By Charlie Bartsch
I almost wasn’t a teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I wanted to be a teacher since the fifth grade, but I had a cooperating teacher that told me every day that I would never become a teacher. She never explained why that was, but simply insisted on screaming at me and demoralizing me each time I entered her seventh-grade classroom in Lincoln, Nebraska. She went so far as to call me at my home to tell me to “get my act together”. I remember struggling to re-word my instructions so that the students could understand, but guidance from a mentor was needed, not ridicule. Little did she know that throughout my entire life I had been proving disbelievers wrong. I am driven to prove that I can indeed accomplish what others say is not attainable for me. My experience with a demoralizing and discouraging mentor has shaped how I teach and mentor. My educational and leadership philosophies are built upon empathy and asking questions because I never want to make anyone else feel the devastation of being told they could not achieve their dreams. Assisting others to work through their difficulties and weaknesses is so much more effective than making them feel terrible about their mistakes. This approach to mentorship is essential to working with other humans, both young and experienced.
Now, almost twenty years later, I have more than proven my dedication to my craft and to the people who depend on me. I moved to Kansas when my husband got a job with Koch Industries. It was during this transition that I learned what true compassion looks like through my colleagues and peer consultant.
My evolution began at Southeast High School where I learned that empathy and consistency are the tools to connect with the students. Through these connections, another teacher and I decided the freshmen needed some assistance in adjusting to high school. We created a freshmen advocacy program to 1) help new high schoolers gain the knowledge they needed to be successful in high school and 2) provide leadership opportunities to the upperclassmen who taught the underclassmen the lessons. Throughout the process of this project, my leadership skills were put to the test. We not only had to convince the building and district leadership that the program was worth pursuing, but also the staff that it wouldn’t be more work for them. We took on the duties of creating all the lessons, training the upperclassmen, and monitoring to make sure those students did a good job.
Developing this curriculum and developing the program really helped me to refine my language at each level of our system and emboldened me to stand up for what I knew to be good for our students. After five years in the classroom, I left Southeast because I was asked to apply for a Peer Consultant position. I spent five wonderful years mentoring first-year teachers and planning professional learning (PL). I know it sounds strange to say that I enjoy offering PL, but I have sat through enough irrelevant professional learning that being able to offer current and relevant learning for teachers is exciting and refreshing. Being a peer consultant is the position that taught me the most about how to best support teachers.
Learning to assess a situation and offer feedback without being too harsh or too soft was a tricky subject. Teachers have good and bad days and first-year teachers have more bad than good. When offering feedback they often get defensive, but that defensiveness can be fear, feelings of helplessness, and frustration. Listening becomes the best tool to get to the heart of what is really going on. Teachers need to be heard and most of the time that is enough. Many times, just by talking through a problem or frustration with someone else, the teacher is able to arrive at their own solution. This type of listening and leadership is true guidance - not offering advice, but leading others to their own conclusions.
I use all of these skills in my current position as department chair at Northwest High School. I guide my team of amazing teachers with empathy and perspective. All of the teachers in the department are capable, experienced, caring educators that will do what needs to be done for the good of the students. The only leadership needed is advocacy and positivity. Backing them up when a parent complains or fighting for a new course or program they want to offer helps to build a strong team that works together and supports one another. Collaboration and teamwork is essential in our profession because teaching cannot be done in isolation.
The staff at Northwest are not the only progressive and caring teachers in the field. I have found through conferences and connections with teacher friends in other states that Kansas educators as a whole are some of the most progressive and caring individuals in our country. This progressiveness needs to be reflected in how they are treated by their leaders. For instance, the secondary school system needs to get away from the seniority model for choosing course loads and positions held. These things should be based on skill and the department chair cannot put themselves first in line. First, ask each teacher what they would like to teach the following year. Then, take into account each teacher’s special skills and where those would best be utilized. Build the department chair’s schedule last. That’s right. Take what is left after the teachers have been served. Whatever is needed. This ensures that the teachers are supported by showing them that their leader is willing to take a turn at the difficult classes so that they can have a lighter load. Chairs also tend to have lots of teaching experience. This means they may have more skills to deal with a difficult set of students than a new teacher would. The trend that first-year teachers always get freshmen classes which consist of learners with special needs must change. Give the most inexperienced teachers classes that will serve their individual needs. For instance, if they have great content knowledge but need help with management, give them older students that will go along with them when they try out new management strategies. Seniority cannot be the sole determiner. This is only one example of how to support fellow teachers.
Another way for leaders to support teachers is to disseminate information from the other layers of our system efficiently and effectively. The attitude of a leader directly affects those in his/her sphere of influence. The leader does not need to just buy-in and be disingenuous, but they must listen to concerns and work with the team on finding workable additions to take the initiative or behavior work for their students and staff. The teachers look to their leader for guidance on how to react. They need to know they will be supported regardless of how they feel about the task at hand. I want my colleagues, student interns, parents, and building leadership to understand that I will always advocate for my department’s best interest. In turn, the teachers feel empowered to make the professional decisions they need to make every day. Titles are not necessary in order to be a leader in the teaching profession. Each teacher should be encouraged to take on leadership roles within the system: classroom, building, district, state. This allows teachers to advocate for their students’ needs to a larger forum. Teachers have a voice and should use it to benefit the children sitting in front of them each day. This then starts a chain reaction where students also get the opportunity to see what true leadership is and how they too can be leaders.
In conclusion, what I am saying is that teaching is leadership. And in order to be a teacher leader you need to take calculated risks, pay close attention to your own behavior, and always keep others in mind. I have high expectations for those that I work with and they rise to those expectations because they know I will support them when they need it. Leading with empathy and open ears has continued to serve me well. My student teaching experience has shaped how I treat others and encouraged me to take on leadership roles to help support teachers who need it. All teachers are leaders. All leaders make an impact. Make sure that impact is a positive one.
About the Author
Charlie Bartsch teaches sophomore and senior English and AVID at Northwest High School in Wichita, KS. She has taught in the district for 18 years. She loves helping students and other teachers continue their learning.
Facebook: Charlotte Bartsch
By Heather Hawkins
Possibly the most powerful school experience my students have had while in Andover, KS, has been making connections with authors, scientists, National Parks, historians, students from other countries, and holocaust survivors using Skype. Why do I believe this? A conversation with one former student comes to mind. This student came to visit me when he was in high school, and I asked him to share the one thing he remembered most about middle school. He mentioned the day during his 6th grade year when we had a Skype call with students from India. That one 30-minute Skype call with Indian students, is what he remembered the most.
This has stuck with me and made it clear that the work I put forth to bring such connections to students is memorable. Creating these memorable experiences for all students while I have an opportunity to educate them is my mission.
So why did that student remember the day we Skyped with India? Because my students were able to connect with students half-way across the globe and learn about another culture. Because the Indian students showed us their ceremonial dress, dances, and musical instruments with pride. The students from India were excited to meet us, and our students were mesmerized. They were able to see with their own eyes that the other side of the world has students that are going to school just like us, and yes, they learn to speak English too. My students were able to share about their culture as well, as the students in India wanted to know more about America and Kansas. This global encounter is just one example of the many wonderful connections that students have made through Skype.
