Essentialism for the Overworked Teacher

I have been sick for the past two months.  Not just cold sick, but several attempts with antibiotics, various diagnoses, including pneumonia, and an ever persistent exhaustion no matter the sleep I got, kind of sick.  What started as a virus has become something I can’t fight.  And I am well aware I have done this to myself.  Between teaching full-time, speaking, writing, being a mother and a wife, and selling our house, I have forgotten what it means to do nothing.  Forgotten what it means to relax and not feel so guilty about it.  Even reading has become a chore and so I realized last Thursday, that in my attempt to make the world better I have forgotten about myself.

Why share this?  It is not for sympathy, but instead to highlight something so common in education; the overworked teacher.  We have all been there, in fact, many of us exist constantly at this stage it seems, where we get so absorbed into our classrooms that we forget about our own mental health and then wonder why we feel burnt out.   We know we should do less but worry about the consequences and so we push on and dream of vacation and doing little, yet never make the time for it.  I have been reading the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown in an effort to make sense of my own decisions, of this exhaustion I am working through, and as I read I cannot help but transfer this knowledge into the classroom.  How much of the discipline of Essentialism can help us, as overworked teachers, and steer us away from burn out before it even begins?

One of the central tenets of the book is the idea of doing less better.  We seem to forget that in education as we constantly pursue new ideas to add into our classroom in order to create more authentic experiences for our students.  We plan, we teach, we juggle one hundred things and add in extra whenever we see a need, and then come back and do the same the next day.  Yet, we know this is not sustainable, so what can we do?

Discover your essentials.

What do you hold most sacred within your teaching?  You can decide either in your subject area or in your whole educational philosophy.  List the three most essential goals for your year and then plan lessons according to these, eliminating things that do not tie in with your goals.

So for example, one of my essential goals for the year is to help my 7th graders become better human beings.  While a lofty goal, it steers me when I plan lessons as I ask; is there a bigger purpose to this learning or is it just a small assignment to “get through?”  If I want my students to become better human beings we must work within learning that matters and that gives them a chance to interact with others.

Say no more.

We tend to volunteer ourselves whenever an opportunity arises.  But as Greg McKeown discusses, saying “Yes” is the easy way out, we don’t have to deal with the guilt that comes with saying no or not volunteering.  However, when we live in a cycle of yes, we take on more than we can truly handle.  Therefore, evaluate what is most essential to you and to your classroom.  If something is not in line with your goals, and you are not excited at the prospect of doing the work, then politely decline. Others will almost certainly take the spot meant for you or the work will be approached in a different way.

Eliminate the clutter.

Just like we need to say no, we also need to stop creating extra work for ourselves.  I find myself distracted when my classroom or especially my workspace is cluttered and using the extra time to find something or put something away becomes one more thing to do in our busy teaching days.  While I don’t mean, “Get rid of everything,” look at the piles that you constantly move.  Why do they not have a home?  Do they need a home?  If everything has a specific place in your classroom, then you know where to return something to once you have used it.  That method will help you eliminate all of the extra time spent simply shuffling things around.

Plan for no plans.

We tend to plan every minute of our day so that we can get the most use out of our precious time, yet we know that throughout the day, extra items will get added and all of a sudden we did not get to the things we meant to get to.  So leave gaps in your prep time or in your before or after school routine for the extra things that have popped up or the major item that still needs to get done.  That way you are not trying to squeeze extra things in when you really have accounted for how every minute will be spent already.

 

Slow down your decisions

So often, in order to be efficient, we make a snap decision without really thinking the decision through.  This can lead to more stress, more thing to get done, and also less happiness.  In the past year, I have learned to hit pause before I reply to that request and really consider whether this is something I want to dedicate myself to and whether I will enjoy it.  If I cannot answer emphatically yes to those two things then I politely decline, however, I cannot answer those two questions if I do not take the time to think about it first.  If a request comes up in conversation, it is okay to tell someone that you will get back to them with an answer as soon as you can.

