One enthusiastic educator's exciting journey to teaching mastery
One enthusiastic educator's exciting journey to teaching mastery
Well, it's been a minute.
For those out of the school loop, my departure from blogging exactly coincided with the fall term of university- no coincidence there. With my Master's of Education wrapping up (hooray!!), I've been completely submerged in readings.
My final project for university is a culminating capstone project. 6 credits in the fall, and 6 credits in the winter semesters, as I work on one mega inquiry project of my choosing.
I've focused on educational technology; I've looked at how it should be used in school settings, how it actually is being used in schools, and what we (or, I, in this case) can do to bridge these two realities.
What is implied in this research process? Simple. Coffee. Lots of coffee. Some pep talks. Lots of highlighting. Procrastinating. oh, and actual research. I think by the end of my research, I had read over 80 studies on my topic. That may not be a lot for an academic, but I've been teaching full-time too- so my attention span is not what it used to be!
As I did all this reading, I wondered about another missing bridge...the one needed to bring all this academia to actual working teachers. With that in mind, I'll be sharing what I've learned with you over the course of the next week, and later on, I'll also share my suggested plan of action.
I read somewhere that when you are choosing a career, you should find something you hate in the world and try to fix it. I think this reasoning is a big reason why I went into teaching. As a child, I was very smart but not very cool. Here I'll share a few of the most memorable scenarios of my elementary life:
As you may have guessed, the problem I've set out to try and fix is inclusion. I've had so many experiences (as I'm sure you have too) where I have felt left out or unimportant, that I would hate for more children to live through the same problem. I've also been on the other side, where I was included but someone else was not, and I felt so lucky like at least I'm safe this time.
With that in mind, here are things I do in my teaching practice to make everyone feel valued and included.
At the beginning of the year, I make all the teams. I explain my reasoning to my students like so:
Some students will then bring up that when we do the Daily 5 component Read to Self it's not a good idea to be beside a friend, because they would distract you from your work!
Oh, I love birthdays! It's such a great opportunity to celebrate every child in the classroom! Here are some of my traditions:
Snack & Lunch times
I have an important rule for snack and lunchtime: no one can sit alone.
It's everyone's responsibility to ensure everyone has someone. This means if you see someone sitting alone, you have to either go over to them and sit with them, or invite them over to your table. easy peasy.
Once I explain why this is important, that sharing meal times is good for your brain, and helps you feel better, the kids just get it. This is one rule I have never needed to enforce. In fact, a few kids even transfer this rule to the playground, and go ask kids who are alone to join in on their games (which brings tears to my eyes, but I can't let them see it!).
Setting up play dates
When I've taught younger grades (grade 1 & 2), I sometimes 'takeover' their play time by setting up play dates. I am constantly surprised by the amount of kids who don't have play dates on weekends or week nights! So many of my students are surrounded by adults and screens...they miss out on great opportunities! With that in mind, I make up teams of 2, and remind them that I put a lot of effort into making these teams, so no complaining please!
We begin with a whole group discussion about what makes a great play date and what makes a good friend. Here are some of the answers we always come up with:
And I then send them with their partner to begin their play dates. If they are going particularly well, I stop it immediately- and tell them to exchange numbers to continue at home!
After 15 minutes, we pause, and do a whole group reflection. What am I doing to be a good friend? How could I make this play date better? These play date practices are a great opportunity for students to get to know one another, and practice communication skills, work their imagination and sense of humour and patience...I love it and so do the kids! I've had kids ask for more play dates instead of free play time.
As I am teaching a grade 2 & a grade 3 this year, I want to step up my play date game to hands-on team-building challenges. More on this when I get started!
How do you make sure everyone is included?
These are just a few of the ways I try to make all my students feel welcome in class and at school. It's so important for me to make sure my students feel safe and important- I don't think learning can take place without taking care of the basics first. How do you make sure everyone feels welcome in your class? I can't wait to see how others do it!
My 2016-2017 Classroom
During the first few days of school before the kids come in, every teacher is desperately trying to piece their room together in time for the big day. My process is usually quick (2 days) because I know exactly what I like and what I don't.
It's not unusual that over the course of these first few days that a few colleagues will ask me to take a look at their rooms, and offer any advice I have to make their room feel cozier, lighter, and clearer. I love to oblige to such flattering requests, and I thought I would share some of the hard and fast design rules I've developed over the last few years.
Symmetry is attractive
When you can, embrace symmetry. I visited a colleague's classroom and I offered simple changes to her room. She had 3 bookcases lined up on her front wall: tall, tall and small. I suggested she arrange them tall, small, tall. It made a big difference, and became more pleasing to the eye!
Never block a window!
Would you ever put a bookcase in front of a window at home? I hope the answer is no! Not only are you missing out on that beautiful natural light, but you are also making it harder to access the mechanisms to open said window. It's also important to work with the natural elements of your classrooms whenever you can.
