Have you ever had heartburn? Often associated with eating spicy or acidic foods among other common foods or beverages. We’re told there is no cause for alarm as it usually passes after a while. Plus we can avoid heartburn by changing our diet or popping a Pepcid AC. Here is what Mayo Clinic says about heartburn, “Heartburn is a burning pain in your chest, just behind your breastbone. The pain is often worse after eating, in the evening, or when lying down or bending over.”
No one ever wakes up and says, “Today I want heartburn.”
Except for me. Throughout my rebranding process I wake up each morning yearning for the heart to burn. No, no. Not that heartburn. You won’t find what I’m talking about on Mayo Clinic’s website.
I’m talking about heart burn. Two words. Each day I wake up I yearn for my heart to burn with the fiery passion I have for education.
Educators are the luckiest people ever because we get to do what it is we do. Not to sound cliché, but we get to shape the future. Doctors, lawyers, Presidents, inventors, you name it, they’ve all had teachers. Many times people can attribute their drive and successes to a teacher they had in school.
Don’t believe me? Find the recent video clip of the special that aired called “An Evening with Adele.” Between songs Adele was asked whether there was anyone in her past who had supported her, inspired her or protected her from life’s trials and tribulations. Adele did not hesitate as she began to describe her former high school English teacher Ms. McDonald. After Adele went on with the reasons Ms. McDonald had such an impact, she was informed that Ms. McDonald was in the audience.
Adele was reduced to tears in the emotional reunion onstage. It was a powerful moment that reminded everyone the lasting impact a teacher can have on a person. What impresses me the most about educators is that we do not show up every day so that we can have our Adele moment.
Think of how many students Ms. McDonald saw in her time. She wasn’t “so bloody cool. So engaging,” because she thought Adele would announce it to the world someday. And Adele continued, “She really made us care, and we knew that she cared about us.” How easy would it have been for Adele to say me instead of us? The use of us wasn’t accidental. Adele knew that Ms. McDonald was there for all students. Ms. McDonald had heart burn.
I am going out on the limb and venturing a guess that a first year teacher doesn’t have true heart burn. I would guess they have perceived heart burn. Or pseudo heart burn. They are fresh out of college and excited for their first room takeover. But heart burn goes deeper.
Get Some Kindling
A campfire doesn’t start with the beautiful, hot flame ready to transform cold hot dogs into roasted masterpieces. Fires start with a small flame and some kindling. Good kindling is support for the young, fresh flame. If we want heart burn to kick in, we need to kindling for our flames. Kindling for our flames comes in the form of other teachers who have the same drive and passion we do.
Mentoring programs for new teachers have been around for decades. But over the years many schools have let their programs slip into automation. New teachers are told who their mentors are, they may have lunch together, have some conversations periodically, and then the mentor says, “Well, if you need me, you know where my room is.” And just like that, mentoring is complete.
Mentoring programs must be implemented with fidelity. Mentoring should consist of a mentor observing classroom teaching and providing their mentee feedback. Ideally, a portion of time should be carved out each week for the mentor and mentee to meet. And the meetings should cover more than where the ice machine is located.
Focused mentor meetings involve covering how to improve lesson plans, guidance on instruction, and how to interpret student data to better reach the needs of students. It has really gotten worse as the teacher shortage—and now the pandemic—has created an environment of survival rather than sustaining. Teachers are hired now and sometimes given little to no time to prepare their room before students arrive.
What’s worse is that then we quickly set aside time for their students to take a benchmark test and deliver the results to the teacher so they can make focused efforts to address the needs of each student. That doesn’t work. Teachers need training on how to read and understand the data. That is what a mentoring program is for.
When I was a beginning teacher I was hired in a district with a strong mentoring program. It was a three year program that was overseen by a retired teacher who was well respected by both administration and faculty. I was given a notebook during induction as well as a mentor. I had to meet regularly with my mentor and journal our meetings. At the end of each quarter, I submitted a written summary along with questions or areas of focus I felt I needed more guidance on. I know many are thinking there is no way they would do that. I’m here to tell you that I would do it again in a heartbeat.
When I returned to the classroom this year I was told that they weren’t assigning me a mentor since I had over a decade in education. I told them that while that was true, I had less than a day in this district. I didn’t get a mentor, but I am thankful to be in a district with a math coach and ELA coach. I regularly email or sit down with both coaches to go over instructional practices and student data interpretation. I want to make sure the trends and data I am reading are accurate.
I have also invited both in to come watch me teach. I think this is something most teachers don’t do. Either they’re uncomfortable asking or the other teacher is uncomfortable observing. And if there is a peer-to-peer observation the comments afterwards are feel good rather than constructive and helpful. Oh man, peer-to-peer observation gets me excited. I feel another post coming on.
Tend to Your Flame
A fire will start with a hot flame and good kindling, but it cannot sustain itself without being tended to. A fire will extinguish itself if deprived of oxygen and other fuel. We need that breath of fresh air breathed into us from time to time to stoke our flame.
Maybe this is done through continued education. Maybe it’s interacting with other educators on social media. Possibly it is attending a conference where you can surround yourself with other passionate educators. Another good idea is to join an organization. Of course I would recommend ASCD and your state affiliate. If you’re fortunate like me, you have a strong state ASCD affiliate that is committed to stoking the fires of educators.
You cannot remain stagnant in this profession and keep a strong fire going. Once you remove yourself from interaction, complacency begins to take over your flame. Eventually, you either end up with a weakened flame or one that is snuffed out.
In my mind’s eye, once you have lit your flame, given it good support, and fueled it you can reach heart burn, which is comparable to Maslow’s self-actualization on his hierarchy of needs. It is realizing your full potential, motivating and creating. It’s not just living in the moment, it’s enjoying the moment while getting the most out of it as possible. That is heart burn.
As kids we did stupid things. At least I did. One thing I remember is camping out with friends and having a campfire out in a secluded area. For some odd reason, we had some diesel to use as an accelerant to get the fire started. You clearly see where this is going. At one point, probably at the urging of friends, I threw a small cup of the diesel fuel onto the fire. I survived, my hair only slightly singed. The fireball was impressive. Obviously I realize how stupid and dangerous this was. But we need to realize the danger of accelerants on our heart burn as they can have different effects. In our case of heart burn, instead of accelerants, we need to avoid decelerants.
We want to stoke our flame with wholesome support and fresh air. Not decelerants such as avoidable stress and anxiety. Both of these can lead to less heart burn and more actual heartburn. Now I understand the profession we are in. I understand that stress and anxiety is often unavoidable. I do believe though that many times we foster situations that lead to undue stress and anxiety.
Teachers are horrible at saying no. It’s how we end up on committees and groups that we don’t really have time for. We need to evaluate opportunities presented to us to see if we are a good fit for that role. If we are agreeing just to agree, then we probably aren’t giving that committee our best as we instead just put in the time.
Inhibiting our heart’s flame to burn because of decelerants is the exact reason they call it burnout. We are seeing this way too much in our profession now. We must give regular practice to rid ourselves of stress and anxiety. We need heart burn.