Choose your yes’

My 2017 word of the year has been “Enjoy.”  I chose this word as a reminder to myself that when I do say yes to something, I need to enjoy what I am doing.  That doesn’t mean that my life is filled with fun and exciting things at all times, but it does mean that when I choose to do something I try to be mindful of the fact that I chose to do it.  This has been a great reminder of why choosing my yes’ with care is so important.  If I am in, then I want to be all in.

Remember you have a choice.

Greg McKeown wrote, “When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless.” How often is this the case not just for our students when they come to us believing school is just something to get through, but also when we forget about our own power of choice?  While being educators means that there are many things we do not have power over, there are many things we do, and so remembering that we do have a choice is important for us all.

 

Create your own priority.

I was really struck by the discussion of how the plural version of the word “Priority” was not invented until the 1900’s when mass production and multitasking became the thing to strive for.  How many priorities do we juggle in a day as educators?  Look no further than the vision statements of our schools; I have yet to find one that lists one single thing, rather than many.  Yet, when we have multiple priorities we are, in essence, not working on any of them by spreading ourselves too thin.  So much like you should discover your essentials, discover your one priority.  What is the one thing that you want to focus on?  It can be a larger goal that encompasses many small things, however, limit yourself to one and then dedicate yourself to it.  This goes for the work our students do as well.

Plan for play.

Much like I have embraced doing nothing the last few days, I have also tried to join in the play with my children.  I have been more at peace, had more fun, and also had an incredible surge in brainpower while pretending to be a stealthy ninja or trying to beat them all at Sorry.  Play often feels like an indulgence and something that we, as adults, should grow out of, yet reintroducing the concept of play, and also of boredom, has been incredibly revitalizing.  So plan for play next year, whether by creating challenges for your students, taking the time to draw, playing jokes on colleagues, or doing something else that seems off topic and even frivolous.  Plan for play before strenuous tasks or when stress levels seem high.  I cannot wait to see what our brains will do after.

Stop the guilt.

We are awfully good at feeling guilty as educators.  Whether it is guilt from feeling like we didn’t do enough, like we didn’t teach well, or because we didn’t volunteer, didn’t go the extra mile, didn’t write enough feedback, or insert whatever teacher related item here; guilt seems to be our constant companion.  But think of the weight of guilt and how it consumes our subconscious.  Why do we let it?  In the past six months, I have started saying no more and I can tell you, I feel guilty every time, but as it has become more of a habit, the guilt has lessened and the weight I feel lifted is palpable.  So turn the guilt around; rather than feel guilty for saying no, congratulate yourself.  Celebrate the fact that you know when to protect yourself and your energy.  Celebrate the extra time you just gave yourself and then don’t plan extra work for that time.

Dedicate yourself to yourself.

We spend so much time thinking of our students, their needs, and their goals, that we forget about ourselves.  So as you plan lessons for your students, plan lessons for yourself as well.  How will you grow as a human being or as a practitioner today?  How do you want to feel at the end of the day?  There is nothing selfish about focusing some of our energy on ourselves as we go through the day trying to create great learning experiences for our students.

As I slowly gain my health back, as I slowly feel less exhausted, as I slowly start to clear my mind, I start to remember what it feels like to not work all of the time.  To have vacation.  To take the time to step away so that when we come back, we feel so excited.  The truth is; work is not the only thing I want to consume me.  I want my family to consume me.  My love for my husband.  I want to find joy in reading books with a cup of tea next to me.  To play stupid computer games.  In baking.  In laughing with my kids rather than telling them to hurry up.  I want my legacy to be more than being a good teacher.  And I cannot do that if I don’t change my life a bit.  The first step was to realize that things had to change, that came courtesy of my exhausted body, now it is up to me to continue on this journey.   Reading Essentialism has provided me with a path.

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Are You Doing Your Own Homework?

