In 1998, Sharon Draper, a young adult author, and I had the opportunity to present together. Here I was in my fourth year of teaching, and she was the author of the award-winning book Tears of a Tiger. I was so nervous. How was I going to present after this phenomenal educator turned writer? I introduced myself to the group like this: “I am Noelle Morris, and I am just a teacher.” Mrs. Draper quickly and with sincere intent corrected my introduction and exclaimed, “Do not ever say ‘just’ as if you are less than anyone else here today. You need to trust that you have a story and experience that benefit your students daily and that the audience sitting here today appreciates. Your authenticity and the depth of your experiences and knowledge remind participants that teachers matter.” From that moment on, an additional swagger was added into my step, as was a deep desire for inspiring other teachers to find, keep, and replicate the joy of teaching. Every step since that moment has been to keep finding the rainbows within my educational journey.
Who does not smile when they spot a rainbow? Who hasn’t asked themselves, “How far does that rainbow reach?” Admit it, you are still mesmerized when you discover a double rainbow. And though you know you really can’t taste one, you have selected a specific candy for a pick-me-up punch as well as created a lesson around the vibrant fruitful pieces. A teacher’s self-care is exactly the same phenomenon as the RAINBOW because it too is created by reflection, refraction, and dispersion.
I have never been someone who waits to be invited to a party. I walk into a room and immediately scan, find some noise, make my way to the center, and then move within. Now, that doesn’t mean that my first-year teaching was anything but a personal disaster with moments of hopeful glory, walks to my teacher mailbox praying for a flyer with suggested professional reading, and random encouragements from team members still trying to figure out if this profession was for me. Today, it’s too easy to find resources, mentors, chats, and professional learning sessions. The challenge is in deciding what aligns with your needs, goals, and teacher personality. We no longer have to wait for answers to come to us. We do not need to hesitate. Instead, we can rise up to our own challenges and inspirations and feed our passion for the craft. Ask yourself today, “What . . ., Why . . ., How . . .” and go search.
Align and Awaken Friendships
Every teacher needs a teacher best friend. You need your person, spirit animal, “twinsie,” intellectual challenger, and ultimately the one with no fear to call you out when you are having an off moment. My teacher best friend was Debbie Gromley (now Carney). At first encounter, she was proudly wearing her University of Florida T-shirt, and I was frustrated that I didn’t know you could come to preplanning in anything but professional attire because every Floridian and college football fan knows that this Florida State University alum would have been head to toe in garnet and gold. Take a minute to assess your friendships. No, don’t assess them in a way that makes you only keep them in a certain place. Create a T-chart to both understand how much you need them and what they mean to you. On the left, write out Alignments (ways that they retract and disperse your best self), and on the right, write out Awaken (ways they reflect, stretch your span, and guide to gold).
Make sure to give your teacher BFF(s) a hug and share what they mean to you. Make a “take care and chat” plan for this week. Give each other permission to accept the statements of appreciation. Think of upcoming gatherings where you can meet a new friend and create a gaggle or add to one of the sides of your T-chart. Consider how you can align and awaken the best qualities of your new friend.
It’s so important to keep building your network. Trust me, year one becomes year 25 rather quickly. For ourselves and for our profession, we need each other, friends, and a work family.
I-Centered Micro-Goals Help Achieve Long-Term Goals
To maintain a trajectory to our optimum growth and learning targets, we need to remember the I and set some personal goals for balance. When was the last time you created a goal that was not aligned to a strategic metric or learning target, or your content expertise? Give a thumbs up if you have put off going to the doctor even when that horrible sinus headache and pain in your ear are being persistent. We are caregivers; thus, that often means we tend to put off our own needs. I recently began following Arianna Huffington because I appreciate her voice on work-life balance and how to make sure to take care of yourself without any guilt. The advice shared in her Thrive Global Community book and podcast has proven to be quite helpful and easy to put into practice.
Teacher guilt is a thing. We wake up in the middle of the night because we forgot to put our read-aloud in our bag. We stay one more hour to grade, rearrange furniture, or complete all the needed phone calls. We always wish we would have clarified the information better. Therefore, sleep is broken, balanced meals are challenging, and caffeine is the energy of choice. If you really want to have an honest heart-to-heart with yourself, then you may want to get your teacher BFF to share ways that she or he notices you may not be taking care of yourself. By no means is this going to be easy. Let me model for you.
“Noelle, are you all right?” asked one of my colleagues. “Yes,” I quickly stated, though I knew my limp had gotten a little extreme and I was feeling the pain. To throw off my colleague, I still tried to give a look that indicated both “I’m not sure I like you calling me out like that” and “you must not have ever noticed that this is how I walk.” Welcome to the world of me. Taking the time to go to the doctor is a personal challenge. In fact, I will shamelessly admit I have to work on taking time for myself and not making every easy, quick choice every day because I’m so focused on long-term success. I am blessed with the very deep caregiver issue mashed with a gifted procrastinator dynamic; therefore, I needed to find a personal goal-making strategy that could come closer to becoming a life habit. I focus on achieving long-term goals by charting them into micro-goals and chunking in sets. And, because I always have academics, literacy, and improvement on my mind, I needed to start putting my personal self-care goals on paper to prioritize them equally to my work.
Think through goals outside of the box of education to focus on your self-care. Separate out the micro-goals and then chunk them into doable amounts so you can achieve and recognize the return of investment on yourself.
