Back to School – The Journey Begins
August 20, 2018
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Mark Wittman

The first day of school is quickly approaching for students around the country. Stores are stocked with back to school supplies and there are mixed emotions around the words “Back to School.” These three words can stir a range of emotions depending on who is hearing them. Some parents may hear these words and experience excitement at the thought of their children spending their day at the schoolhouse, while other parents may face anxiety at the thought of getting all the school supplies and completing the necessary paperwork to ensure that their child is ready for the first day of school. Some student may dread these three words because it means the end of days filled with freedom, while others may get excited because it means structure and routines. Some teachers may hear these words and experience dread, while other teachers will experience excitement and joy at returning to their classroom. It is my hope and prayer that as you read this “Back to School” article that your journey will be one of growth and prosperity.

As the final weekend of “summer break” ended I began receiving texts from friends, coworkers and family asking if I was ready to go back to school. Each text carried its own tone and curiosity about whether I was ready or not. I responded to each of them, but the ones that concerned me the most were those coming from fellow teachers, and my heart broke for those that appeared to be dreading the return to work. I will be totally honest and transparent: Last year was a tough year for educators in my district, but I was saddened by how many appeared to be dreading “back to school.” I probed and questioned my colleges trying to assist them in finding some joy for the upcoming school year. One of my colleges said, ”How can you be so positive; after all, we work for the same district?” This question caused me to ponder how could I be so positive? As a result of this pondering over the past couple of days I have come to this conclusion that I can remain positive because I have learned to fan the flame of my educational passion, to not allow complacency, and to accept/embrace my purpose.

Fanning the flame of educational passion means to take care of myself both mentally and physical. There has to be mental care that is utilized to fan the flame.  To truly take care of your mental state requires letting go of trying to control everything and living in the moment.  This is easier said than done, since most of us are Type A and went into education because it provided us with a sense of control. However, this very controlling nature not only robs us of the joy that comes from being in the moment, but it can be crippling to those we are trying to control. Simply letting go and being present and engaged with opportunities helps to stir the passion within us. Also watching out for the ego, as it likes to cause drama that in turn will dim the flame of passion. Drama is just that, drama. It seldom leads to anything productive and it is governed my perceptions. To fan the flame and live with passion means we have to keep the ego in check and once again be in the moment. Now I’m not saying abandon responsibilities, but I am saying to practice actively listening and process information before responding. It is important to mentally embrace the passion with realistic goals and find other passionate educators to connect with so that you can assist in fanning one another’s flame.

Fanning the mental flame is imperative, but to keep the passions burning brightly requires fueling yourself physically with a balanced diet and exercise as well. A year ago my “physical flame” was being snuffed out. I was 70 plus pounds overweight, trying crash diets and getting nowhere.  I was tired and cranky all the time. I returned to school in the fall of 2017 passionate for my students but unhappy and frustrated with the image I saw in the mirror. I decided to do something about it and joined a local fitness studio and added a realistic diet to my life. I practiced perseverance and over a one year period lost 62 pounds. I found that through investing 55 minutes a few times a week I was able to see incremental improvements physically and emotionally. By fanning the physical flame I now have the zeal and energy for the upcoming year which is foundational for keeping the educational passion within me alive.

So fanning the flame is important, but equally as important is not becoming complacent. Complacency wastes potential and destroys opportunities.  Many educators have allowed themselves to become complacent. This complacency is robbing our students of the education they deserve and has gone on for far too long. We must connect with our students and families.  We must allow them to see us preserve and create spaces where it is safe to “not know.”  Communication is crucial and requires passionate teachers/leaders to stand up and be the voice of the children.

It’s also important to note that in order to not become complacent you have to allow yourself to feel, but always remember that feelings can be fickle.  So as you allow yourself to feel, guard your educational heart and continue to fan the flame. Keep students first in all that you do. For too long we have allowed complacency to enter into our schoolhouses and communities. It’s time that we set our passion for student success free and let it consume our communities and world.   Let’s use the lens of a growth mindset to bring about change within our students and ourselves. Let us teach with integrity, knowing that the academic curriculum is just as important as the social curriculum.

The final back to school advice/wisdom would be encourage you to live with purpose. Knowing that my purpose is to be an educational vessel allows me to live with passion. I can cheerfully invest mentally, physically and financially in this purpose. It brings me joy to be around other educators and actively listen to their ideas and hear stories from their experiences. I know that it’s not always going to be easy, but knowing my purpose allows me to invest all that I have.  I want to encourage you to invest all, keeping in mind that ‘some’ is the enemy to ‘all.’  I have experienced that when I hold back some I’m not nearly as productive or fulfilled. To truly live with purpose we have to invest all.

In closing, it is my hope that the next time you hear “Back to School” you will be reminded of your passion that is burning brightly because you have been fanning the flame. You will be overcome with zeal, and complacency will not have a foothold. In hearing these words, you will remember your purpose and give all you have to living the life you have been called to live.

Questions to ponder:

How do you feel when you hear the words “Back to School”?

What are you doing to fan the flame of passion mentally and physically?

How do you prepare to go back to school?

Mark Wittman has taught Kindergarten/1st Grade for the past 22 years. He currently teaches Kindergarten at Riverwood Elementary School in Shelby County. He is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher and passionate about student success. He is a leader amongst his peers serving as a District Learning Day Fellow and a Teacher Leader implementing an Alternative Growth Measure for Kindergarten teachers. Mark has served as a Tennessee Core Coach and is currently a Facilitator presenting on the Revised Tennessee Academic Standards. He holds a Master’s Degree from The University of Memphis in Leadership and Policy Studies. Mark received his Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education with a Concentration in Early Childhood from Emporia State University. He also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging his colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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