Yet another powerful connection happens during students’ 8th grade year. In their ELA class, students read Night by Wiesel and study the Holocaust. I reached out to the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center to connect my students with a Holocaust survivor. Little did I know how much this connection could affect my students. We were able to Skype with Mr. Tuck who was a survivor of Auschwitz. He told us his excruciating story of survival, showed us the tattoo on his arm, and let us know that possibly the most important part of living is to get an education, something he was deprived of being in a concentration camp most of his teenage years. Mr. Tuck also told us that the reason he shares his story is so that people will understand that the Holocaust actually happened, and that if he could survive something so terrible, the students could survive putting up with a bully or having to complete hard work. We have since connected with Mr. Tuck for 4 years in a row, and I still get chills listening to his story.
Another fun and exciting Skype experience that I have put together is the Skype an Author Day. I find a different author to Skype with for every hour of the school day and students get to ask them questions about writing during their ELA classes. Finding authors that are popular is very hard to do, so I usually find authors that may only have a few books published, are affiliated with Scholastic, or their book is on the William Allen White 6th-8th grade list. The Skype an Author Day is usually filled with laughter, but also some nervousness. Students do have a little stage fright before talking to someone that they do not know. So, we practice. We practice Skyping with a teacher that has plan time in order to ask them a few questions, practice our manners, and get comfortable looking into a webcam. Providing my students this opportunity to practice communicating via Skype will go onto help my students in the future. What if they get their first job by way of virtual interview? At least I can say I had a hand in their communication skills in some small way.
But why is Skyping with an author so important? In addition to providing students with an opportunity to practice formally communicating via an on-line platform, when students get the chance to speak with authors, they realize that authors are people, too. Authors have a personality and story behind why they write the books they write. They give students suggestions about improving their reading and writing skills. Authors also give tips on how to overcome writer’s block, and they share that editing is what takes the longest. These connections also reiterate to students what their teachers tell them every day - to read, read, read. When this type of comment comes from an author or expert, students seem to accept the truth a little better. When someone else besides a teacher helps students realize that the information they are learning in reading, writing, history, science, etc. is important, then that information becomes memorable. Connecting with others via Skype proves that learning and receiving an education is the single most important job for any student to complete.
The last example of a memorable, virtual experience I give students is through mystery Skype. During a mystery Skype call, students are given the task of figuring out where in the world the classroom of students live by asking yes or no questions. Students have Google maps on their Chromebooks and must think about geographical questions to ask like, “Is your country in the southern hemisphere?” Each class connected on the Skype call takes turns asking questions until the country or state is revealed. Then the magic takes place. Students ask each other what their weather is like, what sports are played, how many students are in the class, what is the native language. The classes explain their state or country’s flag, their cultures, and even politics. These discussions make my heart smile, because I know that my students are learning about other places in the world besides our small town of Andover. They get to experience a small glimpse of what school is like in another country or state, and that even though the class of students may be far away, they are not so different.
So, how can more educators create these same virtual opportunities for their students?
There are so many ways to find experts and authors. Author Kate Messner has a website that lists the authors that are willing to connect. Skype in the classroom of course has many opportunities such as mystery Skype, virtual field trips, and guest speakers, including authors. CILC.org also has many connections available, but most charge a fee. However, just going to an author’s website, business/museum website, or National Park Service website and emailing the “Contact Us” email can be helpful. What do you have to lose? The worst thing that can happen is that someone might say no. However, this rarely happens if your email mentions students, education, and how connecting with them can bring a wonderful experience to the classroom or library. From one educator to another, this type of virtual opportunity is worth all the time and effort you give.
About the Author
Heather Hawkins is currently serving as a school media specialist library teacher at Andover Central High School in Andover, KS. Previously, Hawkins taught for 11 years as a middle school language arts teacher and 13 years as a middle school media specialist. Serving as a building technology leader and district professional learning team leader for several years, Heather is passionate about teacher collaboration and yearns to enlighten students through collaboration, innovation, and creativity. She is purposeful in giving her students memorable learning activities especially through Skype connections with experts, which build communication skills and cultural awareness.
Twitter handle: @hawkinsh23 and @achs_library
by John Ritchie
I started the 2019-2020 school year--my 20th year in the classroom--with more optimism and excitement than usual. I loved both of my PLCs. The junior PLC was hoping to breathe new life into Miller’s Death of a Salesman by pairing it with Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Second semester, we were ready to roll out (and defend if necessary) The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These literature units would alternate with our renewed pumped up approach to digital literacy and research writing. My senior composition PLC was likewise pushing new citation styles and trying to help students see how and why the different citation styles were applied. Amidst all of this, a friend from Washburn University asked if I would sponsor a future teacher’s observation hours. If all went well, I would mentor ST the following fall during her student teaching semester. I would be open to all of her questions through fall, winter, and spring as we then geared up to an experience none of us could anticipate.
ST’s 2019 fall semester experience went very well. Initially, I would preview the lesson plans for her and then have her come up with questions about anything she observed during her two-hour stay. . Most of the questions were about the classroom layout, why I addressed some behaviors but ignored others, and how the transactions of the day would affect what I did tomorrow. When we got to our junior plays, she knew the classes she was observing well enough to predict that they would hate Biff and Happy (bunch of losers) but love Walter and Beneatha’s spirit. By the end of the semester, she was practicing electronic feedback on essays and creating seating charts based on what she knew about the students. I was pleased with her progress, so I was happy to put in the paperwork to be her mentor for Fall 2020.
I kept in touch with ST throughout the beginning of this past spring semester.. I shared our materials as we put together a tougher research unit than we’d ever done with our juniors. She previewed materials and began to see the delicate balance of creating clear objectives in student-friendly language. When our PLC spent three days wordsmithing a heads up for parents about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, she and I talked through the professional changes the team had made from the first to the final draft. With Part I of Perks completed without controversy just before spring break, I said things would be boring enough that she should focus on her final university classes and check back with me in May.
We all know how quickly things changed during spring break. ST contacted me to ask what we were doing. All I could say was “we’re adapting.” It was tough to keep her informed when my own information seemed to change by the minute. Then came the press conference. All of us in education had an inkling of what would happen, but I doubt any of us believed it. When the words were said, I couldn’t accept it. I jumped as my breaking news alert confirmed it. Dazed, I captured the screenshot for posterity:
Another alert--a text from ST: “Are you watching? What do you think?”
I felt an obligation to be the mentor. A temptation to sit above it all and try to remain objective. But I found I didn’t have the energy or desire. It didn’t feel right. I was watching the press conference blinking back tears because one of the best parts of my life had been taken away for at least the next six months.
“Devastated,” I replied.
As ST continued to check in periodically with me, I wondered how I could continue to offer myself as a mentor to her. I was dealing with Google Meetings that were attended by less than 10% of my classes. Incidents of plagiarism began to spike. It became a vicious cycle of my kids’ motivation dying, which hurt mine, which no doubt hurt my kids, and downward we went. I felt like nothing I did mattered. The assignments and the grading became busy work. What could she learn from someone who no longer felt effective?
I will never be more thankful for my PLC colleagues than I was from March - May 2020. It was easily one of the lowest points of my teaching career, but they helped me survive it. Our weekly meetings were the only confirmation I had that I was not alone, that I was not failing as a professional, and that we were all clawing toward a finish line hoping to have something to be proud of at the end.