Nest for a While, But Keep Building It
Stop thinking about what’s next and where you want to go so that you can truly enjoy now. I wish I would have really understood this in my mid-20s and throughout my 30s. I wish I would have listened to my mentors to be patient. Good things will still come your way, but you do not need to keep thinking it all has to be before you’re 35 (or even tomorrow).
A gap year was not a concept that existed when I started my career, and I honestly don’t know if I could have afforded one, but when I look back, I should have taken that summer and studied at the Globe Theater or completed the process to be a tour guide. What different point of view would I have to extend my passion for Shakespeare? Would I have started looking beyond the classics earlier in my teaching career? I wish I would have not lost so much energy in the summer between year one and year two trying to get a position at another school. In what other ways could I have exerted that energy to inspire my classroom environment?
It’s so easy to always be looking for a change and the next best thing. Four years ago, another change was pushed upon me without any choice. After two unsettled years, I thought I needed to run; instead, I decided to start a conversation with one of my confidants so that I could find Zen and plant two feet. Her advice to me:
- Know your value.
- Find a new group and don’t wait to be asked how you can help, but rather give them three ways you will contribute.
- Chart the exciting opportunities that you have received and the ones that you can anticipate being available if you think broader.
I left this conversation knowing that I owed it to myself to not only build a new nest but also cultivate it.
It’s both an exciting and bold time to be a teacher. How can we keep nesting the joy and professional environment? Enjoy your classroom, focus on giving yourself specific thoughtful nutrients, and laugh, observe, and appreciate the influence you are given to elevate the potential for the lives within the nest.
Take the time to simply be. Speaking of the state of being, Beyoncé is showing the world that you can have an impact on your career and balance family, yourself, and giving. There’s no doubt that she does focus on her strengths and who she is. I have been listening to Homecoming on my playlist since the release. People, my love for this album and desire to have conversations about the beats, arrangements, mash-ups, and the Queen’s pride for the new generation can become its own post. Yes, I digress, but my point is to be on top of our game for students, our school, and our craft plus our personal lives. We have to be free to think, see what’s happening in the world, understand the contributions that the generations we taught are making, and envision the potential of the future we are currently teaching. This means that we sometimes need to not think about the lesson plan or only talk shop when we are with our teacher friends. It’s actually all right to have conversations that give a glimpse into our hobbies and playlists and the last Buzzfeed quiz we took. It’s important for everyone to know what candy bar you are. Be in the now and take time to not think about school. You are not going to lose your excitement, energy, or impact.
The next time you’re at lunch, ask the others sitting at your table to start a conversation on the last desserts everyone made from scratch rather than taking the bulk of your time to talk about the class you just completed or hear someone else’s frustrations. Find those moments to be yours. Put your headphones on, walk around the track, spark a totally-no-work-talk chat, or do a few breathing techniques. Giving yourself these mindfulness moments at work will give you energy for the day, strengthen relationships, and keep your mind clear to make more connections throughout the day. Trust me. By stepping out of your teacher mind each day, you’ll find that you can stay “Crazy in Love” with being a teacher.
It’s spring cleaning time, and for many, a month away from the end of the school year. Take a walk around your classroom. What stack of papers can be tossed? Are there tattered books that do not represent the joy of reading? Is it time to think about less being more so wall space can be used efficiently? The classroom is one of those environments where a first impression gets to be formed every day as someone walks into the room. Having a system is more than the decision on where things belong. Planning how placement will benefit efficiency, positivity, and a sense of belonging are also significant components. Just like that one drawer in the kitchen or bathroom cabinet, when you cannot find something or opening it becomes more work, systems break down. It’s never too late to take back control.
Take the time during an upcoming planning session to bring in your favorite cleaning bin and decide where to start. Find ways to move the desks to open up space. There have been many learning moments and new independence discovered. Is that evident in the classroom setup? Wipe down walls and bookshelves to reveal sparkles and shine that symbolize the fresh knowledge being provided daily. Trick yourself out of thinking of this as a chore, and weigh how this task will give you back a spring in your step. You’ll get a head start to the last day for teachers so that you won’t be asking your teacher BFF to wait for you, but be ready to walk out together with your “summer, here we come” smiles.
I have been researching activities and social groups in the Orlando area. I love to discuss music, good books, and Florida State athletics. I know I need to extend time for myself, so I’ve started to purposefully plan for a weekly recharge routine connected to my community. I encourage everyone to find a fun community activity that will break up the week. Often, utilizing Wednesdays or Thursdays to be a self-care day will benefit clarity, energy, and worth.
However, I know that as a teacher, we have to be our students’ champion. So, if you are going to attend a softball game or wrestling match to cheer on a student, make sure you also give yourself a routine. Do you play an intermural sport? Make sure to share your schedule and invite others to come cheer you on. Are you working on your dissertation? Ask someone to read and give you a high-five. Take a deep breath at the end of the week, and feel good for the time you gave to others and yourself.
Enjoy each day. I realize that the past two years have been different. I’m not sure challenging is the right word, but you lived it so you know. So, I don’t say, “Enjoy each day,” to come across as if it is easy and makes everything better, but it does give you control. Go find those opportunities to invest in you so you can continue to elevate the potential of every learner. I would like to give a special shout-out to my friend, Kimberly Mosby, Professional Learning Manager, for her aromatherapy advice on this post.
Love what you do and do what you love!
Best and take it all in,
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This blog, originally published in 2019, has been updated for 2022.