“I want to be an anchor”: 5 educators on finding purpose in showing up for students.

As educators like you take on challenge after challenge in this particularly difficult year, we’ve been so inspired by all the ways you’re supporting your students – and your fellow teachers. Here, 5 educators share how they’re staying connected to their “why”:

Victoria Lowe is finding inspiration in her sixth graders’ resilience. Martin Odima Jr. is staying connected to his purpose by deepening relationships with fellow educators. Dylan Huisken is dedicated to elevating the student voice, and doing all he can to inspire students to press the “unmute” button. Keith Piccard is keeping hands-on learning alive with outdoor field work – and striving to be an anchor for his students. By connecting with her students, Natasha Akery is finding the motivation to get through today, tomorrow, this week, this month, this year. 

(Each of these teachers is sharing the story of their school year as it unfolds. Read about how they launched the school year in our previous post, and click through the tabs below to see how they are finding purpose now.) 

I want to be that consistent anchor students can always count on.

Keith Piccard is a middle school science teacher in Allendale, Michigan.

A big part of my purpose as an educator is to provide inquiry-based, hands-on experiences that make science feel real and exciting to my students. It has been a big challenge this year to balance those experiences with the demands of social distancing.

I’m glad I’m able to see kids in person, and we’re still able to do outdoor fieldwork in the streams. While it’s not at the level I’d like it, there is still hands-on science going on. Students still enjoy my class. They are still learning, and I am still teaching. 

In the tough moments, I remind myself that everyone worldwide is going through similar trials and tribulations, and this too shall pass. I want to stay strong for my family, friends and students.

Even though things don’t look the same this year, the work we do as teachers matters. You don’t know which student is seeing stresses at home increase tenfold due to the climate. You don’t know which students are feeling like their lives are nebulous right now. Many times, teachers like us are the one constant. So much has changed, but we can still play that role. We can be that consistent anchor that the student can count on this year.

My students give me hope every day.

Natasha Akery is a high school language arts teacher and diversity coach in Charleston, South Carolina.

Focusing on teaching in the midst of a pandemic, in a year full of national political unrest, is a huge challenge – and I know it can be hard for students to focus on learning, too. I’m working on making connections between what we’re experiencing and what students are learning in class. 

During the time we spend together, we can focus on a work of literature and analyze it, but we can also make connections between the text and what we’re experiencing now. I find purpose in building knowledge with my students, and it is so meaningful when they make a personal connection to a work of literature. My students are my “why,” and they give me hope that we can get through today, tomorrow, this week, this month, this year. 

I also want to acknowledge that we can’t always be full of hope. If you’re having a tough time teaching right now, I want to tell you that I see you and that I’m sorry it’s hard. 

On those days when you are struggling, cut yourself some slack. Ask for help. Gripe for a little bit with someone. But also don’t feel like you have to get away from feeling what you are feeling. Life is hard right now. Sometimes we have to sit with exactly what we are experiencing and not try to shoo it away. Sometimes we have to be the one to hear ourselves, acknowledge our own pain and tell ourselves, “You’re doing a great job. I know it’s hard, but I’m here.”

All educators are struggling and trying to be resilient during an unprecedented time. I want to encourage you to focus on the present moment. Focus on being an expert in your content area. Students value and recognize when a teacher not only knows their subject but is enthusiastic about it. Students recognize when a teacher WANTS to teach them. When you need a reminder of your purpose, I hope you can find it the way I do: by looking to the kids. 

I teach to help students find, use and hone their voice.

Dylan Huisken is a middle school social studies teacher in Bonner, Montana, and the 2019 MT Teacher of the Year.

No doubt, it is a hard year. I ask myself daily, “Why did I become a teacher? Are my current circumstances making it impossible to fulfill that ‘why?'” For some teachers, the answer is “yes,” and I cannot blame anyone who struggles to focus on the “why” if they feel they are in an untenable situation. But for those of us who feel we can work with what we have, I think our success this year can come from focusing on relationships with our students. 