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This summer as I saw my niece, who is now a sophomore, we inevitably spoke about her reading life.  She used to be a voracious reader, we could not get enough books in her hands.  Then she came to the whole class novel, which inspired this post, and since then her reading life has been limping at best.  This summer I asked, as usual, “What are you reading?”  She told me The Kite Runner and then scoffed.  Surprised I asked why the reaction.  She then told me that she had read the book and loved it but now had to reread it to annotate it.  “The whole book?”  I asked.  “The whole book.”When I asked her why she was not quite sure, perhaps they would use parts for discussion.

I wondered then, as I often do, when I come across homework assignments that appear nonsensical, whether her English teacher had done their own homework?  Whether they had taken the time to annotate the entire book themselves.  Whether they understand the labor that was involved with that task and how it would take away from the enjoyment of the book.  It seems to me that once again something that is meant to teach kids how to better thinkers, instead is implicit in the killing of their love of reading.

Several years ago I started to do my own homework.  From the stories we wrote, to the essays, to the speeches, and to the presentations.  I started to experience what I was putting on the shoulders of my students and I quickly realized that what I thought would just take a few minutes never did.  What I thought would be easy hardly ever was.  What I thought would be meaningful sometimes wasn’t.  So I stopped giving homework, except for reading.  I stopped going by the formula of grade times 10 minutes.  I stopped handing out packets and instead vowed to stop talking so much and instead spend the time in class on discussion and work time.  I expected pushback or concern, but have hardly gotten any in the last six years.  Most parents express relief instead.

So every year I make a deal with my students; if you work hard in our classroom, you should not have to do work outside of English.  If you give me your best then besides reading a good book you don’t have to give me anything more after you leave our classroom.  And for most it works.  Most of my students come ready to work, ready to learn, and they hand their things in.  Not everyone, just like when we have homework we have those kids that do not get it done, I also have kids that do not use their time wisely.  So I work individually with them, after all, the acts of a few should never determine the conditions of the many.

So if you are still giving homework, I ask you for this simple task; do it yourself.  Go through the motions as if you were a student and then reflect.  Was it easy?  How much time did it take?  What did you have to go through to reach completion?  In fact, if you teach in middle school or high school, do it all, truly experience what we put our students through on a day-to-day basis. I would be surprised if the process didn’t shape you in some way.

I still do my own assignments, although I have been slacking lately.  Whenever I do, I am reminded of just how much time homework swallows.  Of sometimes how little actual practice it gives, or even learning.  How homework is unfair because we have already been given hours of their time in school.  How those who really need the practice do not need it at home, but instead with us as support in our classrooms.  Do your homework, tell your students, and see how they react.  Then ask them how they feel about homework.  Let their thoughts shape you as a teacher, I promise you won’t regret it.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

 

When We Are the Problem

Sometimes we don't see ourselves fully until a child holds up a mirror @pernilleripp

I thought she just wasn’t a very strong reader.  Not yet anyway.  She seemed lost, perhaps a little quiet, and definitely not invested.  In my head I was already planning for all of the interventions that I probably should try to make sure that this year was not a lost one.

As the year passed, her disinterest grew.  I guess I wasn’t surprised., after all, when the tasks get harder some kids tend to disengage more.  It didn’t help that she constantly seemed to be mad at me, we clashed over little things; cell phones, eye rolls, not reading.  I wasn’t sure what to do.

Mid-year and all students fill out a survey.  One question I always ask is, “How can Mrs. Ripp teach you better?”  That night as I looked through all of their answers, hers hit me hardest….”I don’t think Mrs. Ripp really likes me so perhaps that could be something she changes.”

I sat there quiet, realizing all of the clues I had missed.  That sometimes happens when we can’t see the forest for all of the trees, or the individual child for all of the students.

So the very next day, I pulled her aside, and I thanked her for her honesty.  I apologized, told her that I did like her but that it probably had not seemed that way.  The smile she gave me at the end was a furtive one, but it was a start, a promise of a new beginning.  A promise I needed to make to be a better teacher for her.

