I, Joy Kirr, am a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. My 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of my learning experiences... Want to have me speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is my PORTFOLIO.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

How are the optimists doing?

Note: This post starts off on a dour note, but it's my intention to write this to help educators through this year. If you keep reading until the end, you may stand a bit taller in the coming weeks. This post is for US.

I heard from a teacher friend as our week ended that I am "a barometer of the school" of sorts. I took it to mean, "If Joy isn't good, what does that mean for me?" I heard whispers of this in January, as well, from another colleague. It took me about a month to recover from January's events. That's when I took the time to write about how I turned the corner - again. We had another blow to our staff this past month, as we thought we were going to continue with one thing that's been working all year, and it was suddenly pulled out from under our feet. I wonder if those that make the decisions realize that if the staff does not do well, the students feel the effects, if not directly. I wonder if they know that with each new decision, teachers need to switch up so much of what they'd planned on doing. Again. And it's no simple matter. And we worry about ALL of our students. And it changes how we teach, not for the better this year. (And PLEASE stop saying, "Our teachers are so flexible.")

So... educators around me are struggling once again, with the newest demand put upon us before this pandemic school year closes. How do I help colleagues? Some have said that it's not my job, and that's true. When I have a colleague who reaches out and says, "Joy, how are YOU holding up?" I feel I need to tell them what I'm doing to keep one arm out of the swamp that is this school year. And now that I'm documenting it one time, I can refer others to what (sometimes) works for me. At the start of this school year, I read Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and since then, I've had ONE priority: My health (mental and physical). Everything I do this year revolves around this. Taking the time to write, organize, and share this post helps me with my mental health, for sure. I truly hopes it helps readers, as well.

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I listen. A few tears may collect for both of us. They need to know it's okay to share and cry.

I'm honest. I share that this year is the toughest one I've ever had, too. That I'm also worried about our kids that are remote (and don't respond to invites to participate, emails, or even me staring into the camera calling their name). That I, too, am not able to do all I want with the in-person students who are constantly seeking our attention. That I, too, cannot control students on their games, when they get closer than the three feet the desks are at, or when they complain about the game I chose. I agree that it feels as if hardly any of my plans go well, and the lessons are not as impactful as in the past. I let them know that I, too, see that some come to school to learn, but many students this year come to school just to be around other kids. And I, too, sometimes just let them ... be. That sometimes our mask breaks are a little over the four-minute passing period time. That when I do just let them BE, some classes can't handle it - they get loud and rowdy and obnoxious and forget we're in a pandemic, and I have to backtrack. That some days I feel that nothing went well, and I failed my students.

I've also shared that I'm stricter in some instances - and I say "no" without explanation sometimes. Sometimes I let students know I'm doing something (like playing this particular song) for ME. Sometimes I sit in the hallway (in the middle of classtime) with an upset student who ends up crying and then regrouping. Sometimes I leave the class reading independently - just so I can run to the restroom. Yup. I'm not doing what I've done in the past. And I let my colleagues know that I believe it's okay. No one knows how to do this job better than us this year. We're doing the best we can with what we have. We need to take care of ourselves before we can care for the myriad students that flow in and out of our door each day.

It took me most of this school year, but I am now resigned to the fact that it's okay for me to not be the teacher I've been working so hard to become. This is due to at least these three reasons: 

  1. I'm not the same person I was pre-COVID. I realized last April that I needed to stop worrying about "my kids," because they really are NOT my kids. Some have one parent, some have two, and some even have four. It's the same now. The parent is the first in line to help our students. I only have my students for 80 minutes a day. It's not all on ME. I am NOT the parent. I canNOT do everything.
  2. Teachers have been put into circumstances they never imagined would happen. No one could prepare us for this. Changes come quickly, and we're expected to adapt just as quickly. And we step up and try our best. But... we feel it in our hearts, our minds, and our bodies. We feel it's not enough. The fact is, we're giving it ALL we've got. So it has to be enough. 
  3. We're not in control of what's been put on us. When it feels as if nothing we do or say matters, we get knocked down. Again. And again. It's like an abusive relationship. And we stay in it, because we still love the children.
So it's okay to be where we are. Dejected. Demoralized. Defeated. Knowing this, I know the small wins are all I'm going to get this school year. Once I realized this fact that it's okay to not be a great teacher, I have noticed small wins each day. Just this Friday, I had at least one (pretty big in my eyes) win in each class! I've looked harder for them, stopped to pause during them, and recognized them for what they are. I then take it a step further and thank that student or share what I noticed with the class. It's a pause in my day that helps me feel my teacher heart beating a bit once again.

I'm also learning - a lot. Learning is one of my passions, whether it be on Duolingo, practicing the banjo, or simply reading nonfiction. This means I'm doing something that makes me feel more fulfilled. The most recent bit of learning I've been doing is from the book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman. At heart, I'm an optimist. I know this. Yet when I took the test in the book, the results came out as "moderately pessimistic." !! I keep reading, and I see that maybe I picked up this book for a reason. Maybe it's because right now is a "time of crisis." My score on the "hope" portion was solid, however, and the author says that's very important - that means I can learn optimism more readily. Reading further, according to the next step, I may be "moderately depressed." Depression can come and go, so he said if I felt this was wrong, to take it again in two weeks. (Um... maybe not. Two weeks from when I took it would be tomorrow, and tomorrow is our first Monday not being fully remote. It's gonna be one heck of a week.) The major cause of depression --> "the belief that your actions will be futile." This is what educators are believing / feeling.