I don’t pretend to be an expert on virtual teaching, but I know that, for relationships and community to form this year, I need to center student voice. I try to create activities that naturally lead to discussion, debate or collaboration – that make kids reach for the “unmute” button. Hearing student ideas and voices reminds me that, so often in learning, kids are the experts. You never know what individual breakthroughs are around the corner when you ask students to share their experiences, opinions, thoughts and concerns.  

This year and all years, students have insights and perspectives worth hearing and sharing. This is my “why.” I teach to help students find, use and hone their voices so they can be advocates for themselves and for justice – and that’s a “why” I can keep working toward, even now.

We can teach content while also creating responsive assignments that speak relevancy and immediacy into the lives of our students. We can use our creativity to show students we are here for them – both in the ways we speak to them and with the lessons we design for them. 

That doesn’t mean I don’t get tired. There is no shame in feeling something so deeply it makes your bones weary. On tough days, I make sure I get extra sleep. Going to bed early or sleeping in means I will wake up in a better head space, more able to tackle the obstacles in front of me and be there for my students.

By pushing through when things feel tough, we can model resilience to our students, and they can model it to us as well. When I forget my why, I look to the kids for inspiration.  

On the first day of virtual class this year, I nervously sat at my computer, wondering if I would see student faces and if we could make this work. They showed up, ready to dive in, quickly learning new platforms and adjusting to shifting expectations, despite all their disappointments and losses. Their families have reached out with their gratitude and their concerns, reminding me that we are in this fight together. Together, we’ve been building the relationships and community that will carry us through. 

Connecting with each other can help us stay connected with our purpose.

Martin Odima Jr. is a teacher coach in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

It’s challenging to be a leader through a time of so much uncertainty. I’ve tried to have the mindset that hope isn’t about pretending that everything’s OK. It’s about recognizing that we are enduring a lot of challenges, but we can still find creative ways to collaborate, solve problems, and maintain relationships with the people around us.

I have a few mentors that have helped me through this challenging time. It’s nice to know that I have people that I can talk to and trust. It’s so important to have someone in your corner who can pick you up while you’re down or cheer you on when you have a “daily” win.

My message to a fellow educator who is having a hard time is this: Let’s work within our sphere of influence. We make the most difference when we focus on things under our control. We can change our mindset and how we perceive challenges as an opportunity for growth. Use mantras, such as, “I am strong, I am unique, and I am enough.”

Hiding our emotions is counterproductive. We need to normalize, own and identify our fears. Once acknowledged, we can find proactive ways to manage them. 

Most importantly, we must maintain and actively stay connected with a supportive community. We’re more resilient when we make deep connections with people around us. We are all in this together. 

My purpose this year is to keep my students’ hope alive.

Victoria Lowe is a middle school language arts teacher in New York, New York.

At the beginning of the school year, I was worried. My students were new to the school as incoming sixth graders, and we were starting virtually. I wondered how we would form relationships. But my biggest surprise this year is how simple  it has been to build a strong community. 

My students approached this school year with so much expectancy. They were starting middle school at home, and still, they were full of so much hope that it brought tears to my eyes. My purpose this year has been to keep that hope alive.

This is a year to stay focused on “why,” not “how.” I came into education to make a difference in the lives of families. To instill a love of learning. To enable students to be change agents in their community. My “why” is ever present in these changing times. 

When we go back to our “why,” as teachers, the challenges don’t feel as overwhelming, and we can allow the “how” to reveal itself to us. The “how” becomes apparent as we work with our students and connect with fellow educators.  

Right now, I’m focusing on small things. I appreciate the simple thank-you’s and how are you’s from the students. I love seeing the families in the background of their videos, welcoming me into their homes each day. The students are engaging in lessons and showing signs of academic growth even in this very different world. 

The students never cease to amaze me with their resilience, and it’s my honor to approach them with my own hope each day.

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