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Teachers have been amazing this year. Many of them taught virtually for the first time ever and spent their free time learning new strategies and expanding their professional knowledge. Despite the lack of physical space, they cultivated a positive classroom community and proved that social distance has not meant relational distance. Back in December, I posted the following thank you video:

In the past six months, teachers have navigated the challenges of hybrid teaching, the random weeks of moving between hybrid and virtual, the sudden quarantines, and eventually teaching face-to-face but with masks and at a six foot distance. They have comforted students in trauma, reached out to students who seemed to be withdrawing, and engaged with students who were extra needy.

Teachers have done an amazing job this year.

Leaders have also done an amazing job. In many cases, leadership has been a thankless job. Angry parents. Constantly changing directives from politicians. Staff feeling beat down. Kids in crisis. And they showed up amid the chaos and did their best as principals, assistant principals, directors, coaches, and district-level leaders.

This has been a hard year. Teachers are feeling exhausted. The typical “teacher tired” of late May hit hard back in February and many of my teacher friends are just barely hanging on right now. This year has been a marathon. However, at the end of this marathon, there are different levels of tired. Some people are simply exhausted. They have crossed the finish line and they are placing their hands over their head with a mix of gratitude that it’s over and a sense of pride over facing a huge challenge. These teachers are worn out and need rest.

Other teachers are injured. These teachers have finished the marathon but they’re hurting. Many are facing moral injury. What they have experienced is genuine injustice and it has shaken them to core. Others have been traumatized. These teachers need more than just rest. They need healing. It might involve being part of a community dedicated to healing or it might involve sitting down with a counselor.  Many teachers have faced both trauma and moral injury this year. My hope is that they can embrace therapy, recognizing it’s not a sign of weakness or failure. It took me way too long to see the value of counseling but I’m so glad that I went that route myself.

I made this continuum for myself to think through whether I’m tired or actually injured. This isn’t scientific or anything. It’s just a tool I made for myself eight years ago, when I faced true moral injury and realized I needed more than just rest. That was my hardest year of teaching. We had a new principal who led from a place of insecurity and it led to a culture of fear. Ten teachers quit the profession altogether. Many more transferred. It was the only time in my life I experienced panic attacks. For me, I needed something more than rest. I needed healing.

Here’s how it works:

  • Rest: I need a break but I’m also ready to learn
  • Recovery: I need a longer break with deeper processing
  • Restoration: something was taken from me this year and I need systems changes, culture change, and support
  • Rehabilitation: I’m hurting and need healing and therapy to recover from this year

So with that in mind, I think there are a few ideas for how you might make the most of the summer. Notice that where you are in a sense of tired can influence what approach you take to the summer.

Thinking Strategically About the Summer

Here are four different approaches to take during the summer. These aren’t meant to be prescriptive. They’re just some ideas for some approaches we might choose after a hard year.

1. Find rest.

Last year, I wrote about why it’s important to make rest a priority in the summer. I recognize that this is challenging. Some teachers have to work a second job just to make ends meet. Others are taking on extra duty contracts. However, for some teachers, the bigger issue is that we fail to give ourselves the permission to rest. It can feel unproductive. In the past, I have had to “break up with busy” and remind myself to slow down. I said yes to too many things as a way to make other people happy. In the end, I neglected the things that mattered most.

Teaching is an exhausting career and when teachers take the time to rest during the summer, they able to find a place of renewal and restoration. Research has demonstrated that rest is vital for maintaining our passion and reaching our creative potential. However, it’s easy to go through the summer without finding any true restoration.

Even when you finish a marathon and you cross the finish line and you receive that metal and you crazy proud of what you’ve accomplished, you still find yourself collapsing on the ground in exhaustion.

I mention this because I sometimes see a narrative that the “good teachers” are the ones who spend their summers in professional development or in committees planning out lessons. It’s easy, as teachers, to get sucked into the martyr syndrome, believing that you should selflessly give everything you have because you’re doing it for the children.

But martyrs aren’t any good to kids. Students need teachers who are energetic and patient. However, this requires rest. So, read a book. Watch movies. Go hiking. Swim. Binge watch The Great British Bake-Off. Kick the soccer ball around with your daughter. Go hiking. You’ve poured your heart and soul into this job. You shouldn’t feel guilty for resting. It’s what your students need.

In fact, there’s a ton of interesting research in the book Rest, that suggests we are more productive and more creative when we spend time resting.

There’s a great article on this, where author Thomas Oppong wrote:

According to research, the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. You lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.

When faced with a long creative problem, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task and improve your idea generation approach. A structured downtime can help you do your best work.

We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don’t take regular breaks. If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression. Your brain needs downtime to remain industrious and generate better ideas.

I love that idea. We need rest. Again, I realize that some teachers don’t have this luxury because they have to work second or third jobs. This is why we need to pay teachers a genuine living wage. While rest is vital for sustainability as a teacher, there’s also a certain kind of restoration that happens when we engage in creative work.

2. Engage in a creative activity.

A few years ago, I wrote this blog post as a reminder to myself that summertime is the perfect chance to make something awesome. Each summer, I try to carve out a personal Genius Hour. If you’re not familiar with it, Genius Hour (or 20% Time) projects begin with a simple idea: give students a dedicated period of time to pursue their passions, interests, and questions in a creative way. Made famous by Google, this process actually began at 3M, where they allowed employees to spend 20% of their time working on their own passion projects.

