No doubt, teaching in urban schools can wear you down. I can’t even tell you how many times I have sat in my classroom and cried, cursed, or just stared at my bulletin boards that needed updating, paralyzed and practically drooling on myself from exhaustion, frustration, or anger. Everyone has their own methods for coping with the harsh realities of teaching in an environment where you are needed by everyone every minute of every day, but don’t leave yourself empty. Well, some days you are just empty — they have taken it all out of you — but don’t let this happen too often. That’s teacher burn out. That’s attrition looking you right in the face. That’s you becoming the statistic that teachers in hard-to-staff urban school typically don’t make it.
And I have seen those teachers quit — after one week, one month, one year. It makes me sad. Most had so much potential, and they could have made it, but they needed some coping mechanisms. Here’s what I have found helpful to de-stress after a rough day, week, month of working in my “failing” urban high school:
1. Go out with co-workers. My colleagues frequent a neighborhood watering hole in Cobble Hill called Angry Wades. Every Friday it is filled with teachers from the local schools getting their swerve on with a happy hour that starts at 3pm. You don’t have to drink to go. I had two colleagues who went regularly who didn’t drink at all — go for the comaraderie. Go even if you have time for one beer before you have to pick up your kids. Go even if you feel like you hate everyone and everything about your school at 3pm on Friday. Go get lunch, dinner, a bagel. Just go and talk, laugh, and see your co-workers in a different light. It will make you feel better, I promise.
2. Start a feel good folder. I actually have two: One entitled “Yay, Teachers!” and one labeled “Cobble, Sweet Cobble.” In the “Yay!” folder, I have a collection of comics, poems, quotes, jokes, and other items I have collected on teachers and teaching that are positive or funny. In my “Cobble” folder, I have funny student essays, notes from my students, graduation photos of students, relics from my classroom decoration, cards from coworkers and students, funny fliers (made by the students) from the halls of my school for prom king/queen or tutoring services, drawings made for me by students … I never tire of looking at my “Cobble” folder, and each time I get teary, I feel warm and fuzzy, and I remember with new clarity why I do what I do.
3. When you feel like crap, make others feel good. Yes, this sounds very Zen and such, but it really does help. My folder of “Yay, teachers!” materials often got Xeroxed and taped to the doors of the bathroom stalls. In my “Cobble” folder, I have a stack of letters that a co-worker gave me. She asked her students to write about a teacher from the school who had made a difference in their lives and why for teacher appreciation week, and then she put all the letters in our mailboxes. I copied that exercise. Write notes to colleagues who make your life easier and tell them that. Decorate a teacher’s room on his/her birthday. Bring someone a coffee when you go grab one for yourself. Believe me, if you are downtrodden, so are others. Cheer yourself up by making another colleague smile.
4. Exercise. I know, I know — you just taught for six hours straight, on your feet, and all you want to do is go home, sit on the couch with a stack of papers next to you and a beer, and watch some bad TV and catch up on your grading. I hear ya. But find some time to move your body; it will help. Walk home from work (if you can), go to yoga after school, get some other teachers to go for walk during lunch. My first year teaching, I would schlep from Bushwick, Brooklyn to the East Village in Manhattan to go to yoga. Each class, while in the final resting pose, I would cry. Not loudly, not obnoxiously, but tears would seep from the corners of my eyes for the students I served and the crazy culture shock I was processing. I honestly feel my yoga practice got me through year one. Find something healthy to get you through year one (and then two, three, four, etc.): running, yoga, bootcamp, bocci, whatever.
5. Find friends and mentors who care about teaching like you do. I learned early in my career how valuable it was to have a network of folks who got it. Surround yourself with these people in and out of school. In school, I was assigned a mentor my first year, whom I promptly fired (unbeknownst to her). I had a husband/wife team of English teachers adopt me that year, and, although happily retired, they are still among those whom I call my mentors today. (I love you Linda & John Napolillo!) That first year I briefly dated a guy who loved to hear funny stories about my crazy teaching experiences when out at the bar, but I could never talk to him about deeper issues — he wasn’t interested. A lot of people are not interested. When I met my now-husband, a son of two teachers, and he actually listened to my stories and cared about the issues of poverty, race, and literacy I was struggling with … let’s just say the deal was sealed. Not everyone in your life has to be rabid about education, but you need a few people in your corner who can understand the vernacular language you’ll start to speak, who won’t judge you when you cry about how much you hate your job one day and how much you love it the next, and who will support you as you watch all the Friday movies as homework from your students over Christmas Break.
I have other tricks and tips: read teacher memoirs and the books your students read, don’t ever teach summer school, go to the students’ sports events, take students on field trips, and many more, but these five are my go-to strategies that helped me to make it through those moments when jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge seemed a more attractive option than walking through the doors of my school.
Please share any of your own. We honestly can’t have too many.
[This first appeared in The Huffington Post here.]