Motivation Monday: What Happens When We Lose Our Motivation? One Teacher's Journey of Rediscovering the Passion of Teaching
I began my teaching career in North Philadelphia. The area I taught in is known colloquially as “The Badlands” and not without reason. I worked for an alternative program that services students for whom “the public system did not work” – at least, that’s what the brochure said. My school was firmly nestled inside a line of row homes; open-air drug deals, stray cats, and bachata blasting from car stereos were commonplace. When I tell people this, their reply is usually something like, “You must have worked with some really rough kids,” and that’s true. I also worked with some really sweet kids, some really smart kids, and some kids who completely changed the way I look at life.
The one word that always comes to mind when I describe my time teaching in this environment is intense. Everything was intense. When a student lashed out for receiving a bad grade, it was intense. When there was a shootout in the parking lot, it was intense. When a teacher had to call out sick, it was intense, mostly because everyone else had to cover for them – there were no substitutes. When we ran out of paper in the beginning of October, it was intense. When a teacher quit after three days yet again, when my first period class reeked of marijuana, when I tried to physically stop a fight – it was intense. When I attended my first student funeral, it was intense... and so was every one thereafter.
The intense feelings weren’t all negative, though. Sometimes, when a student laughed – really, truly laughed from the bottom of their belly – it was intense. When a student came back from an extended absence and wanted nothing more than to run in my room and hug me, it was intense. When a young couple beamed with excitement as they announced they were expecting, it was intense. When a student decided that you were worthy and they were going to accept you into their world, it was intense.
Everything about teaching in a high-stress environment is intense and very, very few teaching environments are anything but. My stressors may have included things that not every teacher is subjected to, but as I have come to realize, all educators experience stress on different levels and for different reasons. The reasons do not diminish the stress. Schools are a reflection of the communities they serve. No community is without their fair share of struggles.
Teaching is inherently human. Our job is to connect with other people on a level that will inspire them to grow. When things become so overwhelming that we lose our connection to that humanity, burnout is inevitable. Sometimes it is hard enough to connect with yourself. Add to that the expectation to motivate and inspire others on a daily basis and it becomes unbearable. That feeling — that lonely ache — is what inspired me to tell this story.
If you are an educator and you have been struggling with that feeling, know that you are not alone. So many of us, at so many different stages of our careers, and for so many reasons, have experienced burnout. I was lucky. I knew when it was time for me to move on from my first teaching job and find a new place to develop. I had the unwavering support of family and friends who helped me to recognize what I needed to do and helped me get there. I was also lucky enough to find a new environment that allowed me to grapple with these feelings and eventually find my way back to my passion for teaching. Know that if I can do it, you can, too.
Next week, I will outline ten things that helped me recover from burnout and led me back to my love of teaching. If you are an educator struggling with burnout, I hope that they will help you, too.
Teachers — have you experienced burnout? How did you cope? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
I survived my first year at a new school.
I changed schools and states. I gave up my classroom for a cart. I traded James K. Polk and his presidential colleagues for pronouns and Poe. I left the comfort of inner-city chaos for an eerie rural quiet that didn’t stay silent for long. I left what was familiar and moved into a close-knit community where I knew absolutely no one. I watched a high school football game completely by myself. I smiled, shook hands, made small-talk, and carved out a place in the bleachers where I could sit contentedly and still see all of the plays.
I shined, I stumbled, I made mistakes, but oh, did I learn...
I learned the name of the convenience store some students like to venture to during class time when they think you aren’t looking. I learned that students who are sitting in class without their name on the roster are probably skipping someone else’s class.
I learned that not all people want to help a newbie and those who do should be praised excessively in even the smallest of ways. I learned that a teacher’s responsibility extends far beyond the four walls of a classroom. I learned that not all of the other teachers want to be your best friend — or even your friend at all. I learned that being kind to everyone, despite everything, goes a long way.
I learned. I learned and I learned and I learned.
I learned that a community and a school can accomplish amazing things when they work together. I learned that inspiring leadership is of paramount importance to any excellent school, and working for inspiring leadership is more rewarding than I could have imagined. I learned that leadership does not only include administration, but teachers can truly shine when they are allowed to lead. I learned that when you ask for things, sometimes you actually get them, and I learned that people do see you even when you think they aren’t looking.
