Do you have a tendency to make gigantic to-do lists for every new school year? Do you promise yourself each fall that this year will be different, and expect yourself to suddenly become organized and top of all the tasks you’re given?
If so, you’re not alone. August and September can be such overwhelming months for teachers. We tend to start out with lots of energy and high expectations for ourselves, but it only takes a few days (or sometimes a few hours!) before the responsibilities and challenges pile up, and we default back to the same habits and negative outlook we swore we’d leave behind after the previous year.
I’ve written a lot about setting reasonable and healthy expectations for yourself in Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching. What follows is an excerpt from the book that I will hope will help you maintain your enthusiasm through the first few weeks of school and create a sense of balance:
I used to assume that after a few years of teaching experience, I would finally be able to do everything I was supposed to. I thought that surely there would be a time when I’d manage everything on my plate with ease. I’d get all the district’s paperwork done on time or early, return graded work to students within twenty-four hours (with individualized comments, of course), and have detailed lesson plans completed at least a week in advance. The pressure would finally be off once I became a ‘master teacher.”
This might be the most damaging myth that teachers ever believe. I have to break the news: you will never be at the place where you can sit back and say, “Great! There’s nothing left for me to do. My classroom is perfect and all of my students’ needs are met 100% of the time!” You will be never be able to do it all as well as you’d like to. You will never be able to do everything the district tells you to.
Let that really sink in. Does your principal do everything the teachers, students, parents, and superintendent ask? Do the district officials do everything they’re supposed to? Of course not. Yet they’re under intense pressure from all sides, just like you. They, too, are asked to do the impossible. And they don’t. So why should you berate YOURSELF for not being a miracle worker? Everyone around you is just doing the best they can with what they’ve got. You should, too.
In education, the standards are high and the stakes are higher. So no matter how efficient you become, there will not be enough hours in the day to meet every demand that’s placed on you. And still, the world will not come to an end! You don’t have to hold yourself to an unachievable standard. David Allen once said, “You can do anything, but you cannot do everything.” Set your efforts on what’s most important, and don’t let yourself feel discouraged about not being Super Teacher.
I like to focus on improving in one major area during each school year. I developed monthly parent workshops one year and planned ways to strengthen my communication and relationships with families. Another year I read every book I could find on Writer’s Workshop and developed a huge repertoire of best practices for writing instruction. Another year I created backward planning units for science to make sure I was teaching kids the big ideas and essential questions. Each fall, I’d keep up the practices I’d learned from the previous years and embark on a new area of improvement.
Then when I noticed that I was weak in a particular area, rather than criticize myself, I could say, That’s a good area of improvement to consider for next year. One focus at a time. I can’t become an expert in every teaching practice all at once, and I’m not going to pressure myself. I’m aware of my weaknesses, and that’s a good first step. I’ll get better and better in these areas the longer I’m in the field.”
What’s one area of YOUR teaching practice you’d like to improve this year?