When is it okay to say you’ve done “enough” for a student?

How much is enough time to give to each student? There are students who have behavior problems, academic challenges, IEPS, family problems, those whose parents you need to catch after school or speak with the principal about… Student issues, dealing with emails, and talking with parents are so time consuming. When is it ok to say “enough, I’ve done all I can and need to move on?

This is a question I was asked recently in The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. I’ve talked a lot in the club and on my blog about how teaching is a job that’s never done, and there’s always something more you could be doing. And part of that is just the nature of working with children. Parenting is a similar type of job–parents always feel like they haven’t done enough to help their kids.

“How much is enough time to give to each student? There are students who have behavior problems, academic challenges, IEPS, family problems, those whose parents you need to catch after school or speak with the principal about… Student issues, dealing with emails, and talking with parents are so time consuming. When is it ok to say "enough, I've done all I can and need to move on?”

The only time we as teachers seem to have a sense that it’s okay to stop giving ourselves to our students is at the end of the school year when they’re no longer assigned to our classrooms. Something tells me that this is the reason why so many teachers look forward to the relief of summer break months before it arrives– having a vacation is great, too, of course, but it’s the only time all year that they can feel like finally, whatever they’ve done is ENOUGH and they don’t have to do any more for that particular group of students.

But what if we could re-create that feeling throughout the school year, and get ourselves to a place mentally where we feel like we’ve done enough?

Can we ever look at a challenging student in our class and say, “I’ve done all that I can?”

No teacher can give 110% to students every day

I’m definitely not saying it’s easy to get to that place where we feel like we’ve done enough. But I think it’s important to keep striving for that, because to refuse to draw boundaries around how much of yourself you are willing to give your students will lead to burnout.

This is something that I rarely hear admitted in education. We’re supposed to give 110% to our students, as if we can somehow give more than 100% of ourselves (where is that extra 10% coming from, anyway?), as if giving even 100% of ourselves would leave anything leftover for the other people in our lives.

We’re supposed to not just give our all for students during the school day, but be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure every single student in our class succeeds.

How much is “enough” to give each student?

And so we drive ourselves to an early grave giving, giving, giving, and carrying the burden of not letting any student be left behind (even the ones who don’t care if they’re left behind.)

And we’re working double, and triple, and quadruple time trying to put forth energy on behalf of students who don’t put forth anything, and students who are weighed down by poverty, broken homes, and systemic issues we can’t even begin to understand….and we feel like it’s our fault when they don’t succeed, because we could have done more. We could have always done more.

And the pattern repeats every school year with a new group of kids. We give more of ourselves than is even possible to give, driven by guilt, fear, and the belief that we have to do whatever it takes.

“We have to do whatever it takes”

My friend, there is an operative word in that phrase that I think most us miss out on. WE have to do whatever it takes.

WE, as in the school community. Not YOU, one individual teacher who’s constrained by a school system that’s not designed to support teachers or kids.

WE have to do whatever it takes. We as a nation have to keep addressing the big issues that are holding our kids back, we in our local communities have to offer support and services, and funding and love.

This cannot all be on your shoulders as one person. That’s too big of a weight for you to carry, and you will not succeed on your own.

You are not responsible for carrying the burden that’s supposed to be assigned to parents, extended family, your colleagues, your principal, your superintendent, or the government. You’re not even responsible for carrying the burden that’s assigned to students: you can’t do the work for them, you can’t force them to learn, and you can’t magically make them care.

The only part of the teaching process you’re responsible for is your own. And to walk in that truth, you have to first understand what you’re responsible for, and then learn how to draw boundaries when anyone (including yourself) gives you a guilt trip about not doing enough.

How much is “enough” to give each student?

Knowing what is “enough” to give each student is about accepting that there is always something more you could be doing for a child that would help them.

You could do 100 things for a student while always carrying that nagging feeling that 110 things would benefit the kid even more.

And you’d be right.

If you did more, your students would do better. It’s an endless cycle of guilt.

So personally, I always tried to look at what was sustainable for me and what’s most beneficial for students. Those are the two guiding principles.

I can’t stay at school until 7 PM because then, I’m not taking care of my health, my family, or the things that need to be done at home. I can stay two hours to work after school today, and that’s it.

So if I have those two hours, what can I do that will benefit my students the most?

I can’t do it all, so where should I focus my time and energy to have the greatest positive impact on my students?

boundaries

One or two students cannot consume our lives

We all have students who consume a disproportionate amount of our time, and it’s okay that those children need more from us. But they can’t take it all or even the majority of it.

Spend an afternoon working on IEPs, behavior plans, and contacting parents, but then the next day, work on designing lessons that benefit ALL your students. Don’t allow one or two kids to consume 50% of your time.

When you feel that resentment is building because you’re giving too much to a handful of kids and not enough to the rest of the class, listen to yourself. Trust that instinct. Follow that feeling that says:

Enough. I have done enough. I have a finite amount of time and energy for my students, and I cannot devote such a huge amount to just this one student. I have to think about what I can do that will benefit my class the most, and what will have the greatest possible impact on my class as a whole.

I guarantee that you will feel guilt when you choose to create those boundaries. But remind yourself of the alternative: you could work yourself to the bone for those students and burn out, or you could find balance that will allow you to stay in the profession of helping kids for years to come.

Those are the choices. You can’t do both.

Say NO to one thing so you have time and energy to say YES to something bigger.

Let the very thing that is creating guilt about not doing enough—your passion for helping kids–be the very thing that gives you permission to pace yourself.

You want to keep making a difference in students’ lives for years to come, and so you have to think about what’s sustainable for you. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself.

Know and respect your own limits each day

Here’s what this mindset looks like on a daily basis. I would give of myself each day until it hit a point where I knew I’d be tired and resentful and impatient with my students the next day if I did any more.

This had very little to do with hours worked: it was more about emotional involvement and energy expenditure.

On the days when students are less demanding, you can give more, and you can work longer. And sometimes dealing with kids’ tough issues wears you out very quickly.

So I would do what I felt capable of doing that day, and then stop and take care of myself. There’s no benefit in pushing past the point of what I know is sustainable for me because I’m just going to be tired the next day, snap at the kids, and undo all the good work I did today.

The fate of your students does not rest solely upon your shoulders

So remember, you are not responsible for fixing every problem, and should not try to do this on your own. You’re only responsible for your part, and it’s a very small part in the grand scheme of the child’s life. How much is “enough” to give each student?

In your classroom, remember that you are a servant, not a savior. Your students’ success is not wholly dependent on what you do or don’t do for them. They are not going to be hopeless, illiterate losers if you go to bed at 10 PM instead of staying up all night worrying and trying to think of interventions.

You are one teacher out of many they will have in their lives.

You are one influence out of many.

Do what you can to make a positive difference, but always remember: you are there to serve the kids; you are not responsible for saving them.

When you start to hit a wall of resentment, it’s okay to draw boundaries. Trust yourself to know when enough is enough.

Only had time to skim through the post now? Listen to it on the go!

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!

Next week: 6 ways to more efficiently co-plan with other teachers

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go!  A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ali January 31, 2016 at 8:10 pm

Thank you! This was beautifully written and so right on target! I should reread it every Sunday night.

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2 Angela Watson February 2, 2016 at 7:23 am

So glad it was encouraging for you. Thanks for your comment.

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3 Laura January 31, 2016 at 10:46 pm

You are spot-on when you say that this is an issue not addressed much in education. It’s like there’s this unspoken understanding that we must put in 18 hour days and be email-responsive 7 days a week “for the kids.”

That’s just not sustainable!

You know what really helps me? Every Sunday night I think about the most important things–my priorities–for the week outside of teaching. “Sara’s game is Tuesday at 6:00…Church is Wednesday at 7:00… I’m going to get in two strength training workouts on Monday and Thursday…” Then I plan exactly what I will say when (not if– but when!) something comes up on those days that threaten to eat up my time and leave me exhausted.

“I’m not going to be available for XYZ on Thursday because I have family plans already.” Hey, working out with my husband counts as family plans!

You have to take care of yourself and your family first, and you have to be ready each week to make sure that happens.

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4 Angela Watson February 2, 2016 at 7:29 am

Well said, Laura! Time with your family absolutely counts as “plans.” In fact, I think that’s the best way to plan out your week: schedule in those things you need and want to do for yourself, home, family, etc. first and then choose times for working on the evenings and weekends based around that. It sounds simple but many people just start on the pile of work first and let it interfere with things that are bigger priorities for them in life. Sustainability is key–we can’t fall into mindless patterns of behavior that create burnout. There has to be an intentional shift to setting boundaries…and believing that ultimately, those boundaries will actually help our students, because they allow us to keep going back and give our all in the classroom day after day.

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5 María February 1, 2016 at 3:59 am

Great episode! Thanks!!

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6 Angela Watson February 2, 2016 at 7:23 am

Thank you!

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7 Alex Le Long February 2, 2016 at 5:40 am

This was exactly what I needed to read today. Got my students end of year exam results today and was asked to write down what went well and what I need to do differently. I came to the conclusion that all I could do is do more. Manage time more effectively, hold more study sessions and inspire and build more confidence. I do this already but all I could think was that I could just do MORE to really improve these results. Thank you so so much for these beautiful pearls of wisdom. Sharing to my pln :)

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8 Angela Watson February 2, 2016 at 7:32 am

All you can do is more…yes, that’s so, so true in many cases. Sometimes you can do things differently–more effectively, more efficiently–but if you have examined the situation from every angle with other trusted professionals, and the only solution left is MORE…I think the burden then begins to shift away from you. If you’re already doing everything you can and the student needs more, who else in the school, family, or community can help with that?

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9 Amy February 2, 2016 at 7:56 am

So many times we as educators take the weight of the world on our shoulders. Being in North East there is a lot of depression and the thoughts of feeling trapped because of all the cold weather and snow during the winter months. Another way that I try and help my fellow educators is to help them smile and feel good about something they have accomplished, give a wave with a smile, or make a witty remark that makes them smile. This podcast is a great motivator and I will be getting the podcast every Sunday from now on. I am always looking for something to listen to on the way to work instead of all the commercials on the radio. Thank you for all that you do to help people that you don’t even know.

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10 Pam February 2, 2016 at 8:20 pm

Fantastic post that EVERY teacher should read!! Thank you so much for sharing!
Pam

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11 Kacie B February 2, 2016 at 8:42 pm

“You are a servant, not a savior.”

I’m a Special Education teacher, and there is no doubt the Lord has called me to this field. My biggest struggle right now, however, is realizing that even the best academic interventions and classroom management skills are not fully adequate in addressing the deepest needs of the human soul. I am going to let this truth sink into my heart so that I might move forward and teach from a place of grace. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

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12 Leigh February 3, 2016 at 8:06 pm

Ditto!!! I am a special education teacher and have to realize that too. I shouldn’t be letting two students consume my every waking moment. My family, my sanity, and my health are at risk if I don’t stop and know when to say enough.

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13 Katie P. February 6, 2016 at 8:46 pm

Well said Kacie!! I’m a Special Education teacher as well and I also believe the Lord has called me to it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts… Many of the kids on in my class are impacted so much by poverty and struggles that leave them begging not to go home sometimes. It breaks my heart… I pray that the help and love we do give them while they are in our school is enough. “You are a servant, not a savior” yes, amen!

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14 Diana February 3, 2016 at 8:56 am

Thank you! This article was an answer to prayer. My type A personality and my desire to help my kids often makes me feel as though I’m failing as an educator. Thank you for your insight and wisdom. I will be sharing this with my teacher friends.

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15 Rose February 6, 2016 at 6:44 pm

Great article, reading your books “Unshakable” and “Awakening”, and also in your 40HTWCLUB. This is my situation: I spend one afternoon an hour with students from 4-6th grade in a Homework Club, but I also keep anywhere from 1-5 students the other days after school to assist as needed with homework. I’m also teaching at a new school. I was at my previous school for 11 years. I’m the team leader for 4-6th and I’m a mentor for a new teacher (she’s been out of teaching for 11 yrs and taught Jr/High School P.E. and Spanish. My move has been a great move and I love the school/district, have a great relationship with my mentee and other coworkers and principal. I’m continually reading, searching the internet, and/or taking PD courses/classes. After reading your article I wonder if I have taken on too much and would like to quit having students come to my class after school, except for the Homework Club because I am getting a stipend and have committed to it. Don’t get me wrong, because I do care about my students a lot. And maybe that extra hour after school is the best thing for them. I already had one of my students ask if they could come over on Friday because their parents were going out. One of the other students does not have a parent home until approximately 7PM and he and his siblings are left on their own. Another one has a shaky family like. I feel this is what my purpose in life is. I have 4 grown daughters and 4 grandsons. I’m 46 and happily married to my high school sweetheart. I love my job and I always tell people that this IS my hobby. I love what I do, but I don’t want to burn out and be disgruntled. What are your thoughts and suggestions? Thank you for everything! God Bless you🙏✝

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16 Taylor February 6, 2016 at 8:58 pm

The point that really stuck with me is that as a teacher I am meant to be a servant, not a savior. There is only one Savior and as a perfectionist, it took me a long time to realize that I was trying to be my own savior. I need to bring this same mentality that I had to learn for myself to my classroom. Thank you for your wonderful words.

