Growing up and branching out

A teacher’s guide to knowing when it’s time to move on.

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.

M.Scott Peck

In January last year my whole world as I knew it changed forever and my heart grew infinitely larger than it had ever been before. In January 2021, everything that I thought I knew about love and life was thrown out of the window as I found myself re-writing my own story…a new story of who I am shaped by where I have been and reimagining the ‘me’ I want to become in the future. In January 2021, I became a first time mother and with that, my perceptions and priorities were no longer the same – I mean, how could they ever be? By entering into motherhood, I had entered into a sisterhood of mommies whose lives, hopes and dreams were no longer centered around themselves but rather, the little bundles of joy that so lovingly call us “Mama”.

All this being said, it took a few months after returning to teaching from being on maternity leave before I really started to take my loss of enthusiasm and drive for what I once advocated for so passionately, seriously. It is safe to say that the teacher that locked her classroom for the last time in December 2020, was not the same teacher and individual that returned at the beginning of May in 2021. If I’m truly honest, I found myself feeling as if a huge piece of me was missing every single day that I left my little one behind to go to work. Understandably so, right? However, I thought I just needed to give myself time to adjust to my new role as a working mom and wife…time to adjust to my new identity as a mother….time to just adjust in general. That adjustment didn’t come easily.

Not only was I longing for quality time with my son and managing the ‘mom guilt’ that comes with leaving him, but I was also finding it more and challenging to pour out my full heart and soul into my teaching as I had done for so many years before. And so began my journey of introspection. I began to ask myself, what is it that I am searching for? What can be done to help me attain that? Is it factors out of my control or factors that I actually can take control of? The result…

I needed to move on.

I recognized within myself, that I was struggling to pour into the lives of my learners and their parents because my cup was feeling empty. What had caused it to run dry you may ask? Well, I suppose it was a combination of many things that had been building up over time, but the most pertinent thing was that I was no longer the same. Becoming a mother meant that my list of priorities had changed drastically. Where I was once perfectly content to let my work and personal life overlap (especially given the effects of COVID teaching), I realized that for the well being of myself and my family, I could no longer let that happen. My environment was not feeding me in the way I needed anymore – this happens, and that’s OK. This is not to say that I am any less of an effective teacher by any means, I just needed to gain some perspective, see things from a different angle.

Should I have taken a break from teaching altogether?

Well…while I would have loved the extra time with my little one, the life long learner in me wouldn’t let that happen. Plus – comfort zones have always scared me and that is exactly where, six years later, I had found myself. Don’t get me wrong, I still love being a teacher, when I am able to do exactly that…teach and teach to my heart’s content. I love being creative and I love a new challenge. Yes, remedial education was definitely challenging but also draining, and I’m not ashamed to say it. I began to recognize that I can still love what I do but not have to give so much of myself mentally and emotionally. I made a choice.

Things to consider if you are wanting to move on professionally:

