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Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Apr 18, 2021

Deciding what matters: Authentic teaching through setting boundaries

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Deciding what matters: Authentic teaching through setting boundaries

By Angela Watson

At a time when teachers are experiencing increased scrutiny, mistrust, and criticism from so many angles, it can be difficult to have the confidence needed to feel like you’re doing good work and can truly be yourself.

The real you can get quickly buried under an ever-growing pile of expectations that have nothing to do with what you really care about or the reasons you got into this profession in the first place.

So where does confidence as a teacher come from when you’re constantly hearing about everything you’re doing wrong?

How do you know what you should and shouldn’t be focusing on, and discern what’s a good use of your time and what’s not?

And most importantly, how can you be sure you’re showing up as the person your students need you to be?

Answering these questions is a personal, lifelong journey, and I think the answers from my guest today will really get you thinking about how to answer those questions for yourself.

I’m talking with Gerardo Munoz, a teacher of middle and high school social studies in Denver. I was introduced to Gerardo’s work through a podcast he co-hosts with Kevin Adams called “Too Dope Teachers,” and his advocacy for equity and antiracism. We’ve followed one another on Twitter (their handle is @TooDopeTeachers) for a couple of years.

Gerardo eventually joined The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program I created and credits it for helping him stay in the profession and go on to receive recognition as Colorado’s Teacher of the Year for 2021. That’s obviously one of the best possible outcomes I could ever hear about my work, and there’s a lot of mutual respect and admiration between Gerardo and me.

Check out the recap/big ideas here, read the complete edited transcript below, or listen in as he shares the experiences and self-reflection practices that have given him the confidence to teach authentically, and bring out the best parts of his students, as well.

Recap and Big Ideas

  • Pandemic teaching is changing our self-identity and teaching practices. The sudden and rapid changes of the past year have illuminated the unsustainable practices of how we do school. We cannot teach as we’ve always taught, and we’ve all grappled with how to re-examine the amount of time we work and how to center socio-emotional practices.
  • Identity development is central to authentic teaching and learning. When identity development becomes the central feature of learning, it sends the message to students that they matter. It creates a sense of belonging that allows students to thrive. Moreover, when you start identity development with young people, it never stops. They will always look back to this experience with the teacher and the self-discoveries they made, and the process inspires them to live authentically, as well. One helpful mindset to remember is: “Every single young person in this room is exactly who they are supposed to be.” A teacher’s job should be to help students identify their strengths, and gain skills that will amplify who they are.
  • SEL work begins as self-development and identity work for the teacher. Self-doubt and lack of confidence can make it harder for a teacher to see their students as they are. According to Dr Apryl Alexander, social wellness needs to begin with the adults and they need to engage in SEL themselves before they can do the same for their students. Your lens–how you see the world–becomes your practice.
  • When you know what matters to you, intentionality with your time comes naturally. You can use the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek materials as a guide for setting boundaries. This approach works best when you approach it as a process that ebbs and flows, rather than trying to perfect your routines and expecting yourself to work at 100% every moment of every day. Knowing what’s important to you and where you can make the most impact will make it easier to decide what to say no to.

Listen to the audio below, 

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Sponsored by Advancement Courses and 40 Hour Teacher Workweek

ANGELA: So, thank you so much for being here today, Gerardo. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.

GERARDO: Yeah, me too. No, I’m starstruck. It’s amazing to share a space with Angela Watson, like THE Angela Watson. So, it’s also an honor to be here on your show with you.

Well, I’m really glad, because I think you are a great model in the area of authentic teaching. And I really want to dive into what that process has been like for you. One of the things that I think is so incredibly impactful about your work is that you approach teaching through a lens of who you are, and what you believe.

In other words, you recognize that who you are as a person matters just as much, if not more than what you actually do with students in terms of specific tools and strategies. So, I would love for you to share more about this process of personal and professional growth. How has the person that you are with your students changed over the years?

It’s a great question. I think, overall, it’s been a process of learning to trust myself. And that probably goes into some things in my childhood, and some of the traumas I experienced, and just the background that I came from. But also, I didn’t go through a traditional teacher qualification or licensure program. I was raised by a public-school teacher and a youth soccer coach.