This learning moves me forward. 

I tried out their theories of thinking... Optimistic educators would think, "This is temporary. Not permanent." (Permanence) "This is only for my job (career/passion!), not my home life." (Pervasiveness) And, "This isn't due to anything I did. It's due to others." (Personalization)  Here are my notes for the book - so far.

When I keep reading, I realize that staying pessimistic can (and probably will) make me physically sick. My immunity would be lower. When I keep thinking about my actions being futile, I go back to thinking of all I'm grateful for. One thing I'm grateful for is being able to see the "wins" in my days in the classroom with the children. As I said, I've come to accept I won't be the teacher I've been striving to be the last 26 years - so I can notice, recognize, and take the moment to pause and appreciate the small wins in each class. This has helped me KNOW that not EVERYTHING I do is futile. No. We matter. We are important to our students. And they, my friend, are why we're in this profession. Even if we think we suck as teachers (and really, I do think that right now), we still have value, and we are still making a difference in one, two, who knows how many students' minds or hearts? In a typical year, we never know who we've impacted, so in that way, this year is no different. We keep loving the students and doing the best with the situation we are in, while knowing there's no crystal ball where we can see how they're going to do in the future. 

I've been rambling a bit. Let me summarize while adding one last thing I'm trying this year:
  1. It's okay to feel how we do. It's normal during this time. You are not alone. Come talk to me; I'll listen and empathize with you. I've learned how to not bring your problems home with me (secondary traumatic stress).
  2. Do something you love - something that fulfills you - outside of school. Find a passion or hobby or two that you used to do. Something that makes you happy. (Keep your immunity up.)
  3. Know that you matter. Every year. Your love for the children is shining through, no matter how strict you are this year, no matter that you're tethered to the laptop and can't see or hear what's going on in front of you... You matter.
  4. Set one intention for yourself for the next day, week, or month (if it's working well). Multitasking is too difficult right now. What's ONE thing you can do to help yourself?
And this leads me to what I do every week - #4. I set one intention for myself. It's one thing I keep reminding myself of every time I get frustrated, stop to breathe, want to scream or cry... I didn't write them down, but I do remember thinking and using them, because they worked. Here are some that I've tried:

  • Drink water.
  • Breathe.
  • I am healthy. Those I love are healthy.
  • I have a job with insurance.
  • I am enough.
  • I am fair, and I am kind.
  • Use a quiet voice. (That way my students will listen more.)
  • Use wait time.
  • Stand up straight. (I slouch WAY too much.)
  • Don't complain.
  • Right here. Right now. Is all that matters.
  • What's good about this right now?
  • Connect with one student.
  • Soak up this moment. Notice all that is around me.
  • No social media.
  • Stop ruminating. Act. Do something for yourself.
  • What am I learning in this moment right now?
  • This is temporary. (This is mine for this coming week.)
My birthday was in January (just before my last breakdown), and my sister had heard me say, "I try one new thought a week." She bought these "mindful marks," which are temporary tattoos. I put a new one on my wrist every week. No matter the design, it reminds me of my intention. This coming week, when I look at my wrist, I will think, "This is temporary. This will end some day. See it for what it is."
No one needs to go buy these. I was able to focus on one intention a week before I received them. A ring can work. A bracelet. A Sharpie mark on the skin. A sticky note. A photo in your classroom. Your keys. You get the idea. No student has asked me about the tattoo, but teachers have. When a teacher asks, I can tell them about my intention for the week, and maybe it will help us both.

Now that you've stuck with me until this point, what's ONE thing - just ONE thing you will take away from this post? ONE thing you can bring into your week (or month, if it's working) that will help you continue? We really can only do ONE thing at a time. After I hit "publish" on this post, I'm not going to ruminate on our current situation - because I'm focusing on the fact that it's temporary. I'm going to do what's good for me right NOW, whether that be a shower, a walk, gardening, snuggling, reading, singing at the top of my lungs... And I will do that ONE thing with gusto. I will soak up every moment of it. When I get back into the classroom tomorrow, I'll do ONE thing at a time. And I'll do that one thing as best as I can under the hand we've been dealt.

3 comments:

  1. Joy, this is such a helpful and hopeful post in this temporary impossibility in which we find ourselves. Five years ago I struggled with something, and I also chose to focus on “I can do this one day at a time.” I can do this “one” thing at a time, and do it well and at my best this moment— I can chose the next best “one” thing for my students, and I will find one good thing with each, even if that one thing is, “that moment has passed— next.” Hope is looking forward, moving forward, and this blog post shows a way. Thank you, and thanks to all the teachers struggling along with their students. Take good care, one step at a time. ~Sheri

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  2. Amen...to all of it. I hate a lot of the “teaching “ I’m forced to do this year. But, I’m trying to let go of the things I can’t control, and focus on the things I can. There is still laughter in my classroom every day. I’m hanging on tight to that.

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  3. Joy, thank you for this post. I am taking this mantra today: "Right here. Right now. Is all that matters." Today! And also, I'm going to try to turn off my social media and all devices at 8 pm. Thank you!

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