Don't wait, just do!
The caretaker at my school and I have a running joke that I never need help for anything. It's far from true, but it started when he noticed me hammering nails to hang some frames. He offered to help, but I was already doing it! A few days later, he saw me climbing on my window ledges to install my curtains. He offered to help, but I was already up there!
What I'm trying to get to is that if you want to do something in your classroom, truly want to, you don't wait for someone to give you permission, or do it for you- you just do it! It's with this attitude that I quickly gathered the elements in my classroom toolbox. There's nothing major in there, only some light bulbs, tie-wraps, double-sided tape, Allen keys, and a multi-tool (screwdriver with all the tips). For everything else, I know the caretaker has the tools I need- and he let's me borrow without asking whenever I want!
The simplest way is often the best way
Once upon a time, I had a broken support system for my SmartBoard projector. It was taking the school board months to fix it, and I was tired of waiting. I lent the projector to my brother-in-law and he quickly built me a beautiful support for it out of wood and long metal screws.
However, once I brought the whole thing back to my classroom, the projector would slide down. I had to find a way for it to hold...at first I tried a million and one tie-wraps but the mess was so ugly, I chopped them all off and found a prettier, easier solution. I velcro-ed it in place. Whenever I am designing or creating something, I always consider the final look and function. Would 30 messy tie wraps have been attractive? how about sturdy? probably not. The best solution is often the simplest one. The same goes for placing classroom furniture!
People often tells me my classroom looks like a little home, or cafe. We seem to forget so quickly that for many of us, the hours we spend in school with our kids and colleagues far outnumber the hours we spend awake at home. We have so much artistic freedom as teachers- of course our rooms should be beautiful and function, like reflections of our homes! Your students will enjoy it more, and so will you!
Just like your home, you have to make your classroom yours. I have my signature touches, such as framing pictures of my student's playing or reading and hanging them up in class, but that doesn't mean everyone needs to do that. What are your musts? What are your signature touches?
First, let’s acknowledge that burnout does not happen overnight. Rather, it is an exhausting process in which an individual is gradually drained of energy, progressively develops distant or cynical attitudes, and ceases to feel as if they are making a difference in their work. Wright (2003) would add that “it is a problem born out of good intentions because it happens when individuals try to reach unrealistic goals and end up depleting their energy and losing touch with themselves and others.” (as cited in Espeland, 2006). Teacher burnout is a serious and complex issue with no easy solution. However, there are a lot of things we can do help prevent it from happening, whether you are an at-risk teacher, or a school leader.
The best defense is a good offense; the old sports adage can also illustrate that the best intervention for burnout is indeed burnout prevention. By remaining vigilant and remaining attentive to the warning signs of burnout, it may be possible to alter an individual’s path before things get too complicated. Espeland (2006) cataloged a collection of strategies to help nurses find their way out of burnout. Having experienced burnout myself, I know that I would not have been receptive to these strategies by the time I needed a leave of absence. However, they may have been helpful at the beginning of my downward spiral. With that in mind, here are a few of the strategies suggested by Espeland (2006) (also known as things I would tell my younger self):
to err is human, to forgive, divine. Remember also that forgiveness does not mean approving of a harmful act: you forgive a person not the act.
Principals & School Leaders
In order to prevent job burnout among your staff members, many options are available. By even making the effort to take care of your employees’ mental health, you are taking a step in the right direction. Coates & Howe (2015) determined a few key aspects in the design and development of staff wellbeing initiatives. An integral component of any wellbeing initiative is to involve the staff members in the development process as much as possible, as their needs and issues are the objective.
Coates, D. D., & Howe, D. (2015). The design and development of staff well being initiatives: staff stressors, burnout and emotional exhaustion at children and young people’s mental health in Australia. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 42(6), 655-663.
Espeland, K. E. (2006). Overcoming burnout: how to revitalize your career.The journal of continuing education in nursing 37(4), 178-184.
Grandey, A., Foo, S. C., Groth, M., & Goodwin, R. E. (2012). Free to be you and me: a climate of authenticity alleviates burnout from emotional labor.Journal of occupational health psychology, 17(1), 1.
Teaching: truly one of the most stressful jobs!
Teachers may often claim that they have one of the most stressful jobs. Yet this is not just another baseless complaint- it is actually grounded in academic research. Papastylianou & Polychronopoulos (2009) found that most studies demonstrate that teaching is one of the most high stress social professions, as it necessitates close relationships with other people and quick decision-making skills that may have serious repercussions on those involved, whether economic, social or other.
