It’s Okay Not to Be Okay

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Tony Jones, Mahomet, IL  anthonyjones@cpm.org

I am convinced that a majority of the world has no real idea what it is like to be a teacher. After having sat through twelve years (or more) of school, people think they understand what teaching is and what a teacher does. But until you have been on the other side, and stood in front of that classroom, it is impossible to understand the mental and emotional energy teachers pour into the lives of their students every day. Add in this year while teaching in a global pandemic and it is just…crazy.

I have worked office jobs where you have an actual office. In the midst of very trying times, you can muster up the strength to walk into your office, close the door, and take a break from the world. You can avoid anyone and everyone and just “work,” though at times that consists of putting your head down and crying. You can take a deep breath and try to think through things that are grieving you. You can allow the weight of the world to crash over you and just sit in silence for a moment or for a few hours.

As a teacher, you have no office. Your classroom is a public space. You are always “on.” You do not have the luxury of allowing the weight of the world to wash over you or just to sit and ponder. You are in front of people every day, all day long, whether that be students, colleagues, administrators, or even parents. Often, you are in front of very vulnerable and fragile people who look to you for a sense of normalcy, safety, and empathy. People, particularly students and parents, count on you to be there and to be on your game.

Any struggles you may have are magnified and public. And this is precisely why it is hard to admit when you are struggling. You are expected to never have a bad day, to treat every student with the utmost care, and to always have your days planned well ahead of time.

Most of the time you hold it together, at least publicly. You put on a smile and try to go through your days not letting your guard down, not letting others know that you are struggling, not letting anyone know you are not okay. But this is not healthy for anyone.

I once had a colleague who had moved over 1,000 miles from home. Her husband had begun a PhD program, and so she followed him. She was a teacher from a small, homogenous community. Her new job was far from it. It was not an easy adjustment for her.

She had a bright, infectious smile and an incredibly positive attitude. She seemed to love teaching and loved our school community. And then, suddenly, she resigned in the middle of the year. I found out later that she was having a rough time adjusting to everything in her life, with her teaching being the hardest. She had difficult students with many issues. What she had previously done as a teacher rarely worked in this new environment. Cultural diversity and large class sizes were not something she was prepared for.

In a conversation not long after she resigned, she admitted to me that she went home every night and cried.  She was really struggling, but she never felt that she could tell anyone—she never felt safe to admit that she was struggling. She never felt safe to ask for help.

I had another colleague who was a wonderful educator.  He was intelligent, creative, and truly cared about his students.  But he was young and often had a difficult time with his classroom management of 30 middle school students each hour.

He was brave enough in a conversation with his administration to admit that there was a group of boys that he could not seem to reach. They disrupted his class every day and were hurting the education of other students. He had tried everything he could think of. He wanted and needed help from his administration on ideas that could help make a difference. His administrator observed his class for about ten minutes one day, suggested a few things he should do differently, and then proceeded to downgrade him on his evaluation due to this lack of classroom management. By the end of the year, this administrator decided not to renew his contract, citing poor classroom management as the primary reason.

I bring both of these up because it shows both the danger that teachers face when they do not speak up and ask for help, and the danger they face when they do speak up and ask for help. In one case, someone did not feel safe to admit she was not okay, and so she did not get the support she needed to grow professionally. In the other case, when the teacher did admit that he was not okay, he got ineffective advice without the follow-up needed to make real change. And in the end, it was held against him. Teachers can find themselves in an almost impossible situation, a lose-lose scenario.

So, how do we overcome this? What is needed for our educators to thrive more than merely survive? What we desire, and what we NEED, is to realize it is okay to not be okay. Allow me to say that one more time: it is OKAY to not be okay.

Yes, in 2020, none of us are okay.  But, even in a non-pandemic year, teaching is difficult. And we need to realize that it is okay to ask each other for help, to admit when we are struggling, to feel overwhelmed, and to wonder how it is even possible to continue in this profession.

We NEED colleagues who allow us the room not to be okay, who allow us a safe space to admit we are struggling, who walk alongside us in the midst of this struggle and even give us a shoulder to cry on.

We NEED administrators who allow us not to be okay, who offer advice and help when we are struggling, who will not hold our struggles against us but rather be a resource to help, who realize just how difficult it is to be a classroom teacher, and who understand that there is no simple and easy answer to our struggles. We also NEED them to challenge us to be our best while at the same time being a support system to help us get there.

We NEED parents who realize just how difficult teaching is, who extend grace and allow us not always to be perfect, who realize that a teacher who sees 100 or more students each day often can become overwhelmed by all the needs we are trying to meet.

And we NEED a space where we feel safe, where we can shut off the world for a moment, where we can recharge and refresh. That necessitates that we surround ourselves with people who realize this, who support and encourage us, and who help us realize it is okay not to be okay.

Find yourself that space. Seek it out fervently. Perhaps this space is in your Professional Learning Community. Perhaps it is a colleague at your school with whom you can exchange and try new ideas, and support each other when times are rough. Perhaps it is in our CPM Facebook groups where you can find solutions that teachers from other areas of the country have tried. Perhaps your CPM Regional Professional Learning Coordinator can help you connect with another CPM teacher and you can support each other’s growth.

Please know that there are many who recognize how much you do and who feel your pain. CPM is a company with educators who truly understand how hard it can be, because they have been right where you are now. Our staff works every day to create materials and offer support to you in your desire to learn and grow professionally as you serve your student population in the best possible way.

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Algebra Tiles Session

  • Used throughout CPM middle and high school courses
  • Concrete, geometric representation of algebraic concepts.
  • Two-hour virtual session,
  •  Learn how students build their conceptual understanding of simplifying algebraic expressions
  • Solving equations using these tools.  
  • Determining perimeter,
  • Combining like terms,
  • Comparing expressions,
  • Solving equations
  • Use an area model to multiply polynomials,
  • Factor quadratics and other polynomials, and
  • Complete the square.
  • Support the transition from a concrete (manipulative) representation to an abstract model of mathematics..

Foundations for Implementation

This professional learning is designed for teachers as they begin their implementation of CPM. This series contains multiple components and is grounded in multiple active experiences delivered over the first year. This learning experience will encourage teachers to adjust their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs about teaching and learning. Teachers and leaders will gain first-hand experience with CPM with emphasis on what they will be teaching. Throughout this series educators will experience the mathematics, consider instructional practices, and learn about the classroom environment necessary for a successful implementation of CPM curriculum resources.

Page 2 of the Professional Learning Progression (PDF) describes all of the components of this learning event and the additional support available. Teachers new to a course, but have previously attended Foundations for Implementation, can choose to engage in the course Content Modules in the Professional Learning Portal rather than attending the entire series of learning events again.

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Building on Instructional Practice Series

This series contains three different courses, taken in either order. The courses are designed for schools and teachers with a minimum of one year of experience teaching with CPM curriculum materials. Teachers will develop further understanding of strategies and tools for instructional practices and assessment.

Building on Equity

In this course, participants will learn how to include equitable practices in their  classroom and support traditionally underserved students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Participants will reflect on how their math identity and mindsets impact student learning. They will begin working on a plan for implementing Chapter 1 that creates an equitable classroom culture and curate strategies for supporting all students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Follow-up during the school year will support ongoing implementation of equitable classroom practices.

Building on Assessment

In this course, participants will apply assessment research to develop methods to provide feedback to students and to inform equitable assessment decisions. Participants will develop assessment action plans that will encourage continued collaboration within their learning community.

Building on Discourse

This professional learning builds upon the Foundations for Implementation Series by improving teachers’ ability to facilitate meaningful mathematical discourse. This learning experience will encourage participants to adjust their instructional practices in the areas of sharing math authority, developing independent learners, and the creation of equitable classroom environments. Participants will plan for student learning by using teaching practices such as posing purposeful questioning, supporting productive struggle, and facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse. In doing so, participants learn to support students collaboratively engaged with rigorous, team-worthy tasks with all elements of the Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices.