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Episode 35: Teacher Rejuvenation

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

Welcome to this month's episode. I'm excited to bring you a conversation between myself and five County Teachers of the Year for the 2021-22 school year. We talk about teacher rejuvenation and the importance of ensuring that teachers are able to thrive in their communities. We here at the Department of Education believe teachers are a cornerstone of our classrooms and of our entire educational system. I hope that this conversation gives you food for thought about how you can take care of yourself and take care of others as you look to the rest of the school year and making it a success for students, for teachers, for administrators, and for the entire school community in whatever context you're serving.

County Teachers of the Year

Shawna: Hello. My name is Shawna Longo. I am the music teacher and Arts Integration specialist at Durban Avenue School in Hopatcong Schools up in Sussex County where I am also the 2021-2022 Sussex County Teacher of the Year.

Jim: Hi. My name is Jim House. I'm an environmental science teacher at Egg Harbor Township High School own in Egg Harbor Township in Atlantic County. I'm also the Atlantic County Teacher of the Year for 2021-2022.

Samantha: My name is Samantha Boyer. I am a pre-k teacher in Upper Deerfield Township. And I'm the 2021-2022 Cumberland County Teacher of the Year.

Lynne: Hi. My name is Lynne Bussott. I am a second grade elementary teacher at the Swedesboro-Woolwich School District. I am the Gloucester County Teacher of the year for 2021-22.

Julie: Hi. I'm Julie Knight. I teach social studies, history, and sociology at Woodstown High School in Salem County. And I am the 2021-2022 Salem County Teacher of the Year.

Ken: How can teachers support their own social and emotional well-being so that they can rejuvenate themselves, whether it be over an entire school year or even just in that moment. I had a bad class period or I had a bad yesterday. How can teachers think about rejuvenating themselves?

Lynne: Hi. This is Lynne. I like that you said that because you have to be in the moment. And if you do have a bad day, the day before, you have to forgive yourself. And let it go. And put it behind you. And move forward. There's been times where I'm trying to go to sleep at night and I just tell myself, "tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow I want to do better."

And I think as teachers, we really forget that we need rest. We need sleep. Sleep is so important. So many times I will talk to a colleague and they will say, I'll ask them,  "how are you?" And they'll say, "I'm exhausted. I didn't get sleep last night. I was so worried about my observation. I didn't, I wasn't able to figure out how to find all the supplies I need for my lesson in science."  The mind is going and it's hard for us as teachers to shut it off so that we can decompress and just give ourselves rest and peace. And we really need that.

So sometimes I'll use a sleep meditation so that I can go to sleep and stay asleep. But that's really important because we need to be re-energized for the next day, because every day is a new day.

Shawna: I couldn't agree more with Lynne. This is Shawna here. We absolutely have to be able to kind of shift each day and change that mindset. But I think it's also important...these teachers are...we're givers. We go into the profession because we want to give this love of learning that we have to our students. And sometimes that can get in the way of us remembering to put ourselves first. And sometimes that's…I mean, in most cases, I think it's really hard for teachers to do, to remember that self-care is not selfish. And we think of it as selfish to take the time or, "Oh, I could be getting ready for the next thing or doing this thing extra for this student." Where we might be better served taking that moment to just walk outside for that five minutes you have. You know, walk outside. Soak in that sunlight. Get that fresh air, whether it's walk around the building once. It really can make a difference in rejuvenating yourself. Your spirit. Your emotions. Your physically....everything.

And so I think, as teachers, we need to take the time for ourselves to figure out "how do we...what is the best way for us to support our own well-being?" Because I think it is—although there are many strategies that we can all throw out—I think, at the end of the day, the teacher has...we, as teachers, have to figure out what works for us.

You know, personally, I like to make sure I exercise every day. Whether it's go for a walk, or a run, or a bike ,or something. But maybe someone else it's they want to sit down and read a book in a quiet space. Or it's meditation or yoga. And so I think we need to find it's okay to take the time to find what works for us and try new things. To…"hey, well, I'll try that." And if it doesn't work, it's okay. It's judgment-free. Go on to try something else. And I think it's making that space in our lives where it's important to have self-care.

Sam: Hi. This is Sam. I was gonna say…yeah. I completely agree with Shawna with that. It's very difficult because you have to know yourself. And it almost takes time to explore who you are. I know I'm one of those people that I usually rejuvenate by traveling and taking weekend getaways to go places. And during COVID that obviously was not happening. So I had to take some time to really think about, investigate, what could work for me.