But even so, teaching wasn’t really on my radar, even when I finished college. So, I came into work with what was viewed as a naive mindset. So, my whole thing was, Okay, if I’m going to be an effective teacher, if I’m going to be the teacher that these students need, I’ve got to actually find out what they can teach me. And at the time, having started teaching in the late 20th century, as I like to tell my students, I had a lot that I just had to learn.

But also, the norm wasn’t to amplify student voice, let alone, center it at that point. The teacher was still considered to be the center of what happens in a classroom. And I think while the teacher absolutely matters, the role of student voices really changed over the years. And I like to say that I was in at the ground level for that.

So, people looked at me with a little bit of curiosity, and they’re like, that’s what you’re actually asking the students what they think about your teaching. And there’s a lot of distrust where I was working. But I ask them things. I ask them why they chose to enroll in my class. I ask them how they best learn. I ask them when they had felt most supported by or excited about going to school, which was a little bit of a shift for them.

It’s an alternative school for students who really struggled with attendance and all of the attendant issues that came with it. So, I think that’s one thing that hasn’t really changed over almost 22 years of teaching. I still really try to customize the learning experience for my students. And then, it’s a process of me learning. So, I’ve always had this little bit of a complex about not coming in through traditional means. But I think it’s also fueled me in terms of how I can be creative when engaging my students.

That’s such a good point about how student voice has changed over the years, and how much that that was not a normal thing back in the beginning when I started teaching in 1999.

Yeah. Oh, we started the same year!

Oh, did we? So, then you have that same frame of reference as me. It was very much at an authoritarian type of classroom management was really popular, especially since I was teaching in urban areas. And as we know that in those kinds of schools, often, there are preconceived notions about how these kids need a heavy hand, they need strong discipline, they need strict rules.

You mentioned the word distrust of students in your answer, and that shaped my early teaching years, too, because it didn’t feel right to me to emulate what I was seeing. But that’s what all the “good” teachers did.

That’s right. And when it becomes a power issue, when it becomes an authoritarian model, even if it’s a benevolent authoritarian model, it’s still an authoritarian model.

Yes. I had the benefit of being an early childhood major. So, my focus in college was K-3. And I think that early childhood approach — learning through play and those sorts of things, very child-centered way of teaching and learning — that was my background. So, even when I started teaching older kids, I was still grounded in that. And I’m really fortunate that I had a great experience in college. I had just wonderful models for how to ask kids questions, and to bring them into the learning experience. 

How pandemic teaching has changed self-identity and practice

What have you learned about yourself over this past year, in particular, through pandemic teaching? How has that shaped the way you think about education?

So much. First and foremost, I think I’ve learned a lot about myself. I didn’t experience any new challenges. I’ve always had some mental health struggles that I think I discovered way later in life, these were things that it would have been helpful to have a name for them when I was a really frustrated and turbulent teenager.

But having had the privilege to name those things — like depression, like anxiety — those kinds of things framed a lot of what I went through.

I didn’t experience any new challenges, they were just intensified. And so, the mood swings were really, really dramatic. The highs would get really, really high, and the lows would get really, really low. And it impressed upon me the urgency about seeking my own healing process, model, and framework.

I experienced a really profound disruption of my identity. Because so much of what makes me who I am as a teacher is what I do in-person: engaging students, and having quick conversations in the hallway, in the cafeteria, when I’m on lunch duty before and after school.

It’s the stuff like helping sixth graders open their lockers that I stake my identity in, and having that gone was really, really tough. And honestly, I did feel like a first-year teacher again, which was fine when I was 22. But extremely frustrating at age 45, because I had a track record. I’ve been named a distinguished teacher under evaluation system seven years in a row.

And not being able to do those things that I think made me a distinguished teacher was extremely upsetting, and it really disrupted me.

On a systemic level, I’m trying not to face the hard fact that most of what we do in school is simply not sustainable. From the amount of hours that are expected of teachers, the amount of unpaid hours that are asked of so many teachers.

And the types of academic and social-emotional practices that simply don’t meet the needs of most students. And especially, the needs of our most minority and marginalized communities. The meaningless work, the extent to which we try to sanction students’ physical bodies, telling them when they can move, when they can eat, speak, come, drink water, go, it becomes even more meaningless in this pandemic situation.

