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.