5 Ways to be a Happier Teacher This Year

Target already has their back to school stuff out in stores. Early back to school sales should be considered criminal for the trauma it gives teachers who feel like they just started summer. But as we near August, even I have to admit, we’re getting closer to the start of school. As my schedule starts to fill up with meetings and school prep, I want to also spend some time prepping for how I can support my own mental health this year.

This school year will be year nine of teaching for me. I find that super strange. It still feels like I’m only a couple years in, but turns out I’m knocking on the door of a decade. I definitely don’t have things all figured out yet (spoiler, I never will) and even if I thought I did, COVID taught educators everywhere that there is always more to learn. However, there are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way, imparted by teachers much wiser than I. So here are five things that I will be striving to do this year in order to be a happier teacher–hope they help you too!

  1. Build routines for you-time

I’ll be honest with this one, if I go to one more PD that makes reference to “mindfulness” or “take time from you” I might roll my eyes and stop listening. Because yes, that advice is great, but I for some reason cannot hear that advice from someone who is not actively teaching. I agree that making time for yourself is important, but I’ll go a step further and say you need to build a routine of time for yourself. This looks different for everyone so I can’t completely prescribe it, but whatever your thing is, make sure you schedule a time to do it every day. Things that have worked for me in the past include:

  1. Reading my Bible each morning. I was probably the most effective teacher I have ever been when I committed to reading a Psalm each morning while my coffee was brewing. Just one Psalm was all it took to recenter my mind on why I was dedicating so much energy into loving students. This is something I really got away from but want to reincorporate this year. I think a tool that I might use is an app called Lectio 365. Each day, they have two devotionals (one for the morning and one for the night) that include scripture reading and a guided prayer. The coolest part? You can just push play and it’ll read it to you with some background spa-like music. It’s super calming and very relaxing. Even if you just push play as you start your commute, starting each day in the Word is a great way to recenter yourself. If you aren’t really religious, maybe find a meditation app that works for you. Something about quieting your mind (aka not running through your daily to-dos and lesson plans) is a great way to get the morning going.
  2. Working out. I have gone through phases of doing this well and also phases of not doing this at all. But when I have a routine that involves some movement, I am a happier person. If you’ve got some coworkers who also like working out, why not play a youtube yoga workout in your classroom after school? A few of my friends and I did Insanity workouts in my classroom a couple days a week and it was amazing! A couple years ago, I actually joined a gym, and I found that if I took my workout clothes to school and changed into them at the end of the day, it almost forced me to stop at the gym on the way home. Otherwise, on the drive home, I would convince myself that I could just head home and take a nap. In What Happened to You by Oprah, I learned that for humans, rhythm is regulating. That’s why a workout makes us feel so much better. The repeated movements help us regulate after hard days. Highly recommend it.
  3. Reading for pleasure. This is one that I wish I had started in my first year of teaching. I was so swamped trying to preview and read books before teaching them, that I totally neglected my own reading. I learned from my dear friend Gloria (my ultimate teaching role model) that she read a little bit of a book each night. If she could, she would try to get a whole chapter in, but even when she couldn’t, she’d at least get a couple pages. I can’t count the number of teachers who wish they had a chance to read more for pleasure and not just for work. So make it a priority. Read just a little bit every night. Make it part of the routine.

Those are a few that worked for me. I’ve done well with them and also really fallen away from them at other times. But the more fun things for me that were built into my routine, the better I felt. So find the things that bring you joy and add a little bit of them to each day.

  1. Set Yourself Time Boundaries

This one is something all first year teachers need to hear. But this is also something that all teachers need a reminder of each and every year. There has to be a point during your day when you turn off school. I read a joke somewhere about how Teaching is one of those weird professions where you have to do work at night so that you have work to do during work. And then you do that work at work so that you can go home to finish the work. The thing is, there is always more that could get done. So as teachers, we have to figure out where to set our boundaries. During the first few years as a teacher, this is harder because you don’t have materials already made. But I learned when I was drowning those first years, that if I could get “enough” ready so that I had an idea of mostly what was on the lesson plan for the next day, then that was good enough. If I had things for students and could make it through the next 24 hours, then that would be fine. We need time to have families and friends and invest our time in them too. 

