You know that time during the pandemic, when I was working full-time from home and I was outraged by the killing of George Floyd, and I felt called to go back to the classroom to return to fighting for educational equity? Do you remember how I’d been recovering from a major health crisis for almost six years and I felt I had finally arrived at a place of health that would support my return to this work?
Do you remember the first year — the fully virtual year where I sat in an empty classroom zooming with students I had never met in the flesh, students who may or may not have turned on their cameras to let me see their faces? Do you remember how giddy I was, how energized, how I found the work almost easy because I could get it all done within my scheduled work day and still have some space for self-care — for yoga, and walking, and therapy, and all the stuff I need to do to stay well?
And do you remember how even last year when we “returned” to in-person learning and I got to see my students face to face, I was thrilled? how I had enough steam to still maintain my physical and emotional health, probably because we regularly shifted to virtual learning and I could catch my breath and reset my rhythms from time to time? how it wasn’t until the very end of the year that the fatigue caught up with me and I lost my shit over a small unintentional slight on my students’ graduation day?
And do you remember how I committed last summer to being not only a master teacher, but also a reading interventionist, a cooperating teacher for a colleague who needed to student teach, and a fellow in the Michigan Teacher Leader Collaborative (MTLC)? How I wondered if saying yes to all of these responsibilities was was taking on too much or if I would finally find a limit to what I could do?
Yeah, guys, it appears that I have found that limit. I’m starting to see some warning flags.
However, I can’t always tell that I’m at my limit. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I am on my game. I am an experienced teacher, so I see results. My students are learning and the data reflects that fact. I’m open to coaching because I see its impact on my instructional practices. I’m building relationships both in and out of school — relationships that are mutually impactful.
And the need is there! Each year I get asked to do more, to take on more responsibility, as all effective teachers do. And because we see the need — the students who might benefit from our instruction and the gaps that we might fill — we agree to do it. We fit in one more class, sit on one more committee, and assist with one more project. In a school building, everyone is busy, and there is always more to be done, so we take turns adding more to our to-do list.
And in some ways, it’s affirming. We feel needed and valued and appreciated when our leadership approaches us and says, “You are doing such a great job with all the things you are doing, and we want you to do even more!”
We get celebrated for our accomplishments. We get a pay bump. All is good!
But, guys, humans have limitations, and eventually all that piling on of responsibility, all that added weight, begins to drag a person down and their effectiveness begins to flag. They begin to feel fatigue. They make a sharp comment to a student or a colleague. They begin to wonder if they can sustain the rhythms. They begin to look at other opportunities where they might not have to work quite so hard.
Yet the offers to work even harder keep showing up. Right now I have an opportunity to apply to be a senior fellow for the MTLC. I will likely be asked to add another section of students for the reading intervention I do. I’ve already been slated to work on a committee to discuss our school’s improvement plan. And to be honest, I’d love to do it all. I really would. I am sitting in the heart of the work that I have been called to my entire career. This is what I was created for — to see systemic inequities in education, to bring excellent instructional practices to students who have historically not been well-served but who are highly capable nonetheless, to speak into the policies that perpetuate educational inequities, and to work at the school level to make change a reality. This is it, guys. This is my lane.
And if I want to stay here, in this lane, and continue to impact individual students, I have to have a boundary that allows me to remain healthy. I have to practice the art of the no,
No, I won’t be applying to be a senior fellow in the MTLC.
No, I won’t be adding another section of the reading intervention.
No, I won’t be writing an article for your publication, volunteering at your fundraiser, or teaching during your summer program.
I have to say no sometimes so that I will be able to continue my yes.
Yes, I will still teach seniors at Detroit Leadership Academy.
Yes, I will stay on the Cougars to College/Post-Secondary Plans team.
Yes, I will continue to do one section each semester of the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Intervention.
Yes, I will continue to sit on the leadership team, support the overall success of this school, and participate in visioning and implementing practices that work to eliminate systemic inequities that disadvantage students of color.
The yesses are so important that I have to practice the art of the no. I have to guard my time, my space, my influence so that it has the most sustainable impact in the lane that is most important to me.
I have to practice the art of the no, so that I can say yes to myself, even though that is contrary to much of what I was taught. I need to oxygenate myself first — through yoga, and writing, and reading, and rest, and play — so that I have the health and the energy to say yes to the people that I love — my husband, my children, my grandchildren, my parents, and my friends — and to those that I serve — my students and my colleagues.
This is a learned practice, my friends. I have learned (and am still learning) how to say no because I once too often said yes, sure, of course, I can do that. And I piled on responsibility after responsibility while fully denying the needs of myself, my family, and my friends. I paid a high price with my health and my relationships. And I’m not willing to do that again.
We are not called to be all things to all people. We are called to use our gifts as part of the body, part of the system, part of a mechanism that utilizes the strengths of each individual to benefit the whole. We are called to support one another, and to encourage one another to take rest and to stay well, and to celebrate each of those individual strengths.
My strength, my husband playfully said last week, is “an insufferable belief in restoration”.
I believe in restoration because I am very noticeably being restored — physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. I don’t take that for granted, and I won’t throw it away. I will practice the art of the no, so that I can carry my “insufferable belief in restoration” into a few little spaces who need someone like me.
What more can a girl hope for?
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.”2Cor 12:9