I'm A Survivor!
If you are an urban teacher, then I’m sure you know that sometimes our work can be quite challenging. Closing the achievement gap is not an easy task. Unfortunately, we can run into a point in the school year where we as educators go into something I call survival mode.
What is survival mode, you ask? You may be thinking ‘it’s not like I work in a warzone, so what do you mean’? Yea, you may or may not be working in a warzone, but survival mode is when you have to put you first in order to survive the current situation at hand, which happens to be working at a school. A crazy, super dysfunctional school.
There are some clear signs that you are currently fighting your way through survival mode; it starts when you first wake up. Are you feeling dread when you have to wake up for work, like sitting in your bed constantly hitting snooze with a straight up attitude? Are you talking yourself into not calling out sick? That may be a sign that you are in survival mode. Everybody has that moment when we don’t want to go to work, but if it’s an everyday thing and the thought of pulling into your job’s parking lot makes you feel dread, that is a clear sign.
Another sign of being in survival mode is feeling like you aren’t really teaching. Yes you spend hours planning your lesson (or not, because you have stopped writing plans because nobody checks them) but basically your day consists of just managing behaviors all day and dealing with behaviors all day because you most likely have no support so you must hold it down, all day long. Which brings me to another clear sign of being in survival mode; lack of support. You get no support from your school “leaders” so it’s basically you and your colleagues holding it down, trying to make it through the day, hoping the copier is working, that there is actually paper to put it in, and that you don’t break a nail breaking up a fight or get a surprise formal observation from your principal.
So how do you survive when you are in survival mode, you may ask? How do you make it until June whenever?
1. Have an exit plan that you do not wait until June whenever to get started on. Once you have accepted that working in a place like this is not good for you, your career or your health it is time to admit that you deserve to work somewhere that you enjoy working at. You have to put YOU first. You aren’t giving up on urban education or your students, you just know that you need to work somewhere you are supported and can be the best teachers to other students at another school. You must determine what your dream job is, and then go deeper and think about what your dream school is. And know that the next school you interview at, you will be interviewing them as well. Because the worst thing to do is go from one crazy to another crazy and be in survival mode all over again.
2. Use your current job to help you get ready for your next job. Once have determined what your dream job is and what your dream school is. Now its time to ask yourself: Are you qualified to work there? Take a look at your resume, have you highlighted all of the leadership experience that you have gained from your school? Have you even stepped up and be a leader at your school? No?! Well, go ahead and start using your current job to give you the experiences that you need. If that is not possible, make your own experiences. My school had no professional development whatsoever, and I knew I wanted experience leading professional development. So what did I do? I planned a PD and told my fellow teachers that I’d be doing a guided reading PD after school on Thursday and whoever was interested should come. And last but not least, there will be pizza! So you know what happened, I had 15 teachers show up to my PD, and it was great. Little did they know that the PD was the same PD that I presented when I interviewed for my next job. I’ve also volunteered to lead various family nights at my school and took on leadership roles because I knew that I had to in order to prepare me for my next job. If there was an opportunity to go to an off-site PD, I took it. Professional learning and networking on your dime, yes thank you I will be going. Use this time you are at your crazy job to build up your resume for you next non-crazy job. That is how you begin to survive in survival mode.
3. CYA (Cover your ass). When you truly work in a chaotic environment and are fighting for your life, you must always cover yourself. Why you ask, I’m not doing anything wrong? That doesn’t matter when you are in survival mode; that means others are in it too. And that’s when the blame game and throwing people under the bus begins. This means after meetings, you send follow-up emails to review what was discussed. That means you document everything. I was in a position where I was always asked to do things that were beyond my position and expected to do those things in addition to my position and do both well. So what did I do? I made a tracker on excel to document every single time I was asked to do those things and how that aligned with one of my school’s core values. Why, because I am covering myself. Often when you are in true survival mode, your administrators are as well. And because they don’t want to be on that chopping block, they point fingers at others; the teachers, the coaches, the VP, the parents, and the kids. All you need to worry about is you in survival mode. Ensure you are doing everything that is in your job description to the best of your abilities and documenting the extra things you are doing. This will give you a sense of empowerment and strength that no one can take away from you.
4. Always maintain professionalism. The last thing you must do to survive in survival mode is to stay professional at all times. Don’t fall into the trap of ‘I ain't doing lesson plans, get on the computer class.” Don’t sit and complain to all of your co-workers at work and then again at happy hour. If you must vent, vent to one trusted person. Better yet, get a journal and do it in there. Do it for about 5 minutes and then move on. Focus on your next job. Focus on fine-tuning your resume, focus on reaching out to your contacts, focus on ending the year strong. Focus on being professional. I know in my city, the education community is huge but small at the same time. One thing that I will always pride myself in is always remaining professional. When you are truly in survival mode, somebody will try you and take you “there,” and you know what “there” is. Don’t let that happen. And if you have to kind of go there, always do it professionally. Because although you may work in craziness, you are not crazy and you are one step ahead of them. So smile, wear your dress slacks and blazers and stay professional. When you hear people going on complaining fest in the teacher’s lounge, take your lunch and bounce. No point in discussing what we already know, especially if no one is going to do a damn thing about it.
In closing, everyone deals with challenging times in their own way. This was mine. I have been in survival mode several times in my over a decade-long career, more times than I wish. Some people will stay there and let that be their norm. Don’t let that be you. You can have a job that keeps you happy and keeps you sane. You do not have to be in survival mode forever, just follow the steps that I laid out and make your move. You can do it!