As the school year wrapped up, my PLCs made a Google Form reflection for our students that we counted as the last assignment of the semester. We asked students to be honest about what worked for them and, in a worst case scenario, what should change if we had to go through this again next fall. Some of my worst fears were confirmed--the students saw some of what we did as boring busy work--but we also received encouragement saying they thought we did the best we could under the circumstances. One thing I noticed was how many students said they appreciated the ongoing contacts, even if the students did not engage us in return. There were also many genuine messages about how much they enjoyed and missed our class. That helped me realize that any successes we had in the fourth quarter were from the relationships we had built the previous seven months. It also helped me realize that I could continue as a mentor for ST by building off the relationship we had created last year, and by welcoming her as a colleague into our PLC.
It’s now late June. ST has finished her PLT and is beginning to ask questions about the fall. During any other year, we would approach it the same way I usually approach the fall and reflect upon on the previou year: identify what worked and what we can do to improve upon it; identify what bombed and evaluate if it is worth salvaging it,;and identify what new learning has excited me in the past year and where I can implement it. Of course we can still go through this process and build on the foundation created from last year, but the pandemic remains the inescapable elephant in the room. We cannot plan for it. Instead of giving in to the despair I felt earlier, I tell her it is an opportunity to dive deeper into what teachers and students in our district, and across the state, are already using. As we are a Google school, one priority is making sure she is proficient with Google Classroom and Forms. We look at screencast software and search teacher sites for the most user-friendly resources. I give her National Writing Project books and links to sites like KATE and NCTE’s ALAN site. The exchange flows both ways. As someone who is only five or six years older than our students, she is more likely to know what technology will be most engaging to them without seeming forced or, dare I say it, cringe. Part of her job is to suggest whatever she thinks might help us engage our students. She floats the idea of a Tik-Tok for our classes. I am not yet convinced, but I am listening.
Now we get together at least once a week to walk a public trail and talk about the fall. We get past our anxieties by discussing education developments. We joke that our walks in the summer humidity will give us the endurance to teach eight hours while wearing a mask. Many Board of Regents schools have announced that on-campus classes will end with Thanksgiving break. Will that happen to us? We know it’s possible. Based on the 4th quarter, we decided to suggest to the PLC that we put the major work in the 1st quarter. It may be an illusion of control, but the discussions help us acknowledge the challenges that lay ahead. Relationship-building is our top priority. Our first assignment together is to come up with a plan to build connections with students as soon as we are able to contact them, regardless of what that contact might look like.
I still worry whether I’ll be an effective mentor for ST. Even under ideal conditions, student teaching is an unpaid internship with all of the stress of teaching without many of the benefits. She is entering a situation that turned us all into first-year teachers again. This year her questions will often be the questions I’m trying to answer, too. The best that I can do is to acknowledge my own doubts, but show how we push past them through continuous learning and flexibility. I will show her how to enter a career that often thrives on adapting to crises whether it is school violence, sudden changes in curriculum, or even a pandemic.
About the Author
About the author: John Ritchie lives in Topeka where he teaches English 11 and Composition at Washburn Rural High School, and Composition as an adjunct professor at Washburn University. He has been an active member of KATE for 15 years.
Facebook: John Ritchie
By Carmen Macias
In college, Tuesday nights were sacred to me.
My overinvolved schedule and anxiety diagnosis caused me to be stressed constantly. Every day brought on a new wave of deadlines, papers, and assignments. On top of schoolwork, there was the pressure to maintain relationships, too. I was also encouraged to network and look for potential future opportunities. Because I was a student athlete, early morning practices and weekend competitions took much of my energy. All of these worries incessantly interrupted my day.
However, Tuesday nights mollified the tension.
Active Minds is a national organization that promotes mental health and works to destigmatize mental illnesses on college campuses. I encountered the organization when I was a freshman at Rockhurst University. Each year, our Active Minds chapter brings in a nationally recognized speaker. My teachers offered extra credit to anyone who attended the event, so I was sold.
That evening, the speaker shared how he lost his best friend to suicide. It was discovered that his friend lost a battle to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The speaker was devastated because he too struggled with OCD. He realized that if only they had discussed their hardships together maybe things would have been different. The story of the speaker touched me. In addition to the immense sorrow I felt for the speaker, I also felt shock and amazement that someone would share such a moving story with so many strangers.
Before Active Minds, I had no idea what taking care of my mental health meant. I thought it was not something to discuss with strangers or in public. I was aware I struggled with anxiety, but I had no idea anyone else did either. When I went to my first Active Minds meeting, I met many other students who had the same struggles as myself. I still was not comfortable sharing my experience with mental illness, so I listened to everyone around me. I heard phrases for the first time that would soon become mantras for me:
Not everyone has a mental illness, but everyone has mental health.
You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of someone else – You cannot pour from an empty cup.
You do not have to have a mental illness to go to counseling/therapy.
You are not alone in your struggle.
I am here for you.
The world needs you here.
After that initial meeting, it did not matter what I was going through during any given week. On Tuesday at 9pm, I knew that I was going to be heard at the Active Minds weekly meetings. Active Minds gave me a safe place to grow. I learned how to allow myself to let go of some of the insecurities I had, and continue to have, surrounding mental health. I was able to drop the toxic mindset that if I asked for help or went to therapy, then I had failed. Active Minds let me be kind to myself for the first time in years. I was welcomed into this community of nonjudgement and love. In this organization, I was listened to and felt heard. The leaders cared about me because they knew what it was like to struggle. I was encouraged to seek counseling without feeling as though I was less than because of it. I felt liberated. I wanted to shout to the world what I had discovered with Active Minds. So, I did.
After becoming a general member, I applied for a position on the Executive Board. My Junior year, I served as the Public Relations Co-Chair. In this position, I connected the student body to our mission. I managed the social media pages, made flyers, painted banners, etc. The best part about this position was that I was able to reach out to members of the Rockhurst Community and ask them to share a snippet of their mental health journey through our social media campaign called #MindsofRU. Students, faculty, and staff members shared their thoughts on managing mental health, self-care tips, a piece of their mental health journey, and other mental health related topics. I loved this role so much because I was able to connect someone’s story to a wider audience. Eventually, I decided to step into a bigger role of President.
When joining any organization, it is important to realize that you are now an extension of that group. You will always be associated with that organization no matter what you do. I quickly learned that when I took on this position. Because Active Minds aims to create a safe place for anyone during our meetings, people associate the executive members as safe people to turn to as well. Once I filled the role as president of the mental health organization on campus, members of the Rockhurst community felt safe approaching me with their struggles both inside and outside of meetings. I was often approached at the dining hall, in study areas, and even at bars. People trusted me with their feelings and knew I would listen to what they had to say. I always did my best to make sure they felt heard and to involve a mental health professional if needed. I did much more in my position than listen to the struggles of others and advocate for the importance of mental health, but I think that that was the most important work I did.