That child is no longer behind in reading.  She swallows books like a meal.  She participates.  She is engaged,  always ready to learn, eager to share her ideas.  She pulls others with her as she becomes stronger, more powerful in her thoughts, and I stand sometimes on the sidelines realizing what a fool I was.  How much we can destroy without even knowing we have a part in the destruction.

I often speak of the things we do to make students hate reading, and yet, how often do we look at how we affect the kids?  How we affect their relationship to whatever we teach because we may not be the best fit.  We may be focused on them in a negative way and we may not even be aware of it.

Not every kid has the courage to tell their teachers how they feel. I am so grateful to my incredible 7th graders that they speak up, that they help me change.  Because I try, we all do, but sometimes we don’t see ourselves fully until a child holds up a mirror.

That girl has a special place in my heart, she may not even know it.  But every day I look at her and she reminds me that I need to be the best for all of them.  I need to see the good in all of them.  I need to see everything they can do.  And I need to see myself and how I play into the equation.  Sometimes we may not like what we see, but that should never stop us from looking.

 If you are wondering why there seems to be a common thread to so many of my posts as of late, it is because I am working on two separate literacy books.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  Those books will be published in 2017 hopefully, so until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Somewhere in My Education #AgeofLiteracy

Somewhere in my education, I was taught to let others speak before me  I was taught to wait my turn.  To eat my words if that turn never came.  I was taught to listen.  To raise my hand.  To share when asked.  To give praise to others but downplay my own achievements.  I was taught to be a good girl, someone who sat still, said “please” and “thank you” and always offered to help, even if it meant sacrificing my own creativity.

Somewhere in my education, I was taught to plan lessons for fictitious children that would make my classroom look like a mini UN with a smattering of acronyms.  That came to us fed.  That came to us with clean clothes and new supplies and unshattered dreams.  That came to us believing that school was still about them and what they had to say had value.  Who loved to read, to write, to discover, and all I had to do was preserve that notion of loving literacy.  That those who needed more than what I could offer would always get it in some way.

Somewhere in my education, I was taught who the leaders were and to follow their ideas, for they had paved the path and certainly knew more than I ever would.  In that same education, I was taught the research I needed to be better, and so I grew, but I was never taught to trust myself.  I was never taught to seek more than just what was presented to me.  I was never taught to see myself as a leader because good girls don’t lead, they follow.

But within this age of literacy where we fight to keep our students reading, where we have to know our research before others tell us what best practices are, we are all leaders.  We are all of importance.  Our ideas matter because our ideas change the way students feel about the very act of reading or writing.  What we do now will not end with us today, but instead will live on in the lives of the students we teach.  So we are leaders when it comes to the very ideas that shape the literacy identity our students have.  Our words carry weight.  Our words can harm or protect, so we must believe that our words have value.  

So I hope today, that you will look in the mirror and tell yourself that your words should be heard.  That your words deserve a larger audience than just you.  That your ideas are worth spreading, even if no one asked you to.  That when you change a student’s perception of what literacy means that whatever you just did then needs to be shared.  That you can be a leader, that you probably already are.

Somewhere in my education I found my voice.  I found my brave.  I found my driving force, which will always be the students.  Somewhere in my education I found out I could be a leader, even though no one told me so.  Perhaps it is time for others to find the same.

This post is a part of the Age of Literacy that ILA encourages all of us to participate in on APril April 14th.  How are you a literacy leader?  If you are wondering why there seems to be a common thread to so many of my posts as of late, it is because I am working on two separate literacy books.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  Those books will be published in 2017 hopefully, so until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Share You

Share you. because no one else is. @pernilleripp

I didn’t know I had a story to share until I started sharing it.  Until I started writing.  Until I started speaking up.  I didn’t know that the thoughts I had every day or the small ideas I came up with would matter outside of those 4 classroom walls.  Not until I shared.  Not until I had the courage to find my voice.  Not until I hit publish and those things I had thought by myself were no longer my private thoughts.  They were now public.  They were now searchable.  They were now open for judgment.

It still scares me to this day.

It still stops me at times.

