Dear WeAreTeachers:
I was so excited to start the year in person, but just yesterday, I got the news that we’re going back to virtual teaching. I’m trying to stay hopeful that it’s only a temporary pivot this time. To be honest, I’m exhausted by constant changes and dealing with so many details. I spent today preparing prepared, teaching students how to access classes online, setting up Teams, sending emails to parents, replying to emails, and forming Schoology lessons. It was 10:30 PM before I finished.  Plus, I can’t stand the way online teaching is perceived. If I read one more social media comment that teachers need to give up our salaries because we’re “not working,” I think I’m going to either laugh or cry. Maybe both.—Professional Pivoter

Dear P.P.,

The beginning of the year is always a heavy lift for all of us, and even more now with the Delta variant surging. And we can all relate to the exhaustion around pivoting instructional contexts because of COVID. I’m sure the tasks you listed are part of a much longer “to do” list! Teachers work an average of ten hours and forty minutes per day, according to Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession. A teacher’s day extends WELL beyond the bell schedules!

In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed as though teachers were propped up often on social media. Parents and caregivers who were managing school at home felt a deeper sense of compassion and respect for teachers. Often, they posted that teachers deserve WAY more appreciation and higher pay. Now, it seems that there are other opinions popping up that portray teachers in a negative light. With teacher unions advocating for safety and health for teachers as schools open up in person, public opinions are divisive and heated. The anonymity of social media makes it easy for people to make flippant, unsubstantiated comments about educators. Some people think they are being funny and entertaining when in reality they are crushing spirits.

I see you and hear you. You are working really long hours under distressing conditions. Now, let’s reframe and focus on what we can control.

Do you have any friends, family, or colleagues saying that it’s important to “have better boundaries”? I do! Even though I know it’s true, it’s just so hard to do consistently. Let’s dig into what boundaries look, sound, and feel like. Boundaries are limits that help us to care for ourselves. Researcher Brené Brown suggests, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” When we have gauzy boundaries, we run the risk of feeling depleted, taken advantage of, exhausted, hurt, or resentful.

Boundary setting is a skill we need to learn and practice. So, let’s think about your situation. You have students who need a lot of training with technology. I bet you receive emails at all times of the day and night asking for help. What if you create a boundary and send a clear message with, “I’m here to support you. I know some of you may need help with your technology issues. It’s frustrating to feel stuck! I have office hours during these time frames, and we can figure out options together.” Meanwhile, keep problem-solving and doing the best you can.

Another boundary that may need some firming up is with parents. If parents are contacting you with a lot of requests or being impatient with email responses, have a message that you can cut and paste. This will let them know you care while also protecting your time. Would something like this work for you? “Thank you for reaching out. Your child and your perspective are important to me. I’ll be in touch within the next 24 hours. Thanks for your patience during this challenging time. Together we are stronger!” Setting boundaries can sometimes feel uncomfortable AND it can also bring you some spaciousness in your very full work life.

Take a moment to pause and reflect on the reasons WHY you became a teacher to help fill your cup. Teachers are the backbone of society—educating, socializing, and guiding youth to add value, be effective communicators, practice compassion, and create more just spaces. We do more than help build knowledge. We help build good humans. Soak that up for a minute!

Dear WeAreTeachers:
This may sound strange, but I have a lovey to help comfort me at home and I want one for work, too. Is it normal to have a comfort item in my classroom for just ME and NOT the kids? I’ve been dealing with some anxiety (like the rest of the world), and I have a Squishmallow at home that my mother and daughter gave me last year that I find very comforting. I’m looking for something else for school. I teach middle school music, and I have large classes in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. My biggest class this year has 55 students! I feel like a baby even asking, but is it OK for teachers to have comforting thing for themselves in their classroom?  —Seeking Comfort

Dear S.C.,

Yes! It’s normal and helpful to have comfort items in your classroom. Choosing a comfort object for work is an intentional way to reduce stress. I say bring your Squishmallow to work! You already find it to be helpful and soothing. If you don’t want the students to touch it, keep it in your drawer for yourself. And you can bring other comfort objects and experiences in TOO.

