Refueling for the Educator’s Soul
When the going gets tough, rekindle your love for the profession with these 10 simple yet meaningful guidelines and ideas.
In September 2023, I posted the article “20 Ways to Set the Tempo for a Great School Year” that quickly resonated with many of you. The response was overwhelming, to say the least. Colleagues and strangers alike reached out to thank me for writing that article. I’m grateful for every single message, but as the notes of appreciation poured in, I had a lingering question: “What happens when the going gets tough? How long will a list of tips actually last?”
Full disclosure: I wrote that initial list as much for myself as for other educators. It’s easy to make a list of ideals when you’re feeling … ideal! However, what do you do when even the best-laid plans hit a sour note? I thought to myself, it’s time for some reminders and recharging.
So, on those days when the morning coffee tastes like someone added some valve oil, or when the once-eager faces in the classroom seem like an audience awaiting a show you’re not prepared for, here’s a follow-up.
1. The Power of Appreciation
Never underestimate the impact of a simple “thank you.” Be it a word of appreciation from a student, a gesture from a colleague or a nod from an administrator — it’s a validation of your efforts. And don’t forget to thank yourself. Self-gratitude is a replenishing reservoir.
Try this: Send one handwritten thank-you note to someone who has helped you out after you read this article. Keep it short and simple. Mail it out or put it on your colleague’s desk. Don’t expect anything back — you’re just saying thank you because you believe in showing appreciation.
2. The Joy of Small Wins
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your favorite concert piece was written one note at a time. Sometimes all it takes is one student to finally master that complicated rhythm or nail that elusive high note to remind us why we love our jobs. Small victories accumulate into big triumphs. There will be highs and lows, but a trumpet player who finally presses finger one down for Bb the first time is just as big a deal as a pristine performance. One win leads to others. Consider keeping a small journal or even a section of the whiteboard where kids can write their small victories. In one week, you’ll see a considerable amount of progress that you may have missed or trivialized.
Sometimes it feels like there are no wins, and that’s OK because one day does not define us. On our worst days, we need to focus on at least one thing that has gone right, or we can try to find the humor in the absurdity of the situation.
Recently, I had a day where nothing went right. The students were challenging, some surprises came up with the schedule, the car started making noise, dinner was burned, etc. I went to the grocery store that night. The cart system requires a quarter to release the cart, and when you place the cart back in the corral, you get your quarter back. I was thinking about how the day couldn’t get any worse as I put the cart back … and there was no quarter. I found the situation to be a little funny. Then a guy went up to get a cart and said, “Hey — free quarter!” I absolutely lost it and just laughed all the way to my car. I shared this with my students, and all of them were able to relate with their own quarter-eating story.
3. Less Is More
In our zeal to cover every piece, technique and theory, we often forget that sometimes less is more. It’s better to have students deeply understand fewer things than superficially cover many concepts. This type of understanding often leads to a greater appreciation and application of knowledge.
Step back — do you really need to run every piece today and make the same progress as yesterday? Sometimes narrowing our focus on one specific item can make a world of difference in our progress and stress level. It is OK to spend 10 or 20 minutes or even an entire class period on a measure or two, to tune a note or get the perfect diction down for one word. I’m lucky enough to have the Chicago Symphony Orchestra an hour away from my school. I tell my kids that what sets those musicians apart from everyone else is that a lot of us would pay money to hear one of them play even one note. Taking time to master one small item can help our kids understand what it is to push yourself and strive for the next level.
4. Don’t Fear the Reset Button
If something’s not working, don’t be afraid to hit reset. Whether it’s a teaching method, a lesson plan or even a classroom layout — it’s never too late to change up things. A fresh start is often the quickest way to regain your momentum. And it doesn’t have to be permanent. “Strings, everyone sit by someone else today. We’re going to focus on listening to parts we aren’t normally seated near.” Then go back to your regular seating the next day.
