Elizabeth Pappas

Dear WeAreTeachers:
It feels like my brain broke last year and hasn’t recovered. I’m having a hard time motivating myself to give my all. When my kids are in the room, I’m doing better. But planning? Grading? Material creation? That’s where I drag. I spend prep time working so slowly, sometimes having a break for a snack or just for a break. I can’t mentally force myself to go faster. I’m just big-time tired. How can I get through this slog? —Channeling My Inner Sloth

Dear C.M.I.S.,

You shared that you feel like you have a broken brain and feel the slog, and you aren’t the only one feeling this way, right? There’s even a term people use called “teacher tired,” which means, as you can guess, really, really tired. And there is no doubt that the prolonged pandemic is weighing heavily on teachers. Inequities have been exacerbated, and the nature of the work is complex, to say the least. Teaching, in general, requires an extraordinary amount of decision-making.

You mentioned that the grading and planning are tipping you over the edge. One reason may be because the grading and planning come AFTER a long day of decisions with the students. Researcher Philip W. Jackson studied the thought processes of teachers and concluded that teachers engage in about 300 exchanges with students each hour, which equates to about 1,500 decisions in one day. It’s been said that teachers make more decisions minute to minute than brain surgeons! Jackson goes on to say that teaching is opportunistic and requires “spontaneity and immediacy.” We improvise and deal with issues on the spot minute to minute all day long.

To get through the slog, we all need to build resilience or the capacity to recover from difficulties. Teacher stress and burnout are on the rise, and teacher resilience is a balm that yields positive outcomes such as enthusiasm, motivation, and commitment, along with positive learning conditions for students. So how might we build resilience? Elena Aguilar outlines a yearlong plan to cultivate resilience in teachers. Her approach coincides with the cycles of a school year.

Try this to help boost motivation and slip out of the slog. Aguilar describes the power of belonging and community. “Teaching can be such a lonely experience, and I think anything that we can do to begin cementing those connections will just help us so much when things get rough.” As the Beatles song goes, “We get by with a little help from our friends.” So, ask yourself, who do you relate to on and off-campus? Who lifts your spirits and makes you feel seen and heard? Check in on each other daily and notice how your motivation elevates.

Consider setting up weekly planning sessions with a partner and enjoy healthy snacks and calming music. Work collaboratively in order to be more strategic and efficient and have a bit of accountability, too. Make intentional efforts to cross paths with people you relate to and who bring relief. And keep taking your breaks!

Dear WeAreTeachers:
During conferences, a parent told me her child is bored in class and doesn’t want to come to school. I was so caught off-guard, I felt a punch to my gut. I work so hard and to get this kind of feedback felt discouraging. I’m wondering how I should follow up since I became speechless during the conference. What ideas do you have to help me with my next steps? —One Foot in Front of the Other

Dear O.F.I.F.O.T.O.,

I feel that sock to your stomach. Parent conference time can be such an intense time for teachers. All the assessments, gathering evidence of learning, completing report cards, and being present take a lot of energy. It’s really easy to say and hard to do, but try not to linger too long in feeling heavy about this feedback. I find it super hard to handle tough feedback and so do most of us humans. Now you have some data about this student and can move forward with a plan.

Let’s first acknowledge that we all experience boredom differently. For some people, a lack of mental stimulation, rest, choice, and/or variation in life can trigger feelings of boredom. With kids, they may say they are bored when, in fact, they are feeling confused, worried about making mistakes, or doing the same activities for too long. It’s common for kids to say they feel bored when in reality they are having a hard time dealing with thoughts, feelings, and circumstances going on in their lives. Boredom can manifest with a lack of interest, limited attention span, feelings of fatigue, and low levels of engagement. All we can do as teachers is control the learning conditions to spark students’ joy, curiosity, and active engagement.

Even though it’s hard to hear that a student feels bored and doesn’t want to come to school, there are steps you can take to address the issue. First, talk to your student one-on-one to dig a little deeper and show a genuine interest in their life. This sounds like basic common sense, but with our big class sizes and competing interests for our attention, this personal touch can be challenging to sustain. AND it’s important and worthwhile for sure! When you meet with this student, try not to make this interaction feel like a punishment.

Instead, be open to learning more about what’s going on in your student’s life. Ask questions like: How have you been feeling lately? What is going well at school? When do you feel bored at school? Is there a way I can support you? What kinds of things interest you? What advice do you have for teachers to make school more meaningful?

Pay close attention to your student and start documenting what you are noticing. What observable behaviors can you capture? Does your student engage during collaborative tasks? What types of facial expressions are you noticing? Also, try to observe the student during recess and lunch if possible to get a broader view of their experience at school. Does your student interact with other kids?  Documentation is a powerful practice and helps you be a more responsive teacher. It’s especially important because you may find yourself having to attend more meetings about this student in the future.

Be sure to follow up with the parent and share that you are committed to checking in one-on-one with the student regularly in order to know them better and build enthusiasm for learning. Invite the parent to share any additional information and changes they notice about their child. The importance of framing your ideas as part of prosocial behavior versus punishment cannot be overstated. If the student is absent, a phone call or email home shows that you are concerned and want to be part of the solution. Also, reach out to a counselor at your site/district for some guidance to increase the level of support for you and the family.