I journeyed from thinking that speaking about mental illnesses was scandalous to preaching how necessary it is to normalize help-seeking behavior. I was able to make this transformation because of the community Active Minds gave me. I know that the stigma surrounding mental health is still prevalent. However, I think the younger generations are better at speaking out. I worry more for the teachers and faculty members in educational institutions. Is there anyone encouraging teachers to seek therapy? Who is telling educators that they cannot pour from an empty cup? Where is the safe space for faculty members to discuss their struggles without judgement and the feeling of inferiority? Active Minds helped me understand myself and others better. Educators also need mental health advocates. Where are they?
The first step to normalize mental health conversations is creating a community that prioritizes mental health. I believe high schools across the country should look into establishing an Active Minds chapter at their school. High schoolers can utilize Active Minds to learn about the importance of taking care of themselves while also advocating to other students. Every chapter is required to have a faculty advisor. This advisor can be the branch between the faculty and students. If the student body creates a space for open discussion of mental health, hopefully that can pour into the administration. Together, students and administration can change the culture surrounding mental health.
Opening up about mental health can be scary. Here are a few of my favorite resources concerning mental health!
About the Author
Carmen Macías is a recent graduate from Rockhurst University. She majored in English and Non-profit Leadership with a minor in Psychology. Carmen currently works as the Communications Coordinator at CARES for Learning - a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving children's literacy with an emphasis on social and emotional learning. Carmen is also a member of the 2019-20 Active Minds National Student Advisory Committee. She likes to spend time with her emotional support animal, Giles and break down the stigma surrounding mental illness. Silence Kills So We Speak. You can read more from her at https://www.seeds-learning.com/blog/ .
By Nathan Whitman
When I became employed at my first and present job as an English teacher in 2012, I knew that I was in for a culture shock. I had graduated from a 6A KSHSAA (Kansas State High School Activities Association) division high school of more than 2,000 students, and now I was going to teach in a 1A school of a few more than 200. However, upon having one of my first meetings with a school employee, I realized that Burrton was in for an equally stark culture shock from me.
I’d read the state data reports. I knew that the majority of my students would be white. I knew that a handful were of various minority and cultural groups. Nevertheless, when I inquired of a staff member about how many students in the school were LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) and if there was a GSA (gender and sexuality alliance), I was told, “We don’t have gay students at this district.”
With that perspective – no wonder! I was certain that these kids did not feel like they had a welcoming culture to be themselves. Clearly, this “educator” either did not know, did not care, or chose to be in denial of the hard fact that 4.5% of Americans are LGBTQ, and that number represents only the self-reporting to a Gallup poll. Those in the closet are surely even greater in rank. In my head I’d done the numbers: at a school of around 250 individuals (staff and students) – and I may be rounding up – 11-12 had to be LGBTQ in a given year. Knowing those statistics, I was determined to chop that closet door down: Here’s Johnny!
Throughout the course of my studies at Wichita State University, not only did I become certain of my career path as an English educator, I also realized that as much as I wanted to be a queer role model for my students and ally, I still had to play my cards carefully and closely to the chest. At the time, Kansas had no workplace protections for LGBTQ individuals unless they were written into the employment nondiscrimination clause (to no one’s surprise: sexual orientation was not and still is not covered by many districts’ contract language – my own included). Furthermore, with Kansas being an at-will state, I’d have to document anything I did in support of LGBTQ students or advocacy for myself (for legal reasons), as I could – and still can – be terminated from my job at my employer’s whim with no reasons given. While the at-will language states that “your employer can fire you for any non-discriminatory and/or non-retaliatory reason,” unless I had proof that my firing was discriminatory or retaliatory, I would and still can be sunk. This blog post could even be cause for termination, and I’d never know. Luckily, I’ve had fantastic administrative support, but I know that others are not so lucky.
I would like to think that LGBTQ educators can feel more at ease with their own personal lives and advocacy of LGBTQ students as of June 16, 2020, which is when I am writing this new draft of this blog post. For those unaware, in an unprecedented motion, two conservative Supreme Court justices sided with the four liberal that Title VII protects LGBTQ employees from workplace discrimination and termination. Hooray! I can now put up a picture of my husband and me after our wedding this summer and not be fired – I hope.
I preface the core of my post with these anecdotes and current events because we LGBTQ educators may now have more protections in our employment, but our students still lack protections of the most basic kind in their school policies. Check yours: Does it include a nondiscrimination clause on student sexual orientation and gender identity? Now is the time to use our newfound privilege to advocate and lead by example because, even with the Supreme Court ruling, there are political ploys at play to undermine trans youth via Title IX. I say this with resolve and guilt, for I know that I haven’t always been the best example and that I could have done more for many students, but I didn’t because I was afraid.
Instead, I did minor things to advocate: I put more LGBTQ affirming texts in the school, counselor’s, and my classroom libraries; provided Safe Zone training and signage for teachers who were interested; encouraged students who asked to bring same-sex dates to dances; made sure to highlight queer writers in the school-approved curricula. It wasn’t until the last few years that I dared to even show my partner in the beginning of the year “About Mr. Whitman & His Class” slideshow. But, I digress.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has an enlightening list of ten – often bizarre – myths about LGBTQ persons employed by those who wish to discriminate or do harm to that community. One thing that all teachers need to recognize is that these myths are still believed and used to justify discrimination toward LGBTQ students and educators. Three of them – in my opinion – form the core of what many students experience in their schools in Kansas, and if we’re going to truly support our students, we have to be willing to confront these misconceptions head-on.
Myth 1: LGBTQ Persons are Pedophiles or Perverts (SPLC no. 1)
This myth often appears when it comes to bathroom and locker room usage – particularly with trans students and educators. While more awareness is finally being afforded to the trans community, many still don’t understand that trans people just want to go to the bathroom, that they aren’t wanting a peep show, that they already feel out of place in their body and want nothing more than to be left alone and to be themselves. LGBTQ youth are one of the highest risk groups for suicide because of so many factors such as rejection from family and homelessness. With LGBTQ students already facing so much stress and pressure, allowing them proper bathroom privileges is the least a community can do to alleviate some of that stress. I personally know the hassle that bathroom usage can bring, as I choose to use the staff unisex bathroom. One homophobic accusation is all it takes to ruin a career.
Myth 2: It’s a Sin (SPLC no. 9 & 10)
According to the Pew Research Center, 76% of adults in Kansas identify as Christian. As much as we love talking about the separation of church and state, you’d have to be an absolute fool to say that religion plays no part in Kansas’ political or educational landscape. Two respectable professors from state university education programs have told me stories of teachers in training who said that they’d refuse to use a trans student’s pronouns or accommodate LGBTQ students in other ways if it conflicted with their religious beliefs – and they’re not the only ones. For students from all walks of life to have a welcoming climate in a public school, all students must be welcome, loved, and validated, regardless of the staff’s private religious practices.
Myth 3: It’s a Choice and/or It’s an Illness, and You Can Change (SPLC no. 9 & 10)
I have a hard time deciding which myth is the most damaging, but I’d say it’s a safe bet that telling LGBTQ youth that they’re broken (this ties to the sin myth) and need to change is pretty close to the top of the list. Ex-gay and conversion therapy have done irreparable damage to LGBTQ youth and spread like wildfire in states like ours: my own brother survived it, and I narrowly escaped having to participate. Now that scientific studies and mental health professionals even confirm that trying to change one’s sexual orientation can lead to lasting mental health consequences and even suicide, many states are banning the practice. If we as educators truly value the buzzwords “social-emotional wellness,” then we better damn well do our best to crush this myth for our students.
