BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER ADAM GEBHARDT
My 8th grade class filed into the multipurpose room to sit at the lunch tables for art class where everyone would be working on perspective drawings, except for me. I had a separate table where, for the past few weeks, I had been carefully working on an acrylic painting of two blue jays. Mrs. Nalepa had recognized my interest and talent in art and offered me the opportunity to take a different creative approach to her class with self-guided projects while the rest of my classmates completed the prescribed assignments. After hours of painstaking work, I carefully shuttled the painting home where my parents proudly displayed it for years.
Taking a break from the oil painting in my small studio space with a window overlooking the Tiber river in Rome, I turned around to make a sincere proposal to my painting professor. She had recently laid out the curriculum requiring a finished painting to be turned in each week of the semester. Knowing that my style of painting, which tended to be realistic, would not allow for such a pace, I respectfully asked if I could complete a painting every three weeks with in-progress critiques completed weekly. At the end of the semester, I disappointedly rolled up a dozen unfinished canvases which remain incomplete to this day.
Class after class pours in and out of the art room with barely enough time to transition activities and plan for the next lesson or project. The pace of the curriculum, need for measurable grades, and pressure of presenting a high quality end of the year art show drives the classes onward toward another summer break, yet it is only September. Now that the roles are reversed, I, the teacher, am in the driver’s seat, but I have to stop and wonder if I should be. Who, or what, should drive learning in my classroom? Will I follow in the footsteps of Mrs. Nalepa or my college professor?
This dilemma confronts every teacher as we, the gatekeepers of our students’ education, make daily choices that either permit creative freedom and inspire intrinsic curiosity or conform students to a standard benchmark with rigid learning goals. More than ever, culture and society demand the former from students in the real world while standardized testing, teacher evaluations, and school assessments foster the latter in the educational environment.
Certainly, there is validity in regulated testing and achievement goals, but these should not erase the flexibility of teachers to merge student creativity and interests with quantitatively measured learning progress. Creativity, inspiration, engagement, excitement, interest, passion, and fascination have no numerical score, but they are what fuels intrinsic, life-long learning.
As a student, I experienced the joy of being given the freedom to explore my creative interests as well as the frustration from being denied the same liberty. As a teacher, cognizant of the effect that these experiences had on my education, I have the power to similarly affect my students with my decisions. I hope that I will have the courage to let go of control, refuse to let learning be conformed to predetermined standards, and let my creative, unique students take the wheel.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DIANA COLE
If you have ever been on a flight, you have heard the same safety drill: Put your own oxygen mask on first, then help others around you. Unless you are taken care of, you cannot effectively help others. In a time where teacher turnover rates are increasing and educators are feeling exponentially stressed, teacher self-care continues to grow in importance.
According to a 2017 study by the American Federation of Teachers, 61% of educators find work "always" or "often" stressful, twice the rate of other workers, while 58% of US teachers reported poor mental health. Outside stressors from administrators, students, parents, and our own personal lives take their toll. However, as educators, we also put a ton of internal pressure on ourselves to perform well and help all our students. Teaching is a mentally and emotionally demanding profession where the weight of our students’ problems are often brought home and are on our minds long into the night. So, what can we do about it? How can we save our sanity while still helping others?
We must start to make our own mental and physical health a priority. Who else finds it easier to just go to work sick instead of calling off, hoping there is a substitute available, writing lesson plans, and praying the work gets completed? However, who does that really help? Nobody. We need to change the culture, guilt, and negative perceptions about taking a sick day to recover.
The first step is to be mindful and accepting that stress is going to happen. We can only control what we can control. How we respond and take care of ourselves should be the focus. We can be agents of change to shift school and personal culture toward wellness and self-care.
Individually, we can incorporate short mindfulness activities in our classrooms with students or during our lunch periods. Mindfulschools.org and the Calm App both have great personal and classroom resources. Even YouTube has a plethora of mindfulness activities. Take time for a short walk outside, a breathing exercise, or five minutes of stretching. It might not seem that we have time for this, but taking a few minutes for ourselves can reset our mind and positively influence the tone for the rest of the day.
As teacher-leaders, as we focus more on our own self-care, we can model this for new teachers as well. A recent poll by the National Education Union shows that more than a quarter of teachers with less than five years’ experience plan to leave the profession by 2024 (The Guardian, 2019). Self-care should be part of university education preparatory programs and school districts should include it in new teacher induction programs to increase teacher retention and reduce burn out.
Recently at Edcamp Central PA, I attended a session on Teacher Self-Care. One participant shared that at her school, a new teacher created an anonymous teacher tip line. Through a Google form, teachers could anonymously report another staff member if they knew they were struggling personally or professionally. Then, this teacher wrote a note of encouragement with a treat and surprised that teacher to brighten their day. To this day, the majority of the staff do not know who is doing this, but it has had a huge impact on the culture of the building. You could even create a TLC or Sunshine group so teachers can tackle this together!
We also need to learn to better balance work and our personal lives. Remove work email from your phone and limit the nights you grade or lesson plan. After having my daughter, I have tried to be more strategic about what I assign my students and how I grade, while still keeping things challenging for my students and providing timely and constructive feedback. Can that quick formative assessment be swapped and peer graded together as a class? Could some assignments incorporate student self-assessment instead? By setting at-home work boundaries for myself, I find I am more focused and productive during my planning and lunch periods.
School districts can support self-care by offering mindfulness or team building activities during in-service and staff meetings. Stress-free times during in-service to decompress could include learning mindfulness techniques, wellness fairs with local health professionals, and team building activities such as escape rooms, board games, or even a friendly ping-pong tournament. Something fun to shift the mood! A quick meditation or breathing activity at the beginning of a faculty meeting can make it more productive.
For some additional ideas regarding teacher self-care and mindfulness, check out the following resources:
Remember: You can’t pour from an empty cup. Fill yours first, then give to others. Also, it’s ok to ask for help with tasks. Less guilt, and more self-care. You’ll find that not only are you happier, but others will be, too.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee