The Importance of Helping Educators Build Their Internal Flames!
Educators cannot light and inspire others unless their own flames burn brightly. Typically elementary teachers stay with a full classroom of students all day long. They are the facilitators of the climate and culture for the room. For the day to be successful, teachers must do much more than just plan the lessons. They must plan to be the light and inspiration in the room. This light must last all day, every day, for one-hundred-eighty-something days per year.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the total number of K-12 teachers in 2016 was 3,827,100. We need to inspire, empower, and re-ignite nearly 4 million educators. Imagine the possibilities for our students, their families, their communities, our nation, and our world that can occur when we are all co-existing at this high frequency. Right here, right now, we have the power to change the world.
Education Week Magazine reported in October 2017 that teachers are more stressed out at work than average people. A 2012 Gallup poll reported that nearly 70 percent of the K-12 teachers in the United States surveyed say they are not engaged in their job; 50 percent reported feeling daily stress.
More than ever before, educators are under a great deal of pressure. First, they face the expectation that they will create conditions that meet the social and emotional needs of each child. To do that every day, educators have to figure out where each student is and what each student needs. How can she inspire, if she is not inspired?
Another pressure is standardized testing and the myriad of data points and achievement levels students must meet through the school year. Educators face pressure to ensure that each student grows socially and academically. Their yearly evaluations are impacted by their class’ scores and by the score of the entire school building. They also face growing external pressures, such as the rash of school shootings across the country, the challenges with hate crimes, the rise of students with social and emotional concerns, and the onset of challenges that have surfaced around social media. According to an article in The Washington Post in 2017, a recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development noted that U.S. teachers have among the lowest number of hours for instructional planning. These teachers also have above-average class sizes and teach more low-income students than teachers in the other higher-achieving countries.
It is no wonder that teachers are opting out. That same article cited statistics showing an alarming rate of teachers leaving the profession. Roughly, nine out of ten teachers hired each year are replacing colleagues who left teaching, two-thirds of them having quit before retirement.
Every one of these challenges, along with the many more, can have a direct emotional effect upon the teacher’s classroom and her life. Educators feel the fallout at a palpable level. They want every child to feel safe, to feel happy, and to learn. This high expectation places educators under constant pressure all day long. They are responsible for the daily encounters and the year long academic success of the students they serve. Elementary and secondary teachers typically have an average of 23 to 25 students in their class, according to New York Times Ecomonix blog. It must be noted that many teachers have shared with me that they have class sizes of 30 plus students.
Currently, a base level of fear exists in education that is more pervasive than I have ever experienced. The current rash of school shootings across the United States is stoking latent fears that were brewing long before violence came to our schools. I am speaking about fears about hate crimes and serious bullying and harassment. Fear around the power of social media and its unintended consequences. Fears around gender identity. Fears around race, prejudice, and equality. Fears around finances and politics. Fears around our future and the future of education. These fears are coupled with the intensity of standardized test expectations, new and rigorous teacher evaluation systems, student behaviors rooted in untreated trauma—along with the expectations of meeting the needs of every individual within each classroom. When I started teaching more than 30 years ago, teachers and students did not enter the school building each day fearing for their lives. Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, this country has seen an average of 10 school shootings per year, according to a March 2018 article in The Washington Post. That same article reports that 187,000 students have been exposed to gun violence at school since Columbine. This feeling of fear is real and supported by the murders of students and teachers during what appeared to be a regular school day in a normal community. Even for the students and teachers who have not had an experience at their particular school, they have been overwhelmed by video clips, news stories, and armed intruder safety drills.
It is not just the students and their parents who are hurting; it’s teachers. Many courageous teachers share with me about their underlying fear that they are not good enough, skilled enough, or prepared enough to handle the current challenges. They also have shared that when they excel beyond measure, their colleagues sometimes treat the differently. We can be, and must be, the light and the change for ourselves and for others. When we cultivate ways to keep our inner candle lit, we can shift in an instant. When our candle burns brightly, we have the strength and the power to be our best self and to use our flame to light the candles of others. Our flame, our light, our spark. We are power! Below are some strategies and practices that teachers can use to provide care for themselves.
Four Strategies to Help
#1 BREATHE (Inhale slowly…hold for a few seconds….exhale slowly…repeat) “Breathe in deeply to bring your mind home to your body.” Tich Naht Hanh
My husband and I spent many years scuba diving. We were trained to regulate our breathing. It is a physical fact that when divers are anxious, their breathing becomes quick and shallow. This type of breathing is not good for the body, nor is it good for the scuba diver. When breathing quickly, the diver uses up her air in the tank far too quickly. Quick, shallow breathing is not good for the educator either. When we breathe in a shallow fashion, our bodies remain in a cyclical state of stress. This type of shallow breathing can become a habit. Do you feel as though you are grasping for breath, both figuratively and literally? Is everything racing by so quickly in your classroom and in your life that you feel like there is not enough time or air in your space?