This can apply to your personal life as well. Recently, I started reading a book. I was about three hours into a book that would require five more hours of reading. It was a slog; I wasn’t getting much from it and started to dread my reading time, which is something I normally enjoy. So, I stopped and picked up another book and devoured it in two sittings.
5. Your Well-Being Matters, Too
We often pour so much into our students that we forget about ourselves. Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Exercise, meditate, read or simply take a break when you need to recharge. I got busy and started going down the fast-food route again. A simple course correction of adding in some meal planning on Sunday saved me quite a bit of stress. If you don’t take your lunch break at school, consider starting small: Once a week during your lunch time, take a walk, visit another area of the school or even try something extravagant like eating your lunch in peace. We often think we need hours and hours of rest to recharge, but oftentimes, a five- to 10-minute break can be time enough to recharge.
6. Keep the Big Picture in Mind
Drown out the minor irritants and daily drudgeries by focusing on the larger mission. You are a mentor, a guide and a cornerstone in the development of the next generation. That’s no small feat! This can be easier said than done, so here are a few tips:
You can still check email but try to tackle one of your big projects first, such as score study, lesson planning or even something fun for your program. Then, in the remaining moments before your next commitment, complete other people’s requests like emails. Apply Parkinson’s law, which states that work will expand to fill the allotted time. If you spend 30 minutes on email, see what happens when you restrict your email response time to just 10 minutes. You may be surprised by your work output and energy level.
7. The Classroom Is a Stage, But It’s OK to Drop the Act
By this point, you have been “on” for quite some time. Sometimes, Super Teacher’s civilian clothes show under their superhero costume and mask. Authenticity goes a long way. While it’s necessary to maintain professionalism, it’s also OK to be human. Show your vulnerabilities and share your stories — they allow students to connect with you on a deeper level.
8. Every Question Is a Good Question
This classic piece of advice is easy to forget. Encourage questions — they can be about course material or life in general. A curious student is a sign of an engaged mind, and that’s what we want, right?
The only exception is: “Are we playing today?” The answer is and always will be: “Yes, we play every day, have played every day and will continue to play every day.”
9. Network and Share
Isolation can be a teacher’s worst enemy. For those of us who teach fine arts or other electives, we may even be secluded to another part of the building, away from the majority of teachers. Go talk to someone — anyone — in your building. Say hi and catch up. Go be a time burglar for a bit! Share your experiences and challenges with colleagues and listen to theirs. You’ll be amazed at how many new perspectives and solutions you’ll find when you open up. (Note to self: When you actually see another adult who stumbles into your wing, don’t open with, “Look! Another adult! PLEASE TALK TO ME!” (This comes across as slightly desperate.)
10. Find the Humor
Laughter is an underused tool in education. A classroom where laughter is frequent is one where learning is a joy, not a chore. Humor can be a fantastic icebreaker and a great way to make material more accessible. Plus, we all want to be a part of something that is fun and joyful. When a section in my group starts laughing, the rest of us wonder what we’re missing out on.
It’s fine to bring up a goofy thought, but don’t let it derail your class. We started a food fundraiser recently, and all the items looked absolutely delicious. My favorites were any products that had sugar in them. I thought, “What if a company tried to sell flavor combos that just didn’t work?” So, I said it out loud. My band is now looking at starting an LLC to sell cookies in five exciting flavors, including “Toothpaste and Orange Juice,” “Sedimentary Coffee Grounds at the Bottom of Your Cup Because You Made It at Home to Save Money” and “Middle School Gymatorium” (essence of ketchup, sweat and regret). It was silly and had nothing to do with music, but we had a great rehearsal after that.
Teaching is a long road, and like any journey, it has its ups and downs. Never forget that you have the best co-pilots a person could ask for: your students. Keep these gentle reminders in your back pocket, adapt them to your style and keep forging ahead. Even during tough times, remember that you make a difference. Continue to lead with purpose and integrity.