“Change is inevitable, growth is optional.”
— John C. Maxwell.
When I reflect on these powerful words of wisdom, I consider my own journey as an educator and teacher leader. While the journey has been positive overall, it hasn’t been without challenges.
From the very first days in my classroom, I have encountered challenges and change, as most teachers do. I could summarize by saying that it’s true the only consistency we have is change (Heraclitus), but as I have traveled through the shifting pathways of my career, I have learned my greatest lessons which shaped who I am as an educator. Looking back, I am grateful for the opportunities to grow, and I would encourage teachers of all levels of experience to take a fresh look at the value of teaching through difficulties. This is not an easy task because of our passionate nature as teachers; however, as educators, we can use these challenges to embrace the journey. My experience of teaching through personal and professional difficulties has taught me a great deal which I will distill here into five key lessons – or guide posts along the teaching path.
Lesson 1: Preparation is key.
Although I’ve always considered myself organized, the most difficult situations highlighted the importance of having a system for organization. Knowing my procedures and staying organized allows me to complete tasks easily, and it makes difficult situations more manageable. I know where items are, and I can find documents quickly. Refining my organizational skills and procedures over time has helped me adapt to changes efficiently, and discover new, instrumental ways to systematize my classroom. Consider methods that will keep organization and preparation a priority. There is no “right or wrong,” but developing a system is essential.
Lesson 2: You’re never alone.
I’ve heard many say teaching can be a “lonely” profession; this may seem strange to those in other professions because teachers are in classrooms all day with their students. However, responding to the many particular needs of the classroom can create a feeling of isolation. I personally believe that being a teacher makes us part of a unique group of like-minded individuals who can relate to the hardships and challenging times that everyone experiences! As I’ve encountered challenges, I have relied on my friends who are teachers for support. I’ve learned I do have a support group with my colleagues. In our “group,” we are all up late and rise early, so we always have someone to talk to, regardless of the time! Continue to identify and/or recognize and reach out to your support network.
Lesson 3: Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
This idea connects with Lesson 2. I know that the more I network, the more support I’ll have from fellow educators when I need it most. Developing my Professional Learning Network (PLN) has been most beneficial. I’ve learned through difficult times in the classroom that my colleagues and teacher friends are eager to share their time, resources, and advice with me. They are also willing to simply listen if that’s what I need. When I first started teaching, I believed; “I am the teacher, and I should be in control. I should know what to do and how to solve any and every problem I encounter.” I realized quickly that my mindset was not only a far-fetched fantasy, but also counterproductive for my work as an educator. Asking for help is a demonstration of strength and collaboration, and it shows dedication to growth and improvement. Since the first moment I asked for help from others, I’ve been able to reach out more frequently with pride. I’m now also able to serve as a mentor to others, a source of support, when they are working through difficulties. Asking for advice makes us stronger, and provides relief because of the connection made with others.
Lesson 4: Narrow the focus for mastery.
Sometimes I find it difficult to say “no” because as a teacher, it’s natural for me to want to help and try new endeavors. I’ve realized that I’m at my best when I work on a few projects versus too many at once. Instead, I’ll try out one or two new platforms of interest. Keeping my focus on a few tasks improves my work and increases my self-confidence. Sometimes challenges or difficulties with teaching originate from taking on too much at once. It can be perplexing because saying, “Yes”, is second nature for educators. When I feel overwhelmed, prioritizing helps me decide where to channel my energy. Narrowing my focus does not mean I’m not worthy, or ready for something new, it just means that I have discovered where my energy is needed most. I feel more successful when I complete projects, rather than lose control and confidence while taking on too much. Consider what programs, skills, or projects are most important at a particular time, and focus on completing those with success!
Lesson 5: Challenge means growth.
Of all the lessons, this one has the most potential and power. If we neglect to see the opportunities for growth, then we will always have a negative connotation associated with challenges. We may develop a habit of disliking change. As a teacher, I’ve had to teach through a variety of difficulties: Changing grades and classrooms, learning new curriculums and programs, working with families and other colleagues, etc. Teaching through personal difficulties (although not derived from school) has posed a challenge for me at times. I learned while teaching through these difficult situations that I can compartmentalize my life when needed. Seeing my students at the door waiting for me everyday allows me to focus on my role in the classroom. This doesn’t mean I forget about other important things happening, but instead discover my own courage to teach despite challenges. I truly believe these lessons have made me a stronger teacher and person, and I grew from these experiences. Now when difficult times arise, I allow myself time to feel how I need to (sadness, frustration, etc.) and then I ask “what will I learn from this? How will this help me thrive as an educator?” After some reflection, I’ve realized even though some experiences have been stressful and included unexpected work and problem solving, I always knew that I was growing from the experience. The key was to be open to doing so. Continue to question what opportunities for growth can emerge from challenge and change and the new direction it can provide on the teaching path.
There is no map for navigating through difficult times. We as educators know when we are experiencing them, and often, the particulars are beyond our control. Embracing the lessons we learn, such as preparing, managing our time and priorities, not taking on too much at once, reaching out to others, and looking to see where the hidden lessons are allow us to gain the stamina we need to be our best for our students and ourselves. We should embrace the words we so often use with students, and listen to our own advice. “Do not give up, keep going, take your time, and it will work out.” It’s true…challenge brings change, and change will always be a part of the educational journey. It’s up to us to advance from it and feel empowered by what we learn along the way.