Last summer around this time, Jennifer Gonzalez’s article “Finding Your Marigold” made its way across my social media feeds, and reading it jarred me in some very unexpected ways. You see, I was a victim of teacher burnout. Well, perhaps not officially since I have not determined that I’m done with teaching forever. But after three years in two different districts, schools, and grade levels, I made the incredibly difficult decision to step away from the classroom for the time being.
However, at the end of year three, I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life and decided not to renew my teaching contract and not seek additional teaching employment for the following school year.
There are many, many factors that influenced this decision, and it wasn’t one that I made lightly. I still cannot say that I’ve left the profession forever, either. But after two very difficult years that challenged me personally and professionally in almost every way, I knew that I needed to take a step away and re-align myself.
At the end of that summer with the new school year approaching, I struggled with feelings of guilt about leaving my chosen profession. It was, after all, the first time in 22 years that I was not preparing to return to the classroom as either a student or a teacher. It was about that time that the “marigold article” came across my feed and I read it.
It absolutely shattered me.
Gonzalez’s piece was so relevant to me and my experiences that it hurt. I suddenly had a very apt analogy to explain the feelings of isolation and loneliness I had suffered for two years. Those walnut trees she discussed? I was virtually surrounded by them, and they slowly poisoned my spirit and stifled my passion. Don’t get me wrong — there were marigolds, too, but so many of them were obscured by the weeds of many varieties growing up around them, and they too were fighting their personal battles with the walnut trees. The groves of walnut trees that obscured these marigolds and my negative experiences with some of them also made me question my trust in everyone, leading me to burrow deeper into myself and find comfort in isolation in order to escape the negativity and constant noise.
As we embark on this new school year, you may be wondering why I am sharing this now. Well, my friends, I share it because every school year presents the opportunity for a fresh start.
Perhaps you are new to the profession, or you are beginning the year in a new school, or you will be teaching a course for the first time, or will be in the same position you’ve been in for 30+ years but with some new faces filling the seats in your classroom or among your coworkers. You may love where you are, or you may be in a position where you have to dig deep to find the positives in each day. Perhaps you are a marigold, or maybe you’re more of a walnut tree. Maybe you’re a newly-planted sprout, just starting to bud. Whatever the case may be, I urge you to read the marigold piece… print it out, reflect on it, hang it on the side of your filing cabinet… and internalize the metaphor.
New Year, New Opportunity: Living the Marigold Analogy
Find your marigold. It may be someone in your school building, or it may not be. Set up a time to check in with him or her regularly and put it on your schedule like you would a doctor’s appointment or important meeting to make sure you prioritize it. It’s easy to push things like this to the wayside, but having that time to connect with a positive force is an essential act of self-care that is crucial to your well-being. Maybe it’s a catch up phone call on the way home from work once a week. Perhaps you can have lunch together every Wednesday, or meet for coffee once a month. Whatever and however you make it happen, make this a priority. You need your marigold to help you thrive!
Finally, remember that there will always be walnut trees. Avoid negative interactions with them whenever you can, and if you can’t, try to keep their attitude in perspective. Perhaps they were once a marigold, but they became poisoned by the walnut trees around them. Everyone has a story, and people sometimes become hardened by life experiences that keep knocking them down. Try to spread happiness and kindness to them; you never know what the results may be.
If I had internalized this metaphor when I was still in the classroom, had been able to label the negative forces that ultimately drove me away from the profession, I might have made a different decision at the end of that fateful year. Or I might have had the courage to search for a better, more thriving garden in another school. Regardless, the way I perceive the positive and negative interactions I have with others has completely shifted because of this piece.
Teaching is a human profession — we deal with imperfect, flawed subjects all day long, and most of the forces at work that ultimately determine our “success” or “failure” are beyond our control. This year, I urge you to make it your goal to focus only on those things you can control. Remember this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."