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School doesn’t feel the same. How to reignite your bold passion

Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

Educators across the country have invested significant time, energy, thought and care in developing reopening plans to safely welcome students and staff back to school this fall. 

Reopening plans share several common themes. Among them:

  1. They reset expectations for the new school year and distinguish the emergency remote learning in the spring from schools’ commitments to a consistent schedule for learning and the provision of a rigorous and engaging instructional experience for students this fall. 
  2. They redefine the school day with consideration for flexible and adaptable learning models, parent choice, health and safety protocols, teacher planning and preparation, and the learning needs of students, particularly those in special populations and programs.
  3. They restart school with attention to detail regarding operational and logistical plans ranging from transportation and sanitation to social distancing and academic scheduling, while anticipating the need for nimble transitions between learning models to respond to and mitigate changing circumstances.

Their work is comprehensive, thorough and unprecedented. And what we learn throughout this school year will inform the way we think about the future of school -- testing our assumptions and challenging our long-held beliefs about the education system and how learning serves the needs of all students. That’s an important conversation, and our shared experiences will offer insights that will lead to meaningful change.

We, however, face a more immediate challenge -- to reignite our bold passion for the work we do. Many of you know exactly what I mean. Whether you serve education as a teacher, a school leader or administrator, a staff member -- whatever capacity connects you to students and learning, you know someone or are that someone who has felt disconnected, stressed, uncomfortable or fatigued since the time of pandemic. It’s understandable. Let’s face it, school simply doesn’t feel the same. And despite our investment of time, energy, and effort, we often find we’ve come up short. The enjoyment we once found through our work has diminished.

How can we reclaim this? Bold passion is simply the sum of a shared experience, a life change and a common mission. Reigniting it means stepping forward to reexamine, reflect and recommit to the meaningful work we have chosen.

Reexamine our shared experience

“We’re all in this together.” Since early spring, this rallying cry has become synonymous with COVID-19. It suggests that as a community, we were experiencing something similar, albeit in different ways. Shared experience can draw people together, bringing understanding, empathy, a willingness to lend a helping hand, and a support network with others to lean on through it all.

The disruption to school and learning certainly created a shared experience for our school community. Teachers and education leaders rallied to respond to the most basic of needs for students, providing access to devices and connectivity, planning for continuity of learning and finding ways to connect, communicate, and support each other when we were apart. Given the circumstances, the school community responded to emergency remote learning as best we could. But when we look at student engagement and academic progress, two simple metrics, most of us would agree: We can and must do better. Our students and our school communities deserve it.

How do we turn our shared experience with emergency remote learning into an opportunity for growth? In his book Failing Forward, John Maxwell suggests looking at an area of our life where we have failed and do the following (Note: Maxwell’s steps, context mine):

  • Examine your expectations. Develop clear and realistic expectations for remote learning and adjust your expectations as you gain more knowledge and expertise.
  • Find new ways to do your work. Brainstorm new approaches that support student learning in a digital environment and give them a try.
  • Focus on your strengths. Use your best skills and personal strengths to maximize your efforts.
  • Vow to bounce back. Understand that change is a process. You will make mistakes, and that’s part of the learning. But keep going. Remember, one day, one week, one month at a time.

Reflect on a life-changing moment

Perhaps there was a single moment -- or a student -- that made it clear this is why you teach. I suspect for many of us, it is more likely a series of events which individually make us feel good but taken together add up to fulfillment. Think about it.

  • That student you encouraged because you saw the potential in them.
  • That student who said you were his favorite teacher because you make learning fun.
  • That student you refused to give up on because you knew she could do it.
  • That student you pushed to achieve more.
  • That student who persisted despite significant challenges.
  • That student who walked across the stage to receive their diploma against all odds.

Years ago, there was a story popular among educators. You may be familiar with it. While there are numerous adaptations, Loren Eiseley’s original version of The Starfish Story shares a message of inspiration that reminds us we do make a difference in the lives of others.

And together, those moments, no matter how big or how small, allow us to declare a life change. So reflect on the ways you have impacted the lives of your students -- and how they have changed yours as well. 

Recommit to a common mission 

Those of us who have chosen education as our life’s work have done so in large part due to its missional nature. Ask any educator, “Why do you teach? Why did you choose a career in education?” and you’ll likely hear something similar to this.

  • I want to make a difference in the lives of children.
  • I want to help students love learning. 
  • I want to have a positive impact on others. 
  • I believe education is a door to the future. 
  • I know that education is one thing that can never be taken from me. 

In the midst of significant challenges, it can be easy to forget why it matters to us in the first place. In his book Start with Why, Simon Sinek suggests that to feel fulfilled by the work you do, you must rediscover your WHY. Your WHY is that thing that inspires you and therefore, your work. In fact, according to Sinek, it all starts with WHY.

He introduces the concept of the “Golden Circle” to help us understand why we do what we do. Visualize three concentric circles. The outside ring is WHAT and nearly everyone can describe what they do. Moving inward, the next circle is HOW, which describes how you do what you do. The innermost circle is WHY. When you can articulate WHY you do what you do, you have found your purpose. Finding your WHY does not give you a course of action but rather offers you a cause for action and a way to inspire others.

How do you reignite your bold passion for the work you do? I invite you to reexamine a shared experience, reflect on the life changing moments, and recommit to your mission and purpose. Be intentional in your quest. After all, it is the ultimate self-care.

Jean Sharp has more than 25 years of leadership and management experience in the education and software publishing industries. Her expertise includes product development, curriculum strategy, instructional design and development, project management, and effective implementations for digital learning solutions. Among her credits are numerous award-winning educational software products published for both school and consumer markets. Jean currently serves as the Chief Academic Officer at Apex Learning.

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