Some people have objects that bring up positive memories of people and places. I have a piece of coral my dad found at a beach years ago and gave to me before he passed away. Holding my comfort object makes me pause, feel loved, and be present. Others find it comforting to wear a favorite sweater, let the salt lamp glow, wear special jewelry, hang photos of people and places they love, drink from a mug with a message, diffuse essential oils, listen to music, and post quotes that inspire. All these chosen comfort objects and experiences are unique to the individuals and help provide a sense of emotional safety and psychological security.

You mentioned that you are dealing with some anxiety. “Anxiety disorders are real, serious medical conditions—just as real and serious as physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes,” writes the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorder in our country. The National Institute of Health reports one in five Americans deals with anxiety disorders. Being a human on the planet can be hard! And being a teacher with large class sizes during a global pandemic is anxiety-producing. When your stress flares up, what kinds of anxiety symptoms are you experiencing? Some symptoms may include headaches, a rapid heartbeat, feeling restless, disturbed sleep, and digestive issues. When you notice prolonged symptoms, it’s worth setting up a time to talk to a professional to get more personal support.

There are a few things you can try to help you feel calmer, regulated, and more focused. Telling yourself to stop feeling anxious or allowing critical self-talk is NOT your best route to wellness. Being self-compassionate and talking to yourself in a kind way IS. Try talking to yourself in a gentle, more supportive way. “Hey, I’m feeling those feelings again. My heart is racing. I have a lot going on right now. Let me try to smooth out my breathing and listen to my own breath.” Consider using a mantra like, “This too shall pass.” Recognizing that your anxious feeling is temporary can help the sensations lessen.

Enjoy whatever it is that you decide to use to help soothe and comfort yourself. Small things can be mighty!

Dear WeAreTeachers:
Unpopular opinion time.  I despise PLC time and find it to be absolutely useless!  We  regularly meet as a grade level team a couple of times a month. I teach in an elementary setting, and I leave my PLC meetings feeling like it was a total waste of time. We all act polite and compliant during the meetings, but I get so frustrated because we barely get planning time. To be honest, I’m not sure how my team REALLY feels about PLC time, and I’m nervous to bring it up. Sincerely, I don’t want my school to think I don’t care, but PLCs aren’t helping my professional development. Maybe it has to do with organization and design?  I can’t endure PLCs any longer.  How do I bring this up to my team and leadership?   —Don’t Waste My Time

Dear D.W.M.T.,

No one likes to waste time! And it’s even more frustrating for teachers since we need quality planning time to do our jobs well. Even though it’s challenging to speak up, there are some ways to open up a challenging conversation in a productive way. As you reflect on ways to get your conversation started with your team and/or principal, think about the following: consider your purpose for initiating the conversation. What outcomes are you hoping for? Reflect on your intentions. What assumptions are coming up for you? Are you being triggered in some way? Doing some self-reflection helps to bring clarity to your thoughts, feelings, and words.

During a difficult conversation, try this:

Acknowledge. State positives about the context. You might say, “It’s clear that our school values collaboration since we have PLCs two times a week. Planning with other teachers is valuable and helps us streamline our work and plan more effective learning for the kids.”

Be open and curious. Try asking open-ended questions. “How are PLCs going for you? What is working? What might we consider adjusting? Can we talk about ways to ensure more planning time during PLCs?”

There is no doubt that being a responsive educator takes deliberate preparation. It sounds like the PLC structure and content you are experiencing have room for improvement. Having a predictable structure for a PLC is fundamental. Begin with a brief community-building task or check-in. We do them with kids and interpersonal emphasis is helpful for us as adults, too! You might communicate specific shout-outs about your students and colleagues. Or you could try finishing the prompt, I wish my colleagues knew…

After some rapport building, the heart of effective PLCs centers on questions such as: What do we want students to learn? How will we know they are learning? What will do to ensure progress for all? As educators deliberate on these questions, they analyze student learning with student work samples and assessments. It’s important to have teachers bring student work to the PLC table and not just try and remember off the top of their heads. This really makes the PLC more personal. Next, we set goals using standards and other initiatives and frameworks your school or district may be using. Collaboratively discussing ways to adjust practices to meet the needs of all learners is a rich part of a meaningful PLC experience. And then plan, plan, plan together. Share resources and lift up each other’s spirits!