A related point on this one is about grading. I used to dread grading essays because they would take forever. I also used to get a ton of quizzes all at once and hated how long it took–until I learned some tricks. First, when it comes to essays, limit your feedback. A fantastic colleague of mine, challenged me to rethink the amount of feedback I gave to students. I used to take an essay and a pen and mark up grammar mistakes, unexplained details, poorly cited quotes–you name it. My coworker asked me to ask my class how many students actually read the feedback I left them, and how many students just flipped to the back for the grade and called it good. I had about two kids per class who sometimes glanced at my notes. So I changed my approach. I now dedicate more time to giving feedback in the writing process (we all know that feedback is important, but it is way more important during the process rather than just at the end). This is where conferencing with students works great. Or, if you use Google classroom and assign a blank google doc for students’ essays, you can make a copy for each kid which then allows you to see how far each student has gotten. Giving feedback during the process gives students an opportunity to correct mistakes before they even turn it in. When they do turn it in, you direct students to put a star at the top of theirs if they are looking for feedback. When grading, you just use your rubric and grade the essays, only leaving feedback on a couple essays and you save SO MUCH TIME.

When it comes to quizzes or grammar tests, use Google forms! It takes some practice to get used to them if you’ve never used them, but under settings, you can make it a quiz. This allows you to assign point values and give an answer key. The computer will grade the quiz for you (except for free response or extended response answers, but if you only have to hand grade a couple questions instead of all of them, you save so much time). This is an amazing tool. It even allows you to make it so students can’t have multiple tabs open–yay for stopping cheaters!

  1. Build Relationships with Your Coworkers

This one will get you through anything. Misery loves company, and when you are a teacher, you are guaranteed to have some miserable days. Hopefully not many! But a nasty parent email or a trouble maker you had high hopes for but ends up flopping, might get you down. Your coworkers get it. They’ve been there too. Become friends with the people you work with.  My coworkers have gotten me through my toughest days. Sometimes you just need to be able to send a vent text to the teacher group chat, and on a Friday after a long week, it is always nice to grab a beer with someone who totally understands. Build connections and relationships with your coworkers. Being friends with the people you work with will 100% make you a happier teacher.

  1. Know When to Avoid the Lunch Room

This one is important and totally depends on your school and also depends on the day. I’m also pretty sure that this idea gets brought up in most teacher prep courses. The lunch room can be a great place to build friendships and relax (see point three), but it can also be a spinning vortex of nasty, negative, not-niceness. Be aware of the dynamic in your lunch room and be selective about when or whether you go. You don’t need to be there every day (for some of us, that 20 minutes of alone time is recharging and wonderful) or even at all. Don’t feel pressured to be at lunch. Spend your lunch doing what is best for you. I know of many teachers (myself included) who might eat lunch in a classroom with just a friend or two. I know a couple teachers who open their classrooms to students during lunch because those moments of relationship building are fueling for them. And I also know of teachers who prefer to eat lunch on their own. It’s tricky to navigate and figure all that out, but sometimes, avoiding the lunch room can help you be a much happier teacher. 

  1. Leave Perfectionism Behind and Embrace Improvementism 

This was one of my favorite things that Dave Stuart Jr. published during COVID. I literally printed his statement and taped it to my wall (if you’re a teacher looking for some great practices and advice from an actual teacher, definitely look into his blog). As teachers we want our lessons to be perfect. So perfect that every single student completely understands, learns, and remembers our activities and assignments. During the beginning of COVID, when we were all still unsure of what the school year looked like, Dave Stuart Jr. told his blog followers to leave all that perfectionism behind and embrace improvementism (not a word, but a great concept). I loved it when it came to the last couple years, but I still love it now and wish that I had heard this my first few years of teaching. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just work toward improving a little each day.

So those are the five big tips I have for you. Again, I gained these from some stellar colleagues and teachers. And I don’t do these perfectly at all. But they are great goals for me and hopefully they can help you too!

**Sidenote, if you’d like to support my classroom and students. This is my Amazon wishlist for this year. Every year, a handful of my high-interest books, all of my fidget toys, and many of my decorations get lost or broken. The love and support of family and friends is the only way I could keep my classroom funded. Thanks in advance if you’re willing to help out 🙂 **

How to Write a Resume

…and/or how to teach Resume writing to high school students.