And like Shawna was saying, you know, you might try what somebody else says and some of it works, and some of it doesn't. So I tried lots of different activities over the past few years to just try and find something that would help me recharge those batteries and get back into a good mindset. And it turns out that mine ended up being going rock climbing. But not everybody else would choose that activity. I'm not a person that can sit and do the bubble bath or read a book when my mind is going crazy. So I had to find something to get my energy out to make that work.

So it is very time-consuming almost to explore yourself, to find out what works. And we have to take those moments. We have to take the time and set aside space for ourselves. And it's hard as teachers to say no to things. Because, like Shawna said, we're so giving. But it's very, very important that you do give to yourself as much as you're giving to others. Because there's only so much that you can give out if you're not recharging that battery.

Julie: This is Julie from Salem County. And I think that what everyone has said is great. I think a lot of times, when we think rejuvenation, we think self-care. And we think self-care..we think it has to be, "I want to go for a run or go for a workout or read a book."

And those things are great and all of us should be trying to do more of that. But sometimes rejuvenation has to happen fast. It has to happen in between periods because that last class was just a doozy. So for me sometimes I just need to step out go to the bathroom. Take a breather. Fill up my coffee. Maybe grab a piece of chocolate from the desk. Or just real quick, like, grab a picture on my phone from something happy, like one of my kids or something, just as a quick rejuvenation that happens during the day.

One thing my first year teaching that I had a supervisor tell me during a post observation, that was a technique he always did. He said, "you know, when you leave here you have to shut it off even, if it's for a few hours."

So he told me—and it's always stuck with me—"on your drive home pick a landmark, whether that's a billboard or like a gas station or a certain landmark that you pass every day on your way home. When you hit that landmark, don't think about work after that landmark until after dinner." Or, I didn't have kids at the time, but, you know, once your kids are in bed then pick up the work again. But shut your brain off from work from that time. Give that self your time to just step away, put it behind you. It doesn't work every day, and I feel like—and I only have a ten-minute drive to work—but I tried to remember that when I hit that billboard on the way home, I'm like, "you know what? I'm turning it off. I'm a mom now. I'm a wife. We're gonna get dinner. We're gonna go to swim lessons. We're gonna do this. And when my kids go to bed, I'll answer the email or answer the phone call." Just so, you know, you put those different hats on.

And then, I feel like even though it might be late at night when you pick it back up, it's—you look at things with a little different perspective because you gave yourself that break.

Shawna: This is Shawna from Sussex County. And I'm just going to jump in one thing that, like, I've heard everybody say, is that, you know, when we're thinking about rejuvenation for ourselves as teachers. And, you know, I was talking about how we're givers. But I think what we of the most powerful messages that was given to me by my core of girlfriends when I was saying "yes" to so much. Was everything you say "yes" to means you're saying "no" to something else in your life. You have to make that space. And so that's been a really powerful message for me personally. And having my close friends to kind of keep me accountable on that is that, "okay, when someone asks me to do something and I'm always 'yes, I'll help out. Yes, I'll help out.'" But giving the space to take that moment to really think about, "is this what am I not going to be doing to find the time to do this?"

And so I think that's part of that, being okay with saying "no" to things. And being okay with putting ourselves first. And so hopefully that little message can help someone out there that's listening. That it's just a way to reframe. Always saying "yes" to things is okay. Well, when I say "yes" to this, what is going? Where am I finding that space?

Jim: This is Jim. Another big thing I've noticed, especially in the last two years with COVID, is we're using technology far more than we ever did before. And you know that's a good thing. It helps us connect with our students and everything. But at the same time, it keeps us connected all the time. I know I always feel that pressure of "Oh, some emails just came in." Or, "oh, kids just posted stuff in Google classroom. Should I respond to it?" Or, you know, whatever.

So the students and the parents, and even admin and fellow colleagues, and everyone, can contact me all the time. And so I find that makes it very difficult to turn it off, you know. So I've had to mentally readjust how I thought and actually make it so that "all right, I'm not checking my email. I am not going to look at my phone. I'm not going to look at the computer. I'm not, you know." I have to actively do that. And I feel like that's something that is very easy for all of us to fall into a habit of doing. Of "all right, while I'm constantly checking my emails because then I can respond and take care of this issue right now and don't have to wait for it for later."

And then you get back into school the next day and there's still a thousand more emails for you to check and go through. You're focusing on trying to get your work done 24-7. And I noticed for a while there, I was not doing the right thing and shutting things off and working on myself. You know. So I think that's very important for teacher to remember. And also, more important, is not to feel guilty about turning everything off and not responding to emails right away or being right on top of stuff right away. I think that's a big part of how a lot of teachers are feeling right now, because of our access to technology and how we're constantly connected.

