I recently was asked to think about transition events in life, their potential to be positive or negative, and how to create conditions so teachers could experience them more positively. As I do this, I think about two specific events in my life.
Before becoming an educator I spent a decade and a half in ministry. During that period of life, I found myself in the middle of a lot of life transitions. In a 6th month period I got married, moved, bought a house, changed jobs (to a position with much more responsibility and a lot more added stress), found out my wife was pregnant with our first child, and then my grandfather passed away. Looking back to the end of that half year, I was a ticking time bomb ready to explode at a moment’s notice. I do not want to say anything bad about where I worked or the people there, they were inherently good people. However, I was in a position where I was supposed to be the one providing care for everyone else. This meant I had no one really checking on me and my mental and emotional stability. I will not go into all of the ways I manifested all of this stress into negative attitudes over the subsequent 6-9 months. I could fill volumes with stories of how not to handle stress from this period of life. I will simply say it was not good and a large part of my awful demeanor was the ongoing stress in my head. It all built until just after my son was born I was driving to a meeting and had to pull off the road because I was having a complete breakdown from the stress. I knew that day I had to leave that job to save my sanity. That started the road that eventually led to me switching careers and I am so happy and thankful for where I am now.
I want to contrast the above story with something that happened during my education career.
My first teaching job started mid-year and I dove headfirst into my new career. From my first day in the classroom, I knew I had made the right decision. I gave teaching all of my energy and from that first day, I never stopped working. I took work home. I worked on the weekends. I worked over breaks. I went to week-long and month-long PD opportunities in the summers. I did not really take time off for almost 3 calendar years. I am sure any reading this can guess where my headspace was near the end of that three years. I was beyond burnt out. Largely because I had not handled the transition to my new career wisely. I was mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically spent. I realized this when I got home one Thursday evening extremely troubled about certain things happening with my students and I laid down in bed and did not get up until Sunday. I knew I was headed off the cliff but was not sure how to change my life and career trajectory. One evening, a few weeks later, I received an email from my principal asking me to come to her office during my planning period the next day. My mind immediately started racing wondering what I had done wrong and trying to figure out why I was getting in trouble. The next day I walked nervously into her office and she asked me to sit down. She was not sitting behind her desk this time, but at the conference table in her room, and she had a large Pepsi sitting on the table for me (Pepsi is my favorite soft drink). She asked me how I was doing. She told me she had noticed my joy was gone and was worried about me. I had a long talk with her that day about a lot of things.
My planning period that day saved my education career. I started to find myself again. I started going for a run most evenings. I started reading for pleasure once more. I stopped taking work home as much. That conversation with my principal helped me rediscover myself. Since then I have achieved career and professional goals I thought were mere pipe dreams. Had she not taken the time to simply ask me how I was, I do not know if I would still be in education today.
As I, again, consider life transition events, their potential to be positive or negative, and how to create conditions so teachers, especially, experience them more positively, I think about my former principal. In the first situation, I never had anyone ever sincerely ask me how I was or tell me they were worried about me. My principal asking me these questions, investing some time in me, and taking the time to find out my favorite soft drink, changed how I experienced the life that was happening around me. My workload did not magically lighten when I left her office that day. My perspective of my workload changed. I knew I had people in my corner that were concerned about my well-being and committed to my success as an educator.
So, could something that has the potential for being bad in the life of a teacher actually turn into something good? Yes! It takes the instructional leader knowing their staff, watching for clues, knowing what drives their staff, and being willing to ask them needed questions. It takes a principal or other leader who knows the well-being of their staff is an integral part of the success of the school.