I have been teaching teenagers to write resumes since my first year as a teacher (about to be a year-eight teacher). I have definitely-fine tuned my lessons and gotten better at explaining things since I started. In those first couple years, I even brought in people who worked in HR to work with my students. They taught students what they’re looking for in applications and actually loved the format I had been teaching (I teach that format even better now). In recent years, I’ve sat in on interviews for my school and have been shocked at some of the resumes we’ve gotten. Like, a two-page resume? Using the Google Docs Template??? What are people thinking?? 

I’m kidding, but also not really. Interview committees do judge and pick apart resumes. So you want yours to be professional, perfect, and stand out.

With all those experiences, I have certainly become a go-to person for friends when they need a resume or cover letter, and I actually love helping out. So this post is a written version of the lessons I use in class. I’ll link in Google docs for directions and examples so if you are ever in a position to teach these skills, feel free to use these documents with students.

If you are someone who learns better from videos, I’ve got some videos explaining how to write a resume. In the video, I use my Google Doc that I’m linking here. If you’d rather watch an explanation for how to write a resume, these should do the trick. Just keep in mind that it is targeted toward high school students, so you might have a little more work experience and a little less ‘extracurricular activities’. I made these during COVID for my juniors who didn’t get to do the end of the year assignments. A lot of students and parents said they wanted this information and were looking forward to the resume assignment–and then I made these videos and literally two of them maybe did it. Oh well lol. Go ahead and speed forward to 1:30 in the first video and you can skip over my explanation of the assignment not being a grade.

Part One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHptPxvE7IQ

Part Two: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNpi20r3BIs

A resume is a one page summary of your educational and career experiences that is submitted to potential future employers. Employers will potentially have a whole stack of resumes, so we want something professional that really highlights all of your experiences so you can stick out. We also want it to be as perfect as we can get it. Mistakes show your future employer that you don’t pay attention or take your time. We don’t want that, so take your time and make it perfect. This is what it will kind of look like:

There are many correct ways to write a resume, so there is a lot of flexibility in how to write them. But there are also some big, common mistakes in resume writing that we want to avoid. So, how to write a resume. Here is the document that I use with students, it includes directions, an example, a template, and a list of power verbs.

We start with a blank Google Doc. Doing it in Google Docs is my preferred approach because it automatically saves and is accessible from any computer. It also will stay with your email, so even if you get a new computer, you can keep accessing, editing, and using your document. We start with a Google Doc that is blank, we don’t use the resume template that Docs offers. That template is immediately recognizable to the interview committee (and if someone like me is on the committee, they’re already judging you), and also leaves too much white space making it hard to customize and format.

At the top of the document (in the header or just directly at the top of the document), you need your name and contact information. Here are a couple options of how you could do it. I do mine in the header and use the same header for my Cover Letter and References Page. I think that’s great for consistency and clarity. To get the name and contact information to move independently of one another, I inserted a table in the header that is two columns and one row. Then I can make the name in the left column huge and pretty. And then the font in the right column can be small and professional. To get rid of the lines, just right click in the table, go to table properties, and change the line color to white. Basically there are many options for formatting your name at the top.

The top image is what I use–all the information is in the header. The bottom image is just written at the top of the page and centered.

Your name should be bigger. Feel free to use a fun font with your name. I always like to find a script font, because I’m a little bougie and love cursive. I tell students to aim somewhere between 18 and 26 for the font-size of their name. Contact information should be Arial or Times New Roman, size 10, 11, or 12. Whatever font you choose for your contact information (at least phone number and email, but also address can be included) will be the font that you use throughout the entire resume. We want things to look professional and consistent.

You then need to decide on what headings you want to use. You’ll definitely want to include Education and Work Experience. Other options include Extracurricular Activities (if you’re in high school or college), Community Service, Community Involvement, Leadership, Memberships, Volunteer Work, Certifications, Skills, Interests. Only choose the headings that actually apply to you. Remember we’re trying to make the best impression we can on our future employers.

