How do you become an essentialist teacher?


 This morning, I rolled out of bed around 8 o’clock. My seven year old was already deeply immersed in her craft project and my five year old slumbered on, mouth agape and arms thrown gloriously overhead, like a bizarro world roller coaster snapshot.

The house was still. I headed for the coffeepot, searched for a mug to match my mood, trading in my favorite Vonnegut for a sunshine yellow, and poured an easy cup. I sat down and read a book for a while and then thumbed through a book of Natasha Trethewey poems as the morning sun poured in. I washed a few dishes and tidied up a bit. I mixed up some waffle batter and relished in the sizzle of batter dropping onto the hot iron. I buttered and syrup-ed fresh waffles for my kids and got sticky snuggles after breakfast.

I love these human moments of summer break. I love seeing pictures of my teacher-friends planting their gardens, building benches, vacationing with their families, joyously reading away the day with their bare feet soaking up the sun. I see my colleagues committing time to self-care, and it’s inspiring.

It gets me thinking — why do these moments seem to be reserved only for summer break?

My catch-phrase of the 2016-17 school year became, “I know I’m doing too much, but so far I’ve kept it all going.” I guess acceptance is the first step, but I realized that if I was seeing life as “keeping it all going” I should probably re-evaluate. The good news is, I have because…

This year, I choreographed two show choirs, was a club advisor, taught Sunday school, blogged regularly, helped build my school’s STEAM Academy, taught two packed sections of an AP course, and rocked out as a mom to my seven-year-old and five-year-old. I made time to hang out with my husband, family, and every now and then, friends. This is not braggery or martyrdom — this was my inability to say no. And you know what? I’m exhausted.

Notice I didn’t mention any self-care in that last paragraph? No yoga, no reading, no cooking or crafts.

Remember #OneWord2017? Mine was FOCUS. I knew that in 2017 I wanted to focus on what was essential. That drive led me to the book Essentialism. As my friend and fellow teacher Liz Matheny says of the book, “It’s a game changer.” The philosophy of Essentialism according to Greg McKeown is simple: the disciplined pursuit of less, to do the right things with your time, and to take control of what and how much you do.

And McKeown challenges, “What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?” 

My enduring understanding from Essentialism is, if some thing — some project, task, relationship, or commitment, isn’t a definite yes, then it’s a definite no. This logic brought such clarity to my life, both personally and professionally.

But what I’m learning is something we already know: being an essentialist teacher is difficult. The profession demands much more than what is essential, and many teachers, myself included, have a deeply rooted desire to contribute their time and talents to more than one worthy project. Being an essentialist teacher is difficult, but not impossible.

How do we pare back to the most essential? What are the right things to do with our time as educators? What is your definite yes?

For me, it is essential that students in my classroom are safe and loved, that they share in a community of learning that is positive and prosocial. It is essential that I know them and they know me, that I am vulnerable with them so we can develop honest and necessary connections that allow us to explore the meaning of literature, and oftentimes life, which occurs when great literature and our life’s experiences intersect.

Well-designed lessons and intentional teaching are also essential. A student’s discovery of meaning in literature and their exploration of their own authentic voice in writing is essential. Their ability to ask questions, to examine a writer’s craft, to notice subtleties in literature that make meaning, to play and experiment with language and to feel safe and supported doing so is essential. Inviting students to innovate and problem solve and consider their role and ownership in their own community and state — all this is essential.

For me, being an essentialist teacher is to remember and recommit to the one job I’m there to do — to teach and inspire students. 

And of course there’s more. I have more professional “Yes”es — writing and reflection and professional connections and learning.

And  I wonder, on this beautiful summer day and lazy morning, if we commit to professional essentialism, will it relieve us from just “keeping it all going”? Will identifying the right thingswe do with our time professionally allow us more human moments not only during summer break, but all the time?

My friend Jay from Moving Writers says, “Teaching is a human endeavor.” It is essential that we remember this, too.

WVCTE is wondering, how do you balance work and life? What is essential in your classroom?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

I’d love to hear from you! — Karla

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