Julie: It's Julie again. I feel like one other thing pops into my head. And I think it's about balance. Because—which is kind of what we've all been saying—one of the most rejuvenating moments for me in the last two years actually came from involving myself inn events at school. I think all of us got into the profession for our students and the relationships we build with our students. I mean, we might be passionate about our subject matter of course, but I said one of the most heartbreaking parts of the pandemic was that all of use got into the profession because we loved our students and we loved the relationships we were building.

Even though planning events this year brought back, you know, more to do than we haven’t done in a year and a half. I was so rejuvenated the night of our homecoming here. It was so much work to plan and I was stressed and, you know, burning the candle at both ends, but that Saturday night I took a step back at the kids laughing. They were dancing. They were having a great time. And I thought, "wow. " Like even though it was so much work and caused stress, that moment like rejuvenated me. Okay. I just felt like, "okay, here we are. This is somewhat normal." And it was nice to see kids outside of the classroom again and doing something that made them happy.

So I... you know, even though we have to balance how often we say "yes" versus how often we say "no," I think teachers also need to remember that it's okay to involve yourself in things at the school too, because I think that's when you really build those relationships with students that can rejuvenate you as well.

Sam: Hi. This is Sam. I was going to say, like, you need those moments too to avoid the teacher burnout, that you remember why you did it in the first place. And you have to find those moments that you can celebrate, no matter how big or small they are. That you remember, "oh yeah, this is why I became a teacher, right here."

And actually, one of the teachers that I work with, she has a notebook where she writes down those, like, moments and saves, like, cards and stuff from her kids, where she's like, "this was one of those moments that reminds me of why, so when teaching gets really hard, I go through that. And I read those moments and I read those cards again to remember why I chose to be in this profession."

Ken: Thanks everybody. Super inspiring stuff.

The next thing I wanted to ask about is specifically about teachers supporting each other. What can folds do for their colleagues in schools to build that support out and help each other in those times when folks might feel like they need that rejuvenation and they need that positive focus?

Sam: Hi. This is Sam. I think one of the things that we need to remember is that toxic positivity is also a thing. And we can't pretend that everything's great and wonderful all the time and just put on a happy face. Some days, things are just hard. And you need to get it out of your system. I tell my student teacher all the time, just find a group of colleagues/co-workers, your grade level , a different grade level, whatever you need. Somebody that you can click with in a positive way. That when things are really hard, you can just go to them and you can say, "this is horrible. And I'm frustrated. And I'm annoyed. And I'm angry." And get it out of your system and move through it. Don't stay in that negative place. Get it out. Move beyond it.

Because we can't pretend that everything is perfect all the time. We can't just say, "we love this. This is why we're here. Everything's great." Because sometimes the negative just eats away at you and you have to get it out. So I think that's the biggest thing, is finding a group of people that you—or even one person—that you can go to. That you can vent your frustrations. You can get them out of your system and vice versa. They can come to you, can listen. And sometimes that's all we need even as humans, not just teachers. Sometimes you just need someone to listen to you. And they don't need to really respond. They don't need to give you advice. You just need a listening ear and then you can move beyond the frustration.

Julie: Yes, I love that. And I think just like [unclear]—this is Julie again, I'm sorry. Even with our own rejuvenation, kind of the same theme I have is sometimes the small gestures really go a long way. I remember when a few years ago, I used to think if I want to thank somebody for covering a class or making copies for me or doing something, you know, in the building for me, I felt like I always needed to pay them back with, you know, buying them coffee or, you know, picking up a small gift card. And I started noticing, that you know, sometimes it's…people just way a quick note, or they love a quick note. So I actually made a goal of myself this year, I bought a stack of just blank Thank You cards, and I've been trying—once, or twice, or sometimes three times a month—to just leave them in the mailboxes of people that just do something little. I've had a few people, already, say, "I didn't even realize that what I did was that big of a deal." But just, if they do little things, and sometimes just that small quick gesture or like a pop-in, "Hey, you need a bathroom break? I can cover for you for a few minutes." So that a teacher can kind of take a breather and reset themselves, all just kind of goes a long way.

Shawna: Hey, this is Shawna. I couldn't agree more Julie. It's those little things. And I think that the theme behind that is empathy and understanding that everybody has something going on in their life that they're dealing with in some capacity. And we need to take a moment to meet our colleagues where they are, you know.

Sometimes we, you know, we're all different. And just like we differentiate our instruction for our students, we also have to differentiate the way we deal with and work with each other as colleagues. And so I think taking that time to get to know our colleagues. And, you know, you don't have to dig into their personal life.

