This past year in education has been one of the toughest I’ve had to endure while teaching 7th grade math. The countless zoom sessions, school mask mandate discussions, and the weight of the pandemic took its toll. Both personally and professionally, I am constantly thinking about my purpose – pandemic or no. These things have allowed me to reexamine my purpose as a teacher and given me motivation to finish the school year strong. I hope it does the same for you.
“Hard to be hateful, when you’re grateful”
I know that hate is a strong word and I’m not saying that I hated my job, but I definitely had moments over the last year when I didn’t like my job very much. One of the worst parts of remote learning was it took all the joyful things away from teaching and working with children. Standing beside them as I helped them with math, watching them interact with one another face to face, and greeting them with a handshake every single class period was stripped away from all of us in an instant. Like most school districts, we dismissed the students for spring break not knowing the world would be shut down the next day. I didn’t get to end the school year with our most enjoyable and interactive lessons. I wasn’t able to see the culmination of a year of hard work and progress come to fruition. I didn’t get to say goodbye.
I’m in the process of starting a “gratitude journal” where every day I list three things that I’m grateful for in my own life. This is not a suggestion to ignore all the negativity around us, but when we sit down and think about it all, we can look at life through a positive lens.
I utilize simple quotes on a daily basis. I memorize them and place them as bookmarks, sticky note reminders, and constantly say them out loud to myself when I’m feeling down. One quote that has carried me through this school year is the challenge to “never have a bad day, just bad moments.” With teaching middle school math, I’ll often teach the same content five times a day and it can be difficult to find the energy at the conclusion of an exhausting day. If I’m exhausted, I have a tougher time with patience and empathy for my classes. I’ve found that my purpose in education is to help my students navigate through failure. Whether that’s in math class, when they’re trying to accurately solve a math problem, or in life when things aren’t moving in a positive direction.
“Know Your Why”
I realize that not everyone reading this blog is a teacher. But I believe we all need to personally ask ourselves this question on a regular basis. Why do you do what you do?
Over the last year of my life, I’ve been constantly re-evaluating my purpose in education. I take a lot of pride in my math classroom. I’ve been able to achieve some rather impressive standardized testing scores through my career with my methods of instruction. But, looking back on my purpose to teach, I’m reminded that I didn’t become a teacher to help kids score high scores on their standardized tests. If we develop our purpose based on results we will almost always be let down. Also, it’s easy to get burnt out when you have a year that students don’t test as well.
Developing a purpose in education is comparable to creating a mission statement for a business. It’s something that changes over time, but when it gets down to the core of it, it gives motivation to start (and finish) every year with the same enthusiasm as our first year of teaching.
“I Work for NASA”
There is a legendary story of John F. Kennedy that summarizes finding purpose in the little things in our lives. While he was on tour at the NASA headquarters in 1961, JFK encountered a custodian who was mopping the floors. The man was so intensely focused on his task at hand, and doing amazing work, that Kennedy approached the man “I’ve never seen someone take so much pride in their work, why do you work so hard?” The custodian kindly responded “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon!” Every time I hear this story it gives me chills. This man knew his purpose and saw value in his position at NASA. When a teacher takes pride in their work, has a purpose with their job, and works to help create a positive culture it can leave a lasting impression on all of our students too.
Throughout my career I’ve realized that I have an opportunity to not only try to revisit, reevaluate, and refocus my own individual purpose on a regular basis. But I have a chance to help my students also discover their purpose in life too.
I’m proud to be a teacher during a time when kids need us the most. I just want to encourage you to be grateful for the opportunities in front of you every day you interact with your students. It’s tough to “look at the bright side” when everything around us is saying otherwise. But we can be a light in the lives of our students. I truly believe that everyone we meet, on a daily basis, is fighting their own battles. People, teachers included, sometimes just need to be heard. Be that listening ear for another colleague and friend this week. Those little moments and kind gestures go a long way in making this the most memorable school year of your lives. Until next year of course!
I received a game in exchange for this blog post. All opinions expressed belong to me.
Scott Phillips is a 7th grade math teacher at Aurora Middle School in Aurora, Nebraska. He is finishing his 11th year of teaching middle school in Nebraska. He works hard to instill a growth mindset in his students and tries to show them how to relish the challenge that math presents. He’s passionate about instilling confidence in his students and thrives to make math class an enjoyable experience for all. Away from school he enjoys time with his wife and three little girls. He also enjoys creating videos for his classroom YouTube channel with his cousins Bobby Joe Fry the Math Guy and Nigel the Math Explorer.
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