Quick note, often people will include an “Objective” as the first heading and include about 2-3 sentences identifying their goal in submitting this resume (e.g. obtain employment at an organization who benefits the community, blah, blah, blah). I think this could be great, IF you are very intentional about what you include. What you do not want is a generic “Objective” section where you say “to obtain a job in nursing”. Like, yes. Obviously. You submitted the resume, of course you want to get a job in that field. If you have an objective, you need to tailor those three sentences to the specific company you are applying to and identify specific reasons you want to work for that company. Personally, I prefer having a “Career Profile” section at the top where I can detail my skills in my field that make me an ideal candidate (see below). If you’re in high school or just graduating college, you can also just leave this section off. 

Under your headings, you are going to identify your experiences. Organize your experiences with the most recent ones and most applicable ones first. Include dates and keep all of your formatting consistent (see image below). Under each experience, you will include 2-4 bullet points that detail your responsibilities in that role. Start each bullet point with a past tense verb. Try to vary your verb choice (don’t always use ‘executed’, use some synonyms) and make sure you use strong verbs. In resume writing, we call those ‘power verbs’. You can find lists all over Google by googling ‘power verbs’, but I included a list on the last page of the document I shared above. 

Notice how all of the formatting and spacing is consistent. The headers are all bolded and capitalized. You don’t need to bold and capitalize your headers, but make them stick out and keep it consistent.

When you “finish” your resume, realize that you are never done with it. A resume is a constantly evolving and changing document–because you’re constantly earning more experiences and skills. Many people will recommend that you edit it every year, but honestly, I just edit mine anytime I want to apply for another side hustle. When you’re done though, you need to start editing. Look for consistent formatting, grammar or spelling errors, consistent spacing, consistent punctuation–you want to find any mistake and get this document looking perfect. It often helps to zoom out your view so you can see the whole page all at once–this will help you see if there are any spacing issues to address. 

It is also helpful to send your resume to a trusted, English or business-minded friend for a proof-read. Having someone else’s eyes on your document can help you identify other mistakes. I can’t count the number of friends and family members and past students who have sent me resumes or cover letters to proofread. You want your resume to be perfect so it’ll only benefit you to have someone else go through and edit for you.

Lately, there is a slightly different approach to resume formatting that uses columns, kind of like this image from a quick Google search.

I LOVE this approach. It uses space better and still looks very clean. This is what I use. My resume has my name and contact information in a header, then there is a horizontal line (insert>horizontal line), then my career profile, and beneath that, two columns of information. The left column is smaller and more of a sidebar which is where I include my education and volunteer work. On the right is a larger column that includes my work experience. If you want to try something like this, on Google Docs, it works really well to insert a table with two columns and one row. You can make the columns as wide or narrow as you want and write in them independently of one another. To get the lines to disappear, just right click and go to table properties. Then make the line color white. It’s like magic 🙂 

When you are ready to submit it with your application, download your doc as a pdf. Pdf ensures that no matter what kind of computer a person is using, none of your spacing or fonts will get messed up. Always use a pdf. (file>download>pdf). Before downloading, make sure that your file name is titled something along the lines of FirstName LastName Resume. Your document title will become your pdf file name when it downloads. Including your first and last name will help employers when they are receiving documents to keep your resume with your application. And also, just be sure there is nothing embarrassing in your document title–if I had a dollar for every “Dumb English Thing” that’s gotten turned in to me on Google Classroom, I’d probably be able to afford a very nice vacation.

And that’s it! Hopefully those resources help you write your resume, or help you teach teenagers how to write their own. If you have questions or need a proof read, please ask!

How to Help Students Learn to Write with the Power Paragraph

A couple years ago (before COVID smashed in and destroyed all our plans for our classrooms) I attended a conference on Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs if you’re familiar with the concept. It was a great conference about how to become better teachers, but one of the most important ideas that I took from this conference was about teaching and learning. As teachers, we can point to our curriculum maps, and lesson plans, and explain all of the wonderful standards-aligned things that we’ve taught throughout the year. That’s all well and good. But it doesn’t mean anything if our students haven’t learned what we taught them. We need to shift our focus away from what we are teaching to what students are learning.

Mind blowing difference right? And that’s where I think the power paragraph really helps us when we’re teaching our students to write. This is a concept that could literally be introduced in upper elementary classes, but also can be such a game changer for a student in high school. So I’ll explain what the power paragraph is, and then share some of the implementation/success stories. I’ll add links to documents that I use with students as well, feel free to use them!

