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Focusing

"Long nights" and "Dark(er) Novembers" aren't limited to classroom educators. Everyone, from principals to custodians and apparently program directors, are prone to some kind of school-year slump too. I know the work we're doing is critical, but I just get so tired sometimes. Students aren't showing significant improvements yet. Teachers are getting bummed out. Morale is low and sometimes it's hard to see the difference my 14-hours of work each day makes.

That's why it was so heartening to speak two weeks ago to an accepted 2008 Teach For America-Rio Grande Valley corps member. I got "Meredith's" phone call in the middle of a long and draining meeting, but I crept out of the conference room to take her call. Her excitement is infectious. She is preparing to graduate college in the spring and is brimming with enthusiasm about her big move to south Texas as a first-year teacher. She knows it will be challenging, but is driven by her desire to help close the achievement gap in the country. She's idealistic, but is tough, motivated and smart. Before we finished our conversation on the phone, she asked me what my one piece of advice would be for new teachers. I took a deep breath and without hesitating, told her, "Perspective." It sounds trite, I said, but it's true. The hardest thing I and my colleagues found as teachers and now as a program director is maintaining our perspective and keeping our eyes on the prize. I suppose that has to do with any job we ever take, though.

I'm hearing from first-year teachers now, I told her, that without having done it, it's hard to understand what it means to stay up late preparing lessons, to get booed by a group of 15-year-olds, to take responsibility for their lousy grades... It's easy to get lost in the day-to-day struggles and forget the greater purpose of what you're working for. So the most important thing is to step back daily, laugh at the mishaps, keep trying harder, take joy in the big and small victories, remember all the reasons bigger than yourself that are driving you to teach for America.

I finally ended my monologue on my "greatest piece of advice for teachers." I paused. And said, "Thank you Meredith, it's been really inspiring to talk to you. Thank you for re-motivating me too." But what I really should have said was that my second greatest piece of advice is to remind others often on how to keep that perspective.

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