And we were fully remote until January, and now, we’re doing some hybrid teaching, but the majority of my students are still remote learning. And so, what am I going to do, drive to your house, and make sure that you’re doing your work, and make sure that you’re in front of your camera?

And I think that there are some students, despite the struggles of trying to be engaged, and all that kind of stuff — there are students who are starting to discover, “Yo, I got some power in this, like I can just opt out. And yeah, there might be a phone call home and yeah, there’s that kind of thing. But on a day-to-day basis, nobody is policing me. I can go to the bathroom when I want to. I can go and get a snack when I want to.”

Although it’s really funny, there are students who will still ask permission to go to the restroom. And I’m just like, “Of course, because even if I said no, you could still go. I’m not going to get mad at you.” But it speaks to how they’ve been indoctrinated in this regulatory system. Can I go get a snack? I’m like, “Absolutely. I’m sitting here chomping on a bagel while I teach you.”

But I think the big thing is that there’s a real need for equitable access to things, and these are things I’ve been screaming about for 20 years, largely, in rooms that view it as a box to check: Okay, this was our equity practice, this was our SEO practice. And so, now we did that, now we can do “real school”.

And so, I’ve been talking to anyone who will listen about the importance of identity development, and access because even with learning, being 100% virtual, all of the same systems of inequity are still there. Their zip codes, for example, still determine the type of educational support they receive.

The importance of identity development for ourselves and our students

Say more about the importance of identity development as a central feature of learning and growing. That’s powerful.

I once said this out loud at a staff meeting, and everybody looked at me like I was speaking in a world language that they didn’t know. In my first graduate program, we talked a little bit about how teacher lenses really should be interrogated. Our lens becomes our practice.

I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to understand my identity as the son of a Mexican immigrant with a 6th-grade education, and a white mother, whose family had been in Colorado for four or five generations.

But I think Corky Gonzales‘ insight about identity development really speaks to me. He’s a civil rights leader from the city of Denver, and he said that if an individual walks into a room with a strong sense of who they are and what’s important to them, then that person can survive and thrive in any room that they enter.

And so, having students center on things like, What has your experience been in school? What has your experience been taking a history class? Have you ever thought about where your name comes from? Do you know?

Those are things that I think are so important because you’re implicitly sending the message to students that you matter in this space, and who you are matters in this space.

But also, once you start the process of identity development with adolescents, they don’t ever stop. It’s something that they will always come back to, and think about. I’ve got former students who have PhDs now, who are telling me, “Man, I still think about the identity hands we did in class, and I still think about in hip hop studies, when you made us talk about how great we were and that kind of thing.”

And so, I do think it’s really important because it creates a sense of membership. And when there’s a sense of membership, students can thrive.

Can you tell us about that identity hands activity?

So, I adapted this from the Facing History and Ourselves program, it’s just amazing stuff. They take a big piece of construction paper, put their hand in the middle of it and trace it.

And on the inside of your hand, you draw, or write, or collage the things that others may not know about you, but that are really important to you, the things you care about. Who are your loved ones? Who are your best friends? What do you do in your spare time? What do you think about what not at school? That kind of thing. And then, the outside is how others may perceive you, for better or for worse.

They’re allowed to do it in any way that works. Some students are really comfortable just doing these word collages, and others will draw things.

And then, I also tell them that Jay-Z had a great quote in his book Decoded, where he says that he talks about how his rap lyrics may not make sense to everybody. But it doesn’t matter if they make sense to other people — that he’s not doing them for other people to understand. He says, “You might listen to my song four or five times, and if you think about the words, it’ll hit you differently every single time.”

And so, that’s what I tell the students. I say, “I don’t need this to make sense to me, I don’t need this to be your handbook on how I need to understand you. This is for you, not for me. ”

And I have pictures that I’ve taken over the years, they’re just beautiful. And as a funny aside, I just assigned it yesterday as an asynchronous task for my ethnic studies classes. And I pulled out mine, and I realized, I’ve been working on the same identity hand for five years. And the students are all impressed with it. But this is just a consequence of time: I just spent a lot of time doing this. And the more time you spend, the more you realize that you’re a complex and dope person.

