The beginning of the school year feels like a frenetic blur. I’m writing lesson plans, learning names, trying to build community, catching up with colleagues, and attempting to teach some content on top of it all. A few days ago, I watched my first sack of grading materialize in front of my eyes; 90 in-class essays from my sophomores over their summer reading. I quickly did the math that I assume all teachers do: how many essays do I need to grade per day so that I can get them back to the students with a reasonable turnaround rate? I ended up taking a small stack home that night, convinced that if I could grade 5 at school, and 5 at home every single day, it would mean that I could get them back to the students in less than 2 weeks and not even have to grade over the weekend. I mean...10 essays per day? No problem. In my head, I convinced myself this was a completely attainable, perhaps even a lazy goal.
I drove home with those five essays tucked into my pack, motivated to knock them out in an hour. I sat down at the kitchen table and graded two essays, rapid fire. To my delight, they weren’t even poorly written! Then I got distracted by my unfinished kitchen renovation, I took my dog for a walk, made dinner, and proceeded to get even more distracted by a glass of wine and the nightly news.The other three essays just lay on the table for the rest of the night.
The next morning, as I packed up my teacher bag to leave for work, I saw the ungraded essays and felt the all too familiar lurch in my stomach: disappointment. How did I let this happen so early in the year? How was I already off track?
That thinking was the trigger of a wicked cycle, and I’ve been caught up in it so many times: I bring work home, my life gets in the way, and I must catch up somehow the next day... but I can never get it finished. There’s always work to be done, and the cycle repeats and repeats. That morning, as I added those three essays back to the top of my “to-be-graded” pile, I at least had the presence of mind to stop and think to myself: Hold on. This cycle isn’t sustainable. That thought, of course, has not stopped me from setting unattainable grading goals, but I’m glad that I can at least recognize the pattern (and the feeling of disappointment in myself) as being completely toxic. It’s just a baby step that I’m taking towards embracing a more sustainable teaching practice; I’m trying to recognize when I need to cut myself some slack. I mean, honestly, isn’t it ridiculous? Why am I so upset with myself when I let life distract me from my work? Shouldn’t I be more appalled that I’ve allowed work to overrun my life?
Several other teachers from my department have attended the sustainable teaching institute, and over the past few lunches, I’ve been asking them what their takeaways have been. For Stephen, it was adding a note to his email signature stating that emails would be answered within two school days, which has allowed him to feel more comfortable to not check his work email over the weekend (something which encouraged many of us to do the same). For Creighton, moving towards sustainability has meant a shift in his before and after school routines. He has started biking to and from work several days of the week, and it gives him mental distance from the classroom, which allows him to be more refreshed and positive when he gets to work or when he gets home. Tiffany, who attended the institute the previous summer, mentioned that she likes to incorporate breathing exercised with her students before tests; she reports that the atmosphere in her room after these exercises is much calmer.
Of course, none of these practices are one-size-fits-all fixes, and we are a long way off from perfection. I don’t believe that attaining complete sustainability in my teaching is something that is going to happen overnight; it’s going to take conscious effort and lots of time to break the cycles of unsustainability. For me, it starts with that recognition of the problem and then making one small move to correct it.
This weekend, I’ll take some grading home, but I’m going to consciously put it away after an hour. Whatever I don’t get to can wait until next week, and I bet my students will understand.
WRITTEN BY: Beth Bratschun, CSUWP Teacher-Leader and Poudre H.S. English Teacher
Are you feeling burned out? Committed to writing, reading, reflecting, and thinking hard together with others? Willing to take emotional and intellectual risks oriented toward healing and growth in community? Not sure how much longer you can last in teaching, even though you still love it deep down? You’re not alone.
Nationally, rates of teacher turnover have risen to as high as 16%, with rates as high as 50% in Title I schools that serve lower-income communities. Twice as many teachers leave the profession in the U.S., compared to those in countries like Finland, Singapore, and Canada, because they are dissatisfied with their jobs. Statistics for new teachers are even worse. In Colorado, about 1 in 6 leaves before their fifth year. Among teachers leaving the profession, most report feeling a sense of dissatisfaction in one or more areas of their teaching career, including things like lack of professional development opportunities, little to no collaboration or planning time, and low wages.
A New Kind of Professional Development
Even long-time National Writing Project teachers struggle with the demands of teaching, which is exactly why the CSUWP Institute for Sustainable Teaching (IST) came to be in Summer 2017. Sitting in a CSU coffee shop the previous spring, CSUWP leaders, Cindy O'Donnell-Allen, Jenny Putnam, and Kelly Burns, engaged in a little venting before they began planning CSUWP's professional development programs for the summer. They were physically exhausted by the non-stop pace of teaching. They felt professionally isolated. There were more items on their to-do lists than any human being could possibly accomplish in 24 hours, much less an average school day.
And they knew they were not alone.
If that was the case, then why not design a summer program unlike any that CSUWP had ever offered before? Why not get a lot of smart teachers together in the same room to figure out how to thrive--not just survive--as teachers and human beings? So that's exactly what they did.
First and foremost, the CSUWP Institute for Sustainable Teaching is designed to allow teachers to “just be,” to participate and collaborate in a program to learn more about themselves as teachers, but also to learn about themselves as people. Unlike other programs that CSUWP has offered in the past that center mostly on classroom practice, the IST is completely focused on teachers as educators, writers, and human beings.
Participants come together on the CSU campus for a week in August and four Saturdays during the subsequent school year to “fill the well” by experiencing space and time for personal restoration and professional renewal. The daily schedule revolves around personal writing, discussion of professional texts, and workshops with experts to learn more about mindfulness practices and the science behind them. The afternoon includes a block called “restoration time” when participants can do what they choose--read for pleasure, write creatively, make art, do yoga together, or even just sit under a tree. Throughout the entire process, IST participants form a small community to explore the concept of “sustainable teaching.”
So what is sustainable teaching?
At the end of the summer portion of the workshop in 2017, IST teachers reflected on their work together to develop a theory of change guided by the following definition of sustainable teaching:
Sustainable teaching is the process of fostering compassion for self while supporting the growth and development of our students. The goal of sustainable teaching is to create a collaborative community that values a balanced approach to education and enables all participants to thrive.
Components of sustainable teaching include:
Already, their work is making an impact in their classrooms, in CSUWP, and even in the broader profession through presentations at the 2017 National Writing Project annual meeting and the 2018 National Council of Teachers of English conference. In the fall, English Journal will also publish an article called “Finding a Way to Stay: Making a Path for Sustainable Teaching,” written by IST educators Kelly Burns, Emily Richards Moyer, Cindy O’Donnell-Allen, and Molly Robbins.
The IST community will continue to grow this summer with a new set of recruits, and a research team from the 2017-18 IST that includes Rob Borger, Jack Martin, and Cindy Trevizo, who will continue digging into the theory of sustainable teaching.
The most important changes, however, have happened in the IST teachers themselves. Supported by their colleagues in the IST community, they have learned to recognize and nurture their humanity within their identity as teachers. For once, they have learned that perhaps the only way to stay in teaching for a lifetime is to let themselves “just be.”
FOR MORE INFO
To learn more about professional development opportunities related to sustainable teaching, contact CSUWP Director Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. To download a pdf of the definition of sustainable teaching, click here. Also be sure to check back here on the CSUWP blog for future posts featuring the stories of IST teachers.
WRITTEN BY: Lynley Allen, CSUWP Media Intern
Image: "Self-Care Wheel" created by Emily Richards Moyer in the 2017 institute for sustainable teaching