Rising from the Ashes: Coming Back From Burnout

This past winter was a very difficult one for me.  Besides the weather being dreadful in New England where I reside, I endured a great deal of inner turmoil.  So much so, I considered leaving the teaching profession. As a result, I know my teaching suffered, as I was not focused on my work. Rather, I was focused on finding another job.  I had been in pursuit of other opportunities since October 2014.  I aspired to a leadership position, something which would give me greater voice and authority in teaching and learning.  However, I received few responses to my job applications, despite the fact that I am and was working with a wonderful career coach who helped me to greatly improve my cover letters and resumes. Perhaps I was applying for the wrong jobs. Perhaps I was not the right person for those jobs. Perhaps it was simply not my time.  Whatever the reason, by late March, the entire process had taken a significant emotional toll.

Given the lack of response I had received from independent schools, I shifted my focus to corporate jobs in learning and development.  However, many of those jobs required a technical area of expertise. Although I have the teaching and learning component, I don’t have, for example, skill and knowledge in manufacturing or design technology, to name two.

In addition to the disappointment of my job search, I was not feeling good about myself, or my chosen career as a teacher.  I felt uninspired, unmotivated, and feeling that being just a teacher, especially in independent schools where one wears several hats, was not regarded very highly. The typical model on the way up the leadership ladder in independent schools is that one spends on average five years in the classroom, and then begins his ascent.  Additionally, one’s worth in independent schools is often tied to her rank and position.  Perhaps this is not true for all independent schools, but, it appears to be the case for many independent schools.  So, it seems, at least in my case, with respect to the positions for which I had applied, and, per the independent school leadership model, I had spent too many years in the classroom – 21 to be exact.

I then did something that I rarely do: I reached out to not one but two colleagues I admire and respect greatly – both of them educators.  I received an abundance of encouragement from my conversations with these bright, intelligent, and wise colleagues.  They both encouraged me to remain in teaching. One even said, “You have over two decades invested!” Which is true.  I have invested much to become the teacher I am today.  However, one hit upon the very reason I had considered leaving teaching in the first place: My personal worth, my self-esteem, is directly attached to my work.  It became immediately apparent to me, as I listened to my colleague, that I had applied to leadership positions with the thought that greater rank, authority and influence would give my work greater value and importance, and in turn, give me greater worth. I also realized that I was looking for affirmation from external factors.

The funny thing is, there is really nothing else I can imagine myself doing. Furthermore, if I ever did leave the classroom, I would want to remain connected to kids and teachers in some way, and improve the learning, and strengthen the teaching.

So, since those conversations with my beloved colleagues, I have decided to rededicate myself to teaching, and to be the best Spanish teacher I can be.  I have also decided to focus more on me, and to improve my self-care.  Last, I am considering areas of my practice that will give me greater meaning, that will motivate and inspire me, and that will feed rather than stifle my creativity.

The things I have come to realize in the past several weeks were not easy for me. In fact, it was very difficult to not only recognize but also to admit to myself that I was pursuing other opportunities for reasons which had little to do with the jobs themselves.  On the other hand, while I could have done a good job in many of the positions to which I had applied, I recognize now that I would not have been happier, and that Devine Intervention played a significant role in where I am now.

When We’re Ready to Hear, Reflect, and Act

Recently, I assigned my Twosies an end-of-term project.  The project requires them to apply their learning and understanding of verbs, grammar structures and vocabulary related to sports. They have a week to complete it, and, is worth 30% of their grade.  The 30% caught the attention 0f my department chair, who emailed me, wanting to know more about the project.  I sent her the handout and rubric given to the students, with the following comments:

Is 30% too much? Should it be less? I’m wondering if I’m placing too much weight and importance on it.

I have attached the documents I gave to the students.

I want to distribute the grade for the project to include speaking and writing, which are the central areas of focus.

After a time, my department chair emailed a rather lengthy response. While it acknowledged the positive use of an alternative assessment via a poster project, it also  prompted me to re-examine my practice by taking the proverbial deep dive, which is something I had not done in a long time, and, which presented something of a curricular crisis for me. And, it was instructive.  I read my department chair’s words, and deeply contemplated each of her questions.  Following this re-examination and deep contemplation, I made significant changes to better support the students, including significantly lowering the weight of the project, providing time in class for students to work, and allowing students to construct their sentences in advance and receive feedback – changes prompted by the thoughtful questions and comments of my department chair.