This leads to the inevitable question: What can you as an educator do? That’s easy. Educate yourself. Attend a Safe Zone or Safe Space training. Help start a GSA. Advocate for unisex bathrooms and nondiscrimination policies in student handbooks. Call out anti-LGBTQ comments and microagressions in staff meetings. Watch queer cinema and television. Read queer YA literature. God-forbid, meet and befriend an actual queer person without asking prying, borderline-fetish questions. It’s amazing how human we are. Use your power and privilege to advocate for LGBTQ equality.
At the end of the day, I don’t want any student to feel the way that I felt – to be told that they’re hopelessly broken, that God doesn’t love them, that they didn’t pray or try hard enough to change. High school is hard enough as it is. One of my most formative memories originates from high school when I was arguing with my brother – also gay – regarding his sexual orientation. I told him that I wished he was “normal” because deep down inside, at that time, I wished I was “normal.” What I didn’t realize, and what’s taken me close to over a decade to come to understand, is that I truly am that: normal. And all my queer students are, too. And, what a difference it would have made, if just one adult had told me, “You’re fine just the way you are.”
About the Author
Nathan Whitman is the current Kansas Association of Teachers of English President. He teaches 9-12 English at Burrton High School USD 369 and is also an adjunct professor at Hutchinson Community College.
By Erica Shook
This year, with all its insanity, was my tenth year of teaching. During those years, I have had a number of LGBTQ+ students pass through my classroom--some who are open with their sexuality or gender identification, and some who don’t choose to share that until after they have graduated high school and have gone on to the next phase of their lives. But all of them hold a special place with me forever. I have had a couple of transgender students over the past couple of years, one in particular whose voice I want to share with you. You see, this student has an amazing talent as a writer and an important perspective to share. I remember how nervous he was the first time the counselor brought him to my classroom to introduce us so that I would know him by his chosen name instead of the birth name listed in PowerSchool. He has a quick wit, a clever mind, and an amazing smile. But he was also struggling, though he shared that with very few people. Early one February, as we were talking about senior showcases, I asked him if he knew what he wanted to do after high school. His answer broke my heart: “I haven’t really thought about it. Most days I’m not sure I’ll be alive that long.”
Talking was hard at first, but writing was cathartic for him, so we focused on that as a way for him to communicate his feelings and experiences. Many days we spent my planning period working side-by-side at a table in my classroom: him writing, me grading or lesson planning. I would help edit when he asked. I believe very strongly that what he has to say should be read by everyone--certainly all educators--and I am sharing that voice here with his permission.
The following is a small portion of his words, shared with me over a period of months. My hope in sharing with others is that they will reflect on the relationships they have with students in their classrooms or school communities and ask themselves if there are areas in which to grow:
“To begin, I struggle with dysphoria from being transgender. Being trans has affected almost every part of my life.
Every morning when I wake up, I struggle to get ready to start my day, beginning with chest binding. This can cause many internal problems such as pain and overheating and can worsen already existing problems such as asthma and respiratory infections. It gets hard to look at things positively when every morning you have to face your worst flaws. When brushing my teeth, sometimes I have to refrain from looking into the mirror. If I do, I tend to wonder if I am passing well enough? Is my chest flat enough? Would changing my shirt help? Nevermind, I will just wear a hoodie every day, even when it’s 95 degrees outside. However, that's not even the hardest part. Night routines. That’s the hardest part. After the day is done with its battles, I have my worst one going home and taking a shower. Time to undo the one thing keeping my confidence up. My appearance. There is a mirror, which is very inconvenient when the last thing you want is to literally face yourself. So now my gaze stays fixed. Fixed on one thing. Getting dressed. Do you enjoy a hot shower? I wish I could say yes. That’s where most people relax. Yeah... not me.
Truthfully, I do not enjoy a hot shower, or even a cold one. However, I do enjoy the relief of the constant pressure on my ribs and being clean.
When I go out to eat, go to school, or go to a public place, I have to use the restroom before I leave the house and normally won't return to a restroom until I get home. Yeah, imagine that discomfort. At school there are two restrooms I am allowed to use: either the one in the nurse's office or the staff restroom. I feel as though this just calls me out further. How am I supposed to feel normal when I can’t even use a restroom 95% of the time?
Being trans has caused a lot of mental health issues--it's depressing being separated. Which name do I write on my papers? Which line do I fit in during P.E.? Which locker room do I use? I constantly feel like no one gets it. It is very lonely, and it’s hard to explain why I can’t just go to a certain place, or why I have to cut my trip short because there is no restroom for me to legally use. I constantly struggle with feeling accepted, especially around my family. I have been bullied and harassed for being transgender. I am different--everything is different. I have all the typical teenage bullshit, but on top of all of that, I am trans. I need to find less destructive outlets. To hide one problem, I tend to take on a different problem. I need to find some balance in my feelings. I can never find a good place between being too feminine or too masculine. Puberty is something that is making me anxious; it’s something I am going to have to go through all over again in the future.
Throughout life, you have to meet new people. I hate having to introduce myself to anyone. I don’t know how they will feel about me or the intrusive questions they may ask. I don’t know how to explain myself. Really, I don't want to. Coming out can either make you closer to family or destroy your relationship with them. There are countless reasons why relationships are difficult with a significant other. You have to open up even when you don't want to (about your triggers, about where they can and can’t hold you, about things they can and cannot say, and about dealing with how their family and the public feels about you). It feels so unfair to put someone you care about through all of that. I hate name problems, like when I am dead named (called my birth name) because of my family in front of someone who knows me as my chosen name or having to explain pronouns.
My future is my biggest worry, aside from my day-to-day problems. I don’t want to go to college, and that is going to upset my family. I have fear of what my future might look like. Financially, for myself, things are going to be very expensive. Things like surgeries and testosterone. I fear failure. I hope to one day do something big, like write a book, or maybe even a play. I want to try and make a difference for kids like myself. But, I worry about being fired due to my identity, being harassed or bullied by the public or coworkers, potentially ending up homeless, being denied housing or evicted, denied medical care or being targeted by others.
A lot has been taken from me because I am Trans. My childhood was not always happy, and I remember being alone a lot of the time. My sister and cousins never wanted to play things that I enjoyed. They played with makeup or Barbies and did each other's hair. They would play house, and I would only take part if I had a male role...like a dad or brother. I didn’t enjoy having family occasions--my birth name was said and used too often. I love the beach. God I love it. The sand, the water and the smell. It helps me feel free. It helps my mind. Which is amazing but sad because I have to wear a t-shirt. It’s hot there, and it makes me uncomfortable. The city pool is just Hell. I can’t get married wherever I please. I can’t have my own kids like a normal cisgendered male, and that kills me inside. Thinking about it makes me sick...it makes me feel empty. I think I hate that part the most. Anger overwhelms me, and makes me hate the world as well as myself. I hate my body so so deeply. I love children, but having them, that is going to be hard. It’s unfair for my significant other. I fear I am not enough, or won't be enough. I feel that I am not enough. I am not as strong nor as big as a typical male. I don’t have many friends because it’s hard to bond. I never got to play the sports I wish I could have or write the name I felt was right on the top of my papers. I never got to express myself. I fell... deep. Into a hole of self-loathing and doubt.
