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July 14, 2023

How to Be Enough This School Year

When I was teaching in the classroom, I was always thinking about summer break. I believed that all of my problems, frustrations, and feelings of burnout could be solved by two and a half months of sleeping in, time in the garden, and weekday happy hours. And for the first couple of years, it worked! But each school year I began to return to the classroom in the fall feeling like my battery life was getting lower and lower. I wasn’t recharging as quickly as I used to, and I felt like I needed more than just a reset.

The idea of the summer recharge is that our batteries are simply low or in need of a little bit of time spent gaining life again. But we need to do more to our bodies and our minds than simply doing a force restart once a year in order to make this work sustainable. What if education is asking for 1100W of power when we are a lightbulb that on its best and brightest day was only created to illuminate at 70, tops? While we can’t fix all of the systemic inadequacies of education in a single summer, we CAN approach summer break as a way to do a factory reset on our ways of thinking about our work.

“A Ride We Couldn’t Get Off Of”

As an educator, I placed a large amount of value on working hard. When I watched other teachers arrive at school after me and leave school before me, I internalized that as teachers who were not working “hard enough.”

One day after a particularly long and challenging day with students, I walked by my co-teacher’s classroom. She looked just as tired as I did. After debriefing the day, we then began talking about all of the tasks we needed to complete at home to prepare for the next school day—refining tomorrow’s lesson plan, grading the formative assessments piled up in our turn-in bins, etc. It was clear that neither of us wanted to do that work that evening at home. But we were on a ride we couldn’t get off of. Our shared expectation for each other had become that we MUST do that work in order to be a “good” teacher.

And nobody was there celebrating us for it. No one gave us a gold star for going above and beyond again, for having the cutest fonts on our assignments, or five sentence feedback on an essay. Instead, we were facing crippling burnout, frustrated spouses that we weren’t taking our share of daycare drop offs/pick ups of our children, and students that still called our lessons boring no matter how late we stayed up at night embedding videos into it. Who was this extra effort for?

Celebrate Your Co-workers For NOT Working

This year, my co-teacher and I decided to transform our approach to work outside of the school day. If one of us decided we needed to complete a work-related task outside of school hours we did not celebrate the other person for it, or compliment them on their work ethic, or secretly admire them for their tenacity. We stopped calling each other on the weekends to have phone meetings about lesson plans and projects and we started texting each other on the weekends to chat about the fun things we were doing with our families and friends. We decided together that we were not going to value a lack of work-life boundary setting in our CT. This was hard at first. The work that I had been doing at home on the weekends and evenings still existed. But I finally had an accountability partner who was telling me to follow through on my work boundaries instead of telling me to follow through with all of the work that I felt pressured to do at home

Build Ownership and Autonomy Amongst Your Students

The best, unexpected consequence of this decision was that we stopped hand-holding our students. We realized that a lot of the extra work we were doing were tasks that our students could do themselves. Instead of co-writing each student’s learning goals, we began conferencing with them during class time so that they could write their goals themselves. Instead of directing each step of their writing projects, we started having students come to us during class to show off their work. I thought we would experience a significant decline in performance and work turn-in, but actually, the opposite occurred. The less time I spent micromanaging my students through every moment of the day, the more they rose to the occasion and felt a sense of ownership and autonomy over the work on their own.

The Next Chapter of Your Professional Story

Many of the qualities that make teachers exceptional also make teachers exceptionally susceptible to burnout. But that doesn’t have to be how your story ends. And even if it was your story every school year up to this point, there is nothing better than the beginning of a new school year for a chance to create the next chapter in your professional story.

So yes, read that non-school related book this summer. Drink that mojito on your back porch on a Tuesday afternoon. Unsync your school email from your phone for a month.

But don’t stop there come September.

Instead, start thinking about the accountability partners that can help you set boundaries around your work this year. Begin to outline the conversation you can have with your department or CT about what types of workload will be celebrated (or no longer celebrated) by your group. Imagine walking in with the teachers that were coming to work later than you and leaving work earlier than you and instead of thinking they weren’t working hard enough, start thinking that they were working enough. And, perhaps most importantly, start playing the believing game around the idea that YOU are doing enough, and being enough and that you might be a 70W light bulb in a system requiring 1100W, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t shining bright. Because there’s nothing worse than a lightbulb that doesn’t turn on at all and is completely burnt out for good (see what I did there?).

Let’s rewire the way our minds and conscience measure success as educators. This summer, reset, recharge, but most importantly, reimagine what being enough means to you this school year.

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