  • Do you feel stuck?- You’re living the status quo
  • Consider the comfort zone you are in – is it a good comfortable or a forced comfortable because there is a difference. A good comfortable is when you are happy to stay, you see the growth and you find security in the familiar. A forced comfortable is when you feel you have no other choice. You stay on because it is just “what you have always known”. My advice here if you are feeling the latter, don’t be afraid to take a chance. Rather take a chance and possibly find greater contentment and passion than remain jaded and uninspired. For it is when we feel challenged that we are forced to rise to the occasion and let our greatness out. Don’t be afraid of the challenge. Don’t be afraid of the change.
  • Constant changes are making you feel uneasy
  • The onset of living in a pandemic has undoubtedly whirled us all into what has commonly been referred to as “our new normal” yet nothing seems normal anymore. You have witnessed the walking in and walking out of new faces and old faces. Turnovers in staff have left you wondering if you will be next or what is there left to stay for? These are understandable questions and emotions to have but you are worth more than the stress of these unsettling changes. If you find that these changes are breaking you down rather than building you up…perhaps it is time to take control and make your own change. One that you believe in.
  • The work environment is no longer working for you
  • Have you found yourself working in an environment that is more negative than positive? You find it hard to find people to spend time with that are willing to just kick back during time off and not go off on a rant about the latest email, seemingly impulsive management decision or increasing workload. Negativity has become the cloud that hovers over you no matter how much you try to escape it and staying positive has become more draining than what it’s worth. This is not healthy by any means.
  • Distance getting the better of you
  • For many, their morning commute is considered their holy grail, their sacred “me time” and their time to just be. But for others, it’s a rushed series of events followed by the added pressure of traffic and factors completely out of your control and this drives you absolutely bonkers! Personally, I related to the later and just couldn’t do it anymore.
  • Family first
  • Shifts in your family dynamics, be it an addition or a loss, have caused you to alter your priorities and reconsider where you are centering your energies. Being closer to home to eradicate travel time and free you up for quality time with those who fill your cup is one definite thing to consider. I know that it isn’t always easy in this day an age as love doesn’t pay the bills, but at the same time, how can you productively pour from an empty cup?
  • Trust your gut
  • Never discredit your gut instinct. It is there for a reason. Our brains naturally use a combination of logic and emotion when making decisions of any kind. That specific emotion, innate to us as humans, is our intuition.┬áNo decision should ever be made without taking the heart into a account and visa versa. As a good luck gift upon leaving my last school, a close friend a colleague gave me a mug with the words “Always follow your heart, but take your brain with you.” These words could not have rung more true to what I had been feeling. I knew that as hard as it may be to say goodbye to what had become my comfort zone and ‘safe space’ of familiarity, I was no longer at a place mentally where I was happy enough to make it work.

So here I am, transitioning back into a mainstream environment, climatizing to a new methodology of teaching anf practice as outlined by the International Baccalaureate (IB), yet fully content and at peace with my decision. I work closer to home, am closer to my son and find that this change has reinvigorated not just myself but my family unit. We are excited for the possibilities that this decision affords us as we did not go into it blindly. My son can one day attend the school and benefit from a window of opportunities that unfortunately would not have been possible had I stayed where I was.

However, this is my story…the next chapter in my life. It may not be that easy or even possible for you at this moment. But my hope in sharing this all with you is to offer some encouragement should you be contemplating a change. The fact that you are even contemplating it means it is worth taking the time to do your own interospection. Don’t be afraid to delve into the depths of your heart, consider the needs of your family and put yourself first. You are worth it!

Locked DOWN but not locked OUT

A teacher’s reflection on lessons learnt while under lockdown

It all happened seemingly overnight didn’t it? One day we were all happy and together and then the next, we were forced to be apart. One Friday afternoon I wished my learners goodbye and a blessed weekend, as I always do – I even said “See you on Monday”. But Monday came and I had half my class present, Tuesday came and I had even less…by Wednesday I stood in solitude in my classroom and gazed out at 14 empty seats. By Wednesday, there was no more joyous bustling about and echoes of laughter and chatter as school was officially closed to students. In a somewhat cataclysmic turn of events, our worlds as we knew them were turned upside down and inside out. And whether we wanted to face up to it or not, we all found ourselves driven headfirst into an ocean of unchartered waters and uncertainties. Teachers, parents, schools, business owners, employees, essential workers, and children – let’s not forget our children. Our hearts and minds were overwhelmed with so many questions, doubts and fears….and now, a few weeks in; we are still swimming – only the more we paddle and kick for survival, the more enduring we have become (although it may not always seem that way).

Yes, COVID-19 has indeed been a real game changer!

As a teacher, suddenly forced to be apart from my learners under uncertain circumstances, I very quickly had to wrap my head around my own insecurities and fears. I had to identify them, deal with them, and then very quickly GET OVER THEM! Like so many other teaching professionals, I was expected to continue to teach and to step up for the children and parents of my Grade 4 class of 2020. And being the person that I am, I would do all that I could to rise to the challenge because at my core, I am a teacher! I meet needs as they arise and I invent ways to access knowledge and impart skills. I also live to inspire and encourage and the more I reflected on it, the more I realised that just as challenging as this change was going to be for the teachers, it was equally if not more so for the parents and children. Suddenly, encouragement and support became the order of the day.

