Teaching: how to keep the fire ablaze

As my experience in teaching progresses, so does my fret about the haphazard way we take care of our instructional health. With 40 lessons per week in classes of 80-100 pupils in primary and an even bigger load of responsibilities in high school, where is the time to venture into professional growth? Even those in institutions of higher learning have their full credit load and research on the side, they barely have time for one more thing that might interfere with the frenetic motions required to keep our heads above water.

Yet against the backdrop of these strenuous job requirements (to say nothing of obligations at home), we must preserve and protect our vitality as teachers. Many times our busyness becomes an excuse for not participating in a faculty development workshop, not joining a pedagogical reading group, and not even being able to spend five minutes with a colleague who wants to talk about something happening in her classroom. We find time for what is most important, but often our instructional vitality does not make the cut.

Persistent busyness soon translates to tiredness which evolves into something more sinister. I would venture that we all know a teacher who trudges to class without enthusiasm, who is happiest when students don’t show up for office hours, and who end up disconnected from content they once loved and students who, now more than ever, need teachers committed to learning. The question about them, which is really about us, is how long were they just tired before burnout set in? Have you done anything for your teaching self this year to prevent this burnout?

To keep my fire burning, I draw inspiration from my students. The joy of transforming deadpan stares into unbridled glee as an active learning experience helps them “get” a difficult concept; the pathos of witnessing the reluctant learner struggle with concepts that others readily grasp; the satisfaction derived from heartfelt appreciation expressed by a former student in a letter or during an impromptu conversation at the local grocery - I derive energy from those situations. Their stimulation seems to keep me mentally and emotionally churning for answers and searching for new challenges to present to them. This keeps me active and curious.

This may come to you as a surprise, but my second dynamic to staying fresh, engaged, and enthusiastic about teaching is fear. It has been said that many professional athletes are remembered better for their sagging performances in later years than for the successes of their early years. Having outlasted their spans of legitimate productivity, they attempt to recapture long lost glory - only to write an ignominious final chapter to their careers. The same can be said of some teachers. We have all experienced the bewilderment that comes from watching a talented teacher or administrator bottom out as he or she coasts into retirement. Therefore, I’ve adopted a few strategies to supplement my student-generated inspiration - and to help allay “the fear” that I too might sink into mediocrity.

Last but most importantly, leverage the opportunities around you. Engage your colleagues in conversations about the best classroom practices. Talk to veteran teachers about what keeps them going. Grab professional development opportunities around and attend to them religiously. Have subject or course discussions with your peers teaching the same concepts; you never know- you may pick a thing or two. The truth is that no man is an island and every teacher has their own craft. Taste the waters and see what works!

In a nut shell, I have always looked upon teaching as a good marriage. Just as a marriage doesn’t romantically regenerate itself over time unless both parties work daily at learning about and adjusting to each other, neither does a teacher spontaneously grow in his or her profession. The more we put into our teaching every day, the more we will be rewarded through the years.

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