The idea of collective teacher efficacy comes alive during PLCs. John Hattie describes collective teacher efficacy as “the collective belief teachers have in their ability to positively affect students.” Not only is the belief important, but so is the effort to measure our own evidence of impact on classroom culture and learning. When grade level teams align on beliefs and impact, everyone wins. Collective teacher efficacy is considered one of the most impactful influences on student learning.

When PLCs are run well and maintain a predictable structure with student learning and collaborative planning at the forefront, hopefully, the experience will no longer feel like a waste of time.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
We are looping with our kids this coming year. I have ZERO desire to have the same group of students and their parents again. I just want a fresh start, and I think it’s good for the kids and families, too.  And now I have to find new material and write new lesson plans for different standards. I hate it here! I’m dreading the extra planning work.  My principal and many colleagues think looping is a great idea, and I don’t. How do I manage this year? —To Loop or Not to Loop

Dear T.L.O.N.T.L.,

Deciding whether or not to loop with some of your students is a tough decision to make. You have shared valid concerns that other educators also have regarding looping with students. The planning load on a teacher who has students for multiple years is real. Your desire not to work with the same families is understandable. And the fact that it doesn’t sound like you have much of a voice in the matter is frustrating.

If there is a certain family that you have reasons not to work with again, speak to your administration about that. You might say, “I’d like to talk to you about the makeup of my class. There is a student who struggled with … I tried multiple solutions, including … Although there was some progress, I did not see the progress I had hoped for. Is there a way for us to give that student a fresh start with another teacher who can apply a new approach?” The looping configuration may stay in tact, but you may also get some compromises, too. So, how will you put one foot in front of the other to manage this upcoming year? Let’s get started with a few positives that may emerge from have some of the same students.

There are many pros and cons to looping. One benefit of looping is the strong relationships that you develop with the students and families. You know your students WELL, and you can build deeper levels of trust over time. That trust is magical and meaningful and super rewarding to you and your families. You also are able to adjust instruction and make it more personal based on what your students need. Relationships are at the heart of your classroom culture and positively influence classroom management, too. The time you save not having to learn about new students can shift to responsive, point-of-need support to students you already know. You pick up where you left off!

As far as planning goes, consider using some of your favorite lessons and texts again and infusing the other grade level standards. You will see that the standards are similar in many ways. Sometimes there is a benefit to using a familiar topic and text. Students can go deeper on the topic and expand their perspectives. Imagine being able to jump into more project-based learning to extend meaning with lessons that you might decide to revisit.

Parent communication is such an important component of teaching and learning, and it’s ESPECIALLY important in a looping context. Sending communication home and sharing ideas at back-to-school night is important. Try some of this language with families: “Welcome to our class! We have a looping model this year, which means I GET to work with you and your child again. I see this as an opportunity to build even stronger relationships. I understand your child’s needs very well! Yes, we will have challenges, and I hope you communicate your concerns so we can problem-solve together. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.”

Sending you best wishes on your new beginning with looping. Hopefully, the positives will outweigh the negatives over time.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at askweareteachers@weareteachers.com.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I was left speechless and dumbstruck when one of my 7th grade students looked me in the eyes and said, “We aren’t going to behave, so you might as well get over it.” It was so shocking, I just kind of stood there frozen. In the moment, I didn’t say anything. Now this moment and a few others like it have me feeling useless and insecure. I’ve been teaching for four years, and lately, I feel like I’m moving backward. I’m not feeling effective, and I’ve run out of ideas. My co-workers don’t seem to be having the behavior issues I am.  Any suggestions?