When I was a third grader at Clara Barton Elementary School in Fargo, North Dakota, my principal Miss Minnis held an assembly where she showed us home movies of her summer trip to Australia. I was amazed at the existence of such a large a country so far away from the U.S. We learned the song ”Waltzing Matilda,” and I still have the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I get to the part that goes ‘’and his ghost can be heard as you ride beside the billabong.’’ In the fourth grade, I remember our teacher Mrs. Grange reading to us from Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women. At the point (spoiler alert) where Beth dies, she began crying, which amazed the whole class, since she showed that she actually cared about the characters in the novel. In the sixth grade, my teacher Miss Wilds shared with our class her trip to Hawaii by putting on a luau for us. I particularly remember the experience of eating the taro root paste called poi, because it had the consistency of library paste and I was free to eat it without getting into trouble! I also remember my seventh grade geography teacher Miss Arendes, who spoke in such stirring terms about the Islamic explorers and thinkers Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, and Avicenna, which sparked my imagination in middle age when I finally read about their ideas and exploits.
What Students Remember 30 Years Later
In each of these cases, educators shared something of their zest for adventure, their personal interests, and their love of learning. These educators became briefly transparent to us, and I believe that that’s the reason why these events stick out after so many years. If we think back to our school years, to what really made an impression on us, to what stood out from everything else, it almost certainly wasn’t the lectures, the textbooks, or the worksheets. It was something far more intangible, and rare. If we happened to run into one of our own past teachers twenty or thirty years later, we generally didn’t say: ‘’Oh, yes! You were the teacher who made page 143 of the reading series Pathways come alive for me!’’ Instead, it was when teachers stepped outside of their traditional roles and gave us something of themselves that captivated us and kept that memory alive for so long.
I bring up these stories because they seem to be less common in today’s complex educational world of duties, deadlines, and distractions. Teachers are under almost unmanageable amount of stress. First and foremost, there’s the uncertainties of the global pandemic. But even without this, teachers are accountable for countless tasks and responsibilities. According to Patricia Jennings, Associate Professor of Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, ‘’[w]e ask an awful lot of teachers these days . . . Beyond just conveying the course material, teachers are supposed to provide a nurturing learning environment, be responsive to students, parents and colleagues, juggle the demands of standardized testing, coach students through conflicts with peers, be exemplars of emotion regulation, handle disruptive behavior and generally be great role models; . . .’’ (Garrison Institute, 2009, p. 1). And these are just the positive expectations. If a school lacks strong principal leadership, has an emotionally unhealthy school climate, and/or fails to nurture collegial relationships, then stress levels can become literally toxic.
A Simple but Powerful Proposal
So, speaking directly to teachers, what I’m about to suggest may strike many of you as just one more burden, one more thing to add to your ever-increasing load of responsibilities. But I want to emphasize that, entered into with the right intentions, it can lighten your load, improve your mental health, and deliver immeasurable benefits to your students. What I’m proposing is that you reactivate your intrinsic love of learning, the love that brought you into teaching in the first place. Here are a few ways to recapture that intrinsic love of learning in your personal life that will pay dividends in your professional life as an educator:
- Use weekends, holidays and summertime as lifelong learning opportunities. While teachers may see these breaks as badly needed intervals to squeeze in lesson planning and other school preparation activities, research suggests that educators, like everyone else, need down time to recover from the stresses that build up during busy school sessions in order to avoid job burn-out. Research suggests that if demanding periods of work are not punctuated with adequate recovery experiences, stress-related physiological processes may be activated for prolonged periods of time, raising the risk of psychological (e.g., burnout, anxiety, depression) and somatic (e.g., cardiovascular) health problems (Horan, Flaxman, and Stride, 2020). David Harpin, Dean of Academics at the Hopkins School in New Haven, Connecticut, often enjoys weekend visits to Yale galleries. Harpin says, “I decompress by making weekend micro-visits to the Yale University Art Gallery or the Yale Center for British Art.” Hopkins English teacher Alex Werrell loves to listen to opera to relax. He relates, “In my spare time, I like to listen to an entire opera. It’s a real luxury to sit for a few hours simply listening- not reading, not fiddling around, just sitting and listening . . . being.’’
- Read for pleasure to unlock new vistas. The writer Franz Kafka wrote that ‘’a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’’ Reading for pleasure can be a wonderful route to pure escapism, add to our knowledge of the world, or pique our curiosity about subjects far from our normal interests. “[Books] are surprising–they challenge your perspective on the world, make you feel less alone . . .’’ says Jessica Berg, an English teacher at Rock Ridge High School in Ashburn, Virginia. ‘’You get to adventure and live a thousand lives just sitting in your living room or in your bed at night.” Research, however, suggests that many teachers do not engage in regular leisure reading. In a study of 161 elementary teachers, researchers reported that over twenty percent of teachers reported reading less than one book per month, while forty-one percent of fourth-through sixth-grade teachers in another study reported spending less than ten minutes reading anything each day and sixty-three percent of those reported no reading for pleasure at all (Broemmel et al., 2019). English teacher Teresa VanMeter, at Kenwood High School in Baltimore, Maryland, challenged herself to read 90 books last year, including books she normally wouldn’t read in order to challenge her thinking and perspectives. Teachers expect students to become lifelong readers. Shouldn’t teachers be doing the same thing?
