Our juniors spent last Tuesday morning taking the ACT test, along with every other junior in the state of Wisconsin. I spent the morning watching them take the test. Talk about mind numbing.
“You will now be taking the fourth part of the test in Science. You will have 35 minutes to complete this test. Please open your test booklets and try not to fall out of your chairs after three hours of testing, during which I have listened to you sniffle, shuffle, and sigh to the point of my own mental health crisis. I mean…you may begin.”
On days when I hand out Kleenex and monitor bubble fill in, I long for interactive class periods of inquiry, exchange, and exploration. However, that sometimes is a pipe dream as well.
Lately, it’s been a bit like pulling teeth to get kids to participate. Pushing them to meet their reading goals feels less like inspiring work, and more like drudgery (How much more inspirational do you need me to be with this whole reading gig? Just DO IT already.). Their quarter three blank stares and exhausted sighs have me resisting the urge to fix my vacant eyes right back at them and mouth breathe until they see their reflections in the mirror of my face.
At times like these, I am reminded by fellow trench mates that we teachers need love too. I don’t want to feel tired, occasionally demoralized, and ill tempered, but I’m there, and part of the reason is that I know my kids are there too.
Workshop can be legitimately magical. Students reading more than they ever have, writing for authentic audiences, and hearing each other speak deeply and passionately about real life issues through literacy. But, Shana didn’t post 9 Books to Hook Your Holdouts for nothing. Amy had the Tissue Issue and needed to Write When It Was Hard. Jessica is finding her way in a brand new workshop classroom. And countless sources across the web detail teacher burnout and student engagement struggles.
So when our newest contributor Jessica to 3TT reached out over the weekend with: “You ladies are rockstar teachers. Do you ever have discipline or complacency struggles in your classroom?” I had to smile. And then laugh. And then cry a little. And then…
I was taken back to a conversation with a colleague a few years back, where an offhanded comment poked me right in the teacher feels. We had actually been talking about this very idea – the slump we can all feel when teaching gets somewhat less Stand and Deliver and more, students loitering around the complacency trough.
“Well,” he had said somewhat smugly, “As long as you have engaging lessons, students don’t check out.”
Oh. Really? That’s awesome for you…
Listen, I get his point, and to some extent I agree, of course engagement has to be at the heart of what we do, but from personal experience as a learner, it’s not always possible to engage all of the kids all of the time (collective gasp, coupled with Lisa polishing her resume). And that can be exhausting and frustrating to educators, and disruptive to the class.
But today, I am not here to provide advice for how to move forward with this issue in the classroom (I happen to know for a fact that my 3TT ladies have several posts up their sleeves all about engagement. Stay tuned!).
I’m actually here to quickly remind everyone, because I needed the reminder too, that when you are feeling like you could arrange for Big Bird to walk in the door and hand out cookies to everyone in the class, but no one would crack a smile, you need…friends.
In your building, down the hall, gathered at PLC, across the country, on the phone, send a quick note, smile at your neighbors, friends.
I, for one, am a lucky duck in this department. I work with friends. Dear friends.
Stand up in her wedding, give a quick tearful hug, giggle over buffalo chicken dip, join a bowling league, talk about Ryan Adams, compare Lularoe leggings, grab a drink, bake some cookies, geek out over Out of Print literary shirts, talk about being daddy’s girls, Irish Oatmeal, send each other lip sync videos, eye roll at the same time, laugh first and ask questions later, friends ( I think I hit everyone in the department. Seriously. I love you people).
So, whenever possible, and especially when you feel like you might voluntarily throw yourself down the stairs rather than walk into 3rd period, find people to spill your guts to. Find people to share your successes and colossal failures with. Friends who share mini lesson ideas and friends who share unbelievable content knowledge. Fresh out of college and boundlessly energetic friends, and experienced, measured, and wise friends. Those who have seen decades in the classroom and those who weren’t born yet when you started teaching.
Take the time to engage with the people you work with, both as educators and as humans. Engagement at work increases when we have friends. Harvard said so.
And if the people you work with don’t do this for you, branch out.
The ladies at 3TT have been WhatsApp-ing (verb I just created) lately. We use voice messages, pictures, texts, and links to talk about classroom questions, vent about burnout, explore possible post ideas, and discuss who’s drinking which variety of wine tonight.
There are always ways to connect with like-minded, similarly leaning, comparably focused educators. And there are ways to connect with challenging, make you reflect on your practice, I can’t believe I used to do that too educators who can help reassure you that you are making the right moves, even when those moves are difficult.
Hand someone a cup of coffee and take a seat.
Open up Twitter and join a #chat.
Send one of the Three Teachers (really five of us now, how cool is that?) an email and we’d be glad to listen.
Don’t close your door and let handing out Kleenex to kids feel like a highlight of positive, professional interaction.
Friends can help you feel sane, productive, positive, and human again. A few kind words, commiseration, a hug, and a maybe a quick snack.
Little else is needed to take the deep breath necessary and get back to 3rd period.
Except maybe, Spring Break.
We’d love to hear your shout-outs to fellow educators who help you right your ship, stay afloat, and just keep swimming! Please share in the comments below.
Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of friends at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She almost left the profession in year one, and would have, if not for fellow English teacher Erin Doucette who took Lisa under her wing and taught her the importance of being yourself in the classroom, challenging you students, and celebrating St. Patrick’s Day every year without fail. I love the teacher you are and the teacher you have helped me to become. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.