There are conversations that I will never have on this blog.  Topics I will never broach.  And yet, those that once seemed terrifying sometimes lose their fear factor and find their way out into the open, just like that.  And sometimes those thoughts start conversations that I could never have dreamed of that led me down a new path.

Yet, this blog is not just about me.  It is about the kids that I get to teach and their stories that I get to share.  The little things they ask me to change so that we can be better educators. And so I write for them because when I found my voice I knew I had to help my students find theirs.

So this past weekend when I sat at the amazing WGEDD conference with other educators and they told me of what they do in their classrooms, I asked them if they had shared those ideas in some way.  Is there a place where others may find their genius?  The answer was no.  It often is, and I couldn’t help but wonder; what if?

What if we all found the courage to share more?

What if we started by sharing those small ideas that make our lives better?  Those little things that may not seem flashy, or innovative, or any other buzz worthy adjectives you can think of.  Those ideas that just work, that make our jobs easier, that make education better for our learners.

What if we found our courage because we realized that we are experts in our own right and what we have to share is worthwhile?  That we do not have to wait for someone to give us a title, to pay us money, or to even give us permission (although if you need that; here have mine).

What if we found our courage to share more so that our students would also share?

There are too many who are silent.  Who are afraid.  Who do not think that what they do can help others.  But they are wrong.  Together we are better, and we never know what little idea may make the biggest difference to someone else.

So share your thoughts.  Share your dreams.  Share you.  Because no one else is.

If you are wondering why there seems to be a common thread to so many of my posts as of late, it is because I am working on two separate literacy books.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  Those books will be published in 2017 hopefully, so until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

Know Your Place

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When I was a second year teacher I was told to know my place.  To remember that although I might have a voice, I should be more careful.  That I should not ask so many questions, nor share quite so many ideas.  That some things would be better left unsaid because I had not earned the right to say them.  And not just told it either.  No, for extra emphasis it was written as part of my official evaluation that year.  In my permanent record lest I ever forget that I had a place to be in.  That the place I needed to be in was one of new teacher that followed most of the rules and certainly did not question so much.

I remember I went back to my classroom shell-shocked.  When I closed the door, I cried. Maybe this teaching thing was not for me after all.  Maybe asking questions was wrong.  It certainly seemed that way.

So I took the lesson to heart; I shut my door, metaphorically and literally.  I had to.  I could not face what some others saw me as; a know-it-all new teacher that thought she had such great ideas.  I skittered through the rest of the year watching every single word I spoke, always telling myself to just stay quiet, think it but not say it.  To hide the new.  To not share.  After all, I needed to stay in my place, whatever that place might be.

By the end of the year I wanted to quit.  It turns out that eating your own words leaves you hollow after awhile.  But I didn’t, instead I changed, and as they say; the rest is history.

So for the past 6 years I have carried those words with me.  I have known my place every single step of the way.  Never forgetting that I do have a place in this world, in education.  Never forgetting that, really, we all have a place if we only knew where.

So what I know now is that my place is with my students asking them what I can change. To realize that I am not a perfect teacher, nor do I have all of the answers, but that I will spend every ounce of energy I have to try to make it better for them.

That my place is among colleagues who push my thinking and always have what’s best for kids in mind.  That while we may not always agree, we always respect, we always have each other’s back even when we have to have tough conversations.

That my place is on this blog sharing how I screw up so that others may learn from it without having to experience it.

Among the teachers that feel alone, much like I did so many days as I tried to change myself.

Among the people who question and show up every day trying make themselves better because they know they have a long way to go.

Among those that still doubt but try any way.

Among those that dare to dream.

Among those that still cry when it hurts.

Among those that know that even a small change makes a difference.

Those that change.

Those that question.

Those that fight.

6 years ago I was told to know my place and so I went looking for it.    It was not pretty.  I was not perfect.  I was not always right.  I did not always know what I needed to know.  Yet within that quest, I found myself.  So I ask today; do you know your place?  Because if not, you should probably search for it some day.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.