By Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski
It was on the seventh day of school, near the end of the day- Friday the 13th no less, when one of my new third grade students asked me why I wanted to be a teacher. In my 18 years of teaching, no student has ever asked me this question. I was busy doing one of the many teacher tasks that must get done as a day draws to a close when he asked the question. I stopped what I was doing and looked at him with a smile. I spoke my truth:
“I always loved school. I loved to learn and just felt at home and happy at school. I missed it when I wasn’t there. Then, when I got older, I really enjoyed helping people and showing someone how to do something they didn’t know how to do. I wanted to help people,” I told him. I thanked him for asking me that question. Because, I’ve learned, even at the end of the day on a Friday the 13th, it’s important to keep your focus on what brought you to this profession in the first place.
It always come back to the WHY.
For a person who always wanted to be a teacher- believing it was more of a calling than a job, I have sadly found myself lost more than once. Unsure if this profession was really for me. Unsure if I really was effective at all. Unsure if I could handle all the work that is required to keep your head above water when teaching 25 (or more) children in every subject, every day, while communicating with families, learning new curriculum, differentiating assignments, filling out forms, battling with stubborn photocopy machines and so much more. Unsure if I should be more ambitious and seek a different position in education, leaving the classroom behind. Unsure if I could be happy in a profession that requires so much emotional labor and so little respect for those in the trenches. Unsure if I could be a good mom and a good teacher simultaneously. Unsure if I could survive being evaluated by my student’s test scores. Unsure if I could survive hiding in a corner with my students during lockdown drills. Unsure if there wasn’t something else out there for me after all this time, doing this one job.
Last year, in particular, I felt a professional restlessness. Maybe it was the fact I was turning 40. Maybe it was the frustration of feeling like I couldn’t get a handle on all the work I had to do and, after 17 years of teaching, it STILL shouldn’t feel so hard. Maybe it was that many of my contemporaries were now high in the ranks of education- principals, directors, speakers, consultants, authors- and I was still in the same role that I started at as a 22 year old. Maybe it was a feeling that my expertise wasn’t valued or appreciated as I thought it should be.
There was a sense that something felt off. I wasn’t loving teaching in the same way. I was resentful of the demands on my time, resentful of colleagues who had less work to do, resentful that some with less experience and passion were telling me the best way to do my job. As summer vacation started, a new opportunity presented itself. A K-2 Instructional Coach position became available in my school building. Suddenly, it felt like the perfect move for me to make- a chance to do something different. As a former kindergarten teacher, a current third grade teacher and a person who had presented professionally as part of the Long Island Writing Project, I felt that my skills and experience came together to make this a position where I could really make a positive difference.
I spent weeks preparing my cover letter and resume. I started following instructional coaches and hashtags on Twitter. I dreamed of how I would help teachers and students. I bought inspiring teacher greeting cards, planning on all the little notes I would leave to let teachers know all the beautiful things they were doing. I studied interview questions. I shopped for a new suit to wear on my interview. I crafted a digital portfolio of all the professional blog posts and presentations I’ve shared through the years. I created a sample newsletter I would share with teachers. I didn’t think at all about my classroom or being away from students- I felt ready to make this leap.
My dreams of being an instructional coach came to a screeching halt when I got the news I wasn’t selected. I was stunned. Hurt. Sad. Disappointed. Embarrassed. Lost again. After so much time preparing for a new position, I was going back to the classroom, which I had felt so ready to leave behind.
I am sharing this here because I don’t think we, as educators, talk enough about the times we are lost. I’ve been noticing a theme lately- many former educators now host podcasts, write books, and consult on the notion of teacher wellness and self-care. But almost every single person advising teachers on how to navigate the work-life balance has left the classroom themselves. They will tell you how to be mindful, practice deep breathing, create boundaries- but they left the classroom to live this different life. That’s not practical or possible for many of us who need the salary, benefits, and security that a tenured teaching position provides.
When I’m driving and I get lost (which happens way more than I’d like to admit), it is always MAPS that help me find my way back. I usually use Google Maps, where my wrong turn can easily be rerouted. I can see the big picture before me and find my way to my destination.
When I felt lost this summer, I navigated my way back to joy as a teacher by using MAPS: Meaning and (What) Matters, Attitude, Professionals and “My People” and Self-Care.