Sleep sucks, waking up sucks, peeing sucks, going out to eat sucks. I am alive, but am I living? I am scared. I am so scared of losing hope and just not having anything but myself. I was always alone, so I came out to fix that. I was wrong because now I feel even more alone. It is hard to even breathe thinking of all the things I didn’t get to see. I didn’t get to control. Yet, I am still in the same spot and not shit has changed. The world has expressed my unwelcomeness, but I did not ask to be here. When I am asked why I chose this, I say I didn't choose a thing. I didn’t choose to hate my physical existence. I didn’t choose to fight all the time with loved ones or my own personal battles. I did not choose to struggle every day. I wish that was understood. I want nothing more than what those people who question me have. I want what you do, I promise.
I have yet to understand why such bad things happen to the best of people. Especially things that no one should ever go through. I guess life just isn’t fair. I feel sad right now, maybe the word I'm actually looking for is overwhelmed. I broke yesterday. I cried...on the floor in the bathroom and made some very bad decisions. I just hurt...all too bad. Replacing emotional pain with physical pain. Does it help? Well, my honest answer is yes. But only for a moment. Only while it's literally tearing you apart. Then its effects last forever. In a helpless spiral you will fall. I want to love and be loved. I want to spread it and I want to feel it. I want to love myself the most. It is so confusing. I hate my physical being; however internally, I don’t believe I am terrible...
I hope one day it all won’t hurt so bad. Some things that happened, I will take to my grave remaining secret. That is where they belong. Dead. As dead as they made me feel. In time I will be better. I hold onto that thought. I don’t know how, or even when. But that time will come.”
About the Author
Erica Shook is the English Department Chair at McPherson High School, USD 418. Because of her passion for students, educators and education, ELA, YA literature, and social activism, she is also a Project LIT Community chapter leader and the KATE Vice-President. One of the most important things she has learned during her time teaching is that absolutely everything that happens in one's classroom hinges on the relationships built there. Representation matters and is an essential component of those relationships. Follow her on Twitter at @Ms_Shook or on Instagram at @ms_shook for book suggestions to build classroom libraries or for continued professional development. You can also check out https://www.glsen.org/ or https://www.tolerance.org/ for additional resources.
By Madison Loomis
I have a question that keeps repeating in my head over and over and over again:
Am I going to remember how to be a teacher?
My head chimes in with the same response - Duh, yes you will - it’s like riding a bike. Isn’t it?
Or is it?
Will I remember how to set my expectations the first day, or will I freeze up at the front of the room like I did the first time a lesson went wrong? I haven't had face-to- face interaction with my students in SO LONG, and now the official school year is over, which also concludes my first year of teaching.
Yes, I am a baby teacher who not only survived her first year, but survived amidst a global pandemic. This year of teaching really paralleled a classic coming of age story, but for someone who transitioned from novice teacher to experienced professional . This transition was full of classic, cringeworthy moments. However, while reflecting on these moments I’ve realized that they were necessary. They helped me to grow, and with this growth came comfortability, and most importantly, confidence.
Reflecting back on this year, my confidence only came through conquering some of the weirdest situations I’ve ever experienced - you know, like turning around to a pair of tidy whities that magically appeared on a desk in the middle of reading The Hunger Games... or that time when someone played inappropriate noises from a hidden Bluetooth speaker in my room that ignited a frenzy to find where they were coming from... I remember walking out of my room sometimes and looking at my coworkers like, "what the heck just happened last block?" I really thought I had seen (and heard) enough for my first year. I locked my door on March 12th feeling pretty good. Feeling like I might be getting the hang of this whole teaching thing.
But then everything got way more serious.
I left that Thursday before spring break to go to the store after school. I was out of toilet paper at the worst time, only to see people rushing and scared in every aisle. I think that's when it dawned on me that things weren't okay. Little did I know, the world I knew would not exist anymore.
Teaching should be like riding a bike, right? You might be a little scared after not riding for a while, but you’re reassured after the first 5 seconds back on the bike, that you got this. You’ve practiced, and you’ve fallen down A LOT, but each time you get back up, things feel a little easier. I was finally ready to ditch my teacher training wheels in the fourth quarter upon my return. But during spring break, someone let the air out of my tires. My wheels weren’t turning anymore. Literally. I froze when the governor announced we would not be returning to school as we knew it. My brain went radio silent. I realized I would be switching from the comfort of riding a bike to climbing on top of a contraption no one had ever used before - one still being built.
Flash forward a few weeks. With the indefinite school closures, l was given 15 minutes to get my stuff from the building. 15 minutes. My room didn’t even feel the same - it looked and felt like a ghost town. I locked my door this time, unsure when I would see my classroom again.
The news became constant background buzzing as life changed every day. My heart broke when I thought of how each one of my 160 students’ lives were changing too. I am thankful for every phone, text, Google Classroom, email conversation that I was privileged to have with them, It was horrible to not be able to say “good bye” to them, but I hope that I will be reunited with their faces soon.
Before this, I had the belief that teaching gradually became more normal with every day . Things start awkward, even scary, and then, somehow, teachers grow and find their voice. Before COVID-19, I believed that once you found your voice, you were set for life.
Unfortunately, teaching is much more dynamic than that. It throws us curve balls all the time. And it takes a special human to adapt and adjust when the definition of normal changes year by year, hour by hour. It takes a special human to care so much about their coworkers and every student they teach - to find every possible way to solve every single problem. And educators are exactly that - special.
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the word, “relationships” since I started teaching. Relationships with students help us break through obstacles in their behavior and learning; they are how we establish a positive classroom environment. We will always have the memories of our high school teachers that told us we were special, the college professors that challenged us, the mentor teachers who never gave up on us, and the friend down the hall whose room became a safe haven of help during our plan time. But relationship building shouldn’t stop once we step foot outside our classroom.
As an educator, you are part of a community of some of the coolest people on the planet (maybe I’m just biased). My colleagues at Southeast each bring their own voice, talent, and experience. They’ve shared numerous ideas and lessons; advice and comfort. One of them even bought me fuses for the string lights in my room. Another helped me compose a write-up regarding the inappropriate noises from the hidden speaker incident. If they hadn’t, I might still be trying to put that incident into words to this day. They were incredibly vital as education moved into uncharted territory this final quarter. I am thankful that I was able to ask them thousands of questions a day, and they still helped solve them even though they were struggling themselves.
And truly, I think that’s all that really matters - whatever happens to us educators, weird or normal, there will always be someone there to support us.
I can’t tell you how proud I am to be an educator amongst so many resilient, strong, caring humans. Our own lives changed completely, yet we still care about everyone else. Our jobs are centered around human interaction, and we have the power to make an impact, socially -distanced or not.
The future is still unknown for all of us right now. Whether we have a year of experience or years of experience, none of us know what we will be returning to next year. But I do know this - we will continue to help those around us, regardless if it is through an instant message, a text, or a meme. We will adapt, and we will change together. The relationships we build with our colleagues will turn into lifelong friendships, and nothing is going to change that.