Over night, remote and distance learning became our new normal and I, like so many others, had to learn to swim very quickly in a sea of online teaching territory. Thank goodness for team based approaches and collaboration with equally passionate, dedicated and creative teachers! #Teamteachers There is just no way that I would have had the courage to tackle the challenge if I didn’t have the support of knowing that my entire school and teaching community were rallying together, routing each other on and constantly checking in.

However, it also became clear very quickly that there is a lot out there, and as much as I tried to upskill and amerce myself in new and exciting methods of enhancing my teaching from home, there is always the risk of information overload and what I have come to call; ‘digital drowning’. It is so easy to get caught up in the ‘know how’ that you can just as easily loose sight of the ‘know who’. In the initial midst of all the technological chaos and tech-savvy talk, I had to remind myself of who was always on the other side of the digital divide – I teach humans not robots and because of that, I have always strived to teach through relationship above all else. And in the absence of my physical presence, there still has to exist a connection.

Teaching through relationship is about so much more than just the premise that the more teachers know about their students the better they will teach them. It describes a complex social environment in which teachers, parents and students openly communicate, share experiences and participate in activities that together, make for engaged and impactful learning. It is about establishing grounds for community and support. When done well, teaching through relationships recognises the human stories behind each child and their families, as well as that of the teacher. And at a time where forced distance is imposed on us, the humanistic element of connection cannot afford to be lost.

The power of connection is that it promotes the idea that we are all in this together, that people are seen and their stories are heard. There is an undeniable comfort and sense of security in staying connected to those familiarities of our previously ‘normal’ lives to help us adapt somewhat more comfortably to the ‘new normal’ we find ourselves in.

For the children in our classes, it means not just receiving online instructions and pre-programmed activities to keep them ‘doing’ for what good is it to just ‘do’ without truly being engaged. And in order for full engagement to happen, children need to feel motivated, encouraged, secure enough to take risks and as supported as possible. The same can be said for their parents who needed to know that they were not expected to be anything more than the supportive and loving parents they have always been because their teacher would still be there for them every step of the way. I was still the teacher and would continue to teach. Content would come from myself and my team of teachers, it would be delivered in our voices and in our familiar styles. We established our presence and affirmed that we had not gone anywhere.

Additionally, the more I reached out and established platforms for support, the more relaxed my parents became and the more productive my students became. Daily class check-in’s on our class group, frequent reassurances to parents and keeping instructions clear and expectations low really helped to stabilize the initial rocky foundation. It took reflection on my part and a willingness to go the distance – I had to allow myself the chance to be somewhat vulnerable in exposing my teaching style and overcoming insecurities by being overly visual, verbal and 100% present. Video calls and online zoom sessions with parents and children only served to further humanize all of us and strengthen our connection as we bonded over messy houses, discussions about pets and met halfway in terms of agreeing to expectations – every family situation was different and not all needs could be met in the same way, so flexibility is key. Our communication had to remain open, honest and heartfelt. I also realised the importance of feedback – parents want to know that they are doing OK and children are still children, they thrive off the praise and acknowledgement we offer them. The awarding of merits for the achievement of individual goals proved a valuable tool in motivating my students, but also helped to ground them in a familiar practice that connected them to our classroom culture, our way of doing things.

Life under lockdown has taught me many lessons – it has afforded me opportunities to clean out many ‘closets’… to reflect, re-align and refocus many of my own priorities both personally and professionally. I also think that it is safe to say that life after lockdown will never be the same…we cannot allow it to. And as digital learning advances and drives education forward into the next phase of our lives, may we never loose sight of the importance of staying connected – truly connected. There is no denying that technology and digital platforms are necessary tools for enhancing learning and equipping students to succeed in a digitally driven world, but the role of the teacher speaks directly to the HEART of education. For what good is a tool in the hands of an uninspired and discouraged mind?