Today's question comes from Carrie who actually submitted two questions, but on different topics. I have been organizing the students' questions from the more broad areas of teaching to the more specific, so today's post will respond to her more global teaching question. Get ready, Carrie has asked a DOOZIE of a question! She asked...
"How do you stay inspired and not get bogged down by the politics of teaching?
Oh my goodness, Carrie, where do I begin?
This is such a great question to ask before entering the classroom because you have the opportunity to mentally prepare for the politics before actually dealing with them on your own. Here's MY answer...
Accept that Politics in Education Exist
The reality is that politics in education make up the atmosphere you work in, the air you breathe while in the school building and they color everything you do. There will never be a decision you make or task you complete that is without political implication. There is never a single thing that happens in the school building that takes place without lots of thought about how it would be perceived or work from a political point of view. In your first few years this will be cumbersome and annoying because you will be passionate and bubbling with ideas. When you hear the leadership in the building caution you or even tell you "no" it will irritate you more than anything else. You might even run into a political brick wall that deflates you a bit, discourages you and makes you second guess your career choice, but school politics should never be the cause for making you quit teaching. They might make you want to change districts or campuses, but never allow politics to cause you to consider leaving the profession. Are they easy to deal with? Sometimes yes and sometimes no, but unless you are a moron they should never be so serious that you want to stop teaching.
Instead, you learn how to operate within the system and still do most of the things you are passionate about. This might take some patience and/or resourcefulness. It may even take your having to put your ego aside and admit you have much left to learn or experience to gain. You may lack and need to learn some skills that you never knew you needed. Even more, you might have to lay aside some things you THINK are important because you get into the classroom and find out they really aren't after all. Even after all of that teaching is still one of the most creative, inspiring, rewarding and fun jobs that exists.
Because you know political problems will arise, it is important to know how to approach them. The best teaching advice I ever received was this: "Always air on the side of caution." This is a mantra that any wise teacher recites to herself when making any decision. I can tell you after 17 and a half years of teaching that this advice has served me well, when I have listened to it. When I haven't and I just reacted, I always regretted it. If you think about it that short little sentence takes care of it all. Imagine how caution can help you navigate these scenarios:
- your department head says you do not have permission to alter the curriculum
- you are annoyed with your teaching assignment and want to complain
- an irate parent sends you a nasty email
- a difficult student makes a snarky remark to you in front of the whole class
- the club you sponsor is designing the club t-shirt
- you want to teach your students your favorite Spanish song
- the principal questions something you posted on your personal social media
- a student athlete appears he will fail your class and be ineligible to play sports
All of these situations require that you think about the political repercussions BEFORE acting, even the simplest of them. Am I telling you to avoid all of these situations? NO, but I am telling you there is a way to handle each of them so that either there are no problems or any negative reactions are manageable. Sometimes taking that extra moment to consider the cautious path to take is easy because you have the time to think about it and that caution is just good, common sense. Other times that sense of caution will be harder to access because you will be angry, insulted or outraged and your emotions will take over. Please, when (not if) those situations occur find time to stop and back away from the issue until your sense of caution returns to you. The ripples of a bad decision radiate out on many others in your school and the more people you bring into a negative situation the worse it gets. Be careful and never let emotion lead your decisions. In order to learn how school politics work find a veteran teacher who you feel operates within that environment successfully and who has been in the school or district for a little while and pick their brain. Listen to him. Run things by him before acting. You might not like what he tells you, but you will never be sorry you asked for his advice.
Regarding the other part of your question, I cannot think of a single time that I felt uninspired because the politics got to me. A lack of inspiration is usually due to overworking yourself. Teaching can become all-consuming. Sometimes you will have to force yourself to step back, lay the work aside and just rest. Striving to be an excellent teacher requires that you continually recharge your batteries (physical, emotional, spiritual, mental) so that you have a store of energy and inspiration to pull from and give to others or to deal with difficult situations which I can promise you are sure to have. I have found that the very moment I felt uninspired what I needed most was to disconnect from school altogether and do something ELSE. For me, keeping a book going at all times is really an important way to give my brain cells a break from needing to be creative all the time. Have at least one program you faithfully watch on TV each week, have friends who are NOT teachers, and feed your spirit. I know not everyone is religious, but if you are, go to church/temple or whatever it is that you do. Take care of the human that you are and inspiration with always be with you or will always come back no matter what the politics are.
One last bit of advice for making sure that you maintain inspiration and creativity is this: connect with inspired teachers and find out what they do. Sometimes it isn't about how creative you are or what you have to say. Sometimes you just need to put on someone else's glasses and look through their view. I never knew how important this was until I got involved with #langchat and met such amazing, vibrant, passionate teachers. I know that sounds like a shameless plug for the group, but it is true. This school year has been a particularly uninspiring for me, but I know that all I have to do is hop onto Twitter and read about what someone else is doing in class and I find that spark I was missing. Again, that lack of vision or direction is never due to politics, so don't worry about that.
Carrie, I hope that I have answered your monster of a question. I am so happy to know you are asking it now and not after entering your own classroom. I think teacher turnover is connected to a lot of misperceptions people have about teaching and education. The truth is that after awhile, you become so well versed in the politics you don't think about them anymore because it is just the reality of the job. They are not as intrusive as they may seem to you right now. The people who leave the profession usually do so because they don't have a support system in place to help them navigate through those challenging situations. Start building that tribe of trusted advisers now.
A Challenge to My Readers
My challenge to any experienced world language classroom teacher who reads this post is either to post your own answer to Carrie in the form of a comment to my blog, or even better write your own blog post answering his question and publish it to the Twitter community using the #Teach2Teach hashtag. Help me start a movement of veteran teachers reaching out to teach future teachers so that our move towards proficiency based world language instruction is strengthened and soon becomes the standard practice rather than the vanguard.