Inspiring students to live authentically, too

I love that so much. I was reading an article about when you were awarded Colorado Teacher of the Year for 2021, and one of your students in the article named Sofia, said, “Mr. Munoz is going to be the teacher that I remember when I’m 90 years old. He inspires me daily to live authentically and be true to my beliefs. And I thought that was so powerful. First off, what higher compliment could you ever hear a student say?

But I wonder, is that something you intentionally set out to inspire your kids to do? And what kinds of practices do you think enable you to have that impact on kids?

Wow, deep question. First, Sofia is one of my favorite young humans I’ve ever met. True speaker, honest person. But yeah, it actually is really intentional.

I think that most of what we bring into our classrooms as teachers are the work that we’ve done on ourselves before we can work on our students. And so, I have to create a mindset in myself that says, “Every single young person in this room is exactly who they are supposed to be.”

So, my job is not to change their personalities; my job is not to make them different humans. My job is to help them identify their strengths, and help them gain skills and behaviors that are going to amplify who they are.

That’s a really intentional thing that I have to keep in mind. So, if I’ve got a student who is stereotyped as the class clown, I’m like, Well, this is obviously a young person of unique intelligence.

We know about the correlation between intelligence and sense of humor. This is a person who is charismatic because people laugh. This is a person who knows how to read a room for the most part, maybe not the teacher. But this is a person with immense gifts. Look at what people like Dave Chappelle have accomplished, or Margaret Cho, and some of these amazing entertainers who just really speak truth through humor.

And so, it isn’t about, “Marcus, stop clowning around in class.” It’s more about, “Hey, Marcus, you’re really good at reaching an audience, man. I think we should think about how we give you more opportunities to do that.”

So then, the other practical aspects of it are, again, getting deep into the identity work with students, it’s the first thing that I do.

I have a survey where I asked them to tell me as much as they want to about themselves. They’re fully allowed to submit the survey with no answers on it, because they don’t owe me their life story. They don’t owe me insights into who they are. And so, we do that.

But the other thing I do is I talk to every kid in the school (we’re a gr. 6-12 school) and I start building relationships with students before they’re even in my class. So, I’m talking to them during the passing period. If I like your kicks, if I like your T-shirt, if you’re singing a song that I like, I’m going to talk to you about it. And I’m going to try to get to know you because if you’re going to prioritize classroom management and positive behavior, it’s essential. I love having kids come into my classroom being like, “Man, I’ve wanted to have your class for four years, and here I am.”

It’s just a great place to start. And then, I just hype their talents. I’m like every kid’s hype man. I hype their talents or gifts and their strength. And I honestly don’t even highlight their weaknesses, because they probably spend all of their time agonizing about their weaknesses. I don’t have to point them out.

And honestly, I don’t know how useful it is to harp on what’s weak, like the whole philosophy of “tear kids down and build them up,” I just think it’s so offensive. Because it assumes that you don’t bring anything that’s good for me, and I have all of the keys to your success in this room.

And so, I just hype them up, and we set goals together. I teach an AP class, and I invite parents into the conversation where I say, “Honestly, the key to being successful in an advanced placement history class is just knowing what you want to get out of it and working towards that. So, if you want a five, there are behaviors that you’ll need to engage in, in order to reach that goal. If all you want is to learn a ton and talk to cool people about cool things that happened in history, well, there’s a way for you to engage on that level. ”

And so, I think it’s really important to do that, and be that positive presence when students walk into my learning space. And they’ll tell you that I define my learning space as the entire school.

Confidence vs. arrogance, and the importance of knowing yourself

I feel like what you’re saying derives so much from your confidence in yourself and knowing yourself, because when I think about the teachers I know who struggle in this area — the teachers who see kids for what they’re lacking, for the deficits, rather than for the strengths — I think that a lot of it comes from not having confidence in themselves.

They’re not really secure in who they are. They’re not really sure WHO they are. Their identity maybe has shifted over the years. I’ve certainly watched the teaching profession change over the years, and the expectations for teachers change. And they’re not really sure where they fit in.

And I think that lack of confidence, and that self-doubt makes it harder to see your students for who they are.

For me, learning to have empathy toward other people and being less judgmental toward them, and to see their strengths and gifts has come from accepting all the parts of ME, and understanding myself. It’s come from making peace with my past, with things that I’ve said and done, with who I was, with who I’m not.

