Teaching and working with students can be rewarding—and exhausting. So we asked the Free Spirit Advisory Council for their best piece of advice about what keeps them going as educators. Here are their responses:
“Reminding myself that things don’t have to be perfect—I just need to try my best.”
—Donna, SLP teletherapist
“As I think about what keeps me going as an educator, I think about how during the past year, I worked on finding ways to address joy and empathy in my life. I decided to take a deep dive into work-life balance and ways to support it that were meaningful and real to me—and also into how I can bring my true self to work. I started to work on a daily practice of meditation and found that the Headspace app fit into my schedule for practice. Also, I took work email off my personal phone because I would automatically go to it in my off time, which brought a level of stress and worry to my life and took away from my focus on the day and setting boundaries between work and home.
“I made an agreement with myself that I would bring my true self to work each day. I acknowledged each day how I was truly feeling and worked on dealing with those emotions before stepping into the workspace. Deep breaths! Also, I acknowledged that everyone I meet is coming with feelings, etc., and a beginning of the day that I do not know about, so I do not assume why someone is feeling or responding in a way that I might not agree with. I stay present in the moment, pause, check in with self and others, and then move forward in care. I find that this way of approach keeps me centered, empathetic, and calm.
“The daily work and practice with the children and my colleagues keep me going as an educator. I try to bring joy and fun to each day, too, so we can all enjoy the day together!”
—Debbie, early childhood educator
“I work as a middle school counselor. We very rarely see the fruits of our labors before we send students off to high school. A lot of days, I have to stop and remind myself that they’ll get what I’m trying to teach them someday soon. I am also lucky to be part of a child study team that works well together. We laugh, we cry, and we check in on each other often.”
—Sarah, middle school counselor
“With the new year upon us and also a new decade, what keeps me going is the idea of giving students a ‘fresh start’ in terms of compassion every day. Don’t hold past behavior against them. Just as you had your classroom spotless, with sharp pencils and brand-new name tags on students’ desks in August, you can have that same spotless, fresh, and new beginning for your students every day they come through your school or classroom doors. So many factors affect a child—some we can see, like they forgot their coat in the car or they stayed out late watching an older sibling’s basketball game, but many we don’t see and might not ever see. So as school begins again for the second half of the year, treat your students with a fresh start. Not just a fresh start from December, but a new beginning each and every day until they walk out your door into summer.”
“As a special education teacher, I remind myself to walk in the shoes of the children I serve—most of the time it is not pretty. I keep relationship and compassion in the forefront. That helps with the day-to-day, not-taking-things-personally aspect. For myself, I value my time with my family and do my best to keep work and home separate (meaning not bringing work home with me as much as possible). I never feel guilty to go home and put my feet up. I always remind myself why I got into the profession. I know that when I can’t smile at that, it will be time to leave because I won’t be doing the students or myself any good at that point. Be kind to yourself in a way that works for you, and always show grace toward the students in front of you—you might be the only one who does.”
—Shannon, special education teacher
“After a wonderful 12-day winter break, we went back to our respective offices and classrooms today; the same offices and classrooms I’ve been teaching in for almost 18 years. I was tired, it was 6:45 a.m., and I already needed more coffee. I longed for my yoga pants and fuzzy socks . . . and then the students started filling the room, staring at their phones, of course. I posted three photos of my winter break on the screen for them to see. Nothing. I asked them what they did for break—nothing. This wasn’t good. Quickly, I closed my eyes, took three good breaths, cleared my mind, and wrote something on the board. Notebooks open, pens to paper, and they were off!
“Boredom. They were bored. They didn’t think they were ready to come back to learn, but they were. And I realized in an instant, so was I. When I got excited and challenged them with something, they were quick to respond.
“I love that. I love watching kids get excited about learning something—that’s the best part of the job.
