How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 3: Find Your Community

This is the fourth post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

Teaching can be lonely.  We spend a lot of time with our students, but our relationships with them can feel adversarial and/or distant.  Even our good relationships with students are complex: they’re usually younger than us, and although it’s our job to try to understand them, they have no obligation – and often no ability – to understand us.

What’s more, many teachers are independent-minded people who prefer to tackle problems on their own.  I’m like that.  It’s helped me in some areas of my life, but when it comes to burnout, confronting it without support is unwise.

When I first began teaching, my emotional satisfaction came almost entirely from my relationships with students.  (You can see some discussion of this topic here.)  As my job changed and I grew older, I realized that my students weren’t my friends.  I became aware that fostering a community that supported me in my job, that I could turn to when things were rough, and that gave me healthy perspective on what I was doing was essential.

I began shaping and nurturing that community in three forms.

1. Family and friends.

These people were already there for me.  Most of them weren’t teachers.  They didn’t necessarily have advice to give about my professional problems and anxieties; if they did, the advice wasn’t always helpful.  But they did know me.  They were able to listen, relate my experiences to their own, and point out ways of seeing that were more productive than mine.  Perhaps most importantly, they were able to talk to me about something other than my work.

I don’t know about you, but during the semester, I think of little besides teaching.  Friends who don’t work with me go months without seeing me.  If someone wants to have coffee, my response is usually, “Well, how about Thanksgiving weekend/Easter weekend/reading week?  Otherwise, I’ll see you once I’ve submitted my final grades.”

I had to remind myself that my job was not my whole life.  I needed to talk to The Husband about things other than work.  I needed to go for drinks with people who didn’t know or care about the students who refused to do their homework or who cheated on exams, people who just want to talk about books, or gossip.

If I was going to feel like part of a supportive community, I realized, I needed to take care of the relationships I already had.

2.  Colleagues.

I work in an extremely supportive and friendly environment.  Many of my colleagues – including faculty, administration, and staff – have become good friends.  I also have friends who are teachers at other institutions. Sometimes talking to another teacher is the only way to grapple with an issue.  When things started going badly for me in the classroom, I started to lean on my colleagues more for advice, comfort, or just a beer at the end of the day.

If I hadn’t already had strong relationships with my colleagues, I would have tried to establish some.  We all need peers we can turn to for help or just moral support.  Often, there’s someone in the staff we’ve never really gotten to know, but whom we suspect we have something in common with; an invitation to dinner or coffee can pave the way to a deeper friendship.  And there may be more structured ways to forge connections, like book clubs or happy hours.

Obviously, we can’t connect with everyone, but we need some friends in the workplace.

3.  Online connections.

When job exhaustion first overtook me, I started keeping this blog. In a later post, I’ll discuss how invaluable the blog has been in helping my overcome my burnout, but it’s not the only online tool I use.  Reading others’ blogs, participating in online forums, setting up a Twitter account and creating a page on Facebook are all ways to both maintain contact with current friends and colleagues and also generate new connections.

Teachers and education specialists are, as a rule, very interested in reading, writing and talking about teaching.  Over time, it’s possible to build an international network of articulate, passionate and curious educators who want nothing more than to continue the conversation.  My network has sustained me through some difficult moments – if something troubles me at school, I blog about it, tweet about it, or Google the issue and see if others have something to say about it.  I almost always end up feeling better.

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I felt alone in my burnout, but I wasn’t; recognizing this was one of the keys to getting better.  Reaching out to friends, family, colleagues and online comrades helped me through some of my challenges.  Recognizing and expanding one’s community requires effort, but the payoff is enormous.

If you’re a burnt-out teacher, you might want to look around you and ask: Who are my friends?  How can I find more?

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What kinds of support and connections help you most in your job?  Do you know of any helpful resources for developing and sustaining connections between educators, or between members of other professions?  Leave a comment!  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Previous posts in this series:

Next post: facing my fears.

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The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

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Unfriendly Grammar: A Reply

On Monday, I published a letter from S, who feels the urge to delete friends from her social networks when they write updates full of grammatical errors.  You had lots of interesting responses.  Here’s mine.

Dear S,

I sympathize.  I really do.  But I can’t commiserate, I’m afraid.  I’ve had to work too hard to overcome the response you describe.

People have different priorities.  Those of us who prioritize grammar and clear communication may see it as an almost moral concern.  Believing oneself to be right about something often entails believing that one is, quite simply, better than those who don’t care about that thing.

However, a concern with correct grammar (and its relatives: sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, accurate vocabulary etc.)  is a fairly rarified preoccupation.  And those of us who are preoccupied with it are that way, not because we are better or smarter or right, but because we LIKE grammar.  Maybe not grammar rules (although some of us like those, too), but the effects of correct grammar.  We like the sound of a well-constructed sentence.  We like the clarity of the appropriate word.  Our ears are grated by faulty constructions.  We’ve probably read a lot of books, some of them very snooty books, and we have learned more or less osmotically what sounds right.

Here’s the thing, though.  What sounds right to me – and I am, as you may well know, OBSESSED with grammatical correctness – may in fact be incorrect in some circles.  For example, I know there are people who still castigate those who use “impact” as a verb.  A few years ago, I would have been among the castigators.  Now, I use it freely.  It’s useful, just as the verb “unfriend” (liberally used in your letter) is useful.

I nevertheless still cannot abide the usage “If I would have known….”  Why?  No reason.  It’s wrong, but no more wrong than plenty of other things, and the meaning is clear.    It just bothers me, especially when I hear a news reporter or an English teacher use it.  “Bothers me” is in fact much too mild: it makes me nuts.  So does the word “relatable” and the “its/it’s” confusion you mention.  Other stuff, not so much.

A colleague once sat in my office for almost half an hour, bemoaning her inability to get her students to stop writing sentences beginning with “This.”  As in, “Our house is on fire.  This is a problem.”  For some obscure reason, she hated such constructions.  Maybe she was right; I have no idea.  I certainly didn’t feel like getting into a lather over it, and was a bit disconcerted by how much it upset her.

I am sometimes unable to restrain myself from raging about a foible that peeves me.  However, I frequently hearken back to a conversation I had years ago with another colleague who had ventured into the world of internet dating.  She’d been communicating  with a man  whom she liked quite a lot.  “But I don’t think I can meet him,” she said.  “I’m not going to be able to date him.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because there are spelling and grammar errors in his emails,” she said.

Now, this woman was an English teacher.  I could certainly understand that clear writing was a priority for her.  Here’s the problem, though: that very morning, I had received an email from her that had three glaring errors in it, errors that just happened to fall into my wheelhouse of abominations.  I had to bite my tongue very hard, and I also formed a new opinion of her chances of finding happiness in love.

Mostly, though, it made me realize that my own ravings about misplaced modifiers and apostrophes in plurals might be undercut by lapses of my own, and that others might be thinking, “Well, you used ‘hopefully’ wrong last time we met.”

Which is to say: I try to maintain some humility about this.  I still get irritated, but if I need to run off at the mouth, I try to focus on something specific – my hatred of the use of “aggravate” to mean “irritate,” for example, which according to some people (including Charles Dickens) is not even wrong.  I try not to make sweeping judgements about people based on how well they spell or conjugate.   People make language errors for myriad reasons: dyslexia, limited education, second-language interference, innate ability…I may think less of someone whose poor grammar seems to arise from pure laziness, but I remind myself that, even if that’s the cause, others may judge me the same way for taking taxis when I could easily walk.

Here’s the truth: I enjoy the company of people who know how to use words.  Their ability to use words is one of the reasons I enjoy their company.  However, I enjoy other people for all sorts of other reasons.  Just because they don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect” doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer me.  In fact, while I was busy learning to nit-pick about grammar, they may have been off doing things that had actual constructive impacts on others’ lives.

Go easy on people.  In return, they just might go easy on you.

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What do you think of this advice?  Leave a comment below!

Have a question about language, teaching, learning, writing or other concerns that Auntie Siobhan can help you with?  Send it to me through my contact page.

Image by Shirley Booth

Unfriendly Grammar

The other day, I received a letter from a reader who is having an extreme emotional response to others’ bad grammar.  What should she do?

Dear Auntie Siobhan,

Would you consider writing a post on the issues of being an English teacher and social media user?

When I read status updates on Facebook and other social media sites, I actually want to unfriend people who make consistent grammatical errors. If anyone posts on my wall and uses “lol” or “its” instead of “it’s” (or worse, “it’s” instead of “its”) I have the great urge to delete the friend and the message. Is there something wrong with me?

Sometimes I want to write to friends and correct them but I know that I’d look like a pedantic twit if I did. I don’t mind the odd typo, but I get scared when it seems as though friends of mine don’t know how to write in English.

Remember in 1984, when they had Newspeak and they trimmed down the language? That could happen to our language! It’s losing its meaning.

It could be argued that if you can’t articulate a thought you are not having the thought. I don’t want our language to be reduced to lols.  I’ve only unfriended one person so far, but I’ve unsubscribed from many…I know that many great writers invented words, and that our language is always changing. I’m all for developments and new ways of expression, but I fear the sloppy use of language and shrinking meanings.

What should I do?  It’s really making me crazy.

Yours, S.

I’ve written a response, but haven’t yet sent it to S – I will publish it on Thursday.  In the meantime, I’d like to know your thoughts.  Have  you ever had a similar urge?  Is bad grammar reason enough to unfriend someone in the social media world?  Let us know what you think.

Image by miamiamia

RIP Mister Cat

You may have wondered about my avatar.  You’re right: it’s not me.  It’s the delightful Mister Cat, who, unfortunately, left us last week for the kitty beyond.

He was an excellent, orange, fuzzy friend to all who knew him, and I wanted to pay tribute to him for serving as my blog face for the past three years.  Scott W. Gray of Fauna Corporation, who knew the Mister well, agreed to be guest obituarist.  Thank you, Mister Cat, for being such a paragon of catitude.

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In the middle of a typical Montreal winter, a soft, orange-furred guest editor joined the staff of the magazine I worked for.

He was a street cat we rescued from the – 40 degree maelstrom, and we named him Mister Cat. He had lousy teeth, was feline HIV-positive, and I was ultra-allergic to him, but he became a huge part of our office culture, keeping us sane and fur-coated during the many long nights we each put in publishing the mag.

I constantly learned things from The Mister. He taught me to try to be a little more gentle, more loving, more aware of others, as well as the importance of oral hygiene and how a striped tail goes with everything. Mister lived at the office, but we all took him home for extended weekends and he eventually moved in with magazine alumni when the magazine was shuttered, living out his final years in a most leisured, European-influenced way, suitable for a Montreal bachelor.

Ultimately, Mister was an unwell cat, and his health problems took him from us last week. We were all saddened to learn that our little friend, who wanted only companionship and an absurd amount of cat-grass, was no longer furring up this world.

Everyone who stopped by the magazine was touched by The Mister. He was gentle despite his origins, loving beyond his hardships and, like all good friends, he seemed to know when you needed a little extra affection or a gentle paw on the shoulder. He lives on in our memories, stories, and yes, our prop-comedy photography.

RIP Mister Cat.

Obituary and image by Scott W. Gray