Friday, March 8, 2013

Shift: Strategies for Refreshing Your Craft

Lately, I’ve heard several teachers expressing that they feel a bit ‘stuck’ where they are. I’ve been thinking about ways I’ve used to ‘unstick’ myself when I’ve felt this way. I’ve also learned a lot from other teachers and how they recommit to their craft.

Oftentimes what we need is a shift in mentality. This is difficult for anyone. As teachers we sometimes get a little comfortable with what we’ve done and what we’re doing. If you are comfortable, bored or burned out, then you know it’s time to shift. Teachers need to challenge themselves as much as they challenge their students and this is one of the reasons why teaching is so difficult. Challenge is tiring, but it also can feed us in ways that bring us a second (or third) wind.

In order to be the best at what we do, we have to stay current to new trends, new ideas and new ways of thinking about our subject areas. This constant change is often exhausting, but it is also quite rewarding. We don’t just want to clock in, get a check and clock out. Many times we’re the ones pushing for improvement; we’re challenging ourselves as much as we challenge our students.

But along this path, it’s normal to hit a wall and simply do things because they’ve always been done that way. It's human nature! It’s also normal to feel exhausted because you’ve put your heart and soul into creatively teaching for several years, tweaking lesson plans and trying new, innovative teaching strategies. You're simply tired.

So, what do you do when you hit that wall?

1.     Challenge yourself. OK I know, you’re exhausted and you’re not quite sure if you have any more in the tank. I recommend challenging yourself because sometimes you have to fake it until you make it. Remember when you were new to teaching? You were constantly challenged and pushed--and back then it was exciting! You need to challenge yourself differently now that you’re an established professional. Right now, you have your style nailed down, you know how to organize your classroom for maximized efficiency, you’re crystal clear about your philosophy…you need to challenge yourself in other areas. Here are a few ideas: 

a.       Attend a conference and become a leading teacher disseminating what you’ve learned from the conference. Often school systems really appreciate that sort of information sharing and it helps justify your school spending money to send you to such events. Besides that you create some wonderful relationships with other people around your state or around the country. You connect with other teachers and hear about what they are doing in their classrooms and can borrow/lend ideas, share successes and failures, and think creatively. It’s amazing what happens when a room full of teachers get together! The conversations are absolutely fantastic, creative and dynamic.

b.      Read a challenging book. A good teacher friend of mine rocked my world when she had us read a book on grading in our Reflective Teaching group.  A Repair Kit for Grading by Ken O'Connor challenged me to rethink what I was doing with my grading practices and ultimately, I completely revamped my grading. Our group held book meetings and conducted ourselves in a book club format and that conversation with other teachers was at times quite uncomfortable, but there was not a teacher involved in those discussions who didn’t come out with a completely different view of what they were doing and why. They didn’t all agree with the author, but they did all tweak and change what they were doing and they all became better able to articulate rationales for what they were doing in their classes. It is another example of teachers coming together and having dynamic conversations about teaching. We would leave those meetings with something to think about and knowing that there were other folks supporting our push to be better instructors.

2.     Reassess. Why did you go into teaching? Why are you doing what you’re doing? Is it working? Sometimes we forget why we fell in love with teaching and reflection can help you reconnect with your profession. Reflection also can give us insights into ourselves and sometimes they even allow us a glimpse into solutions. In graduate school there was constant emphasis on reflection. The power of reflection cannot be understated.  It may well be that you don’t reap these benefits until some time has passed, but the benefits will come. Keep a reflective journal-especially when you feel confused, irritated, or have a huge success. Also, carve out some time to go back to those reflective pieces and review them with new eyes. It's amazing what we often overlook when we're going through intense emotion. What we couldn't see before gains clarity and leads to insight with some distance.

3.      Patience. Know that as you work toward change or inspiration it will take time. You shouldn’t expect change quickly. This makes sense, right? We tell our kids to be patient and practice their new skills and so you will have to be patient and practice yours. There very well may be times when you feel you’ve taken a few steps backward, but keep at it! Here are a few ideas for staying motivated:

a.       Have a partnership with another teacher. Find someone who has a similar teaching philosophy and teaching style or who is exceptionally open to helping and encouraging your philosophy and teaching style. This encouraging partnership can help keep you motivated. Better yet, have a group of teachers who need support and who are willing to give it.

b.      Set goals. Writing down goals will help you stay focused and make your goals more real. In addition creating a step-by-step approach very well may give you the encouragement you need. Tack it someplace obvious where you can see it on an ongoing basis and don’t forget to reward yourself along the way. What those rewards are is up to you. What will help you increase focus and create change?

4.     Lastly, avoid burnout. Though I’m asking you to push yourself, I want to emphasize that you should push yourself differently. This doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It means avoiding burnout. You must create boundaries in order to do this. Rather than taking papers home and grading all weekend, take some time to go to the park with your kids, go out on a date with a good friend, have dinner with your spouse or otherwise create a relaxing moment. I have a close friend who is excellent at doing this: even when she’s stressed and anxious, she still goes salsa dancing, takes a yoga class, hikes or does something else she deeply enjoys. Doing something you enjoy allows you to recharge yourself so that you can push through another week. You are not a machine that can run for days on end, you’re a human and your fuel needs to be food and fun.

Ultimately, by pushing ourselves, we’re practicing what we teach. We want students to take academic risks, so we need to learn to take professional ones. We want students to practice new skill sets and not simply to become complacent in their learning, and we have to be willing to do the same.

I am acutely aware that this is no easy task and it will often make teachers feel uncomfortable, but the payoff in the end means you become more effective and better and what you do. That’s something everyone can sign up for!


  1. For me, it was setting a long term, achievable goal. Once I decided to achieve National Board Certification, that process alone dictated change (that is, if I wanted to achieve). I had to make connections with parents and community, let alone reconnect with my own practice and my students. It's paid off in the long run- and since many states allocate funds for NBC teachers, well, it's paid off in more ways than one. :)

    1. Absolutely, Joan! I think continual change can be so inspiring. It can be exhausting, but it's also a way for you to feel like you're doing your best and really are an expert in cutting edge education.

      I know for me last year, it was attending a week long institute. After meeting teachers from around the country (and one from Taiwan!) I realized that this whole creative things that teachers have is nearly universal. It was wonderful seeing young and veteran interact and share new ideas and wisdom. This, more than anything, inspired me. I met teachers who had such enthusiasm about their subject that it was...well, infectious. That's the kind of teacher I want to be and I think it's the kind of teacher I am usually.