I am not the teacher I was in August, and I will not be returning as the teacher I was before spring break. So reflecting on that question I asked at the beginning, “Am I going to remember how to be a teacher?”, I’ll tell you what I know for sure: I am going to remember how the kids I taught this year made me feel. I am going to remember how to laugh. I am going to be resilient in the face of change. And most importantly, I’ll remember that I’m going to have one heck of a support system by my side at all times.
So thank you to educators, new and old - we are confused and frustrated with our future. But always remember that you are appreciated. Thank you for believing in me, so that I can believe in my students.
About the Author
My name is Madison Loomis, and I have just completed my first year teaching ELA at Wichita Southeast High School. I graduated from Wichita State University in 2019. I love concerts, my grumpy cat Gracie, and I LOVE reading young adult literature. You can find me on Goodreads or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Leveraging NCTE’s Position Statements to Support Teachers’ Curricular Inclusion of Sexual and Gender Diversity
By Dr. Katie Cramer
As a teacher educator, I have been preparing future middle and high school English teachers—first in Georgia and now in Kansas—for more than a decade. Since 2007, I have used position statements from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) to support my professional practice, particularly my decision to center sexual and gender diversity in my curriculum.
When NCTE passed the Resolution on Strengthening Teacher Knowledge of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Issues in 2007, I was able to further defend my curricular inclusion of sexual and gender diversity in my English methods class against resistance from a small but vocal minority of my teacher candidates who argued that …
Aside from expressing my dismay at each of these claims (and my absolute horror at the last one)—as well as my relief that I’ve not heard teacher candidates express these views in the past 10 years—I will not belabor them. In fact, I have written about these challenges before, including in Kansas English (Mason & Harrell, 2012) and more recently in a chapter in Incorporating LGBTQ+ Identities in K-12 Curriculum and Policy (Cramer, 2020).
Instead, in this piece, I want to remind all of us that we can be even more powerful in our teaching for social justice when we seek out support from our professional organizations at the state and national levels.
What are position statements?
For the past 50 years, NCTE has published position statements on a number of issues that guide and support our professional practice. According to NCTE, position statements “bring the latest thinking and research together to help define best practices, offer guidance for navigating challenges, and provide an expert voice to back up the thoughtful decisions teachers must make each day” (NCTE Position Statements). They begin as resolutions, crafted and submitted by a group of at least five NCTE members and reviewed by the NCTE Committee on Resolutions before being discussed and voted on at the Annual Convention and later ratified by NCTE membership. NCTE notes the value of both the process and the product on its resolutions page:
“When a resolution is ratified it signals to members and the wider education community that these issues are top concerns. Most resolutions also come with research about and suggested solutions to the problem. As such, a resolution is a tool you can use as an educator to advocate for these issues, knowing you have the backing of a national organization in your stance.” (NCTE Resolutions)
The oldest position statements NCTE lists on its website were discussed and voted on at the NCTE Annual Business Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1970 and include fascinating and still relevant resolutions on …
More recently, NCTE membership has ratified statements that center sexual and gender diversity. During LGBTQ Pride Month, let’s turn our attention to two position statements that support our efforts to recognize and affirm sexual and gender diversity in our schools and curriculums.
Resolution on Strengthening Teacher Knowledge of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Issues (2007)
NCTE’s Resolution on Strengthening Teacher Knowledge of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Issues was ratified in November 2007 at the beginning of my career in teacher education, and it has provided the support I needed to center sexual and gender diversity in my teacher preparation curriculum. It states that “effective teacher preparation programs help teachers understand and meet their professional responsibilities, even when their personal beliefs seem in conflict with concepts of social justice” (NCTE, 2007). It advocates for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ studies in teacher education programs, even going so far as to advocate that accrediting bodies recognize the importance of the study of LGBTQ+ issues in such programs. This resolution/position statement not only strengthened individual faculty members’ rationales for the inclusion of sexual and gender diversity in their coursework, it also led to positive changes within the NCTE. Less than two years later in March 2009, English Journal published its first themed issue on sexual and gender diversity, and more recently, the NCTE formed the LGBTQ Advisory Committee on which I am currently serving my second term.
Statement on Gender and Language (2018)
In 2018, NCTE members ratified the Statement on Gender and Language, which evolved out of NCTE’s previous position statements on gender and language from 1978, 1985, and 2002. The most current iteration of this statement “builds on contemporary understandings of gender that include identities and expressions beyond a woman/man binary” (NCTE, 2018). This 12-page document—one of the longest NCTE position statements I’ve encountered—features a plethora of information to guide teachers’ understanding of gender diversity. It defines gender-expansive terminology; describes research-based recommendations for working with students, colleagues, and the broader professional community; and includes an annotated bibliography of resources to help us “use language to reflect the reality of gender diversity and support gender diverse students” (NCTE, 2018).
Stay Tuned …
This summer, I was invited by the NCTE Presidential Team to collaborate with colleagues across the U.S. to revise three statements on gender and gender diversity. Two of the statements are 25 and 30 years old, respectively, and they need considerable updating as conceptions of gender and sexuality—and the language we use to describe them—have evolved (and continue to evolve). This committee, under the leadership of Dr. Mollie Blackburn, is currently planning to address both sexual and gender diversity in curriculum design in our revisions, and we hope to have one or more statements ready for discussion and vote at the 2020 NCTE Convention, which will take place virtually this year.
Your Next Steps
I invite you to take some time this summer, as you reflect on your curriculum design and prepare for the next academic year, to engage in the following activities:
Alongside our state affiliate the Kansas Association of Teachers of English (KATE), NCTE’s vision is to empower English language arts teachers at all levels to “advance access, power, agency, affiliation, and impact for all learners” (NCTE About Us). NCTE’s position statements are just one of the many ways the organization enacts that vision.
Cramer, K.M. (2020). Addressing sexual and gender diversity in an English education teacher preparation program. In A. Sanders, L. Isbell & K. Dixon (Eds.), Incorporating LGBTQ+ identities in K-12 curriculum and policy (pp. 66-111). IGI Global.
Mason, K. & Harrell, C. (2012). Searching for common ground: Two teachers discuss their support for and concerns about the inclusion of LGBTQ issues in English methods courses.” Kansas English, 95(1), 22-36.
NCTE (n.d.). About us. https://ncte.org/about/
NCTE. (n.d.). Position statements. https://ncte.org/resources/position-statements/
NCTE. (n.d.). Resolutions. https://ncte.org/resources/position-statements/resolutions/
NCTE. (2007, November 30). Resolution on strengthening teacher knowledge of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues.
NCTE. (2018, October 25). Statement on gender and language.
About the Author
Katherine Mason Cramer is a former middle school English teacher and a professor of English Education at Wichita State University. She has been a KATE member since 2010 and an NCTE member since 2000. She serves on the KATE Executive Board, and has served as Editor of Kansas English since 2017. She can be reached at Katie.Cramer@wichita.edu.