But just taking a moment, you know, if something doesn't go well or someone doesn't react well to something. Instead of passing judgment on others, taking that moment to think, "Well, I wonder what's going on that caused them to maybe react that way or that's causing them to feel this way?" And just saying, "Hey, I'm here if you need anything," can go a very long way  with people to feel like they're not alone. And just that there is someone. That even if you don't know exactly what's going on with them, there's someone that's willing to listen or that is just coming from a place of understanding, in a place of empathy.

Lynne: Hi. This is Lynne. I agree with everything that everyone is saying here. But I believe that sometimes we'll ask our colleagues, "Hey. How are you doing?" And they will just simply say, "I'm good. I'm fine." And you can see their body language. You know they're tired. You know they're exhausted. And we don't want to just let them walk away with that. We want to follow back up. You know, pick up the phone if you have your colleague's phone number. Call them and say, "Hey.  I just wanted to check in with you." Constantly rechecking in and making sure. Because it's so easy for us to say, "yeah. We're fine." And we're really not.

So we have to make sure we just go back and check in. And make sure we give them another opportunity to really let us know. To really vent. To tell us what's going on with them. You know? Not give up on each other. Be there for each other Have empathy with what's going on. And know, like you said, people are always going through something. We might they might not be comfortable with telling us right away in that moment in the hallway, but if you pick up the phone and you talk to them later, they might be able to reveal to you. And you might be able to say, "well, you know, maybe we should go get a cup of coffee?"

Meet with your colleagues outside of school. Because you're in the school, you know you have to go right into class. You're not going to reveal all that's going on. Take time to meet each other outside of school. Get coffee together, breakfast or whatever. Or go do something fun. You know, where's the fun in school? We have to go do things and  have the time to make our own fun. And reach out to each other to rejuvenate each other. To bring back fun energy, like when Julie was saying she was with her kids at homecoming and they were having a great time. She fed off of that. Wo we need to get out of school and go do things that are fun so that we can rejuvenate ourselves.

Jim: Yeah. This is Jim. I agree, wholeheartedly, with what Lynne was just saying. I know, just this last Friday actually, a few of us from my Science Department said, "Hey, let's quickly get together and just hang out after school one day. Or on Friday and just go get a couple drinks." Or whatever.

We went out to a place, and we're sitting there. And it all dawned on us, the last time we did this was, I believe, the day before the pandemic hit. Like, we went, it was the same place and everything. The place we went to, it had just opened. So we had gone there just to check it out.

And then the next week, everything shut down. And we have not been together in that same way since. You know? This was the first time. And just being able to go out and have those conversations outside of school, and just see how they're doing. And have that camaraderie.

And that's something we haven't been able to do very often, because in school, you know, you're still limited to how much time you can hang out with somebody and chatting and all that. So I think that was...I don't know. For me, that that made me feel a lot better or I felt rejuvenated just by doing that. And I totally agree also with, sometimes we need somebody at school that we can trust that we can just use as a sounding board.

Ken: So the next question is really about school communities as a whole. How can district and school leaders support teacher rejuvenation, especially when it comes to teachers from marginalized or under-represented communities in a school?

Lynne: Hi. This is Lynne. We need to respect each other's cultural backgrounds, because culture is relevant in all aspects of who we are and how we respond and how we develop our strategies for emotional well-being. We need to understand that everyone's strategies are different. And having emotional intelligence and well-being can be a lifelong process. What we're all going through different things. And it might be based in who we are culturally, who we are as a person, and how we are dealing with that.

And so to be more responsive to that and more empowering to other people is something that we might need to remember when we're thinking about how to help each other and how to rejuvenate one another. To respect everybody's differences. Bring some teachers together at a table, face-to-face, or maybe a virtual meeting. And ask us, "what do we need?"

When I was in the county superintendent's roundtable meeting, I said, "we need teacher wellness. We used to have in-service days that were dedicated to wellness and it hasn't happened in a really long time. And we really need it now." There was a in service a long time ago where we did—we were allowed to go for a walk in the neighborhood. Feel that sun on our face, like Shawna was talking about. Get out of the building. We were allowed to have a yoga class or get a massage. What else was there? They just had a really nice menu of activities where we didn't have to do professional development, not that it's bad to do professional development, but we're talking about taking a break. We're talking about rejuvenating. And sometimes we need to decompress. And the things that we need might be walking, might be exercising. But what we're asking for or administrators to do is listen to us. To be a part of the conversation. And I know that they want to.

