I want to write about dealing with discouragement as an educator. I feel this common challenge for those working in the field, and a subject worthy of reflection and discussion.
However, I will begin with a caveat. I do not have some great insight into dealing with discouragement. This is not a plug for my upcoming book, 10 Easy Ways to Avoid Burnout As An Educator. It is common at McPherson Square to have seven year olds that cannot spell their name. This eats at my soul. I have worked with third graders that failed their first state required exam and were forced to repeat third grade. It is often traumatic for the child. I’m doing what I can, but what I can feels very minuscule. It is a discouraging situation, and I don’t have some great response.
Nevertheless, there is value to be had in exploring the difficult topics. Maker Jawn is a program in North Philadelphia. North Philadelphia is in the midst of an opioid epidemic with that comes a wave of poverty, violence, and chaos. The children that walk through the doors of Maker Jawn have been overexposed to adult problems. Many of these children are hurting and face tremendous obstacles to having a healthy childhood. No after-school program is going to change this. How to maintain hope in a bleak situation will be an important discussion until we stop having bleak situations.
So, here are my thoughts.
I. Laughter helps.
I know. I know. Not a particularly insightful comment, but true nonetheless and the low hanging fruit is still fruit. Kids are funny. It helps to pay attention and laugh when you can. We had a teenager at McPherson learn a new word, wenis, and wield this new knowledge as a license to be naughty. Honestly, it still makes me chuckle. Knowledge is power, and somewhere Lenny Bruce is smiling.
There may be no perk better than working with children. Kids are great. It helps me to remind myself of this.
II. Remember that you are not alone.
There have been times recently were are program went long periods without a staff meeting. It was also the case that we didn’t have enough staff to have multiple mentors at a single location. So, each mentor went to our site and worked in relative isolation. That was a very difficult time for me. Community is important, and sharing each other’s successes and struggles makes life better.
Again. I’m not saying anything novel. But my mood often tracks whether we had a check-in period during the week or not. When the good-hearted but trouble teenager drops out of school, I need to share about that. Otherwise, it becomes a burden that gnaws at my subconscious. Maybe that is unique to my personality, but I don’t think so.
III. Enjoy the successes.
I wrote about my struggle to provide educational content in my last post. That was a particularly difficult time for me in this program. I care deeply about these kids, and I worry about their futures. So, it’s hard for me not to view substandard content as a personal failing. I ran out of new ideas, and it was discouraging.
But with patience and persistence, ideas have a way of finding minds. In January, I stumbled upon the idea of built from scratch electric motors. This lesson was a surprise hit. We had at least six fully functioning motors built over the course of several days. Plus, this lesson falls nicely in an intellectual progression from homemade flashlights to homemade headphones.
It was a project that truly lifted my spirits. It didn’t have to happen that way. Kids can be fickle. A project that enthralls them one day will bore them the next. But during those several days of January, the children of McPherson Square were actively working on some intermediate electronics. I’m taking the victory.
IV. Find meaning where you can.
My hope with this post is simply to address a problem that I feel is common and serious. Burnout is common both in the field of education and the nonprofit industry. While I may have no new insight, I still feel that engaging tough topics is intrinsically valuable, and doing work that I feel is valuable helps me get up and do it again tomorrow.