And then, I can extend that out to other people. It sounds a little cliche, but I’m thinking that’s so much of the root of it. And that’s what makes it challenging, because that’s lifelong work. I can’t just say “be every student’s hype man.” I think you also have to be your own hype man in order to do it for the kids.

And I think you do that so well. Because you do have that confidence, but there’s also a deep humility in it, too. It’s not an arrogance.

Yeah, it’s been a process for me too, to your point. Even as I occupy this platform as a literal state teacher of the year, I have trouble accepting it. I have trouble accepting that the first thing I said when I was surprised with the award was like, “I’m not even the best teacher in this school. The DCIS Teacher of the Year is somebody else. It’s not me.”

And it’s been a real process, especially since I passed the age of 40, I think it’s helped a little bit, as I’ve stayed learning, and stayed reflective. But man, I had no confidence as a kid, except for when it came to hip hop music. And again, I think that the best teachers are the ones that are also engaged in the process of learning with their students.

When I taught the hip hop studies course that I created, one of the things that jumped out was that rappers, regardless of what you think about hip hop as an audience, rappers express confidence. They harness the power of words. When they step into a space, they leave no doubt that that is their space. And that was something I always aspired to as a kid.

I was like, “Man, how can I be so good with words, and so confident like these rappers I’m listening to?” And as I took students through that process, I had to go through the process, too. And I’m wracked with self-doubt all the time. It isn’t that I’ve overcome it. It’s just that the things I’m trying to teach my students, I’m actually learning from them, the risks that they take, the ambition that they have.

But to your point, I think that the teaching profession really does just gradually, with varying degrees of intensity, really chip away at an educator’s self-concept.

But we do need opportunities, if we’re going to be asked to put students in a position to empower themselves, and to be their authentic selves, and to overcome the barriers. We need to also be given opportunities to grow in these areas.

I did an interview with Dr. Apryl Alexander, who’s a forensic psychologist here in Denver. And she said the work of social-emotional wellness, it needs to start with the adults. Adults need opportunities to practice social-emotional wellness and engage in SEL themselves. Because if we are not in the process of thinking about this, how can we ask students to do it? We won’t be able to do it.

That’s right. And you’re talking about focusing on student’s strengths rather than pointing out their weaknesses because they’re already very insecure about their weaknesses. And yet, that’s the exact opposite of what’s done to teachers. It’s constantly saying you are not doing this, you’re not doing that.

And here’s the evidence you’re not good enough.

Right. So, this is personal work that needs to be done. But in no way do either of us ever want to downplay the systemic influences here, these institutions are not meant to. They’re not designed in a way that really uplift teachers or kids.


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The confidence to set boundaries, say no, and stay focused on what matters most

I know you’re really well-known for giving 100% of yourself in the classroom. But I also know that you were an enthusiastic participant in my 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program.

Yeah. Best part right here.

And you know the importance of setting boundaries. We’ve already touched a little bit on some of the systemic problems, and you know how important it is to be really intentional with what you say yes to, and what you say no to.

So, in terms of doing a great job for kids without sacrificing your mental, physical and emotional well-being, how do you stay focused on what matters most?

I would say — and I think every teacher listening to this will probably agree with this — that it just varies from day-to-day, hour-to-hour, moment-to-moment. I’ve learned that the mathematical reality of 100% is actually not a set thing. Sometimes I’m bringing 100% of my exhausted, burning out, about to collapse self. (We just ended our last week before spring break.) And so, I’m just dragging myself across the finish line, but I’m dragging myself with everything I have.

There’s so much I could say about the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek. It really did change my life and it saved my career.

I was ready to leave teaching in the fall of 2017. I was. My school was asking everything of me. I was not signaling that they should not be asking me to do everything. I think this is where teacher self-confidence is really important.

Because I’m really easy to flatter. It’s like if you tell me, “Man, you’re so amazing at X, Y, and Z,” and then you invite me to be on a committee that deals with X, Y, and Z, I’m going to be like, “Yes, I’ll do that because you’re so nice to me.”

And so, I think that for me personally, it was like how often I actually did fall victim to my own tendency to respond to flattery. That’s how they got me to be a teacher lead and a coach. That’s how they got me to teach an additional class during my planning period, and go beyond on every single committee, and all this kind of stuff. I was being told that, “Hey, no one is better for this than you.”

