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Nathan Miller


Photo of reading at celebrationTeaching in Stride, Chapter One:
Securing My Mask

During my first workshop week as a newly minted teacher, fresh from a mid-year debacle as a reading teacher in an urban middle school, I sat down to look at what a workshop week agenda in suburbia looked like. There was a speaker scheduled, and part of me wondered if speakers brought in for high school teachers were as ludicrous as speakers brought in for high school students. I remember as a student being ushered into the gym to hear a motivational speaker. The man, as inspirational as he may have been to someone willing to hear his message, told some two thousand hormonal, distracted teenagers that he was a winner because he completed a marathon without legs using only his hands. Some two thousand students simply could not relate, and thought to themselves that this man was delusional—he repeatedly proclaimed he won despite finishing hours after everyone else. We in the bleachers couldn’t see beyond the oddity of watching him demonstrate his ability to “jump” on a trampoline to recognize there was a different kind of winning than finishing first.

Would a motivational speaker for teachers be met with such cynicism? Could education professionals possibly be as tough an audience as jaded high school students? Of course. The speaker, flown in from Nebraska, began by apologizing for the stain on her blouse from the coffee she spilled during her flight that morning. The garment itself bore an odd resemblance to a marching band uniform, so she began the morning without much credibility. 

I would like to be able to say she turned out to be an excellent speaker, but she wasn’t. Her humor was awkward and her delivery failed to rally a distracted audience—a gathering of teachers all dwelling on their impending to-do lists. I do, however, have to give her credit for one important accomplishment: over ten years later, I clearly remember the theme of her speech. She took a familiar line from airline safety preflight announcements and turned it into a life lesson for teachers. In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from overhead. Secure your own mask before helping others. It was a nice extrapolation, I thought, to apply the same concept to teachers needing to look after their own health and mental wellbeing before they can tend to that of their students.

While the messenger had her flaws, and in many ways the message itself was a bit hokey, the overriding lesson was (and still is) a vital one. Teachers must take care of themselves.

At the very least, clearly a teacher who is a wreck cannot provide much worthwhile guidance to students. Unless, of course, the lesson is how to be a miserable wreck. In that case, I guess modeling would be appropriate.

The message stuck, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I adhered to it. I made poor decisions regarding diet, sleep, and exercise. My attitude was horribly negative.  How much my health shaped my affect or my affect shaped my health, I can’t say. I can say, however, that both have improved with time. But clearly there’s more to it than that. If every teacher could cure burnout with a little more sleep, better nutrition, and more exercise, we wouldn’t even need to have this conversation. In reality, burnout is a very real phenomenon that is the result of multiple complex influences. 

Part of what this book sets out to explore is how one person, with his own mask not yet adequately secured, went from being ambivalently insecure about his work to confident and content. I made it, or at least am much happier with my current state, and if there’s one thing I have learned over the past decade of teaching—coupled with the response I received to Teaching in Circles—it is that I was not and am not alone in this continual evolution.

Teachers pride themselves on having a commitment to lifelong learning and knowledge as its own just reward, but this goes beyond learning. My journey is based in deep introspection and has led to a transformation in attitude, personal satisfaction, and efficacy. It has come from identifying the opposing forces that pull teachers in opposite directions and offers some ideas about how I have managed—with varying success—to balance those forces that can place conflicting demands on teachers.

Before I get any further, some words of warning. The preceding paragraph is dangerously close to implying I have all the answers and am now prepared to impart the profound wisdom onto you, dear reader—that you will need to follow the same path. 

That’s not going to happen. First of all, I cringe at the thought of being anyone’s exemplar. Call it weak self-confidence, modesty, or a realistic appraisal of the limitations of my skills, but I must declare at this moment that nothing in this book should be interpreted as blowing my own horn when it comes to quality teaching.  In fact, you will find that some of the greatest sources of inspiration in these pages will come from conversations I had with people who figure prominently in my own experiences. From those who first had the impact on me that I strive to have on students of my own, to those colleagues who provide me with personal and professional nourishment through their examples, to the leaders I have encountered who—surprisingly—actually lead. 

Secondly, I am not always happy or content. I don’t think anyone is, and to pass myself off as such would be a gross misrepresentation. I’m also no optimist, even with my efforts to be more positive on a daily basis, so be prepared for a more brutally candid tone than books on teaching I tend to pick up. One thing I can’t stand when reading about education is being talked down to by someone I couldn’t possibly live up to, so if I ever seem to be going out of my way to discredit myself (such as with all these caveats) it is part of a larger effort to avoid that dreaded condescension. 

One more disclaimer. I would love to have each and every reader get to the end, read the final words, and close the book with a sense of definitive transformation, but I offer no money-back guarantee that any such epiphanies will occur. If, however, you do experience a life-changing awakening, feel free to give me all of the credit. 

Where I am right now professionally is a far better place than where I spent the first several years of my career. If I seem to be protesting too much as a precursor to explaining how I got to this point, I guess I’m trying to avoid becoming one of the ineffectual messengers I described at the beginning of this chapter.  With more self-awareness of how I am playing to the audience than my high school motivational speaker, and with an effort to avoid swooping into a hostile room to spout random thoughts before fleeing to wash the coffee stain off my Sgt. Pepper costume, the pages that follow illustrate what one humble teacher had to do in order to survive, thrive, and endure. And yes, I couldn’t start to truly improve until my own mask was secure.