But, perhaps the things that truly surprised me the most were these:

1.  The fact that I reached out to my department chair, via the questions I asked; and

2.  The fact that I did not take her questions and comments personally, i.e. I am a “bad teacher.” Although I did take her questions and comments to heart, I realized that the questions and comments were issued out of respect for me as a colleague, out of concern for me regarding the potentially heavy workload I was creating for myself end-of-term, and, what is in the best interest of the student population at our place of employ.

3. The above two points signal a significant and positive shift in my own professionalism, and one which I am not sure I was ready to make even one or two years ago.

Following the email exchange between my department chair and me, I immediately emailed my students, informing them of the changes I was making. I then emailed my department chair, and informed her of what I had done.  Some time later, my department chair emailed me, praising me for re-examining my practice. Additionally, she re-affirmed that the choice of a poster project focusing on writing and oral presentation was a good alternative means of assessment.


Don’t Ever Let Anyone Take Your Tighten-Up Away From You*

Yesterday morning at about 8:30 am, I lay awake in my bed, contemplating my next move. You see, it was Sunday, the last day of a ten-day holiday vacation. So, I was feeling somewhat down as it was because of this fact. Add to it that it had snowed a bit the day and night before, and, it was cold. My dilemma? I needed groceries. I could make do with what I had, but, the thought of having no orange juice in the refrigerator became less and less appealing.

After tossing around the pros and cons of remaining in bed versus orange juice in the refrigerator, I got up out of my warm, electric-blanket-fueled bed. And what did I do? I shined my boots and shoes: two pairs of the former, and one pair of the latter. As much as I like clean and freshly-shined shoes, it was a chore I had put off since my vacation began two weeks prior. With that task out of the way, and that brick off my mind, I proceeded to dress and head out to the store. But, before I could roll the Toaster out of the parking space, I had to de-snow and de-ice first. As I looked around the parking lot, while removing snow and ice with my Sno-Broom, I noticed all of my neighbors who I hoped would act with the same presence of mind that I had. Let’s face it: Cleaning off an icy, snowy car early on a Monday isn’t getting me all twitterpated.

Thus began a productive Sunday afternoon. As productive as I had had in several Sundays. And, to think it all began with orange juice.

*From, “A Huey P. Newton Story.”

Staying in my lane

Since the beginning of the Fall Term at school, I have been in a deep, reflective groove. In particular, a conversation with someone with whom I have been acquainted over ten years dropped some important knowledge on me re: stepping up to senior administrative positions in independent schools. That conversation, which lasted almost one hour, led me to the following conclusions about myself, both professionally, and personally.

a. Listening more, and saying less. The things I think are good and right to say may prove too much for those receiving them. They may not be ready.

b. Asking more questions, rather than providing all of the answers. I need to be more about helping folks to do their own thinking, and putting their own work in.

c. Being more humble, rather than feeling the need to be right, or always feeling the need to prove that I am right.

d. Feeling like I am the only one who can change things. The folks running the institution, in this case, a school, have insights and facts that I don’t have. Moreover, even Dr. King had help. In fact, he had the strength and power of an entire movement. Besides, being the only one concerned about changing things – especially in these independent schools – is emotionally and physically exhausting and draining.

e. Staying more in my lane. In other words: What have I been charged to do where I am? Is there opportunity to do more of what I want to do where I am? And, if not, where can I go to find it?

By the way, I teach Spanish

Based on my Twitter feed, one may not catch on to the fact that I am a Spanish teacher.  In fact, I have been teaching Spanish consecutively since 1996. Prior to that, I taught Spanish from 1987 to 1989, at which point I took a seven-year hiatus to work in college admissions recruitment, followed by two years working part-time for a social service agency while I attended graduate school full-time in order to earn my M.Ed. in curriculum.

When I began blogging back in December of 2006, the majority of my blog posts focused on teaching in general, and teaching Spanish in particular.  From 2008 to 2010, I created a secondary blog, which has since been disbanded, as a blog focused on all things Spanish and foreign language teaching and learning.  However, the ordeal of maintaining two blogs – one discipline-specific, and one more social commentary-oriented, became too much.

