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 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, Cindy Trevizo, and Jason Tyler, 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