So, it was really exacting a major cost in terms of my wellness. I think the really big turning point was when I was talking to my friend Lynwood, who is just a wise dude, and he’s funny. He reminds me of the guys I grew up with. And I remember, I had really bottomed out. I hit this really low point where I just couldn’t find any optimism. I couldn’t find any belief in what I was doing. I didn’t think I had anything left to give to kids. I’m like, “Man, I just don’t have anything to give.”

I’m going through that crisis, and he said to me, “If you die today…” And I was like, “I don’t like how this is starting.”

He says, “If you die today, it’ll be really sad and tragic. People would mourn. There’d be a big assembly. There would be grief counselors called in…and then there would be somebody teaching in your classroom tomorrow. And then, eventually, somebody will take over your classes. And then, somebody will take over your role in the department.

You have to take care of yourself because it’s a system that just by necessity, will make you replaceable. Nobody’s going to be like you. But in terms of a professional teacher with the qualifications and the certifications to teach exactly what you teach, you can get replaced. So, you have to look after yourself, and you have to find ways to ensure that you are the one here, and no one else.”

And I think it was a matter of weeks before I was like, “I’m signing up for 40 Hour Teacher Workweek. I’m doing this.” Because I tried so many things over a long career that just weren’t working.

And in terms of the specifics, I think the central aspects for me had to do with grading, with purpose in everything you do, and the long-term balance aspects.

I love the concept of every school year having seasons, that the school year happens in multiple seasons. I think about that as the NBA season, where it’s a long season. It’s six months, and a team changes over the course of that time, and it isn’t about whether you were perfect for six months. It was whether you were getting better at the right time.

And so, framing that, and just saying I don’t have to succeed in teaching my content today. I can keep chipping away at it. I can highlight the good things, and I can keep notes about the things I want to get a little bit better at. So, that kind of vision was really helpful.

I love how you’re so honest in the materials. I think the first sentence I read was, “Okay, before you get started, you will not be down to 40 hours today. You’re probably going to work more for the first few weeks. But if you are attentive to processes and systems, and having a clear sense of what you are and are not doing this year, it will level out.”

I’m a really teachable person. And I was like, “I’m going to give this a shot because I think even if it helps me save five hours of my week, that’s going to be worth it. That’s five hours I can give to my family. That’s five hours that I can give to the things that I love that don’t have to do with teaching.”

In more concrete terms, I would say the two most important things that have helped me revive my teaching career are the fact that I don’t have to grade everything, and in fact, there are now studies coming out that say that there’s a much higher correlation to student success with just feedback with no grades than there is with falsely incentivizing kids with grades. So, you’ve made me a grading abolitionist.

I love it.

I still struggle to let it go because we’re indoctrinated. But I tell my students, “There’s one graded assignment a week, that’s it, everything else is your practice, and everything else is for your benefit. And I’m going to work hard to give you feedback.” And it’s just changed conversations. So, that’s been a big thing.

And then, inviting students into the important processes of the classroom, saying that we run a classroom so that we can all be successful, and so that we can all enjoy our time together, and it’s been great.

So to those who are ambivalent about the investment, it’s worth it, first. And second of all, it’s not a magic bean, you’re not going to be living this paradise life the first time you get your materials in your email.

It’s a process. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes you are feeling utterly transformative, and profound, and powerful. Sometimes good enough is good enough.

This is something that my former coach, Melanie, told me, just like, “Hey, yeah, I know you don’t feel great about that lesson, but you were clear about what the students needed to do. The students were clear in what they had to do. They showed success. They all got their work in. Nobody complained. Everybody was feeling positive. That was good enough, and good enough is good enough.”

So, yeah, I think I could go on and on, but I really do think that in a very real and concrete way, literally, I wouldn’t be Colorado Teacher of the Year for 2021 without the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek because I would have quit — I would have left.

Wow, that’s humbling to hear. And I could say I’m definitely glad that you stuck around because you are making a big difference for teachers and kids by staying.

Actually, it’s my homepage — 40 Hour is still my homepage on my personal computer. Because the thing is, it’s easy to fall off the wagon when there are all these pressures of the school year. So I have to remember that, Okay, I don’t have to make a lot time to read this or listen to this. I just need to jump in and do things.

