctor's workplace predictive of whether or not the doctor will become disengaged or burnt out? A bit.
But the doctor also has enormous agency of whether or not she will become overly pressured. She gets to think about how she thinks about the work. She has all kinds of things to analyze and problem-solve.
All of this is to get me to my point. As I was leaving my hotels in both New Orleans and Wisconsin, a notification on my phone asked me if I wanted to check out. And I thought of you and me and all of our colleagues around the world right now, battling to stay on the right part of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, battling to win the internal wars we fight each week in the classroom.
And I thought: No, let's not check out. Let's extend our stay.
If you're under too much pressure right now, take a five-minute walk, and ask yourself:
- What is weighing on me?
- What would this look like if instead of being burdensome, it was simple?
I'll close by sharing one way that my professional life has become easier through asking these kinds of questions.
I used to feel that for every pop-up debate, I needed to have a rubric, and I needed to give each of my students some kind of individualized feedback. Then one day, I decided that I'd forget about those things and just listen to the students during their debate. As they debated, I took a few notes. I interrupted a few times for coaching or analysis. Afterward, I had students reflect on what we did well as a class and where we needed to improve. I gave my perspective on the same questions. We took notes of our areas of strength and weakness, and at our next pop-up debate, we got these back out. We identified an area for improvement today, and I taught a brief mini-lesson on that skill. And then we had another pop-up debate the same way — no rubric, no individualized feedback. Over one hundred pop-up debates later, I've not missed rubrics or individualized feedback a single time — and my students haven't either.
Whenever the pressure comes from us, that's on us. We can do something about that.
If you're feeling yourself being pulled toward disengagement by the undertow of pressure, take a fresh look at what you control. For the love of the children and yourself, make it simpler.
My last year of teaching I have finally decided to just LOVE the process of learning and let my students lead in the learning process. We all help each other and start each day finding ways to get smarter! It may sound pie in the sky but learning is so much more enjoyable when I’m not feeling stressed by covering the curriculum! We are all engaged in the FUN of learning! I’m convinced that it’s ALL about a teacher’s attitude toward learning. My approach is just to celebrate the accomplishments of my students. They are all so much happier and the joys of teaching are found in the delights of simple gains!! We made dioramas and taught each other about animals. We studied the Science of reading with Fundations, we do math centers at each child’s ability. I teach 2nd grade and have a range of abilities from K-5th grade in one class. Everyone doesn’t fit the same mold but we can learn from each other. I refuse to let the curriculum guide me. I only care about the progress of my students! They are all climbing the learning ladder at different rates. We just need to let them enjoy the climb at their own pace! Too bad I’m just allowing myself this freedom in my final year!!
Vanessa Simpkins says
As an NQT and now an experienced teacher being ‘Engaged’ is important not only for the students but for the mental well-being of the teacher. Many teachers are switched off / demotivated by the pressures placed upon them over time from individual establishments but mainly from the pressures / constraints of Government / Educational reforms. I believe it is the responsibility of all colleagues (regardless of hierarchy) to support colleagues with continual professional development on a regular basis to allow the teacher to keep their ‘finger on the pulse’ and keep up to date with new and changing issues in Education. As for workload – this comes from structure, consistency and good will from all parties to keep the enthusiasm, motivation and drive alive in all teachers / educators regardless of experience levels.
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Vanessa, I agree — supporting colleagues is all of our work.