In addition, when compared to other professions, school teachers show higher levels of exhaustion and cynicism, which are significant predictors of job burnout (cited in Hakanen, Bakker & Schaufeli, 2006). In the same study conducted in Finland by Hakanen, Bakker & Schaufeli (2006), results showed that teachers had the highest level of burnout compared to workers in all other human services and white collar jobs. These results are not limited to Finland. In a comparative study by Pithers, & Soden (1998), results showed that a third of teachers in Great Britain, Holland, Scandinavia, the United States of America, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and other countries report that teaching causes stress or excessive stress.
Ask any teacher what stresses them in their job and you will no doubt get a huge variety of answers. Stresses vary day-to-day depending on interactions with parents and administration, student behaviours, changing job conditions, availability of resources, relationships with colleagues, etc. In a review of literature, Papastylianou & Polychronopoulos (2009) identified the following factors as causes of teacher stress:
This laundry list of factors can be a lot to digest. Most likely, one cannot grasp the whole of it by simply reading the words. I have chosen to explore two of the reasons identified by the academic scholarship that I have experienced, in order to provide a more meaningful understanding of these stressors.
It is important to note that all workers in the field of people-work face important stresses. Hochschild (2003) famously characterized these stresses as “emotional labor”, as employees are required to self-regulate their emotions in order to properly do their work. This may lead to workers employing emotionally draining strategies, such as “surface acting”, meaning that they will display the expected or appropriate emotion, while actually feeling something else on the inside. Others may resort to “deep acting”, wherein employees will both display the appropriate emotion, while trying to mimic that emotion on the inside.
A better strategy would be to aim for “emotional consonance”- in other words, truly feeling the emotion that is portrayed. However, many training programs and many workplaces encourage emotional detachment (as cited in Coates & Howe, 2015), making emotional consonance an unpopular and infrequently used strategy. I experienced this first hand before I took a leave of absence from work due to burnout. Friends, family and colleagues would often advise me to “leave work at work” and not to carry that stress home with me. However, I very strongly believed (and still do) in creating and maintaining strong relationships with my students. How could I have those relationships and invest myself emotionally in my work, yet disconnect when the dismissal bell rang?
I felt pressure to remain professional, and emotionally detached, all while being encouraged to maintain close bonds with my students. Through the lens of Hochschild’s work, I can see that I was encouraged to be “surface acting”- the most damaging approach to emotional labour, as it is so emotionally demanding.
Stoeber & Rennert (2008) describe perfectionism as: “a personality style characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting of excessively high standards for performance accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior.” (p. 38). The value placed on others’ evaluations leads to increased pressure to perform, and meet both one’s own high standards, as well as others’ perceived high standards.
I did not know I was a perfectionist until I suffered from burnout. It was much later that I learned that it can be very hard for perfectionists to change their ways, because it leads to so many benefits. For example, it was my striving for excessively high standards that pushed me to succeed academically, be recognized with awards when I was in the army, run so many marathons, and so on. How could this drive be a bad thing?
Over time, I saw that my high standards and drive for perfection were both
preventing me from enjoying my success (I always wanted something bigger and better) and leading me down a road of exhaustion and despair. In fact, perfectionism has thus long been linked to high levels of stress and job burnout (Stoeber & Rennert (2008). Flett, Hewitt, & Hallett, (1995) authored one of the few studies exploring the link between perfectionism and job stress in teachers. As was predicted, results of their study demonstrated that teachers who indicated a higher level of perfectionism (compared to teachers with low levels of perfectionism) experienced higher stress.
This is a lot to think about, I know. While emotionally heavy, it is essential that teachers regularly take a moment to evaluate how they are feeling emotionally and professionally. We are in a helping profession, and so often, we place the needs of others first, both because our job demands it, and because it's in our nature. Just remember,
you can't pour from an empty cup.
Coates, D. D., & Howe, D. (2015). The design and development of staff wellbeing initiatives: staff stressors, burnout and
emotional exhaustion at children and young people’s mental health in Australia. Administration and Policy in Mental
Health and Mental Health Services Research, 42(6), 655-663.
Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., & Hallett, C. J. (1995). Perfectionism and job stress in teachers. Canadian Journal of School
Geving, A. M. (2007). Identifying the types of student and teacher behaviours associated with teacher stress. Teaching and
Teacher Education, 23(5), 624-640.
Hakanen, J. J., Bakker, A. B., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2006). Burnout and work engagement among teachers. Journal of school
psychology, 43(6), 495-513.
Hochschild, A. R. (2003). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Univ of California Press.
Papastylianou, A., Kaila, M., & Polychronopoulos, M. (2009). Teachers’ burnout, depression, role ambiguity and conflict. Social
Psychology of Education, 12(3), 295-314.
Pithers, R. T., & Soden, R. (1998). Scottish and Australian teacher stress and strain: a comparative study. British Journal of
Educational Psychology,68(2), 269-279.
Stoeber, J., & Rennert, D. (2008). Perfectionism in school teachers: Relations with stress appraisals, coping styles, and
burnout. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 21(1), 37-53.
My name is