- Travel to encounter new experiences. While journeys to exotic destinations may not be within your budget, you don’t have to bother your pocketbook too much, or stay away from home too long, to have a legitimate travel adventure. Teacher journalist Elizabeth Mulvahill recommends taking day trips. She advises: ‘’Take day trips in every direction! Don’t plan too much, just travel in one direction for 3 hours, see where you are and sight-see.” Short-term vacations of two to five days can also take you to interesting places. Rebecca Rudder, a kindergarten teacher at Island Pacific Academy in Kapolei, Oahu Island, Hawaii is a scuba diver. “I went scuba diving as often as possible with my husband,” she says. They traveled to the Big Island so they could do a night dive with a chance to see manta rays. Island Pacific Academy elementary music teacher Ruth Babas and Makana Kuahiwinui, Hawaiiana instructor, traveled together to the Big Island for a huaka’i (a trip or journey with a purpose) to learn more about Hawaiian culture and traditions.
- If you literally have no time to do any of the above, then start small. Create ‘’micro-moments’’ for yourself on the sly when you have a few minutes of breathing space, both in and outside of school. Some suggestions might include:
- watch an 8-minute lesson on Khan Academy (https://www.khanacademy.org/) in a subject you know nothing about;
- write down 3 things you’re curious about and when you have a moment look them up on the Internet;
- take a walk outside and find something to wonder about in nature;
- pick a book out of the school library that you’d like to read;
- listen to audio recording of a favorite book;
- learn how to fix something in your house by watching a You Tube video.
- And if you find you have more time to spend, here are a few other things you might consider:
- begin writing a novel (get support from National Novel Writing Month https://nanowrimo.org/);
- learn to knit, crochet, or embroider;
- take a course at your local community college;
- learn how to play a musical instrument;
- join a book club, study group, or learning community in your neighborhood;
- learn a new language (try the online site Duolingo for free – https://www.duolingo.com/learn);
- take a streaming or DVD course from ‘’The Great Courses’’ on anything from genealogy to the ‘’lost worlds’’ of South America (https://www.thegreatcourses.com/)
- take up photography;
- become a film buff (try The Criterion Channel streaming service – (https://www.criterionchannel.com/ );
- join a community theatrical company;start a collection (stamps, old posters, interesting sea shells etc.);
- attend concerts, lectures, and/or plays;
- buy a telescope and get the free app SkyView Lite to locate the planets and constellations.
The important thing is to do these sorts of things not because they’re good for you, although neuroscience suggests that you’ll protect your cognitive abilities into old age as a result (Gidicsin et al., 2015). And don’t just do it to make yourself into a better teacher, even though it will do this through a process psychologists call ‘’emotional contagion’’ (Bakker, 2005). Do it because you feel an inner drive or passion to learn. To help you come up with a clear direction for your pursuits, remember what you did as a child or adolescent that filled you full of vitality and zest, or pay attention to your dreams at night and see if anything significant points you in a specific learning direction.
Above all, begin to think of yourself as a learner as much as you are a teacher. I remember doing a workshop on multiple intelligences for teachers some years ago, and at the end of the class I came to realize that one of the participants was actually the principal of the school. She had seemed just like one of the teachers to me. When I was visiting with her afterwards, she described herself as the ‘’head learner’’ of the school. This made a big impression on me. It seems to me that this is the pinnacle that every teacher should strive toward: to become the #1 learner in the classroom.
You should come into classroom in the morning and instead of starting out by saying: ‘’Class, turn to page 134 of your textbook’’ you ought to begin with something more like ‘’I just read the most fascinating article in the newspaper this morning’’ or ‘’Here’s a rock I found near my house over the weekend, isn’t it marvelous!.’’ As educator par excellence Art Costa (2011) once put it: “Teachers who continue to learn throughout their professional careers display the humility of knowing that they don’t know, which is the highest form of thinking they will ever learn.”
Bakker, A.D. (2005). Flow among music teachers and their students: The crossover of peak experiences, Journal of Vocational Behavior 66: 26–44.
Broemmel, A.D., et al. (2019, March). Teacher reading as professional development: Insights from a national survey. Reading Horizons: A Journal of Literacy and Language Arts, 58(1).
Costa, A. (2011). Teachers as continuous learners. Teachers Matter. https://www.nesacenter.org/uploaded/conferences/FLC/2011/handouts/Watts/Teachers_as_Continuous_Learners.pdf. 9-1o,
Garrison Institute (2009, April 10). Garrison Institute’s CARE program for teachers receives federal funding. Retrieved from https://www.garrisoninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Garrison_Institute_IES_grant_10Apr09.pdf.
Gidicin, C.M. (2015, July 7). Cognitive activity relates to cognitive performance but not to Alzheimer disease biomarkers. Neurology, 85(1): 48–55.
Horan, S., Flaxman, P., and Stride, C. (2020, June 25). The perfect recovery? Interactive influence of perfectionism and spillover work tasks on changes in exhaustion and mood around a vacation. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. doi: 10.1037/ocp0000208.
For more information about sparking teachers’ (and students’) innate love of learning, see my latest book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.
This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.
Follow me on Twitter: @Dr_Armstrong