Time for round 2 of #Teach2Teach, the blogging series where experienced teachers are trying to give our best advice to new and pre-sevice teachers. Today’s topic is one of my favorites: politics.
Carrie asks: How do you stay inspired and not get bogged down by the politics of teaching?
I have to agree 100% with Amy when she says that whether we like it or not, politics are part of the job. Since everyone theoretically got some sort of education, everyone has an opinion on it. Even though we as teachers understand that things are completely different from the other side of the desk, many people still base their opinions on their own experiences. The sooner that we understand and accept that playing the politics game is part of our job – and learn to manage it with grace – will help us maintain our sanity.
When in doubt, keep your mouth shut
Now, I need to preface my personal comments by noting that I am terrible at politics. I love debating policies and arguing over procedures, but when it comes to the tactful part of politics, I am terrible. Horrific. Awful. I have a big mouth and I have gotten myself in hot water multiple times over it, and that is why I am wording my advice in a strong, somewhat rude way. Let me be a lesson to you: if you are in doubt about anything, keep your mouth shut. If you are emotional, keep it shut. If you are angry or frustrated, definitely keep it shut. I call my blog Making Good Mistakes because making mistakes and fixing them is how we learn. But sometimes we make a big whopper of a mistake, and it is easier to remove the mistake-maker than to give them a chance to fix it.
As a new teacher, you are going to mess up. But just as our tolerance for making the same mistakes wanes the closer our students get to adulthood, the same will happen with administration. Make their job easier for them and resist the temptation to give comments if you haven’t thought them over multiple times and considered how it will be taken by anyone who might run across it. This goes doubly so for written material whether that is an email, a blog post, or even just a quick tweet. (And even then, you might still find yourself challenged, but I have no problem with being challenged on a thoughtful belief I truly hold, rather than an off-the-cuff remark that is now biting me in the butt.) It’s just not worth it.
Remember to be friendly, but you are not their friend
This piece of advice goes dually for working with students and other adults in the building. Being a young teacher, you are in a weird position. Many of your students could be your own siblings, and you may have many of the same interests. I absolutely encourage you to use those strengths, but remember, no matter how close you get, they are students first. They can be your friend after they graduate. In addition, different schools have different policies on social media. If yours doesn’t have a clear-cut policy, always use caution. Remember that anything you write on the internet, no matter how private you think it might be, can quickly spread through the internet and make its way to your principal’s desk.
It is harder, I think, to remember that your coworkers are not necessarily your friends, either. It can be very difficult to be the new kid on the block, especially if you enter as the only new teacher with a well-established staff. The loneliness can be alleviated by a good mentoring program, but most schools don’t have that. With other staff members, you can be more of your real self than you are with the students, but you are still playing the political game. Just because you are all educators does not mean you all have the same beliefs and values. Throughout the school year, there are naturally occuring personality clashes when it comes to things like school improvement or making changes to curriculum. Handle these with grace and composure. Like I said in my first point, if you don’t have a well-rehearsed, tactful response, just keep your mouth shut. As you become more established, you will feel more comfortable (respectfully!) challenging beliefs, but at the beginning, you don’t have the trust built up to do so safely.
Keeping your spark ignited
Okay, so my post hasn’t been very positive so far. ‘Keep your mouth shut or you’ll get into trouble.’ ‘Be friendly, but not friends.’ I have one more not-so-positive thing to say before I tell you all the good parts, and that is to temper your flame. I am all about passion and excitement and enthusiasm – I think those are all qualities you need to be a good teacher. But you have to keep that enthusiasm under control. It can be very hard when you feel like you have this Really Great Idea! but if you approach it like your way is the best and only way, it can turn people off in a hurry. (There is a reason this post on offensive “authentic resources” has, by far, the most hits on my blog.) But I encourage you to take your tempered flame and direct it towards gently guiding people, whether they are your students or fellow staff members, rather than blasting everyone in the nearby area with it. Going with the fire analogy, a raging fire left unchecked and uncontrolled only destroys everything around it. But a controlled flame, like used in a welding torch, can create wonderful things. Be the torch and not the blaze.
It’s also better to keep your fire safely contained, so that you don’t burn yourself out. The workload in your first few years is intense, and if you give 110% of yourself to your job every single day, you won’t have anything left. Going back to my first #Teach2Teach advice, make sure to take time for yourself. The grading can wait.
But what if you’re having the opposite problem, where your flame has been dampened and you feel like you’re just slogging through the days? That is the time to refresh and reconnect, to relight your fire with the fire of others. I’m going to sound cliche here, but those are the times to read blogs and check #langchat. Maybe you’re struggling with a unit, or have a so-so lesson that you’re not sure how to make great. Maybe it’s just the kids getting you down. That’s when you need to touch base with people who will lift your spirits and push you forward. If you can get this connection in the teacher’s lounge, great. If you feel like nothing positive is discussed at lunch, eat by yourself or eat with a positive-minded friend in his/her room. You can’t always choose how you feel, but you can choose what to do about it.
The first few years can be incredibly lonely because you haven’t built up your teacher support network yet, and you might feel that your normal support networks don’t cut it (even if they’re amazing, wonderful people, teaching is one of those jobs where most people have no idea what you actually do each day and why it is so hard.) Trust me, we’ve all been there. You are probably going to make political mistakes – say something inappropriate or rude to a student, or offend a coworker – but take them as making good mistakes to learn from. Recharge your flame by huddling close to people who are currently burning bright. Eventually, those people are going to need you to return the favor. We’re all in this together, for better or worse.