M: Meaning and (What) Matters
My son is a third grader this year, and my daughter is a first grader. As a parent, I realize just how important a caring and effective teacher is in the life of a child. I want my children to go to school and feel seen, valued, and liked (even loved). I want them to feel curious and excited about what they are learning. I want them to have the opportunity to connect to their learning in personal ways. I want them to grow and flourish in every way while they are in school. As I think of all that I want for my own children, I realize what a privilege it is to create that type of atmosphere for my students. All that I want my own children to experience are elements I can create in my classroom. I can make a difference in the lives of my 26 third graders. I can help them feel happy in school, and seen, and safe. I can help them grow in confidence and curiosity. I can make learning relevant and engaging. This is ultimately what matters most and why I wanted to be a teacher all those years ago when I started on this path. This is what matters- more than any evaluation, test score, data point, new curriculum, reading level. This is why I teach. Keeping my focus on what matters most helps me believe in the work I am doing each day.
I am realizing more and more that it isn’t what happens in life, it’s how I react to it. It’s how I approach my day. It’s what I chose to focus on. It’s who I want to be and how I want to show up for my life. It’s choosing to be grateful for my job and choosing to focus on the good instead of all the big and little frustrations that come with being a teacher. It’s watering the flowers instead of watering the weeds. It’s focusing on what matters and radically accepting there will be parts of the job that are really hard and really annoying. I realize that last year I didn’t always show a positive attitude at work. I let frustration boil over at times when I was in meetings. While I can’t change that, I can choose my attitude now and I am working to keep a positive outlook. Choosing to be happy each day is a way to enjoy being in the classroom.
P- Professionals and “My People”
The times I’ve been lost as a teacher, I’ve always (eventually) found guides to show me the way. Professional organizations like the Long Island Writing Project. Blogging communities like the Two Writing Teachers and the Slice of Life folks. Educators who I follow on Twitter. Authors who share their brilliance in books. Reading about other teachers and their challenges and triumphs always helps me realize that this is a job like no other and the struggle IS real. Supportive educators who value me as a teacher and a writer have made all the difference. I reread the notes of appreciation given to me by administrators, parents and students and realize I have made a positive impact on those I teach and my school community.
S- Self Care
In my first year of teaching, I arrived at school two hours before the first bell rang and stayed up to four hours after the last child left. I carried work home with me, too. I had no social life, ate poorly and still felt like I wasn’t teaching well.
There were times in my teaching life where I would set my alarm for 1:00 AM and literally work in the middle of the night because it was the only time I could get things done. As you can imagine, this wasn’t sustainable or healthy at all.
Now, after being a teacher for so many years, I’ve added being a wife and a mom to the mix. I get to work maybe 20 minutes before the students and many days I leave when I am contractually allowed. I carry work home but sometimes it just sits in my bag, ignored. Nowadays, I go to bed at a reasonable hour. I work on drinking more water, eating nutritious foods, and exercising. I read for pleasure, even when there is work in my bag that should get done. I let certain things go because a teacher could work around the clock and there would still be more to do. And my children deserve a present mother which means sometimes, teaching tasks get pushed to the side. I’ve learned that life goes on in school when you can’t be there, but you are irreplaceable to your family. I’ve learned that I am no good to anyone when I am exhausted, stressed and unhealthy. So, if you are feeling lost as a teacher, maybe start here. Get some rest. Eat the food that fuels you. Sit in the sunshine. Make time for the people you love.
Teacher, Lost and Found
In a lucky twist of fate, being back in the classroom this year allowed me to have a student teacher. She is full of enthusiasm and excitement for teaching. She has good insight and is caring to the students. She is hard-working and brings ideas to share. It is such a pleasure to be able to coach someone after all, and our 26 third graders are blooming with two of us there to plant seeds of love of learning. I am proud of the work we are doing each day. I look forward to seeing my students every morning and trying new strategies and approaches. I feel a deep sense of gratitude that I am a teacher, in this place, at this time. After questioning if I want to teach anymore, I now know that I am right where I belong.
If you are a teacher who feels lost, I hope you know you are not alone. Truly, I’ve been there. And I hope that sharing MAPS might help you reconnect to your WHY again. Here’s hoping you find your way home, too.
Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski is a third grade teacher in Farmingdale, NY. She has taught 6th grade, Special Education, and Kindergarten. Kathleen is the co-director of the Long Island Writing Project and has presented workshops to educators from K-College. She is also one of the co-authors of the Two Writing Teachers blog. While she is proud of all her roles in education, her proudest job is being mom to Alex and Megan.