I’ve always thought that educators are some of the luckiest people in the world. No really, just hear me out: Yes, the work is harder than many people understand and so many of them are underpaid, but it’s also one of the most inherently meaningful jobs a person can do.
And that’s no small thing.
Researchers have found that people who see their work as meaningful, or having some special significance, experience lower levels of job stress and higher levels of job satisfaction, motivation, and performance. Finding meaning in our work also protects us against burnout—a serious issue for teachers.
Yet, in all the crazy busyness of managing a classroom and leading schools (this applies to administrators as well!), it’s very easy to forget why you’re doing this job in the first place; the meaning might have slowly leaked out over the years.
But it’s possible to get it back. As you rest and rejuvenate yourself over the winter break (which I hope you ALL are doing), I encourage you to reflect on the meaningful aspects of your work. To help, I suggest writing down your reflections, as scientists have found that journaling about positive experiences can improve our health. Revisiting what you’ve written can also help sustain you during the times of intense pressure and challenges that loom in the new year.
To guide you in this process, I’ve assembled a list of research-based thought-prompts—ideas to get you thinking about how you derive a sense of meaning from your important work. You can use them either on your own or with your colleagues. Administrators might also consider sending these exercises home with teachers over the break to share collectively at the next staff meeting—a great way to promote a positive school culture!
1) Remember why you became a teacher in the first place. Was it to make a difference in children’s lives or society in general? Or maybe because you wanted the variety, the creative outlet, or the daily challenges that teaching offers? Perhaps you were greatly inspired by a teacher and wanted to give other children the same experience.
For some people, teaching is a calling, which researchers believe involves a transcendent summons beyond oneself and a desire to serve humanity. When people feel “called” to do their jobs or if they see that their work has a definite purpose that reflects who they are, the work naturally feels deeply meaningful because it connects them to their personal values.
2) Recall those moments when teaching made you feel ALIVE—as if you were “running on all cylinders.” Meaning can be derived from those times when you are personally immersed and intrinsically motivated by your work. Most likely, this happened because you were expressing your “authentic self”—the matching of your actions to your perception of your true self.
When I was teaching, I experienced these moments with project-based learning. No pedagogical method excited me more than helping students apply their learning through self-created projects. Here was an opportunity for students to develop their creativity and innovation and teamwork skills—things that I highly valued in my work and in myself. (A childhood spent creating haunted houses and elaborate plays with friends had to lead somewhere…)
3) Think of a time when you made a difference in a student’s life. Work becomes meaningful when you believe you have the power and ability to make a difference. Teachers impact students’ lives all the time—sometimes to a greater degree then they realize.
I’ll never forget the note I received from the mother of one of my students who had a serious speech impediment. She thanked me profusely for helping her son to believe in himself and to once again love school. I had no idea the difference I had made in her child’s life, but it deepened my appreciation for the tremendous responsibility that comes with teaching—and hence, enhanced the meaning of my work.
4) Appreciate your colleagues. Our relationships with others often create the most meaning in our lives—both at work and at home—especially if they’re comforting and supportive. Teaching can be very isolating, so it’s a big deal when teachers come together to share their knowledge, accomplish a project, or just to ask, “How’s it going?”
As a new educator, I particularly appreciated the teachers who offered their support and told me that the first year is always the hardest. When I became an administrator, I worked hard to create caring relationships among the staff because of the special significance these relationships held for me as a teacher.
5) Reflect on the contribution you are making to the world. Work becomes meaningful when we feel connected to something larger than ourselves. On those days, when it seems like all your efforts are infinitesimal in their impact, remember that they’re not: When teachers consider how they can make a profound difference in each of their students’ lives (see #3 above), it doesn’t take much to realize how each of these lives adds up to a bigger whole, exerting tremendous influence over the world in which we live.
In my workshops for teachers and administrators, I like to end with a quote from Williams James: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” If I could post this in every classroom in the world, I would—just as a gentle reminder to you and everyone around you how important and meaningful your job is.
Wishing you a very peaceful—and meaningful—winter break.