By Michelle Robert
Raise your arms, step over that line, and let the smile spread across your face. You made it! You finished the Kansas Continuous Learning Program. Whew! Now find a comfortable seat, grab a cold drink (water, of course!), and take a deep, cleansing breath. Reflect for a moment. How are you feeling? Exhausted, sore, drained? Relieved and accomplished? Maybe anxious, tense or irritable? My guess is that you’re experiencing all of the above. And for good reason. Not only did you cross the finish line, but many of you pushed, pulled, dragged, cajoled, threatened, and begged some of your students across the line as well. Sadly, some students chose to never finish, leaving you with feelings that range from resentment to deep sadness and concern. It was certainly an unprecedented challenge, and on a personal note, I commend you all for learning and applying new skills, being there for your students, and seeing it through to the end.
This metaphorical marathon that you just participated in has probably resulted in a very literal depletion of your mental and emotional reserves. This might lead you to ask, “If this was a mental and emotional expenditure, then why does my physical body feel as though it just ran a real marathon?”
There’s plenty of science to answer that. Please humor me as we take a quick jaunt back into high school biology. But first, let’s consider that we are all whole beings, and we can’t experience sensations or stimuli in one compartmentalized component of the self. Body + Mind + Spirit = You. So an emotional distress will somehow, some way manifest as a mental and a physical distress as well. It’s a three-way vice-versa that applies here - it doesn’t matter which component experiences a sensation first, the other two will correspond. And that correspondence often perpetuates a vicious cycle.
As a quick example, take a moment to remember the last time a loved one said something hurtful or angering to you. It’s difficult to even pin-point where the initial reaction was experienced, but I’m sure you can think of examples of how each component (body, mind, spirit/emotion) did respond. It’s like dominoes toppling into the next.
We owe this ripple effect to the release of stress hormones by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic (meaning automatic) nervous system (ANS). This system creates arousal in most of the body’s systems - circulatory, respiratory, digestive, vasomotor, endocrine, etc. Blegh, lots of science terms. But just remember this - autonomic is automatic. Think back to your hurtful experience with a loved one. Did you have to tell your blood to rush to your face? Did you purposefully shorten your breath and make your mind race? Did you hand-pick specific thoughts and emotions to experience? Of course not. It was all automatic. And in this reaction (many know it as the fight-or-flight reaction), your ANS became dysregulated, off kilter, out of whack, choose your favorite idiom. And returning to our first premise - if the physical body is out of whack, then the whole being is out of whack.
So what was the point of this mini science lesson? It’s two-fold: 1) to lay the foundation of how we can invite restoration (that’s coming soon); and 2) to help relieve any guilt you might be experiencing regarding how you responded to the stress of teaching during a pandemic. The undesired effects of your recent stressors (possibilities are irritability, mood swings, lack of motivation, inability to focus, joint pain, sluggish body or brain, anxiety, unexplained sadness) are not your fault. Feeling this way is not something you’ve done to yourself nor invited into your life. Rather, your biology is simply responding to chronic stress just like every other human on the planet. So take another deep breath and let yourself off the hook for a moment. Extend some grace and offer yourself some compassionate, empathetic words. You’re human, responding like other humans.
The good news is that you’re not alone in this. Knowing that not one of us has come through this quarantine unscathed can bring some comfort. However, that collective commiseration doesn’t satisfy for long. None of us wants to remain in this dysregulated state! But are we just at the mercy of our ANS, waiting and wondering when it will regulate itself?
The answer, and even better news in all of this, is NO. Our ANS has an equal but opposite branch called the parasympathetic nervous system that can automatically bring our body (and our whole being) back into a state of regulation, an even keel, a bounce-back, choose your favorite idiom. It calms everything that has been aroused in the fight-or flight reaction, bringing forth the opposite reaction that is dubbed the rest-and-digest action. Ahh, doesn’t that sound lovely?
This parasympathetic system is largely governed by a powerhouse nerve called the Vagus Nerve. Don’t worry! I’m not going to launch you into another science lesson. But let’s just say that when our vagus nerve is healthy, toned, and supported, we can bounce back from dysregulation in quite an effective and efficient way.
So here is the best news. We all have the power within ourselves to kick-start that rest-and-digest process, and to maintain and support the health of our vagus nerve. It sounds technical, but it’s much easier than you might think. You may have never heard the words, “tone your vagus nerve”, but I can almost guarantee you’ve heard of most of the common ways it can be done. How many stress-relief articles have you read that tell you to breathe deeply, practice yoga, meditate, get enough sleep, engage in recreational activities, and take daily walks? These are all effective ways to lower stress, because they’re all effective ways to tone your vagus nerve and support a healthy autonomic nervous system.
I’ll go a little further with some suggestions that are not as common:
So, before entering another teaching marathon, give yourself some time to recoup and adopt one or two of these activities into your daily life. Choose something that resonates with you and doesn’t feel like another task to complete. Hopefully, you will have bounced back by August, ready to see your students again - whether face-to-face or via Zoom. And if I may, with the mention of your students, I’ll offer another tidbit. After you have practiced self-care and feel a bit more regulated, consider the many stressors that hijacked your students’ nervous systems. Their lack of motivation, focus, and organization were most likely manifestations of their own dysregulation. If you have a chance, share this information with them.
One more side note, or rather, a caveat: This information is not to suggest that there are quick fixes for depression, general anxiety, or other mood disorders. These are simply suggestions to invite restoration after a period of chronic stress. If you feel your nervous system is in a constant state of dysregulation, I urge you to seek the care of appropriate professionals.
If you would like FREE courses that dive deeper into the role of the vagus nerve, self-care strategies, and mindfulness practices, be sure to register for any of the 6 courses offered by Michelle Robert from June 3rd - July 8th. These courses, along with over 150 more on various topics, are offered through Greenbush University - a six-week virtual opportunity for professional development offered by Greenbush - the Southeast Kansas Education Resource Center. They are free to every Kansas educator, pre registration is required. Visit this website for more information.
About the Author
Michelle Robert is the owner of Higher Power Health & Yoga - a small yoga studio in Osage City, KS. She is also a former 5th-grade teacher who became a stay-at-home mom of four kids, and then discovered the beauty and necessity of self-care and yoga. Her studio serves as an umbrella for the many services she offers in the health and wellness world, including life coaching, mindfulness education, and self-care education. She also offers professional development in-services to districts interested in implementing mindfulness strategies with students of all ages. Contact Michelle with questions or interests.
Website - www.HigherPowerHealth.net
E-mail - email@example.com
YouTube Channel - Higher Power Health
Facebook - Higher Power Health & Yoga
Long sought and finally happening, KATE book clubs are another way for ELA educators to connect across the state! Each month, we will focus on 1-2 books. Meetings will be held either once (at the end of a reading) or bi-weekly (for longer texts). Open to any KATE member as participant or facilitator, we hope that these clubs not only entertain but also inform and inspire you.
Following a book club, the club facilitator will write a post for KATE Blog reviewing the text per feedback from participants. A KATE Blog book review should containing the following elements:
If you would like to participate in a book club, please check out offerings and register via the Online Meetings portal. KATE member password required. This password can be found via our monthly member newsletters, or you can contact the KATE President to check and verify your membership status.
If you would like to host or suggest a book club, please email KATE Blog Editor Michaela Liebst.
Message from the Editor
Hello! My name is Michaela West, and I am the editor of the KATE Blog. I am very excited to see the connection and inspiration that take place here. If you are interested in being published on our blog, or have any comments or questions for me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org