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Stand With Educators Series: The First Steps to Systemic Change

I’m really excited to share my Stand with Educators Series with you. You may or may not know that back in May, I did a podcast takeover for my friend Amber Harper from The Burned-In Teacher. This takeover was something that Amber and I had planned earlier in the school year but it happened to coincide with the "Stand with Educators" collaboration I did with Kaitlin from Kind Cotton.

The three of us are classroom teachers who feel passionately about standing with - and advocating for better - for educators. We know that better for teachers also means better for students. The Stand with Educators movement launched with a tee-shirt sale in which $5 of the proceeds from every sale helps to sponsor an educator to join The Burned-In Teacher Mastermind. This mastermind is a wonderful opportunity for educators who are ready to grow through their burnout and overwhelm. Thus far, we have sponsored 4 educators through this initiative, and we hope to sponsor many more!

This first episode of the Stand with Educators Series is about taking the next right steps to systemic change for educators. Even though these episodes were recorded and released at the end of last school year, I thought that - with the launch of The AfroEducator Podcast and the start of a new school year - this is the perfect time for you to dream big and set goals that cater to your wellbeing. True self-care is the hard work of creating boundaries, evaluating relationships, and taking steps to shift from the way things are to the way things can be. These episodes are all about actualizing possibilities—moving beyond imagination to reality. I hope that as you listen to these episodes, you feel inspired and empowered to teach and live authentically. You deserve to have the best school year yet!

Right now, the culture around education and teaching makes burnout a virtual certainty. Teachers are making the difficult choice to leave the classroom because of the overwhelming expectations. My state, South Carolina, has acknowledged and referenced a teacher shortage crisis. At the beginning of the 2020 school year, there were 700 unfilled teaching positions in my state. In January, it was reported that an additional 677 vacancies were created from teachers leaving midyear.

It’s no wonder that there’s a teacher crisis - and not just in my state, but throughout the entire country. When martyrdom is the standard and overwork is normalized, eventually, people are going to reach a breaking point. There is no infrastructure and no plan for supporting struggling teachers. We should be supporting teachers long before they begin to struggle. Schools and districts need to invest in building cultures that are contrary to the harmful norms that drive teachers to burn out and eventually leave the profession.

We know that change needs to happen, but with such a deep and multifaceted problem, where do we even begin?

I’ll tell you.

We begin with AGENCY - with knowing our value and being empowered to assert our rights.

When we use our agency in deliberate ways that influence outcomes, we become advocates - agency is a path to advocacy.

I consider myself an advocate for the students in my classroom, and I also consider myself an advocate for teachers because I am a teacher. I'm also a two-time burn-out survivor who has tried to leave the profession multiple times. I know firsthand what it’s like to surrender yourself to this profession - to give so much that your physical and mental health suffers, and you have nothing left for anyone or anything else.

My story is one of many like it.

America’s public school system has long endorsed the concept of unwavering devotion to children. Overworked, overwhelmed teachers have long been the norm. Unfortunately, we only consider how the American Education System fails its students, and we neglect the reality that our education system has also failed its teachers.

It's done this by perpetuating the idea that “sacrifice” is the only and best way. This ideal can be traced back to industrialization when women became dominant figures in America’s public schools. Teaching was originally viewed as an extension of mothering. Women teachers were expected to remain unmarried so they could dedicate their lives to educating children. Those who chose to pursue family life were forced to resign because it would “detract” from a teacher’s commitment to her students. This is the crux of teaching culture in the U.S.

Two hundred years later - not much has changed.

Now, more than ever before, teachers are expected to sacrifice most of themselves for their students. These expectations are often masked in common phrases we’ve all heard...

  • “School Family”

  • “Good teachers are like candles, consuming themselves to light the way…”

  • “Teachers are superheroes…”

Inherently, each of these cliches insinuates that others come before self at any cost. While selflessness and sacrifice aren’t bad, they become problematic when encouraged at the expense of wellbeing and wholeness.

It's difficult to operate within a system that tells you that you must sacrifice your being - your very personhood - to teach well.

Many teachers genuinely enjoy this job. We chose to teach for the “light bulb moments” and the connections. We chose it because of a passion that stemmed from a sincere desire to help children.

Yet so much of what we do is not that.

During this global crisis, through the uncertainty, fear, and novelty of such extreme circumstances, we are doing what we’ve always done - our best. And if that isn’t enough, we’ve adapted to try to make our best better.

But even at our best, we need systemic change. We deserve better than what we’re given.

But with such a big problem, how do we chip away at creating a more sustainable, equitable profession?

We can use our agency to advocate.

The first step is examining our teaching beliefs. We have to deconstruct the narratives have we bought into and really think about how our beliefs about teaching are affected by those stories. Are our ideas about teaching and learning most reflective of what we truly believe? Examining your current thoughts about what "good" teaching looks and feels like will empower you to make choices around your lessons, interactions, and even your time that are more authentic to you because they reflect what matters most to YOU.

The next step is crafting a belief or mission statement that specifically addresses your teaching values. As you examine your thoughts about what good teaching looks and feels like, recognize what is true for you.

Finally, creating boundaries around our time and energy that allow us to focus our most important resources on what we value MOST. This step is where advocacy starts - It’s the deliberate action that will ultimately influence change. Establishing and maintaining boundaries is a learned skill that helps us address issues like cultures of overwork and martyrdom.

COVID-19 has reminded us that schools and teachers play critical roles in our society.

It has also exacerbated the inequities of the teaching profession - inequities such as preparing our students for standardized tests that create even more divide for already marginalized populations, or spending hours preparing lessons and activities that fit someone else’s idea of what effective teaching looks like. We even tolerate the effects of legislation created and passed by non-educators that prioritize political agendas rather than the educators and students they impact.

We are constantly asked to pour from cups that have long been drained dry.

But because we love what we do, we allow ourselves to be exploited. We remain steadfast in our intentions and we are determined to affect positive change for our students. We deserve politicians and lawmakers and administrators who will prioritize the whole teacher, just as they’ve claimed to prioritize the whole child.

Change is long overdue for teachers and it is up to us to stand together to advocate for the support we require and it starts with AGENCY and ADVOCACY.

But those harmful, toxic narratives are so deeply entrenched that many teachers, and maybe some of you out there too, feel like there’s no way around them. But I’m here to tell you that there IS. I want to encourage you to challenge your ideas about what it takes to teach well by creating your own teacher mission statement.

The needle for change moves slowly, but we can all be part of a change that harnesses the power of individuals collectively advocating for a system we can be proud of. It begins with one teacher at a time. One narrative at a time. One mission at a time.

Resources from this Episode

Burned-In Teacher

Kind Cotton

Order Your Stand With Educators Tee HERE

How to Craft Your Mission Statement Resource

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