6 Ways Teachers Can Stay Inspired This Year
Summer may be the perfect time to think about how we’ll stay inspired in the year to come.
By Barbara Blackburn
Too often, I talk to teachers who have lost their motivation. They are overwhelmed by paperwork, frustrated with discipline problems, and feel as though no one values their expertise—evidenced by the fact that they are told more than they are asked.
You can stop the negative before you sink too far, but you must focus on yourself. Taking care of ourselves means taking time to rest, getting enough exercise, and having balance in our lives. But it also means being inspired about who we are and what we do. Here are six key ways I incorporate inspiration in my life.
We promote inspiration when we . . .
- Build a positive memory file
- Read books that inspire
- Watch inspirational movies
- Find everyday heroes
- Surround yourself with motivating thoughts
- Keep a success journal
Let’s briefly consider each one.
1. Build a Positive Memory File
You’ve probably received a thank-you note, a card, or a picture drawn by a student. Did you save it? I kept a file folder in my desk with those and other reminders of times students gave me positive feedback. I remember one time it was just a scrap of paper with a smile drawn on it given to me by one of my most mischievous students. My first teaching job after graduation was with sixth graders. I still have a note from Tara, who mailed me a letter thanking me for being such a good teacher and helping her learn.
Start today building a memory file with pictures, e-mails, notes, or anything that acknowledges the good work you do as a teacher. Then on those days when things get tough, go to your file and look through it.
You’ll be surprised at how much it will cheer you up. You have these memories in your head; but when you are under a lot of stress, they’re hard to remember. Keep these cues handy, so you can be reminded of your impact instantly.
2. Read Books That Inspire You
When I was teaching, I kept a copy of The Thread That Runs So True on my desk. It is Jesse Stuart’s true story of his teaching career. I originally read it because my dad told me to read it, but I reread it because it taught me about all the power of being a teacher.
The reason I kept it on my desk and read selected portions regularly was because it reminded me that on my toughest day, it could be worse. Jesse Stuart stumbled into being a teacher after accidentally going into the wrong room at his high school. Instead of his regular class, the room was being used to administer the teacher’s exam; so he took the test and passed.
Then he asked to be placed in the one-room school where his sister had taught. She left her job after she was beaten by one of the students. Jesse faced the same challenge: a 16-year-old first grader who believed this was his school and no teacher would tell him what to do. To keep his job he had to fight the student after school, help bandage the hurt student, and clean up the blood because there was no custodian.
Although I would never condone physically fighting with a student, by the end of my second year of teaching, I realized that every teacher has to fight to do the job effectively. You may have to fight paperwork, unmotivated students, or even your own feelings of frustration and depression. The Thread That Runs So True inspires me to recognize that everyone has to fight, and the fight can take you to a different level of teaching. What books give you the strength to grow?
3. Watch Movies That Inspire You
I also love watching movies about teachers and students to be reminded that teachers make a difference. My favorite two movies are older: Conrack, Pat Conroy’s story of his teaching experiences on an island off the South Carolina coast, and The Sound of Music, in which a nontraditional teacher taught children in one family about music and life.
A more recent favorite is The Emperor’s Club, which I saw at one of the lowest points in my university teaching career. A student plagiarized a project. That may be pretty typical these days, but this one was personal. The student was my advisee, and I was supervising her final project.
I questioned my teaching, the standard I had set, and whether I had been a role model. I was tired, I was defeated, and I questioned my overall effectiveness. One of my colleagues recommended I see the newly released movie; so one afternoon I stumbled into the theatre, still frustrated that somehow I had let this student down.
The movie was cathartic. In The Emperor’s Club Kevin Kline plays a private school teacher who deals with a similar issue with his students. It profiles a situation with students competing for a prize; then the movie fast forwards a number of years when Kevin Kline realizes that the student made a choice; and it really was the student’s choice, not his.
It was an epiphany for me; I cried through the last half of the movie. The powerful message still resonates with me: As teachers, we have tremendous positive influence over our students, but there are limitations to that influence. Students can and do make their own way, sometimes because of our influence, and sometimes despite our influence. And the joy and sorrow of teaching is exactly that; we do all we can do, and sometimes our hearts break.