I have found parent conferences to be the most successful when they are student-led. Consider exploring this option as you move forward this school year. Including student voice and reflection is empowering for the student and revealing to the parents and teachers. After the student shares their glows and grows, invite parents to chime in, too. Hopefully, these next steps will feel like a good fit.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
My schedule is totally booked!  I’m a single, working mom and caregiver to my dad who has cancer. I’m barely managing it all. I get so freaking stressed about fitting it all in. Literally, my schedule is booked every moment. And when there is a little setback, like my canceling my hair appointment, these seemingly little bumps really stress me out. I know it’s just hair. Big deal. But getting another appointment is so difficult. I was also told that I’m losing my prep time next week. It just feels like when it rains it pours. How can I manage it all? —Jam Packed

Dear J.P.,

It sounds like you planned some much-needed self-care into your compressed schedule, and when it was canceled, you felt a major letdown. It IS a big deal. Little things can sometimes feel like big things! It’s totally understandable to feel this way, especially with your life context as a single, working mom. You have many responsibilities and limited time for rest and recovery.

I’m a single, working mom, too, and it’s hard to juggle the everyday needs of my family, my different work roles, and find time to make my heart sing, brain grow, and spirit feel light. You’ve heard the saying that we need to put our own oxygen masks on first before we can take care of others. Listen to this advice! I’m learning to prioritize myself better and now that I am, I have way more energy to tackle the various roles I have.

Let’s find ways for you to protect time for yourself and give yourself a buffer for when things may go wonky. When you schedule a meeting, take into account the time it takes to transition from one thing to the next. Take a close look at your calendar and protect time in your week for walks, yoga time, journaling, grocery shopping, cooking, watching a series, or whatever makes you feel nourished. Even 15 minutes can be a game-changer! Learning to say NO is also a YES for yourself. Social psychologist Dr. Vanessa Bohns reminds us that, “Many people agree to things—even things they would prefer not to do—simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying ‘no.’”

The Experience Life publication explains how “often, we ignore the consequences of overscheduling until we become so exhausted we can’t keep up, sometimes to the detriment of our health and our closest relationships. We need to stop glorifying the hustle and treasure a little more space in our schedules for taking care of ourselves and resting. Self-care is not selfish or self-indulgent. Self-care means taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy, you can be well, you can do your job, you can help and care for others, and you can do all the things you need to and want to accomplish in a day.”

Consider starting your morning with a sacred routine. Avoid jumping on to social media and instead of scrolling, enjoy some quiet time, do some expressive writing, stretch and breathe, or do whatever makes you feel more like yourself. In the words of Maggie Smith, “Change something in your routine today, knowing that changing one thing changes everything.”

Dear WeAreTeachers:
My principal has decided to start recording us during our observations, and I’m feeling weird about it. I’m sure it will be useful to grow as a teacher, but it  feels awkward. I just don’t want to watch myself. Why is that? Why is it so hard to watch myself on video?  Any tips to help me get more comfortable with this process? —Struck With Stage Fright

Dear S.W.S.F.,

It’s safe to say the majority of teachers feel recording an observation is a nightmare. We cringe when we have to see ourselves on a screen. And adding the video recording more than doubles the stress. Being observed by our principals can sometimes make us feel like we are under a microscope. The close examination makes us shrink at times.

Let’s get started with some ideas to help you get through the barriers and discomfort of being video-recorded. Start by holding your hands on your heart and taking a deep breath. Repeat. Then repeat again. The goal is to send messages to your body that you are safe and sound. Additionally, the Sibme company describes how “our brains … look tirelessly for information that confirms the way we see the world.” This confirmation bias gets triggered and, unfortunately, often focuses on the negative traits more than the positive ones. We become overcritical of ourselves and lose sight of the benefits that video recording can spur.

Just like you said, there are aspects to video recording that ARE useful. Video provides educators with opportunities for deep reflection. It’s not the experience alone that makes an exemplary teacher; it’s the reflection on the experience. Videos can help us as educators analyze the impact we are having. With video, we are able to slow down and notice our deliberate use of language, in-the-moment scaffolding, the way we promote student engagement, and the type of feedback we provide.

Recordings enable us to share practices and build a sense of trust through the vulnerable act of making our practice public. Teacher reflection helps us to improve, especially when the type of reflection highlights our strengths. When you view your recording, ask yourself, “What went well and how do I know? If I could teach this lesson again what would I hold on to and what might I change?”

Just like with anything, we improve over time, so give yourself grace and allow for approximation as you get more and more accustomed to video as a tool for building collective teacher efficacy. Video recording requires vulnerability. There’s no way of getting around that. Poet David Whyte writes, “Vulnerability is the underlying, ever present, and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature.”

Do you have a burning question? Email us at askweareteachers@weareteachers.com.

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Illustration: Jennifer Jamieson





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