“While we may feel tired and need an entire Starbucks delivered to our offices or classrooms, it’s simply our brains readjusting from one period of time and activity (or inactivity in this case) to another. Watching kids get excited, understand a good challenge, and enjoy their learning is the ‘gold star’ moment for me. It’s what makes me want to get back to teaching day after day.”
—Tara, high school educator
“Being an elementary school psychologist, I feel passionate about engaging in self-care, because how can I ask my students and colleagues to utilize coping strategies if I haven’t been practicing them myself? Throughout the year, I run four to five times a week to help regulate my stress levels. I also make sure that there is one thing I do for myself each day, such as a warm cup of tea at night, acupuncture, or cuddling up with a good book.”
—Jenny, elementary school psychologist
“The best advice I ever got as a teacher (and now pass on to the teachers I work with) is to take things one week at a time. Focus on what you need to do that week, and if you have time, get one ‘extra’ thing or goal done. For example, once you have completed all your teaching tasks for the week, try to squeeze in time to work on one of your teaching or classroom goals. Maybe it’s a station you want to create for spelling or some new visuals on a behavior your class is struggling with. Whatever your goals are, try to get one done each week. By the end of the month, you could have FOUR items removed off your wish list. In two months, EIGHT items are done. Seeing a big to-do list can be intimidating, but when you break it down week by week, it can be empowering!”
—Christine, college instructor and mentor manager
“In order for me to continue doing well an entire school year, I consider eight dimensions of wellness: intellectual/creativity, mindfulness/inner self, occupational/career, physical, social/cultural, emotional/mental health, environmental, and financial. If I don’t spend time on each of those, I become out of balance. It looks like so much, but every one of those areas has an effect on the others. What helps me? My district provides a wellness program throughout the year that conducts trainings, classes, and incentive practices. I stay current with research in the dimensions, and that allows me to select activities (many times simple and quick, but sometimes detailed and time consuming) that support the various areas. Particular examples include health wellness checkups, learning and using stress management strategies, implementing nutrition standards, taking a break on weekends from work emails (this has been the hardest for me), using essential oils, exercise, allowing myself to pursue hobbies, and even something as simple as having conversations with others that make me realize I am not the only one experiencing something.”
—Gail, district quality compensation program coordinator
“My best advice is to make sure you have family and/or friends who support you. I have several friends in the education field who know what I deal with in and out of the classroom. They listen to me and help me make better decisions without judgment. At times, we just want someone to listen to us, and many times we realize that when it is said out loud, it may not be as bad as we first thought it was.”
—Dana, high school English teacher
“I know it sounds cliché, but honestly, it’s the kids that keep me going as an educator and administrator. The connection and relationships formed are so valuable and priceless. They keep me coming back to work each day no matter how tired or frustrated I may feel. Support from coworkers also keeps me going. When you have a strong team that supports one another, you feel like you can conquer anything.”
—Jeni, director of an early learning center
“As an educator, what keeps me going is having the time and space to interact and communicate with my colleagues about work and life. These moments could be as simple as a quick chat in the morning before the day begins, grabbing lunch together, or having team meetings.
“What I also find helpful is practicing self-soothing and self-care. Being a teacher is hard! It takes a lot out of us, so it’s very important that we nurture and care for ourselves first. This not only benefits us, but those we care for as well. Journaling, drinking water, taking deep breaths, getting massages, and napping usually work for me.”
—Jameelah, head teacher
“What keeps me going as an educator is my passion for helping young people. They are our future. I believe in supporting and providing assistance to young people. We, as professionals, have an obligation to help our young people become better individuals. I strive to be intentional and impactful. In addition to being supportive and providing guidance, I also try to understand my limits and my need to practice self-care. Self-care is easier said than done, but I try to make sure I read a book or take a vacation to rejuvenate, so that I can be the best professional I can be. I have learned that saying no is a complete sentence, and I try to allocate my time in the most meaningful way to ensure I am not experiencing burnout.”