A power paragraph is the name that I (and many other educators) give to a well-structured, organized paragraph. I tell students that I am looking for a paragraph that follows a 1-*2-3*2-3*1 structure. Each number represents a different type of sentence. A 1-sentence is a topic or summary sentence. A 2-sentence is a supporting detail. And a 3-sentence is an explanation sentence. The asterisks that I add into the structure? Transition words! Students are notorious for leaving out transitions and they are so important. I will also sometimes add in a 4-sentence, the 4 being a quote. In that case, I’ll ask students for a 1-*2-4-3-*2-3-*1 sentence (because a quote should be introduced in the supporting detail and then explained afterwards.

This structure can be really expanded upon, just with some guidelines. The 1-*2-3*2-3*1 is what I call the basic structure that any paragraph needs. But you could write a 1-*2-4-3-3-*2-3-3*2-4-3-*1 paragraph. Honestly, the possibilities are endless. The basic structure is just a great starting point.

When I introduce this to students, I keep the form written out on the board behind me. I also have laminated transition word lists scattered throughout the room and available on Google Classroom. I’ll write an example paragraph with students on the board so they can see how it works. When it comes to the topic sentence, I emphasize how whatever we put in the topic sentence is all we are going to write about. If my topic sentence talks about my favorite color, nowhere in that paragraph are we going to see details about my favorite food. For supporting details, I point out how the supporting detail supports the statement in my topic sentence and then the explanation sentence explains my supporting detail. At the end of the paragraph, I make sure they know to include a summary sentence in which they restate their topic sentence. It all builds together very nicely.

So for example, I might have my seniors working on their career unit write a power paragraph response to “Why would you be a good fit for this job?”. I tell them that their topic sentence should be a complete sentence answer to the question. Their supporting details will give reasons to support their topic. And then they’ll explain more in depth. On the board, I might give the example:

(1)I would be a great fit as a plumber for a number of reasons. (2) To start, I am a very hard working person. (3) When I was in high school, I worked part-time at my uncle’s car repair shop while also attending tech and maintaining a 3.0 GPA. It took a lot of hard work, but I was determined to complete all of my work well. (2) I also am very reliable and punctual. (3) Throughout my entire high school career, I was only absent a couple times when I was sick, and I was never tardy. (1) These are a couple reasons that I would be a great fit as a plumber.

While doing this, I definitely underline the transition words. High school students need all the reminders they can get to include those transitions. Eventually we’ll talk about incorporating and imbedding our transitions into our sentences instead of always starting sentences with them, but this is a great start.

Yes ,that example was simplistic, but it’s a great starting place.The reason I love teaching with this structure is because I get so many students in their junior and senior years who say that they hate English class. They claim that they suck at writing and they’ll never need to use English class in the real world. I always respectfully agree that they won’t need to explain metaphors or the plot of The Great Gatsby in many jobs; but they will need to be able to communicate in organized and clear ways. The power paragraph is honestly the most real-world applicable thing I teach.

Think about it. Anytime you write an email, a report, or a cover letter, you need to be writing clear, organized paragraphs.

I find that by giving a clear structure to students who have struggled with writing in the past really helps. So often, we English teachers get so excited about our content that we ask our students to write about it! And we forget that they might not know how to write about it or where they should start. The numbered sentences also really help my students who think more logically and prefer math or science to English. They can follow the steps and check each sentence off, knowing when they’ve completed the task.

Using the power paragraph is a great way to differentiate or build in scaffolds for struggling students, those with IEPs, or those who just don’t like English. But I honestly use it with all of my students. I even think back to my essays that I wrote for my grad classes (often an hour or two before they were due) and I was actually just using an expanded version of the power paragraphs to keep my essays organized! This is good for students of all abilities.

Interestingly, when I was at my first school, my data team was made of middle and high school English and Social Studies teachers. The power paragraph was an ideal common assessment. It can be used to write narratively, informatively, analytically–any writing task we set before students. It’s versatile and beneficial. And it actually turns out that ALL content areas should be teaching writing. Obviously, us English teachers should be teaching it more in depth. But it’s important for us to have students using language in all of their courses. This could be a little tricky in math, but in Social Studies and Science and Foreign Language and Fine Arts and PE courses, using the power paragraph would be super easy. Getting students to be doing more of the talking and the writing during a class means that more students are actually doing the learning (this is especially SUPER important for our ELs). Everyone should be teaching writing, and this is a super easy way for anyone to explain it.

