Climbing Out of My Rut

During episode 68 of The PE Umbrella podcast, Sarah mentioned how she experienced a teaching rut during the fall. After listening to the podcast, Naomi messaged Sarah and said that teacher burnout was a topic she had been wanting to write about for a while. Naomi suggested writing a joint blog post about teacher burnout. When Naomi and Sarah mentioned their idea to the rest of the team, everyone quickly admitted that they were either currently experiencing teacher burnout, had recently gotten over it, or struggled with it in the past. As a group, we have been wanting to write about more serious topics within teaching and we think this is a great place to start. During the next month, you will read each of our stories about teacher burnout. Sarah continues the series with a post about being in a teaching rut.

Last fall, something was different. Teaching was really hard. I just couldn’t find my stride. I had a really difficult time creating planned, progressive lessons, and I couldn’t figure out how to prioritize what I wanted my students to know, understand, or be able to do. I was tired and had a tough time remembering basic tasks. It seemed like my students were often annoyed by my instruction, even when I was just letting them know who their teammates were for the day. I asked myself questions similar to these every day:

  • Why am I having so much trouble getting and maintaining my students’ attention?
  • Why have I not created more assessments this year?
  • Why does it seem like my students last year knew so much more stuff than my students this year?
  • What am I going to do today?
  • What the heck is wrong with my teaching?!

I didn’t know the answers. So I started asking my #PhysEd friends, Naomi, Betsey Caldwell, and Mel Hamada for help, desperately hoping for solutions to fix all my problems. They gave me great advice, but no quick fixes. I had no idea what my problem was, but I knew teaching was more difficult than it had ever been before. I was exhausted, stagnant, and bored. I had become a #PhysEd procrastinator.

At school, when I’m not teaching my students, planning lessons, getting equipment ready, writing emails, or making photocopies, I serve as my department’s subject manager and a district professional development committee representative. I create agendas for two department meetings per week and one longer monthly department meeting. I oversee my department’s budget, and attend monthly subject manager and building leadership meetings. I visit classes from a variety of subject areas to make note of my colleagues’ strengths, help plan and facilitate professional learning for my colleagues, and visit an 8th grade social studies class twice per week. When I’m home, I’m the mother of two active boys and I’m a wife. After my boys go to bed, I usually spend all of my free time during the evenings working on school stuff, while my husband does the dishes, cleans the kitchen, and makes our lunches. (I’m really lucky.) Like every other educator and parent out there, my plate is FULL. And I usually like it that way.

Prior to this school year, I had never suffered from any “full plate side effects,” but this year I’ve been battling fatigue and memory loss. I’m always tired and I have a very tough time remembering basic tasks. In order to improve my teaching, I knew something had to change. My first solution was to try to improve my work-life balance. I knew I couldn’t cut out any of my work obligations (and I didn’t want to anyway), so I tried spending more time during the evening reading for pleasure, watching television, and eating snacks. Seriously. My (almost always healthy) snacking is such a ritual that my husband refers to it as my “second dinner.” My plan to balance my life by decreasing my workload totally backfired. My teaching didn’t improve and it may have actually gotten worse. I still felt sluggish, confused, and unmotivated most of the time.

For me, my work-life and my home-life is just…my life. Other than going to playgrounds with my children, my favorite thing to do is to teach. Taking time away from work may be an effective solution for some teachers who are suffering from having a full plate, but it isn’t effective for me. I tried it. It didn’t work. Of course I take breaks every once in awhile to watch a Kansas basketball game, check out the latest episode of Top Chef, or eat homemade guacamole, but in order for me to be at the top of my game, I choose to focus on school stuff almost every single evening.

During the fall, my best buddy from Down Under, Andy Hair, and I scheduled a video chat to reconnect. I told him everything that was going on and he said, “Sarah, you’re in a rut.” He continued (and I’m paraphrasing) by saying, “I knew this would happen to someone in our Twitter community. The pressure from social media is just too great.”

Now, I don’t know if I ever feel pressured by the online #PhysEd community to perform at a certain level, but Andy was right about one thing. I was in a rut. I had to figure out why and how to get out of it right away.

After talking to Naomi, Betsey, Mel, and Andy, it was pretty obvious I was really struggling with my classroom management and had to figure out ways to make my classes more fun from the get-go. Andy recommended I start using activities from playmeo, an innovative online platform of experiential group games resources, to give my middle schoolers an exciting reason to be in class. I read Serious Fun: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Leading Remarkably Fun Programs That Make A Difference. The author, Mark Collard, who is also the founder of playmeo, says, “obvious fun is very hard to stand away from. It’s contagious…and invites people to laugh, share, [and] play. If there’s no fun, people find it difficult to engage.”

So, Andy and I created a recipe for improving my classroom structure and incorporating more fun into my program:

  1. Attendance Check-in and Changing
  2. A reason to be there.
  3. Instant Activities or Tickets to Play (What I like to call entrance slips.)
  4. What are we learning today? Why are we learning it?
  5. Lesson/Activity
  6. Closure

Before trying out the recipe, Andy gave me one last piece of key advice. He said, “Remember, students will only master one step at a time, so make this a rolling goal. Start with Step 1. Once it is automatic, then move to Step 2.”

The recipe Andy and I created turned out beautifully, and once I implemented the changes, I started to climb out of my rut. I’m still exhausted most of the time, and I still struggle to remember things (Did I tell you my children are two and four years old?!), but I’m no longer a procrastinator. I’m now back to being Sarah, a physical educator who is able to captivate her students’ attention, create quality assessments and learning opportunities, help her students understand how various concepts connect, and know exactly what she is going to teach each day. Andy helped me determine the source of my problems and gave me the motivation I needed to improve my teaching. Being an educator will always have its challenges, but now I know how to recognize my “full plate side effects,” so I don’t fall back into a rut.

I’m still so, so busy.

I recently read a blog post by Mel, where she discussed how she is experimenting with organizing her to-do lists into four different categories in order to be mindful of how she uses her time. The categories she uses are Essential things she needs to do, things she Should do next, things she Could do next, and WOW, I would love to do that one day! I make a gazillion lists for things I need to accomplish, and I’m trying to categorize my school lists like Mel to keep me more focused. I hope this helps me remember things like I used to.

I still haven’t hit my stride, and I’m not sure if I’m going to this school year, but I do feel like I’m in a much better place.

Sarah Gietschier-Hartman (@GHSaysRockChalk)

5 Comments on “Climbing Out of My Rut

  1. Thank you for the mention Sarah and thank you for allowing me to be a small part of the solution. We are a determined bunch us Physed teachers but sometimes baby steps are necessary to regain control of our emotional self. IF we are not happy then this will reflect onto our students. We need to catch up soon.

  2. The power of social media is overwhelming. It pushes me to get better every day and not be complacent in my pedagogy or knowledge. At the same time, it can be very difficult to keep going ahead full steam 24/7. I commend this series for bringing to light the dark side of pushing yourself to the max!

  3. Sarah, My kids are now 13 and 8, but I tell everyone that my son’s first year of life (kid #2) was the hardest year of my life. That jump from 1 kid to 2 and working full time was so hard. Exhaustion and memory loss were definitely parr for that course. It sounds like you had a similar experience. I am glad you found some solutions for this year. Remember to be forgiving of yourself. I am sure that your “average” is many people’s “excellent.”

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