I learned that there are still so, so many sweet students out there who I have not yet met. I can’t wait to meet them. I can’t wait to teach them and learn from them. I can’t wait to know them.
I learned that there is still so much to be excited about in this bright and muddled mess we call education.
And most of all, I learned that there is still so much to learn!
Next year, I’ll have a team all my own and I won’t be watching from the bleachers. I’ll trade my cart for a brand new classroom. I’ll be as kind and helpful as I can possibly be to every newbie who comes through the door. I’ll be a nine-year veteran, but it will still feel like my sophomore year.
Best of all, I'll still be learning.
I am not sure how to begin this post but to say that I have been wanting to tell this story for a long time, but I wasn’t sure how. Thankfully, this topic is now receiving the national attention it deserves, so I just wanted to share my insight as an educator and as a person.
I have to begin by saying that in no way, shape, or form am I an authority on this topic. I am not transgender, I don’t have friends or family who are transgender. In fact, I had never even met anyone transgender until I met Julianna*. She was tall, broad shouldered, thick-lipped, and absolutely stunning. Her make-up was meticulous. Her hair, shiny and immaculate. I remember staring at her, wanting to ask for beauty tips, but not knowing how. I often wonder if she was uncomfortable in the first few weeks we were getting to know each other because she sometimes caught me staring. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t because she was different; it was because she was beautiful. The way she aligned herself with her group of girlfriends was so natural and authentic, it made me smile to watch.
At the time, I was an 11th and 12th grade History teacher working in the badlands of Philadelphia. The way my school was structured meant that I received a set of new students who cycled through as a cohort and this group just happened to be all female, including Julianna. I had this group for an enrichment course in the middle of the day and I was directed to teach soft skills, such as leadership and organization. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to get a group of teenage girls to buy into it, but I was willing to try. I met Julianna in the winter when it was cold and everyone was still bundling up tightly. I remember when I first met her, she was wearing her uniform sweater loose enough to not show any curves of her body. She was unsure of herself. I knew she had almost fully transitioned in her appearance just by looking at her, but her personality was so different. She was quiet and timid. She didn’t flinch when I called her by her birth name, which was written on my class roster, but instead responded with the one of the sweetest voices I have ever heard when she said, “Here.” She didn’t even correct me.
At first, it definitely felt like a pajama party I wasn’t invited to. I could tell that she didn’t trust me. She wouldn’t look at me when I spoke and looked at the ground any time I asked her a question specifically. In class, she would daydream and often leave assignments unfinished, even when I pressed her. I didn’t want to push her to open up to me, but I also didn’t want her to fail the class. Every chance I got, I would slide myself into her conversation with her peers. (She loved to chat, just not about classwork. Big surprise for a teenager, right?) So, we’d talk about make-up or TV or Instagram -- whatever she was willing to chat about for the day. I’d politely remind her to finish assignments or I would take what she had done to make sure she received some credit. Eventually she warmed up to me, but we still never spoke about her life or her identity.
I soon realized that her reading level was incredibly low and so I would gravitate towards her during lessons to check over work or spell words out for her. I could tell she appreciated the extra effort on my part and I was starting to get more work from her. Soon, her grade started to rise and I felt good about the progress we were making. I could feel myself starting to bond with her.
As the spring approached, everyone else began wearing less clothing, but Julianna stuck to her sweater. Prom season began and all of the girls started excitedly discussing all of their details – dresses, dates, hair, and make-up. Julianna gabbed excitedly alongside the rest of the girls. I watched her light up when she talked about the prom. She described her dress, in detail, so many times that I probably could have gone to the store and picked it out without ever having seen it in person. I remember her asking me several times if she was “allowed to wear a dress” and honestly, I didn’t know. She spoke to our administration and I remember the principal giving her the “thumbs up” when she was sitting in my classroom. The look on her face was extraordinary.
When prom day came, I remember feeling nervous for her. What would the other kids say? Would anyone be mean to her? My maternal instincts were so strong when it came to her, I wondered what I was willing to do to protect her. I knew I wouldn’t be alone as there were a host of chaperons and other adults in the building, but I always seem to catch those quiet comments people make under their breath. I wasn’t sure if I could handle those. When I arrived at prom, I saw her there with her friends, and for as stunning and happy as she looked, I couldn’t help but notice: the dress she was wearing wasn’t the one she described.
