Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Make It New: Staying Motivated Through It All

While cruising Facebook this afternoon, I saw a query on the Edutopia stream, posed by Michelle, a preservice teacher: 

The education field is not always what is envisioned when we are in college. As educators, how to do you stay motivated through the politics, paperwork, behavior problems, lack of parental involvement, and more?

For sure, finding the motivation to carry on at this time of year is difficult. I often wander if my utopian memories of college are more fact or fiction. 

As idealistic, new teachers, most of us envision ourselves saving the world. Perhaps we want to right the wrongs we observed among some of our own teachers. More likely, we desire to make a difference in the lives of students the way a special teacher did in our own. 

My personal role models are still my high school debate coach Nydia May Jenkins, whose "oh yes you can do it" mantra still guides my philosophy of student learning, and Dr, Bob Derryberry, who actually gave me money to talk! Read: compete in forensics. 

Both teachers took the time to know me as both a person and a student. 

Those who have responded to Michelle's question have offered some semblance of both Miss J's and Dr. D's teaching model: Focus on the students. Focus on the reason you entered the profession to begin with.
 I, too, offered a response to Michelle: 

Make it new: Find something new to celebrate each day. Find something new to learn. Remember the so-called "new" in education is often recycled from another era, and it too shall pass. For example, today a student presented a speech on narcolepsy. Of the 200,000 narcoleptics in the world, one is my student. How novel and interesting is that! That's definitely a new one for me in my 32nd year of teaching.

Indeed, the Modernist philosophy "Make It New" saves me from the rut too many teachers find themselves entrenched in. For better, teaching long term requires a constant reinventing of oneself. I seek to do this in a number of ways:

1. Read professional literature. I'm currently reading Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture by Diana Senechel  Regardless of whether or not I walk away from the book agreeing or disagreeing with the author, the book, as with all the professional reading I do, will help me clarify my own positions and reassess my teaching methods. 

2. Develop a "That which does not destroy me only makes me stronger" philosophy: I've had some rough years in my long career. I should probably write more about these struggles, but I don't want to relive the bad times for fear the negative thoughts, although cathartic, will make me too emotional in the present. 

That said, I have an ability to persevere and survive. Rather than seeking a way out, I look for a way through difficult times. For example, I had a principal from 1992-2004 whom I consider the embodiment of all that is wrong in education. During his tenure, I earned National Board Teaching Certification, and I did it without one word of praise or encouragement from him. I refused to allow this man to define me as either a person or a teacher. I drew strength from previous administrators, from my colleagues, from my family and friends, and from my own efforts to learn and improve. 

3. Know that you are not alone, so Pay It Forward: Each year ushers in a new cadre of teachers who need a professional community. These teachers value the collegiality of their more seasoned colleagues. Help them find meaningful professional development opportunities, from brief conversations about best practices to conferences to online collaborations. All of these have helped me "Make It New" immensely in recent years. These opportunities keep my teaching practice fresh, something I thought about today as I shared with students the memory of a student who hid my grade book from me back in the pre-computer days of my career, back in the days of hand-written grade cards, back in the day of manually tallying points on an abacus (JK) at grade card time. 

Often the new teacher is an experienced colleague moving from middle school to high school. A former colleague reminded me of this Sunday when we ran into each other out in town. My colleague introduced me to her sister as someone who "saved me my first year at Highland by giving me tons of materials." Honestly, I don't remember being so instrumental in my former colleague's survival that year, but I value her acknowledgment. 

4. Look to yourself for motivation rather than to external forces: Daniel Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us offers essential truths about motivation: It comes from within. More often than not, teachers see the incremental results of our efforts. Sometimes we must wait years to learn the true impact of our role in students' lives, if we learn it at all. We can't look to external rewards to sustain us in this profession. Ours is a profession far more important and meaningful. 

Yet there are times when a student writes a note, sends a letter, or gives the teacher an apple. Mine was a tasty carmel one yesterday from a student who endured the grueling Communication 1101 dual enrollment course I teach as well as senior English with me last trimester. Savor those moments, and remember that the inevitable dry spells will taste even better when you get that apple. 

Clearly, there is much to say on this issue of remaining motivated and negotiating the teaching profession. I realize wiser voices than mine have offered insights. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and discovering how we each Make It New in the coming new year. 

Me w/ former colleague Marv McCall who welcomed me to Highland years ago.
We recently had a moment to visit at the Festival of Trees teacher appreciation reception.