One of my favorite teacher wins during my first year teaching was when I was talking to students about the SAT essay they would need to write. One of my students raised her hand and asked, “Can we use power paragraphs to write the essay?” I could have punched the air in excitement. YES! These paragraphs should be the body paragraph in any essay you ever write! Starting by teaching the paragraph helps students who are often overwhelmed by the thought of writing an entire essay. If they can break it into an introduction paragraph, three body power paragraphs, and then a quick conclusion, it becomes more manageable.

Also, important note: this type of paragraph has a bunch of different names. I call it the Power Paragraph, someone else might call it the Basic Paragraph. There are plenty of names out there for the same thing. Can you imagine how much we could help students if we all used common language? Some of us say ‘topic sentence’, some of us say ‘introductory sentence’, some of us say ‘claim’–can you imagine how confusing that would be for kids? If teachers in your district could all get on the same page with the language you use when talking about writing, kids would really benefit. Call it the Power Paragraph, call it something else, but just get everyone to call it the same thing.

I’ve noticed throughout my years that the more structure I give students for their writing, the better the essays are that get turned in. Students then internalize those structures and use them in the following years/colleges/careers. 

The real positive of this is that kids do the learning. And when they turn in those essays, the essays are written much better, making them much easier to grade.

Hopefully this helps you in your classroom!

And if you missed them, here are the links to my Power Paragraph outline, my Transition Word Lists, and my Paragraph Guidelines. Make a copy and edit/adjust however you want.

Why I Stayed and Then Why I Left

We’re back! I’m hoping my last two posts (here and here) were an eye opener into some of the craziness that young teachers experience, especially in poorly funded districts. This last post will hopefully be a good representation of the challenges of underfunded districts and the students who have to pay the price.

My second year as a teacher was the BEST year at that first school. I knew more of what I was doing, I already had curriculums written, and I even already had assignments created. My work load went down significantly, although I was still getting to school at 6:45, leaving around 4:15, and working a couple hours each night to prep for the next day. My roommates and I also moved into a much bigger house. We finally each had our own room, so I felt like I was really living that young professional life.

I already knew my students and it was awesome that as the only English teacher, I was able to continue watching my students grow in their writing ability. I made some curriculum edits and taught AP Language instead of AP Literature, but for the most part I was teaching what I had already taught. So this was the year that I started getting more invested in what students needed outside of English class. 

My classroom also moved. Now the entire secondary school, 6-12 was in one hallway. This meant that I got to spend more time with my friends on the middle school team. This also meant that we kicked off a form of “data teams” and “PLCs”. 

I’ve seen schools where data teams and PLCs (professional learning communities) are run really well–my school was not one of those. My data team was made up of middle and high school English and Social Studies teachers. A big part of data teams is using common assessments so teachers can come together and figure out which teaching strategies are working best for student learning. It is a great concept that really benefits students–but that’s when your data team is a group of all of your English 9 teachers. We were all “singletons’ so the whole figuring out “common assessments” thing was kind of tricky/impossible. As for PLCs, those were just secondary staff meetings that we called PLCs. The full PLC model was a lot closer aligned to what we were attempting in data teams. 

Beyond all the meetings (2-3 every week), I was able to really work with students. My second year I:

  • Ran NHS
  • Worked with the counselor to plan homecoming, a Valentine’s dance, and prom
  • Planned a retreat for all of secondary students in which juniors and seniors spent the night at camp
  • Ran a couple volleyball open gyms
  • Began inviting colleges to come talk to my students
  • Took my juniors and the 8th grade class to the Holocaust museum
  • Ran graduation
  • Designed t shirts with students for spirit weeks
  • Organized spirit weeks
  • Ran school-wide pep assemblies
  • Started an SAT club
  • Ran fundraisers
  • Got pied in the face at a number of those fundraisers
  • Had my iphone 6 stolen
  • Taught homebound students (including holding one of my student’s newborns while trying to explain algebra. That was an unexpected teaching moment)
  • Became a YoungLife leader for camp and took kids to YL camp
  • Helped my coworker who planned a camping trip for a group of our junior and senior boys

Honestly, I think there were more things I did, but I just can’t remember it all. There was just so much to do to try to give students a great high school experience. It kind of came down to if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen. I hated to think that these amazing students whom I had come to really care for would miss out on opportunities. So I just worked harder to try to make those things possible for my kids. Oh, and they became my kids too. I became a fierce advocate for my students. They began to trust me and many of their experiences–the good, the bad, and the ugly–came out in their writing. When I learned about problems my students were facing, I did my best to try to support them. For one thing, as I realized that a number of my students did not speak much English or were at least bilingual, I also started to pursue a Master’s in TESOL. I figured I needed better strategies to teach my students, so in all of my free time (haha), I started taking Master’s classes.