In stressful situations our cortisol may be rising dramatically. Cortisol is not a friend to peace and joy. We are encouraged to realize that educators can be intentional in using our breath to create an atmosphere of peace at any and every moment. Guided breathing techniques are free tools that we carry with you 100 percent of the time. Isn’t that awesome?
The practice is simply this: keep coming back to your breath during the day. Just take a moment. This will give your mind a steadiness and your breath a gracefulness…..there is so much to let go of, isn’t there? Your nostalgia and your regrets. Your fantasies and your fears. What you think and want instead of what’s happening right now. Breathe (RodneyYee www.shareyoga.com)
#2 FORGIVE (Carrying resentments heavies our load…not the other person’s load “Forgiveness is the fragrance of violet shed on the heel that has crushed it.” ~Mark Twain
Every day I wear a silver pinky ring. It is shaped like a key. I wear this ring on purpose every single day. I wear it to remind myself to forgive. I offer forgiveness to myself and to others all day long. If someone aggravates me, talks about my actions, or is rude to me, I look down to my ring and remind myself to forgive. Someone once told me to picture forgiveness as a gift to self. They asked me to imagine that I was carrying a backpack. Every time someone annoyed or angered me, I was to place a stone in the backpack and keep it there until I forgave that person. The more stones in my backpack, the heavier the load. If I carry resentment, it is bothersome to me and not to the other person.
Small annoyances and aggravations can occur all day long in a classroom setting. Each student comes into the classroom with his personality and fears, just as educators do. Has a student, colleague, friend, or family member angered or agitated you today? These grievances can be big or they can be small. It matters not—their power to impact your day is the same. This could be in connection to a student or a student’s parent or a family member or a friend. When we forgive these transgressions, we release ourselves from the negativity. When we dwell in the aggravation (it matters not how big or how small), we continue to carry this negativity with us. Think of each thing, person, or aggravating event as a rock. If you don’t forgive, you place the rock in your backpack and carry this rock around with you wherever you go. The person you are angry with isn’t carrying the rock; you are carrying the weight and the problem. Sometimes we are angry with people we don’t even know and who don’t know us. We are carrying those rocks, their rocks, around with us throughout the day, the week, the month, or the year(s). Let’s lighten the load together.
The practice is simple. Throughout the day (maybe during the moments when you are intentionally breathing) check in with yourself to see if you are carrying any anger or resentment with you. Intentionally SMILE and send forgiveness to that person or event. You will feel your shoulders relax and your spin straighten. Make sure to smile. Whenever love shows up it shines such a light that it extinguishes anger and frustration. You might also like to journal your thoughts during this practice. If you are attached to your phone, type it right in.
#3 GRATITUDE (Place your focus on all you currently have that’s going really well) “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” ~Epictetus
Every morning, and I mean every morning, when I get out of bed I say thank you. When my first foot hits the floor I say, “Thank”, and when my second foot hits the floor I say, “You”. Starting every day off in gratitude sets me up for a successful and positive day. Also, every month—and I mean every Have you found yourself ever spending time and effort thinking about what you don’t have, what is not working well for you, or what future event that will eventually make you happy? These “I don’t have this…” thoughts can occur at school or at home. We might see a colleague with a better caseload, classroom, or resume. We may see a friend or family member with more money, more free time, or more friendships. Spending our important time and mind space thinking about what is NOT in our world is a huge waste of precious time. Celebrating what we currently have creates joy. Let’s explore and practice ways to identify all that we are grateful for in our lives and specifically in our current moments.The practice is simple. Create a gratitude jar.
#4 QUIT IT “You’ve got to make a conscious choice every day to shed the old-whatever ‘the old’ means for you.~Sarah Ban Breathnach
Quitting often has a negative connotation. We typically don’t want to identify ourselves with being a quitter. Here and now, let’s begin to think of some things that no longer serve us and that have to be tossed away. Have you ever heard someone say that they have to “take something off my plate”? Currently, educators continue to place important objects, people, projects, and challenges on their plate and never seem to remove anything. We know that there are only 24 hours in each day, and we continue to build up our list of things to do. We seldom, if ever, remove items. If you are looking for a way to take some things off your plate, this strategy is for you.
The practice is simple. You will need a paper plate and art supplies (including magazine pictures). Create a collage of everything that is currently on you plate of life. Once completed, I ask you to first honor and congratulate yourself for all that you do and have done! Next begin to contemplate what can and should be removed and actually taken off your plate. Take them off! You can also make a list of what you are removing. You may want to remove some concrete items such as belonging to organizations, volunteer commitments or household chores (give them to someone else in the home). You many want to remove some thoughts and beliefs such as perfection, resentments or people pleasing. The choice is yours.
You are important. Your work is powerful and very much needed. Please remember to breathe, forgive, be grateful and quit what no longer serves you. Namaste`
Dr. Gerry Fitzpatrick-Doria has worked in education for over 30 years. Gerry has been an elementary school teacher, a reading specialist, a literacy coach, a staff development specialist, a director of education and a building principal. She is also an adjunct professor supporting educators who are working toward a master’s degree in educational leadership with principal certification.