I didn’t ask about it while we were at the prom. I watched as Julianna happily chatted with friends, fixed her make-up, took selfies, and did the things most high schoolers do at their prom. She danced bachata with a close, incredibly sweet friend in a group of her peers. She looked content and relaxed. I can’t say that there were absolutely no comments made about her or that no one stared; I just didn’t notice. I felt too overwhelmingly happy for her.
Weeks later, discussion came up of the prom in class and someone mentioned how good she looked, but it didn’t look like the dress she described.
“Oh, my aunt picked it up from the dry cleaner so I wouldn’t wear it.” She said casually, brushing it off like she had just told me what she ate for breakfast.
I was stunned.
“I found the dress I was wearing that day.”
I remember feeling my stomach drop. My own prom outfit had taken me months when I was in high school. If someone interfered with my ensemble, I probably would have had a nervous breakdown and curled up in the fetal position instead of even trying to fix the problem. Julianna found herself a new dress that day and didn’t even miss a beat. I couldn’t tell for two seconds at the prom that she had faced any obstacles at all that day. She was relaxed and radiant.
Julianna opened my eyes to the day-to-day issues transgender teens face. There are astonishing facts and figures showing how tough it really is to be a transgender teen, but what broke my heart were those quiet stories Julianna told me about her everyday life. Internet trolling, noiseless gossip, asking for permission to wear what she’s comfortable in, and prom dresses picked up by possibly well-intentioned adults.
Our teens, transgender and otherwise, deserve adults who will give them the safe spaces they deserve to figure out who they are. I know my enrichment course was an anomaly and many transgender teens don’t have a space where they can feel like themselves. High school is hard enough without feeling like you never have a place to fit in. As educators, we are responsible for creating safe spaces for them to flourish in any way we can, even if our power lies only in the confines of our own classrooms.
The Juliannas of the world deserve more enrichment courses where they can feel more pajama-party-with-friends and less people-stealing-their-prom-dresses-at-the-dry-cleaner. They deserve our time, our attention, and our commitment to creating a world where they can be themselves, too.
For all of the media hoopla that has surrounded Caitlyn Jenner and her personal story, I can honestly say that I am glad this issue has received so much national attention. It helps us to talk about the ways we can make our schools safer for students like Julianna even though sometimes it feels so much easier to just pretend there is nothing we can do.
I encourage any educators struggling with the topic to immediately educate themselves as much as possible. We all know that the solution to any problem is always more education. Teaching Tolerance has a wealth of resources, including free kits for educators.
To all of the Juliannas of the world – you are an inspiration to everyone around you. Keep showing us what it means to live life as your authentic self. Your light shines so much brighter than you know.
And to my Julianna, thank you for opening my eyes to a world I didn't even know existed. Because of you, I am a better educator and a better person.
If you have any resources to add to the conversation, please link them below. There is nothing better than a community coming together in support of what we all should be teaching - equality for everyone.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
Mondays are for motivation on the blog and today I want to talk about something that has motivated me for years. If you are an educator and you have yet to make one of these, I highly recommend that you do. You never know when you're going to need it. Enter: The Feel-Good File.
My file is a reminder of where I've been (above, left) and where I want to go (above, right).
My file is a reminder not to take teaching so seriously.
My file is a reminder that the students are not the only ones who appreciate what you do.
No matter what you store in your feel-good file, make it things that make you smile. Your file may be full of things that no one will understand, but that's okay. Go ahead and save that paper flower the student who barely talks folded for you. Save the silly doodle you found your student,drawing of you incredibly frustrated while they were supposed to be taking notes. You are the one who knows it was drawn out of love. No one knows your journey like you do, so saving small reminders of the little victories that make it all worthwhile is essential.
After seven years of being a teacher at the same school, I am about to embark on a new journey. I can't tell you how invaluable it's been to peruse my feel good file and remember why that school and the people I have met there will always hold a special place in my heart.
As I always tell my students at the beginning of the week - Happy Monday.
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