My third year is when things started to really go downhill. The summer before that last year I worked there, the school counselor had been hired as the principal of a different charter school. It was a great opportunity for him, but as soon as I heard the news, my heart dropped to my stomach. Everything that I had been doing–all of the spirit weeks, the retreats, the homecomings and proms–everything had been done with the support and the help of him. Without him, it would be up to me to get other teachers behind my ideas and plans. I knew it was going to be way more work on me. 

That year, my students called me their teacher, their school mom, their counselor, their principal, their RTA, a sister, a friend, and a mentor. My third year, I did everything I had done my second year, I just also:

  • Planned a rising senior retreat
  • Planned another (different) fall retreat
  • Arrived to school earlier than ever before (6:15ish) so I could squeeze in some work before leaving school and driving to pick up two students from their home to drive them to school each morning. On mornings when I couldn’t be there, I organized other teachers to be their ride (we had no bussing system and couldn’t offer free bus passes unless a student was homeless. That did not solve many of our students’ transportation issues. And what else would we say? If it was snowing and a student didn’t want to walk the hour to school, she would just miss weeks of school? So we did what we had to do).
  • Donated, found, and delivered mattresses and furniture to students who were in need
  • Organized and planned curriculum for our new advisory course
  • Connected with Jostens for all things graduation
  • Took photos of school events
  • Created the yearbook for the entire K-12 school, submitted our order, and picked up our books
  • Registered students to retake the SAT and drove them to the test
  • Took over the school’s social media presence
  • Coached Varsity and Middle School Boys soccer. I was the head coach with one of my coworker friends as the assistant coach (it was just a title, we did the same amount of work and were compensated equally), but I also knew no soccer rules, only ‘no manos’.
  • Was undefeated in both Varsity and Middle School Boys soccer–the only year that happened up until then and since. I still claimed it was all due to my coaching skills. And then my students laughed.
  • Planned YL events and took almost 20 students to a YL retreat weekend.
  • Provided apples, bananas, and granola bars each week for my students to grab when they were hungry.
  • Taught parents and students during an after school evening program
  • Oversaw E2020 credit recovery courses while teaching my other classes or during my prep (mostly just opening up tests for students)
  • Was the RTC whenever our RTA’s took a sick or personal day. What I mean by that is I was actually teaching an English class while answering phone calls from other teachers, and then having misbehaving students come sit in my class as punishment–while my class was still happening.
  • Was the keeper of bathroom keys on days we didn’t have an RTA (it was a school policy that all our doors had to be locked. So whenever a student needed the restroom, the teacher had to call to see if the key was available. Again, I would be teaching English classes and answering phones for bathroom use).
  • Ran PLC meetings
  • Ran Data team meetings
  • Continued my Master’s classes
  • Organized a college and career fair at our school, inviting community partners in and organizing tables and incentives for students
  • Took all students 9-12 to Ferris State University for a tour; took (drove) students to Kendall College for a our, took students to GRCC for a tour, took students to GVSU for a tour
  • Planned staff versus student soccer and basketball games

Again, I am pretty confident there were more things I was trying to pack into my day, I just can’t remember everything. These weren’t things that my principal asked me to do–well, not all of them. Some of these things people definitely asked me to do because they knew that I would. But these were mostly just things that would not have happened otherwise. And without these things, I felt that my students were missing out on valuable experiences, and that is just unfair.

This is the problem in our underfunded, smaller schools. There are too few people trying to wear too many hats. And it’s just not sustainable. I cried so many times that year, mostly because I was so upset about how unfair the world was for my students. I thought it was unfair that they only had the limited resources our school could offer. Learning about the bullying, rape, abuse, racism, hatred, and neglect that my students experienced broke my heart.