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17 Angela Watson February 14, 2016 at 12:20 pm

What a beautiful connection to make. Thanks for sharing that.

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18 Megan February 7, 2016 at 3:16 pm

First year teacher here. I totally needed to hear this. In college I was told over and over that I had to devote every ounce of my time to the kids. That this would be my life. I would need to never give up on each student. This year I have only 10 kids, but 7 have issues. Two come from a broken family. We’ve given them all of our resources and they continue to not care. The parents don’t care. I can’t do anymore. I’ve gone to my administrator and she’s tried helping. The school took on this family and it seems like they’re making the teachers do everything they can. I felt bad for abandoning the two, but when they don’t care, why should I devote all my time and energy to these two kids, when I have others that need me?

I also have a fifth grader that is at a 2nd grade reading/writing level, and pretty low in math too. His life is all about hockey. Mom is the lunch lady at the school, and because it’s a private school, she feels entitled to bug the teachers. I finally set boundaries with her. I don’t email her back after I leave school for the day. I finally scared mom by sending home her kid’s January short story sample. I said, “This is not acceptable for 5th grade, and I’m very concerned. We need to talk about him being tutored.” So, she responds with, “Can you help him after lunch? We don’t have time today because he’ll be at hockey until 10pm.” After asking teachers a tasteful way to put it, I responded with, “Unfortunately I have things planned all day today for the whole class. I monitor all the kids, and if he doesn’t ask for help, I assume he’s got it. This is something bigger than being in the classroom, and I cannot help him one-on-one with 2nd grade stuff.” She finally agreed to me tutoring him one day a week. I didn’t know how to approach the whole payment thing, but found out all the other teachers charge at least $30 an hour. I decided to charge her $20 since they don’t have a ton of money and I’m his teacher. The thing is, this mom can be condescending with me because I don’t have a family and am young. She doesn’t get that my time outside of school is valuable and that I don’t do things for free because I simply can’t afford to. I work another job and have my own life.

I’m taking on this week with a new perspective of, parents need to do the work at home too. It’s not up to me to parent you on your parenting skills. If you can’t figure something out, use Youtube before contacting me. I even set up a Weebly with examples! This mom emailed me saying, “We looked at Youtube to figure out what nouns were, and he gets it!” DUH. Mom never does homework with him and uses hockey as an excuse. I want to tell her her son’s education is a bit more important than hockey, and that she should consider scaling back on hockey (plus it’s expensive!) to pay for some support services.

I guess next year it’ll be better because I’ll have more of a backbone and can do things more delicately.

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19 Terri February 12, 2016 at 6:06 am

I needed this right now! I work an average of 55-60 hours a week. Never is enough.

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20 Tabitha February 12, 2016 at 5:00 pm

Thanks so much for this post, Angela! The part about becoming bitter is so true. I have a student who is consuming a lot of my time and neither the student nor the family is doing their part. I have decided to transfer that time and invest it more in students who will grow so much more because of it. That is not the approach we are taught right now in the public school system but that is where I see my time being most effective and having the most impact.

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21 Angela Watson February 14, 2016 at 12:12 pm

This is a great point, Tabitha. And interestingly, it IS the approach I was taught as an instructional coach: don’t focus on those teachers who don’t want help. Put your time and energy into those who do, and let their enthusiasm and results spread contagiously to other staff members. It is so, so much more rewarding to work with engaged, motivated people. I know that we can’t ignore disengaged students or give up on them, but I do think it’s wise from a perspective of avoiding burnout to focus on the kids you CAN make a difference for. Trying to save people who don’t want to be saved is a recipe for disaster. Serve, don’t save, and stay mentally focused on the progress you ARE making.

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22 Eloisa February 15, 2016 at 4:04 pm

Thank you so much, Angela, for turning my question into a podcast that I can listen to over and over again. You don’t even know how much you have refocused my outlook on being the best teacher I can be, without beating myself up if I just can’t do it anymore. Thank you for reminding me that I am not their savior.

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23 Angela Watson February 15, 2016 at 5:58 pm

You’re so welcome! I thought it was a GREAT question (obviously other teachers are struggling with it, too.)

