Little Steps Toward Big Change (and Less Stress)

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

 Those are the words of the late Nelson Mandela, and whenever I hear them, I automatically start imagining the faces of all the students who’ve come through my classroom. It may sound trite, but it’s no less true: These students will be the ones who shape the future of our world. And I can’t wait to see what they can do.

 But for now, it’s on us — the educators — to give young people the tools and confidence they’ll need to drive change at any scale, whether in their own lives or for the whole world. That’s a lot of responsibility for anyone, and a lot of pressure for someone just starting out in education. I know: I’ve been there. And I can admit that the day-to-day challenges of a career education can still be daunting and discouraging even a few years in. But I’ve also learned, firsthand, that a little motivation — with some daily reminders from a friend like Mandela — goes a long way. It also gets easier as you start to see students finding their voice, and making it heard out in the real world — just look at what David Hogg, Emma González, and Jaclyn Corin are doing!

In the meantime, here’s some more practical inspiration I’ve found helpful in getting through the challenges of the day without losing sight of the reason we do this work. 

Find your happy medium.

Struggling to strike a sustainable work-life balance isn’t unique to educators, but I think it’s safe to say it can be a challenge for us, especially when we’re just starting out. This came into sharp focus for me when I had my son, now a one-year-old. Both my work and my family are incredibly important to me. So it was like two worlds colliding. But after four years of teaching, I had the experience to preserve a healthy balance. If you’re a new educator, build your time management skills now. An easy first step is to break up your day into clear blocks of activity. It not only keeps you organized, but at least for me, it also helps silo my various responsibilities so I don’t get overwhelmed throughout the day — an all too familiar feeling for a lot of early educators. 

Always have a plan.

Your actual job alone may be overwhelming enough, but an educator’s job never ends at the classroom door. I can speak from experience. After becoming a chair of the special education department at my school, I’ve had to learn to keep up with departmental duties while balancing the demands of my classroom students. At times, some roles need more attention than others. Toggling back and forth between your duties may seem arduous at first, and obviously frustrating, but with time, it becomes more manageable. Getting to that state of manageability is easier said than done, but it’s doable if you focus on managing your time and planning ahead. Plan every part of your day. Plan for things to go wrong. Plan a backup for your backup. If you can, try to work in a bit of flex time to make space for something that might need extra attention. As educators, one of our key job requirements is preparedness, and honing this skill early will pay off exponentially. 

It’s the little things.

It might seem trivial, but I highly recommend the use of sticky notes to keep yourself on track. Make little notes for yourself to remind you of even the most minute parts of your day. Stick them all around your room. Stick them on your students if you have to! (Don’t actually do this.)  And if sticky notes aren’t your style, you can always use your phone or computer to set reminders for yourself. There’s also the classic simplicity of keeping a notebook to track your schedule. If these don’t fit your style, use whatever method works best for you and keeps you efficient.

Find something that will keep you motivated through it all.

 This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but being an educator can have its ups and its downs. And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. At the end of the day — at the end of the school day — only you know what works for you. For me, it’s Mandela’s quote. Remembering that I’m working with children who‘ll reshape our world, who’ll become the future leaders of our nation, it makes a big difference for me. It reminds me how much my work matters.

 But just like our students, every educator is different. You’ll need to find your own guiding light — whether it’s a grand vision of changing the world or the simple satisfaction of seeing a lesson click with a student for the first time. Whatever inspires you do this work, don’t lose sight of it. And when you inevitably have a tough day — because we all do — take a moment to remind yourself of why you’re pushing through, and it may just get a little easier.

Henry Watson

Henry is a special education teacher at Kenneth Gardner Elementary school in South Carolina. He has been teaching 3rd and 4th grade special education (self-contained – all subjects) for more than four years. This past year, he was honored to be selected as the Teacher of the Year for his school/county. He is a proud member of Teach For America (2014 Alumni) and very active in SCEA (South Carolina Educational Association).