Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Writing for Our Lives

The Need for Release

I work in a high-needs building with some amazingly dedicated educators who toil daily to help students sift through the layers of poverty, self-image challenges and traumas both evident and latent.  I believe that the reality is, schools like ours should address the emotional and physiological toll paid by adults working long-term in these kinds of arenas. We are all familiar with the high attrition rates from high-poverty schools, and there are many, well documented reasons for it.  However, what is not as often examined, it seems, is the impact over years of high levels of adrenaline and cortisol pumping through the veins of teachers who work on the front lines diffusing inner and external fires all day. I could say more, but suffice it to say, for now, that working as a coach has given me an interesting vantage point as I work through, and observe other teachers working through, these dynamics. In addition to my other professional interests, I have informally developed a strong passion for teacher wellness. I tend to define teacher wellness a bit more broadly than our health insurance company does, although I definitely ascribe to all of the prevention strategies they recommend. I tend to think of teacher wellness beyond things like triglycerides and blood pressure levels--as super critical as they are–and look to more subtle things like ongoing mental exhaustion, self-efficacy and how a lack of it erodes effectiveness and hope.  I examine the micro-aggressions that drain a teacher's energy throughout a day. I’ll be posting more about this topic, so I won't attempt to cover it here in depth. However, what I want to address in this post is what I see as a life-saving strategy for teachers: writing.  It is no secret that many teachers live as parents, caregivers, and other high-responsibility roles outside of the classroom. It could sound almost funny to suggest that people with such full plates sit down to write for their own purposes. I do believe, though, that it is a critical, if underused, piece of our survival.

Three Camps

Teachers are charged with helping students to grow in confidence and competence as writers; yet if you sit down and talk to teachers themselves, you will generally find three camps.

1.There are those who strongly self-identify as writers, who enjoy the process and understand the craft. Usually these people use writing in their real lives and or for enjoyment pretty regularly.
2. The second category includes those teachers who have been told that they are good at it, but because of perfectionism and under-use, they lack confidence in their own abilities and don't write as much as they probably should.
3. In the third camp, there are those teachers who got blasted with a red pen throughout their school experience and so learned that writing is all about correctness.  For them, there is no room for it to also be about enjoyment. With good reason, enjoyment and accuracy are mutually exclusive in their minds, and no matter what they tell their students, they stay as far away from writing in their own lives as humanly possible.
 I want to say that for each of those groups, especially for teachers working in extremely challenging environments, writing is a necessary tool to help us process this incredibly complex vocation of ours.

Countless well-known writers have shared the powerful, cathartic experience that writing has been for them in their lives, helping them to work through personal traumas, illuminate the world around them and unearth salient truths about who they were meant to be.  It doesn’t hurt that these artists felt gifted to write and cultivated that gift.  But can’t the average person benefit in the same kinds of ways from the release of self-expression? I would say absolutely they can—and they should. And so, I will continue to live before my teaching colleagues as an advocate of the life lived always asking, always learning, and always, writing...

Where to Begin?

It can be completely intimidating and overwhelming to launch a life as a writer, I imagine—much like it feels like being born anew to try to make myself a person who works out regularly.  There are major mental hurdles to overcome, and I dare not downplay that! But it’s a process that must happen, I believe.  I think these simple steps could really change the game:
  • ·        Making writing samples (on site) regular practices in our teacher hiring processes
o   The building I am in now required a writing sample from applicants.  It is the second application process that worked this way—we received a prompt we were not privy to prior to the application process, and had to write, by hand and on the spot, responses to certain questions.  If this were our norm, we could help identify early on those who are investing in their own learning as writers and who may have no tools to impart to our students in this area.  Knowing this kind of expectation is in place would encourage all teachers to continually seek practice and improvement as writers.

  • ·        Incorporating some fun writing elements into our building culture:
o   Student-staff pen pal pairings; staff members writing notes to one another; encouraging letters from teachers to students in testing grades, etc.
o   Building written reflection into our staff meetings--Periodic written reflections on our day at the start of a staff meeting as a “grounding activity” and to decompress.  This would get teachers into the rhythm of experiencing writing as therapeutic.

I am convinced there are untold numbers of latent writers who have not yet been activated, freed, celebrated…many of those undiscovered writers are teachers whose students desperately need them to learn what is in them.  And even more than that, those teachers themselves need the gift of their own words to cast light of illumination on their practice, their relationships to their work, and their world.  I am here to say it, and say it, and say it again, until we all have heard… Writers, write on!  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Join the Movement! #workfreelunch


Not that you can tell it by the time I took to report it here :-), but I am thrilled to have begun the journey of writing blog posts for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards!  My first blog post is linked below:

National Board blog posts are famously to the point, which is good for loquacious folks like me.  I think you will enjoy the read.  Essentially, I have begun the adventure of giving myself just 30 minutes out of every busy day to take care of something that's important to me, that's not work.  Maybe it's personal e-mails on my own laptop, or calls I need to make for my family, or just conversation with a colleague.  But I'm thankful to just be learning a dimension of self-care that I'd been ignoring for far too long.  Please read on! Share your thoughts, comments, and more importantly, share the blog!  Thanks, and happy, long, life to all of my teacher friends out there! We've got to pace ourselves, friends.  The #workfreelunch is a start!