There are plenty of blogs currently in existence which focus exclusively on the teaching of foreign language in general, and on the teaching of Spanish in particular, and I am grateful for and appreciative of those blogs, for I receive ideas and inspiration from them.  And, I decided almost eight years ago when I began to blog that I would never be able to blog exclusively about Spanish, or foreign language teaching and learning.  For me, teaching and learning have become so much bigger than my discipline: what I am striving for at this stage of my career is good teaching, grounded in culturally responsive pedagogy, and creating a learning environment of compassion and empathy.  This is not to suggest that I have no interest in my discipline because I don’t blog or tweet about it with any degree of regularity, or, that I am any less of an “expert” in my field as a result of the aforementioned.  Quite the contrary: I think about and reflect upon and read about and conduct research into my discipline, my classroom, my students, my teaching, and my students’ learning as a foreign language teacher and as a Spanish teacher daily.

And, perhaps this is the critical dilemma for me as an African American teacher: My mind, time, and energy are so often devoted to and spread incredibly and dangerously thin across so many educational interests, it’s any wonder that I am as vibrant in the classroom as I am.  However, I am not just about my discipline.  As a matter of human and educational survival, I cannot be just about my discipline. Sometimes, honestly, I wish I could; combining teaching Spanish and social activism is so very physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. On the other hand, I would not be the educator, or the person, I am and am striving to become, without doing both.

Sometimes, You Have To Be Your Own Cheerleader

Very early in my teaching career, I was feeling very discouraged.  After two years of teaching at a day and boarding school, I was not sure if I desired to remain in the teaching profession.  Like so many independent school teachers in the late 1980s, career survival was “sink or swim.”  A lot was placed on my young, inexperienced and somewhat fragile shoulders: teaching four classes, coaching, residing in and co-supervising  girls’ dormitory, and advising, and proctoring evening study hall.  I was not sent to a new teacher bootcamp; those didn’t exist then for newly-birthed independent school teachers.  Additionally, I was not assigned a mentor; I guess they didn’t exist then, either.  The only thing the school in question did do was send me to an Advanced Placement teacher workshop.  To this day, I am still not sure how that workshop  was supposed to help me, a new college graduate with no classroom teaching experience, to become an effective teacher. But, perhaps the most important, I had no real sense as to what sort of teacher I was: Was I good? Was I bad? In the two years I taught at that particular school, I had been neither observed nor evaluated.  I was never given praise – for anything.  And yet, on the day of my interview, the school in question offered me a position, and members of the senior administration told me how much they “needed me” as a young teacher of color. I now know that those are not good indicators of a successful tenure at any independent school.  To my credit, I didn’t accept the position right away.

Thus, after two years of the aforementioned, I was feeling thoroughly and completely overwhelmed and under-supported.  To be fair, I didn’t ask for help.  After all, I was a liberal arts graduate from a top college.  Why, on Earth, would I need help?  But, I did.  And, nobody seemed to recognize that I was sinking, and I possessed too much pride to ask for the proverbial lifeboat.

In the spring of 1989, the second year of my teaching career, and, the second year at the day and boarding school, I had had enough.  I was ready to not only leave the school, but also to explore other career options.  After sharing with my Dear Dad my frustrations, he told me this: “Sometimes, you have to become your own form of guidance.  Sometimes, you have to be your own cheerleader, and not rely on others to do it for you.”

It was my Dear Dad’s words which forced me to assume greater ownership and responsibility for my career and for my professional development.  I did, in fact leave teaching for five years, at which point I worked in college admissions.  Following that, I enrolled in graduate school full-time, and eventually returned to a career as an independent school teacher.

Although it is empowering to have mentors and sponsors looking out for me, and I have been blessed for having had both over the years, it is even more empowering for me to not have placed my career in the hands of others. Being my own cheerleader has allowed me to become more confident in my capabilities, to take risks, and to pursue opportunities.  Being one’s own cheerleader is the greatest gift a person can give to her/himself.

So…What If the Rest of Us Are Struggling???

Over the course of my career, I have been involved in regularly-scheduled grade-level meetings in order to discuss struggling learners.  While I appreciate the opportunity to receive updates on kids, whether or not I teach them, I don’t appreciate the tenor such meetings have taken at times.

For example, a colleague may say that he or she isn’t having a problem behaviorally or academically with the student in question.  And, that is often where the conversation ends for that particular student.  Rather than end the conversation at this juncture, let’s take it to the next level: If a teacher is having success with a particular student, he or she should be asked to SHARE what’s working.  Keeping such information to oneself makes a teacher look and sound superior.  Moreover, it shuts down a conversation which is about the students, and not about the teacher.

Let’s encourage each other to NOT be that teacher by asking our colleagues what they are doing to contribute to the success of kids with whom other teachers on the team may be struggling.  After all, it’s Each One Teach 100.