“My teacher is a superhero.”
“I teach. What’s your superpower?”
“Teachers are just superheroes in disguise.”
If you’ve spent any amount of time in the classroom, there’s a good chance you’ve heard one of these sayings. You might have even been gifted one on a coffee mug.
Teaching is a noble profession. Maybe the noblest. For many of us in the classroom, it’s more than a career–it’s a calling. It’s an identity. It’s a way of life.
But there are times when teachers need to learn to put down their cape and put on a parachute instead. The back-to-school moment in the midst of the uncontrolled COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first time I’ve had this thought. I’m also sure it won’t be the last.
Here’s how to make sure that you have your own back as an educator:
If You Are Staying In The Profession
If I wasn’t writing this in the middle of a pandemic where some schools are playing Russian Roulette with health and safety, the first two items on this list would look dramatically different. While I hope to never teach through another pandemic, I can say after coming of age as a student and again as a teacher during the school shooting years, there will always be something plaguing education.
Still, I hope you stay. I hope I’ll stay. I hope we can weather the storms together.
Don’t make yourself into a martyr.
Self, are you taking notes?
I lived and breathed teaching for far too long. It is still a huge part of my life, but I acknowledge that it is not my entire life. However, that is not what we are taught. That is not how we are trained. Teachers sacrifice everything for education, and that has to stop. You have value because you foster growth, cultivate young minds, and love the heck out of future generations. There’s no bonus round of value for compromising your relationship, putting other kids before your own, burning out physically and mentally, or even sacrificing yourself. Teaching is enough. It is more than enough.
Look into life insurance, estate planning, and other benefits.
Even if we’re not in the midst of a pandemic, life insurance and estate planning are important. You also want to check on other benefits your district offers. Everything from health insurance and dental insurance to FSAs and HSAs are worth investigating. Reach out to your benefits office or fellow coworkers if you have questions. You can also ask other friends, but benefits from district to district vary so much, it’s a bit like comparing apples to astronauts.
Even if you think you’re well versed in benefits, you might be surprised. For example, our district has offered telemedicine for several years now. However, they just added the option for virtual visits with therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists for a $20-$40 copay. Amazing, right?
Start saving (more).
No matter where you are on your debt payoff or financial freedom journey, now is the time to ramp up your savings. Even if it’s just contributing $50 more to your 403b each paycheck or each month.
Now that I’ve taught long enough (and taken enough graduate classes — how many Master’s degrees does one person really need?!), I doubled my salary. That means I have a lot more wiggle room in my budget than ever before. So a year ago, I started a game where every time something work-related made me reconsider teaching, I upped my 403b contribution by $25.
Note: This game won’t work in a pandemic because you would hit the contribution limit and/or run out of money in about a day. But the idea is there!
Don’t go it alone.
I don’t know if I’m an extrovert or an introvert. I don’t know my Myers-Briggs letters. I do know I’m a Taurus. And I also know that it is nearly impossible to get through teaching on your own.
I’ve worked in two very different buildings. In one place, people shut their classroom doors and did their thing. In the other place, people collaborated constantly. No matter what your physical community looks like, you can also reach other communities of educators on social media.
Also, if I can borrow a phrase from my grandma, keep your options open. (Full disclosure — She used to tell me this whenever I had a boyfriend she didn’t care for, but I think it works here just as well.) By staying connected to other educators, you will also connect yourself to other opportunities. Not everyone has to spend ten years in the same school.
Teaching can be demoralizing. Whether it’s something specific to your building or something systemic, something that goes wrong can feel like a sucker punch. Some years, they just don’t quit.
Instead of giving in to your instinct to retreat, keep pushing forward. Show up for yourself and for your students. Remember why you started this profession in the first place. Don’t forget to reach out for support along the way. Other educators will always have your back.
If You Are Exploring Other Options
Whether your family is growing or you need to care for a loved one (or yourself), FMLA is just one type of leave teachers might find themselves exploring. If you’re in the middle of a pandemic, you might be eligible for a special leave, like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. In addition to a leave, teachers might choose to terminate their contract to work in another district. You might even find yourself looking to make a career change.
No matter which option seems like it might be right for you, there are ways you can support yourself during the process.
Know your contract and know your leave options.
No one should move too quickly here, but if you do decide that you need to take a leave or want to terminate your contract, make sure you are clear on what that means. Not only do you want to figure out the different leave options that you are entitled to. You also need to sort out pay, retirement benefits (403b, pension, etc.), and health insurance. Different leaves impact these things in different ways.
Most importantly, if you are taking a leave and not terminating your contract, you want to make sure that your actions on your leave don’t violate your contract. Read the fine print. Ask questions. Ask your district office, ask your union, ask fellow teachers who have taken leaves. You might even have access to a lawyer through your union.
Remember your value.
The sharks sense blood in the water. There are MLM groups and shady “educational” sites trying to pilfer the workforce. You have a degree. You likely have multiple degrees. Make sure the work you seek out aligns with what you want to do next.
Of course, in moments of desperation, any money seems better than no money. If you do find yourself teaching for $10-$15 an hour, remember that it doesn’t have to be forever. You can pursue other options and earn a higher income. Just remember there’s a fine line between being given an opportunity and being exploited.
Pull different levers.
For some people, this might mean side hustling. For others, it might mean looking to scale back your spending. Take a hard look at your financial situation and see how you can most effectively get to work. In the short term, it might be easier to cut expenses and build a better budget. Then, in the long run, you can grow your income again.
Spend your savings if you need to.
This was the hardest part of my unpaid maternity leave. I felt so guilty and defeated at the thought of spending my savings. Honestly? There’s no time more important to spend your savings than when you have a chance to support yourself and your family. Savings is meant to be spent — don’t forget that.
Keep connected to a community.
Change is lonely. Trying times can be isolating. No matter what you are transitioning to–whether it’s a temporary break or a total career change–stay connected to someone. That might mean staying in touch with coworkers. It might also mean looking to different support networks online. During the March for Our Lives protests and again during the COVID-19 pandemic, so many Facebook groups popped up full of teachers supporting other teachers. Whether you were wrestling with how to return to your classroom or what next steps might look like, there’s support to be found in person or online. You also have the added bonus of some informal networking.
Final Thoughts on Putting On Your Parachute
I’m not sure if there’s a harder lesson to learn as a teacher than how to take care of yourself. I’m not talking about bubble baths or chocolate, either. Taking care of yourself means having your own back, and it’s counter intuitive to the workings of our profession. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a lesson worth learning. In fact, it’s important to learn it as quickly as you can…to avoid learning it the hard way.
Teachers, make sure you take time to put on your parachute. Your cape will still be there.