I also knew I was burning out. I knew that a year or two more at the school would burn me out on teaching completely. I knew that if I stayed, I wouldn’t be able to stay in education. But I also knew that I couldn’t leave my kids.

This is when I turned to prayer. For the start of Lent (I was giving up coffee that year), I also decided to try the Daniel Fast for the first 21 days. I had never tried it, but people at my church had mentioned it often. I looked it up and decided to give it a go.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Daniel Fast comes from a passage in the book of Daniel, and is essentially being vegan while also giving up bread/pasta/sugar/salt. It’s super limiting, mostly just a lot of fruits and vegetables–quinoa and beans–that kind of thing. The great thing about this fast is that it required me to be so intentional with how I was grocery shopping and cooking. Any time I thought about food, I was reminded of why I was fasting, which reminded me to pray. I was looking for God’s guidance. Do I try another year at the school I was working at? Or should I try to see what other jobs were out there?

It was a challenging fast, both physically and spiritually. When I began the fast, I was hoping that God would speak clearly to me and tell me exactly what I should do next. But He didn’t. At the end of the fast, I didn’t have an answer, but I did have a sense of peace about my decision. 

If you’re facing a difficult decision in your own life right now and you don’t know what to do, of course I’d recommend turning to prayer. But if it’s a really big decision like mine was, look into fasting. It really helped me focus on God and His will. Ultimately I realized that there wasn’t a wrong decision that I could make. God was going to work through me no matter where I was. So I updated my resume and started looking for jobs again.

It wasn’t a panicked search. It also wasn’t a very wide search. If I was going to leave my school and my kids, I was only going to do so if it was for a school in West Michigan. I felt at peace. I knew that if there wasn’t a job out there that wanted me, I had a great job at my old school. And if there was a job that wanted me (and I intended to be picky), then that was good too.

Shortly after my search began, I was offered a job in a larger public school. Reading through the agreement, I was shocked at the guarantees that teachers in that district had. Their time was protected and their extra efforts were compensated. The requirements they had were so few compared with what I was used to. I also took a significant raise, even though my new district was starting me on step one rather than honoring my three years of teaching experience. I read through the entire contract word for word because I was so shocked at the luxuries guaranteed to traditional public school teachers. 

Again, this is where I see an issue. Students who need the greatest support from their schools because they might not find it at home, are far too often in schools that are more underfunded, with teachers who are stretched too thinly. It isn’t equitable. And I fear, especially with the recent pandemic, that our achievement gaps are going to only continue widening.

So back to my story. After telling my principal, the first people I told were my juniors. These were the kids who had been the rambunctious freshmen my first year who destroyed my classroom 6th hour every day. They also were the kids I had seen the most growth in, and the ones I wouldn’t be able to walk through their senior year with. These were much more mature students; the ones who laughed and owned it when I started to find gray hairs and told them their freshman year was the thing to blame. The conversation with them was the hardest to have. I couldn’t explain to them how everything I was doing at school was burning me out. It just wasn’t something they could understand, nor did I want to try to explain. I focused on telling them how much I loved them all and how proud I was of how much they’d grown.

It was a very difficult decision. But it was the healthiest decision for me as a teacher. Since joining my current district, I’ve been given opportunities to really focus on teaching without scrambling to run every extra curricular that I could. I’ve also been able to learn how to find a balance between work and my life at home. I’ve told J a couple times that if we’d met while I worked at that first school, I never would have been able to invest in dating and getting to know him. 

Another great thing I have found is that working in my first school has made me a very efficient worker. I got so used to having not enough time to get everything done, so now that I have more time, I’m just in the habit of speeding through work efficiently.

I started this string of posts by pointing out that I would never change the experiences I had in my first district. But I also want to repeat that I am so glad I never have to repeat those years. They formed me into the teacher I am today, but there is a reason that 44% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. The job is grueling, and many districts have poor systems in place that can lead to villainizing and overworking teachers.

If that’s the boat you’re in, and you’re reading this, know that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Prioritize your students, but be self-aware enough to know when to look for another job. Your mental health needs to be taken care of and protected before you can support students with their own mental health.

Education is a challenging and incredible career. God bless those who choose to become teachers. The struggle is real, but the reward is great.