4. Find Everyday Heroes
When you were growing up, did you have a hero? My nephew loves the Hulk, at least right now. Part of what he likes is that the Hulk is “big and strong and green and he has purple pants; he gets the bad guys.” Children need heroes they can admire; that’s a normal part of growing up.
In fact, in a world full of negativity, we all need heroes. One of the lessons we learned from September 11, 2001, was that heroes can be normal people who do what they can to help others, such as firefighters and police officers. You can motivate yourself by reminding yourself of the everyday teacher-heroes in your life.
My list starts with my father, a coach and a retired university professor who has always taught – his children, his students, and everyone around him. His lessons to me are still powerful: It’s important to care about every single student you teach; it’s more important to do the right thing than it is to be right all the time. I learned one of his most powerful lessons when I was in high school, and he was a basketball referee.
I went with him to a game; and while sitting in the stands, I listened to fans yell at him throughout the entire game. Nothing he did was right, and they called him stupid and some other things that I won’t repeat. I was in tears. After the game, he just smiled and said that he never even heard what they said; he just did his job and ignored the rest.
That memorable lesson has stayed with me in two ways. First, even though I am a rabid college basketball fan, I never yell at the referees. Second, when things get tough, I know I need to do my job and ignore the rest; particularly the unwarranted criticism that can come from those who think they know more about a situation than they do.
The teachers I work with regularly are heroes who daily do whatever they can to make a difference with their students. Although there are too many to list, I want to tell you about Marie. She came into my class one night and was quieter than usual. That day she had found a flip book, in which someone had written death threats to the teacher. She was convinced that the student in whose desk it was found was innocent, but she couldn’t imagine who would have done this.
The notebook was filled with comments no teacher should ever have to read. I sent her home and talked with her every day that week. What struck me the most was that, throughout all of her fear and frustration, she still was optimistic about that student’s potential. She never really considered not teaching her students.
What does it take to face down fear? It takes the heart of a hero, and that’s what teachers have. Who is on your hero list?
5. Surround Yourself With Motivating Thoughts
Another important thing I do is create an environment filled with motivating thoughts and pictures. I collect quotes by famous and not-so-famous people on a variety of topics such as persistence, success, and focus. I write some of them in my journal, I put some up on my bulletin board or my computer screen, my file cabinet, desk – anywhere I will see them regularly.
I’ve even changed my screen saver at work so the scrolling text is my quote of the moment, the one that I’m most enamored with each week. I set my background on my computer desktop to be a picture of something that reminds me of what is most important to me. Right now, it’s a collage of pictures of my niece and nephew. No matter how crazy it gets at work, I can look at their smiling faces and everything seems a little better.
I receive a daily motivation quote by e-mail, which guarantees that no matter how much junk e-mail I get, no matter how many problems people want me to solve, I always get at least one encouraging e-mail per day. I also set my home page to a Web page with motivational thoughts. Again, this forces me at least once, when I log on to the Internet, to see something positive and uplifting. Do you use motivational quotes and images to inspire?
6. Keep a Success Journal
Journaling is a practice that I still struggle to incorporate in my life, but I have found it to be one of the most critical parts of self-reflection. If the idea of writing pages and pages of daily events doesn’t thrill you, don’t worry. That’s not what I’m talking about.
I suggest keeping a list of your successes, a log of good things that happen. Challenge yourself to write down something positive every day. Even if it’s nothing more than that you survived to tell about it, write it down. Maybe Billy smiled at you for the first time, or Hakim showed up, or Serena brought her homework. Keep the list and keep writing.
The discipline itself will motivate you, and keeping the list in a journal allows you to revisit it on the stressful days. The success journal is also a great place to jot down your list of books and movies and to log and describe your everyday heroes. Keep it with your Memory File, and you have instant inspiration anytime you need it. Just don’t forget to look at them frequently.
Motivation is part of your job description
Keeping yourself motivated is a critical part of your job. If you aren’t motivated, you will burn out and you won’t be able to positively impact your students. These six strategies will help you incorporate inspiration in your life and help you stay motivated.
Barbara Blackburn is a best-selling author of 15 books including Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word. A nationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website or her blog. She’s on Twitter @BarbBlackburn. Her latest books are Motivating Struggling Learners: 10 Ways to Build Student Success and the second edition of The Principalship from A to Z, written with Ron Williamson.