With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey. They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditionally academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep sea creatures.

Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines. Students decide on the grouping. Some work alone. Others work in pairs or small groups.

Although we tend to think of Genius Hour as a process for students, I want to explore how we might use Genius Hour in our own lives as educators as a form of professional development. Here, you might spend hour Genius Hour acquiring a new skill. You might learn a new language or learn how to play a new instrument. Or you might question you have and engage in your own personal Wonder Day project. For example, I just spent my Genius Hour time looking at South Korean ballparks. I find it fascinating that the U.S. ballparks have been largely quirky and vintage for the last 30 years but the South Korean stadiums are modern (often with a nod to mid-century modern) and contemporary, with clean lines and a minimalist touch. Is there any purpose to this knowledge? I doubt it. But this was my chance to geek out on a question. However, Genius Hour can also involve a personal passion project that builds upon your own creative skills. My Genius Hour project last year involved creating this silhouette artwork for my office:

This summer I plan to create custom painted Chuck Taylor’s and work on a new novel. I am not entirely sure how it will turn out. These may end up as failed experiments. But I need this creative outlet for a few reasons:

  • It forces me to struggle with a new craft or concept
  • I get to do creative work outside my normal domain of education
  • I get to bring my kids into the process
  • I become a little more empathetic toward my own students who are learning the craft of teaching.

So, even though my schedule is busy, I want to carve out time to make something new this summer.

As an educator, I always want to carve out time for rest and time for my own personal Genius Hour. However, I also love teaching and I’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong with spending part of my time off nerding out on my craft. This is why I love the concept of a mastermind group.

3. Create a Mastermind Group.

Mastermind Groups are self-initiated and democratic. Members meet together to provide accountability, structure, and feedback. Often, they share ideas and solve problems. However, unlike many collaborative groups, members aren’t necessarily working on shared projects. I’ve seen Mastermind Groups used in academic circles, start-up circles, and in the non-profit world. I’ve been a part of a teacher blogger mastermind group, a curriculum planning group, and a research group.

If you’re not familiar with mastermind groups, they are a bit like a support group and a guild at the same time. You often share your process, your journey, your struggles, and your problems. Sometimes the group listens. Often, they affirm you. But more often, they provide insights and advice.

The following are a few of the things you might do as you meet with your mastermind group:

  • Share your journey with the group and let them hear what you are learning along the way
  • Share your needs with others and ask for ideas or resources
  • Share your frustrations (there’s a power to being vulnerable)
  • Share your success stories and celebrate the success together
  • Talk about potential collaboration options together

The last option has been the most fascinating for me. We only have four members in our group, but I have ended up collaborating with two of them as a result of our conversations. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, we have grown to trust one another and rely on each other. For a deeper dive into how to form a Mastermind Group, check out this article I wrote last summer.

4. Own your professional development.

For some teachers, it’s hard to fathom engaging in professional learning this summer. They’re going to lean heavily on rest and creative work. Some are going to need therapy to process this year. But other teachers are ready to think about next year and how they will redefine the new normal. They are interested in that overlap of “best practices and “next practices.” After a year that was tech-heavy, they are ready for the both/and approach of vintage innovation:

For these teachers, the summer is a chance to explore new ideas and learn new strategies. In other words, it’s a chance to own their professional development:

Note that professional development is not the same as attending a training or going to a conference. It’s what happens when you gain new skills, expand your worldview, and improve your conceptual understanding within your profession. It involves attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, and values. It goes to the core of your professional identity. And ultimately, there are specific ways that you can own your professional learning.

Right now, teachers all over the world are meeting in small groups, doing book studies to refine their practice. Without prompting from a district or a principal, they are are taking ownership of their learning. They own their learning.

Go to Twitter at any given moment and you’ll see teachers wrestling with big ideas, engaging in deep discussions about how to transform their practice. Some of these are formal chats. Others are doing it informally. They own their learning. 

Meanwhile, teachers are making things from scratch. They are experimenting with new ideas, diving deep into the maker culture, and building new things. In some cases, they’re not building stuff. They’re building movements and making change. They own their learning.

These teachers are reading books and blog posts. They’re watching YouTube videos to get ideas. They’re listening to podcasts and audiobooks. They own their learning.

Many of these activities don’t count as official “professional development.” They can’t be used to get hours for re-certification. But they are all prime examples of what happens when teachers own their learning. For a deeper dive on this topic, check out this blog series I wrote last summer. If you’re interested in self-paced professional development, feel free to check out my self-paced, on-demand courses.

This is Your Time

I have seen a lot of strongly worded messages and memes on social media telling teachers how to spend their summer. Some are encouraging teachers to keep working. These memes have a touch of shame to them and send an implied message that the “real teachers” keep working. They perpetuate a dangerous superhero narrative:

Other memes have a tone of mockery toward those who choose to engage in professional development. But I think both approaches miss the point. We are all in a different individual place and we all need to find our own paths toward health and rest and restoration.

Looking for more? Check this out.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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