So I think there's a lot of opportunity that we can tap into. If they're listening, thank you for listening to this podcast.

Shawna: Hi. This is Shawna. Yeah. I couldn't agree more, Lynne. You're right. Like, the first step is to listen. And then the second step is to, like, build in that quality time for the teachers to rejuvenate. You know, listening to them is great. And then taking it that next step and carving out the time to giving them the opportunities, you know, to put it as professional development sessions or maybe a bit of a faculty meeting. Or within the school day, maybe there's just, like, a place you can go to the teacher's room. And there's, you know, someone in there to provide, like, an ongoing yoga class . Or someone in to give massages. Or whatever it is.

But I think that it comes—it also is that teachers need to be, not only supported, but encouraged and prodded or reminded to take care of themselves. And I think if they know that they have the administrators at all levels supporting that kind of, you know, work within the schools to focus on teacher rejuvenation, I think it will really go a long way. And they won't feel like they're being selfish in taking care of themselves. If that's…it really is somewhat of a shift in culture, in a way. I think that it's been done, but to really kind of make it a big thing

And so I also think one of the things a lot of teachers are facing right now that administrators can help with is— and I know, like, you know I also wear a hat as a board of education members, so I see it from that side as well. But, you know, teachers are being, you know ,tapped in to not have their preps right now. Or to, "hey, can you cover this during your lunch because there's such a shortage of substitutes?" And, like, the list can go on and on of the shortages that we're having to help these schools function within a daily basis.

And so I think that being able to, as administrators, manage how much you are tapping into them to do those extra things. You know, many of them are not going to say no, even though deep down they want to say no. And they may go to their friend, like Jim, and be like, "Jim. I need to vent for a second. I had to cover." Right?

So I think that it's a deeper process. When you think of rejuvenation, it's also—it's not only how are you giving people time in the space to rejuvenate, but how are you depleting that rejuvenation that we also need to think about both sides of that coin and how can we help to minimize the drain that teachers may be feeling.

Julie: Hi. This is Julie. Yes, I agree. I want to, you know, kind of piggyback on you. Kind of repeat. Everyone's talking about listening. We had a PDF, an afternoon PDF, this Wednesday. And it was supposed to be Part Two of a training that we started in September. And since that training in September, our district put out a survey. And there's always surveys after PD days. And sometimes teachers feel like no one reads them, no one takes them to heart.

At the end of last week, we got notification that they hear us. They see us. That this is a lot. That we feel the pressure. We feel stressed from adding on another new initiative. So they've completely halted the training on this new initiative this Wednesday. And we're going to revisit it later in the school year, maybe even next year. And the building principals basically said that the teachers can use the time on Wednesday to work on whatever they need to work on, whether that's social-emotional growth or stuff in your classroom or collaborating with your PLCs.

And then last night, real quick at like 9:00 at night, our high school principal sent a message that said "Short week. Happy Halloween. Quick treat for all of you. You can wear jeans this, you know, the next three days." And just between that email on Friday about taking the afternoon PD to set ourselves where we want, you want, to do whatever we want to work on, and then the jeans email, I felt like the mood was so light in here this morning in the hallway. And people just seem a little more positive. And I think, you know, some teachers have like an extra pep in their step. And teachers just want to be heard and valued.

Sam: Hi. This is Sam. So I'm not going to repeat the same thing, but yes, please listen to your teachers. But also, like celebrate those small things. Or give those little tokens of thank you. Like, I think it was Julie earlier that said, "you know, when another teacher kind of helps her out makes the copies for her something, she'll slip a little new says thank you." You know, when your teachers do something simple, if you just throw a little thank you out there, celebrate the positive stuff, it does go a long way in kind of boosting everybody's spirit and moral. The jeans day, the unexpectedly amazing, like "who wouldn't love to be able to wear jeans when they can't on a normal basic."

And I think, just like, we are supposed to, or should want to reach out to our students about positive things. And reach out to their families about positive things instead of only reaching out to home when there's a negative issue to be discussed. Come to your teachers and celebrate the positive things that they're doing.


Ken:Listeners, thank you for joining me for this conversation. I'd also like to thank my guests for joining me. And I'd like to thank Elizabeth Thomas for transcribing this episode so that it is accessible for all.

Please join us for our November 16, 8:30 pm third Tuesday #NJEdPartners Twitter chat. I'm excited to talk to all of you about what you do to rejuvenate yourself as the school year moves on.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple Podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts, so that you can get new episodes when they are released. Also, please leave us a review through the Apple Podcast app on your iPhone; it is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

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