A Teacher’s Guide to Thriving Through the School Year
By Brian Rodda
Hey teacher, welcome to the school year! It’s a Tuesday morning as you enter the school a little haggard from the back to school traffic that started a week ago and has turned your commute into obstacle course. In your mailbox you receive a notice that you will be welcoming a new student to your class that has significant past trauma which is showing up in their work and attitude. The staff meeting on the new curriculum that you will be implementing this fall is starting in three minutes, and then you remember that you’ve got a meeting with your principal at lunch to discuss your professional goals for the school year. Where do you begin with all of this work?
This is how some days feel at Fox Creek, where I work. In this amazing job of supporting students to reach for a brighter future, it can be quite easy to get bogged down in the details and lose your way through the myriad of issues, struggles, and surprises that are a part of the most important job in the world. So how do you thrive in this demanding job? How do you keep yourself on a path that honors the original calling you heard to become a teacher? Here are five actions that I believe will help you thrive and maximize your impact with kids.
Build Your Crew
Our first and most important step when establishing our classes at the beginning of the school year is to address the foundational needs of our students. We can’t dive into the curriculum or project with any measure of success before first addressing their often unsaid questions of:
Do I belong here?
Will I be safe?
I’m not like the rest, is that okay here?
Why should I do this work? Does it matter?
There are more student questions than space to list here, but they are often born out of previous experiences, relationships, treatment by adults, and basic needs. There have been many researchers who have pointed to evidence that educators must first address a student’s physical and affective needs before academic learning can flourish.
So what can you do? Take time each day to set up a culture of belonging, trust, and contribution within your classroom. In EL Education, we call it Crew. It’s a time of day where we gather in a circle so that all can be seen and heard. In that circle we learn, discuss, challenge, and reflect. Crew goes beyond a time of day, however, and is also the fabric of our class culture that elevates students’ voices, choices, and impact throughout each day. The most important step in creating a culture of Crew is to set aside the first few minutes of class to insure that every child is seen and heard.
Get Grounded In Your Belief & Impact
Several years back while feeling lost and overwhelmed in my job, and a friend challenged me to define my beliefs about teaching and learning. I was also pushed to clearly state my desired impact on kids. The work to clarify my beliefs and desired impact was hard, and it made me feel vulnerable and question if my beliefs were correct or impactful enough. But the truth is, your beliefs and impact as a teacher are uniquely yours. Only you can impact kids in your unique way, so what is it? What do you believe about great teaching and learning? What is your most deeply desired impact on children for the time that they have with you?
One of the most valuable professional steps I believe you can make is to get clear, and then write down your belief and impact. After you have done this hard work, your next step is to share it with your students and colleagues. At Fox Creek, we believe in the power of this work so much that every staff member now has a belief & impact statement posted by their door. Not a week of the school year goes by without me seeing people pausing to read and reflect on the belief of a teacher in our building.
So why is this work important? This year marks my 29th year as an educator, and I have found no better compass than my belief and impact statement to help guide me through the inevitable storms that happen, both professionally and personally, during a school year.
Find Your Thought Partner
Having a compass (your belief & impact) is critical, but you need strong partners for the journey. I encourage you to share your belief and desired impact with others. it’s not necessary to find people who have the same beliefs as you, rather, it’s more important that they understand and respect your personal belief and desired impact. Diversity of beliefs and uniqueness of impacts makes us stronger as a community and helps push us toward new learning. So I encourage you to find trusted colleagues that you can talk deeply about the work of teaching and learning. Set aside intentional time to bring up successes, challenges, and current dilemmas in order to learn from each other and encourage each other throughout the highs and lows of a school year. Finding and fostering thought partners only happens through intention. These are very purposeful relationships that go beyond the daily experience of teaching and move into the purposeful places of student learning and challenge. Don’t limit yourself to a thought partner in your own building. Thought partnerships can thrive through relationships with educators in different locations where a simple phone call or video conference can bring connection and encouragement across the miles.
Define Success With a Growth Mindset
As you set your plans for your student’s growth, and your own growth this year, it’s important to look to those who are doing the work really well. I have educational heroes who inspire me and challenge me to be a better educator. Models of excellence, whether people or projects, are important to look towards and aspire to. But I want to warn you about the pitfalls of defining your success or your student’s success by the final products of others.
In the beginning of Fox Creek’s journey with EL Education, I often looked to master educators in the network for inspiration and learning. I looked at their final products, but often failed to see their journey over many years. A teacher recently told me that one teacher’s “chapter 1” is another teacher’s “chapter 19.” The story of growth, success, and failure is in the chapters in between. As you think about what you want to accomplish this year, consider and define what success will look like and sound like for year one. Celebrate the journey of growth by setting reasonable success criteria. Build on that success over time, but focus on the growth instead of just the outcome. As educators, we can be notorious for critiquing ourselves with what needs to happen next time instead of celebrating all that went right this time.
Find Your Balance & Space To Breathe
When you’re working within your belief and impact, you’ve built a culture of Crew for your kids and yourself, it can get really hard to decide when it’s time to stop for the day and go onto the personal side of your life. The balance of teaching life and personal life is so important, and it doesn’t need to be a 50/50 arrangement. The balance of professional and personal often ebbs and flows throughout the school year and seasons of life. Embrace the partnership that you can only be a great teacher if you have a balancing personal life, and that your personal life will be positively impacted by being a purposeful teacher. Take time for self care, rest, and reflection. Enjoy and build relationships as they lead to a fulfilling life, but also make you a great teacher. Take time to play and breathe by pursuing other things that you love and that give you inspiration. I’m afraid we cannot thrive as teachers by only being teachers. The true heart work of education has tremendous highs and lows, and we must separate from the work from time to time to both enjoy that work and heal from that work.
Here’s wishing you an amazing school year where you thrive as a teacher of children!
About the Author
Brian Rodda is the principal of Fox Creek Elementary School, an EL Education network partner, located south of Denver, Colorado. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.