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24 Jan Braverman March 28, 2016 at 11:24 am

This was written for me! My principal keeps telling me to “let it go” when I can’t give up being overly concerned about students who aren’t getting the help they need.

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25 Angela Watson April 3, 2016 at 2:38 pm

Glad it helped you! :)

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26 Zoe Dillard April 14, 2016 at 1:11 pm

One of my guiding principals in over thirty years of teaching has been: work on what I can control, let go of what I can’t control, and recognize the difference. This has allowed me to go “above and beyond,” as I am able, but not to figuratively bang my head on the brick wall of a situation that is beyond my capabilities and/or responsibility. Knowing what I can/cannot control also helps absolve guilt. In dealing with high school students, part of our job is to help THEM take responsibility for their actions and education; which may mean collaborating with a coach or another teacher who has experienced success with that student. You are spot on when you emphasize that reaching students is not a solo act–it’s the responsibility of everyone in a learning community–including PARENTS. Thanks for providing some balanced inspiration for teachers!

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27 Angela Watson April 15, 2016 at 8:36 am

This is so well said! Thanks for taking the time to share.

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28 Shelley April 20, 2016 at 10:28 pm

My question is WHY?? Do you teach?

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29 Cathy Blake April 20, 2016 at 11:21 pm

Wow! You hit the nail on the head! That has been me all year. I teach in an urban district, in the roughest high school, and have had almost non-existent support from administration. I teach a state tested level of mathematics and it must be passed or they do not graduate! When I asked them to put their phones away, I get flipped the bird! I write it up and nothing! But you can bet when their test scores are low I am being questioned as to why. Then asked, “how could you make it more interesting so they don’t want their phones?” Well…I already have an interactive bulletin board, posters, question box, stations, brand new high tech calculators, color coding, songs, dances, group collaboration, matching games, partner activities…, but I will find more stuff that they will ignore because snap chat is so much more important. Ugh, I need the balance, I need the boundaries, I’m just afraid of losing my job if I do. I have a family that relies on my income and I can’t lose it. Suggestions?

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30 Angela Watson April 23, 2016 at 7:11 pm

This is so tough, and I understand the resentment toward being told that your lessons need to be more interesting than Snapchat. If only it were that easy! I wonder if teaching at a different school or grade level would make a difference?

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31 Daniela April 21, 2016 at 2:29 am

Hello Angela,
I’m not even sure how I got to this article, but I’m so glad I did!!!
I’m from Israel, and I teach first and second grade.
I read what you wrote and felt as if you were talking to me-
I agree 100% with it and with you.
Its amazing to find out that teachers around the world feel exactly the same!
Thank you for writting this!
Daniela

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32 Angela Watson April 23, 2016 at 7:09 pm

I’m so glad it was helpful for you!

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33 Teacher May 6, 2016 at 11:34 pm

I love this! What great reminders. The only part that threw me off was the word ‘servant’. No, I don’t consider myself a servant to my students (I don’t even like to say I serve my students–or anyone). But, I do hold a very negative connotation for that word. I guide, teach, instill, develop, but I don’t serve (To me, it sounds like students are my boss, like I am beneath them–I know others think of that word in a positive way; I just don’t.). Anyway, I love everything else!!!

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34 Angela Watson May 8, 2016 at 7:20 pm

Hmm, good point about the negative connotations around the word servant. I was thinking of having a servant’s heart, versus a literal servant. But you’re right, it could be misconstrued.

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35 1st grade teacher May 7, 2016 at 12:12 am

Every new teacher should read this. Every perspective teacher should read this. Every parent should read this. Every citizen of this country should read this. Much is asked of teachers. I have been in elementary education for almost 30 years and the students bring more needs to the classroom each year. It seems we are blind as a society to the needs of our fellow citizens. Poverty has grown and the icks that go with it seem to be magnified. Throw in some politically motivated standards and you have a recipe for failure. Teachers give and give and give. I hope someday everyone will join our profession and participate in some capacity and give a little hope to our future. Educators can’t wave a magic wand and lift our society. Citizens of this country must actively participate beyond lip service.

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36 Sandy May 7, 2016 at 3:44 pm

Angela, I SO needed to hear this today……..Thank you SO much for saying it so well! I think it is something we all KNOW deep down, but seem to forget as the year goes on. Then too, the more we get to know our kids, and see their needs, the more we get into the “savior” role, I appreciate the reminder and your clear insight and balance.

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37 Angela Watson May 8, 2016 at 7:19 pm

Thank you Sandy! So glad this was helpful.

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