—Bianca, residential services supervisor
“What keeps me going as a social worker who works in education is maintaining a balance of learning new things as well as giving myself permission to take some time to rest or reinvigorate myself. So I will take an education course, read a blog on social and emotional development, listen to a podcast or to the ideas of my colleagues, attend a seminar or study group, and continue to try new strategies that will benefit children.
“In addition, I will take some time to breathe, get lost in a book that has nothing to do with education or social work, go for a hike, watch a thrilling movie, or enjoy my other hobbies of sewing, knitting, and traveling to new places to maintain that balance. I know it is important to expand my knowledge and expertise as well as expand my capacity for joy and rejuvenation.”
—Kathy, school social worker
“Snack time! I live for my team who can read my face across a meeting, kick me under the table when I need to keep my thoughts to myself, and talk me down from heightened emotions. We love our gab times, because we all know where each other’s hearts are, but sometimes we need to vent a little and laugh a lot to get through the day! Throwing snacks into the mix is an instant happy party—from carrots to ice cream, depending on what the situation warrants, we congregate like a family. Afterward, do something positivity centered (e.g., send a thank-you note home to a student who has been working hard, pop into a fun science lesson, or high-five down the hallway), and you are sure to turn your whole week around!”
—Stephanie, middle school counselor
“There are three things that keep my joy alive in our work. Seeing students years later who remember me. I recently bumped into a student and her mother, both of whom said my name and my student said I MISS you and I LOVE you. Or hearing how they are doing when their families reach out via social media. Makes my day. I’m thankful I was able to make an impression on them as they made an impression on me.
“Another thing is seeing how families are changed and how we change ourselves for the better. A mom shared with me how she was feeling frustrated after a long day of work, and while doing dishes a glass slipped and smashed on the floor. She was angry, but a little voice (her daughter) said, ‘It’s okay, Mommy, accidents happen. I’ll help you clean it up.’ That mom shared how she is thankful for how we model in our classroom, and how it is changing lives.
“The final thing is personal growth and reflection as a teacher—knowing when to jump in and scaffold, when not to, and things like that. Here is a story: I waited and watched him. The metal hoop kept sliding every time he tried climbing the ladder. I didn’t run to his rescue. He kept picking it all back up and leaning the ladder again, saying, ‘Ms. Jill, I’m really going to dunk this time! Watch me, watch me.’ Then the hoop would slide because of his weight. This kept happening over and over again. He finally asked me for help. I wanted to help him, but at the same time, I wanted him to solve this one all on his own. I believed he could.
“I said, ‘I’m noticing every time you climb, the hoop slides and the ladder falls. Maybe it’s weight? It’s not stable.’ Then I said, ‘What else can you try? Without my help? How can you stop the hoop from sliding and the ladder from falling?’
“He looked at me and said, ‘You can hold it.’
“I said, ‘I know I can do that, and I thought about that, too, but pretend I’m not here. What would you do? Try more solutions. You got this.’
“He looked around. He spotted the fence. He dragged the hoop to the fence. He dragged the ladder and propped it against the hoop. He climbed it. The hoop didn’t slide, the ladder didn’t fall, and HE DUNKED. I smiled. I pretended not to see it. He yelled, ‘Ms. Jill, I did it! All by myself! Did you see?’
“I said, ‘No, but how do you feel?’
“He said, ‘I feel proud, Ms. Jill! Proud of myself!! I feel sooooo good!’
“I said, ‘Love, that’s what matters the most.’
“Change starts with us, and our imprinting on children that they can and will do anything they set their minds to. Sometimes with help and sometimes without. And that it doesn’t matter who’s watching.
“The last is my favorite part of being a teacher.”
The Free Spirit Advisory Council of Educators is a group of professionals who provide feedback that helps make Free Spirit books even more beneficial for kids, teens, and the adults who care about them. Interested in becoming a member? Recruitment is ongoing! We are especially looking for elementary and middle school teachers. For more information about the benefits and responsibilities of membership, download our Free Spirit Advisory Council flyer and our Free Spirit Advisory Council application.
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