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Building a positive school culture and creating routines to benefit communities of educators can support teachers and highlight their hard work as teachers discover their why.

Hey teachers–what is your ‘why?’

Building a positive school culture and creating routines to benefit communities of educators can support teachers and highlight their hard work

More than half of the teachers in the US are seriously considering leaving the profession earlier than planned. A number of factors have led to this, including Covid-19 learning interruptions, lack of resources and support for teachers, and more.

Right now, teachers are also experiencing burnout at an all-time high. This has shown to impact our students’ learning and future success. In fact, both teacher burnout and constant turnover have serious negative consequences for students. Teachers who are highly dissatisfied with their job and have intentions of leaving can impact their effectiveness and disrupt students’ academic progress.

While the burden to improve teacher conditions lies with school districts, communities, and legislators, both teachers and students benefit when teachers intentionally reflect on and connect with the current that moves them to be a teacher. Every teacher has a reason that drives them to teach–whether it is connecting with learners, sharing content you feel passionate about, believing that every learner deserves a high-quality education, or something else. Every teacher has a “why,” and school districts, departments, and teachers can intentionally build in opportunities for teachers to reflect on their why and connect with colleagues who may share that “why.”

Creating Reflective Routines

The original reason you chose this profession is typically the guiding principle that forms your “why.” It might have been the influence of a great teacher you once had, a passion for a particular subject, your love of children, or something else entirely.

It’s easy for everyone’s “why” to become obscured amid the daily grind; however, building in purposeful routines that allow teachers to reflect on and connect with their “why” can positively impact school culture, job satisfaction, and clarity of purpose. As this school year gets underway, administrators, department heads, and teachers can keep the “why” in front of them by intentionally including collaborative conversations and reflective activities into staff meetings, common online landing spots, and staff learning environments.

Intentionally building in these why-focused reflective routines and conversations into existing structures make them far more likely to become the language of the school year. Not only is it important to find the current that really moves us, but it’s also important to be able to connect with those who are moved by a similar current.

One Good Thing

As an educator, there are many times throughout your career when you’ve probably seen immediately the impact you’re making on your students. Whether it’s the light coming on in an “aha” moment of sudden understanding, performing a task or skill that once felt impossible, or making the just-right connection with a student who needs it most, taking time to recognize and celebrate the impact you are making each day is important. On the other hand, so much of teaching is also about delayed gratification. So often the fruits of our labor are seen by next year’s teacher or even further down the line. I’ll never forget the time I was teaching high school, and I was visited by one of my former students who had graduated two years prior. While this student and I didn’t have a contentious relationship, we certainly didn’t have a strong connection. I was completely surprised when he knocked on my classroom door two years later in full military uniform to give me a hug and say thank you for pushing him so hard. When he was my student, I can remember feeling like I wasn’t really reaching him. As it turns out, I was.

Celebrate your achievements, however humble and modest they may seem. The effects of a teacher’s hard work on the lives of students is anything but humble and modest. Those achievements might be something associated with a struggling reader developing into a confident reader, implementing accessibility tools that make learning more inclusive and engaging, or sharing your most effective practices with your colleagues.

At a time when teachers are facing so much scrutiny, criticism, and pressure, it’s critical for schools and administrators to create a community that celebrates teachers and their professionalism, resilience, and ability to adapt. In the past two years, the entire world learned just how resilient teachers are. Teachers are continually adapting, overcoming obstacles (some of which we’ve never seen before), and focusing on putting students first. Those daily achievements must not be overlooked.

One of my good friends who is still a teacher recently told me that at the end of the day when the hallways have cleared, teachers always congregate outside of her room to decompress and socialize. One day in the middle of conversation, she said, “Oh, before I forget, I have to tell you guys this one good thing!” She went on to share a meaningful interaction she’d had that day with one of her students. That led to another person saying, “Here’s my one good thing.” Over time, what began as one teacher organically sharing one good thing, quickly became a shared routine that has created a positive end to each day and honors the good work done by this group of teachers.

Shift Happens

My dad was also a teacher, and he used to jokingly say that the three best reasons to become a teacher are June, July, and August. I used to roll my eyes and give him a courtesy laugh. He was the teacher who believed in giving kids second chances and who understood that the kids who are sometimes the toughest to engage or connect with are the ones who needed him the most. Anyone who is teaching today knows that even as a joke, June, July, and August aren’t the reasons people become teachers. For most, it’s a love of learning, a desire to help students, an enthusiasm for specific content, or a desire to improve inequities of our education system.

Every teacher’s why is likely to shift over time. One of my favorite protocols to do with a group of teachers is called Passion Profiles from the National School Reform Faculty. If you’ve never gone through this exercise, I highly recommend it. Essentially, teachers are shown 8 different Passion Profiles and are asked to find the one they most closely connect to and why. Then, teachers with common Passion Profiles get together and articulate what it is like to have this passion and to be this sort of educator. Many groups I’ve led through this exercise also end up reflecting on the Passion Profile that may have fit them at one time as well as what Passion Profile best defines them now. As we grow and become more experienced, the current that moves us is likely to shift and change.

I don’t know if it’s ever been easy to be a teacher, but I do know that the past two-and-a-half years were not easy. As teachers all around me dug in and rose to the most difficult of occasions, I’ve been in awe of their adaptability and resilience. The suggestions in this article aren’t intended to overlook or gloss over the important issues of teacher pay and benefits, recognized professionalism, or the burden of the unrelenting teacher shortage. They are intended to help build a positive school culture, to identify routines that can benefit communities of educators, and keep focused on the good work going on every day in our schools. 

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