So, it really means a lot for me to just open up my computer, and right there, it’s locked on. I’m in the 40 Hour Graduate Program now so I’m very excited about that. And it just goes right to that page as a reminder that, Hey, this is here, and if you’re struggling, you should probably scan over this stuff.

Yeah. That’s a really smart approach because it really is ongoing work. There’s no one who just goes through and does everything the first year and is like, “Okay, now, I’m great.” It really is a lifelong process, and a lot of people find they get the best results even in the second, third, fourth year as they go through, and just continually streamlining. Because teaching changes, you change. This really is a lifelong process of learning how to best manage your time, and your tasks, and those kinds of things.

And I would even say I’m still not a 40 Hour teacher, but I feel like that number is not actually the goal. The goal is to figure out how do you give your best in all areas of life, not just in your job.

And so, it informs how I respond to asks. When somebody says, “Hey, we have this committee, it’d be great for you to be on it.” Well, I pop open my calendar. I’m like, “Let me just show you all my responsibilities. So, tell me where you think this fits. Because I would love to be a part of this, but my whole thing (what I will always tell people when I can’t take on another thing) is, I will not dishonor your initiative by giving you any less than 100%. And I can’t give you 100% on this. And best of luck, I’ll recommend some people that I think are really great.”

I’ve also become really comfortable with telling people that I’m not interested in things. So when they say, “Hey, we have this committee around X, Y, and Z,” I’ll say, “Oh, that’s great. That’s not a big priority for me. But I’m really glad it’s your priority. And I think it’s awesome that you’re doing this. It’s just not something I’m willing to commit a whole lot of my time to.”

Because every minute that I spend on their project is a minute that I’m not spending with my spouse. It’s a minute that I’m not spending with my teenage daughter. It’s a minute I’m not spending writing, and doing the things that I love, and reading, and exercising. It means a lot for me to stay fit.

And so, you have to get into the habit of having that conversation with yourself, and it takes time. It’s still hard not to be flattered for me, but it takes time. And it’s a matter of being able to say, Yeah, so if I give here, where am I taking from? Am I okay with taking from that space?

Knowing what lights you up makes it easier to say no to what doesn’t

It’s so key to know what is important to you and where you can make the biggest impact. I’ve found that makes it a lot easier to say no. You realize, “This is not actually in my wheelhouse, and it’s just not something I care about that much. And if I don’t really care about it, I’m not going to do a great job on it.”

Yeah, you’re not. You’re going to be disappointing.

Exactly. So, knowing what you’re passionate about, and what you’re really good at, what only you can contribute, I think is so important. And I’d like to talk a little bit more about that, actually, because there’s so much change happening right now in the world, and in the education field.

What are the things that you ARE really fired up about, that you’re wanting to devote your time, and energy, and focus to? What’s really fueling you in the days ahead?

I guess the thing that really is just setting me on fire right now is how much communities need us. And it’s not just our students, but it’s the families they come from, it’s the neighborhoods that they come from. I have been in constant conversation with parents and other family members about students, and just really trying to listen to them.

As Teacher of the Year, a big part of my message is how we stop the attacks on Black teachers in communities. We know that across the system, Black teachers are being run out of the profession, and we’ve seen a bunch of things happening in Colorado that add to that. So–being that I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and so much of my sense of self, and my sense of place, and identity to Denver’s Black community–really drives me to do that.

I think that so much of this past year has us really questioning (or some of us; there are some that want to just get back to the way things were on March 12 of 2020.) But I think that we are in a real position to address some of the persistent inequities and unjust systems within education. So, I’m super fired up about abolishing all grading.

That’s something that I do in my work with 40 Hour Teacher Workweek, as well as with a Canadian educator, Natalie Verdevaso, that I’ve talked to a lot about this.

And, finding ways to disrupt the cult of achievement, I think that one of the things that get in the way of any of us becoming self-actualized people is this feeling that if you’re not participating in the cult of achievement, then you’re not doing anything worthwhile. And I would just love to find ways to disrupt that.

I think that it’s important that we embrace, understand, and celebrate difference. And high-speed internet is a civil right. So there’s just a lot. So, basically, I’m just doing whatever Dr. Bettina Love tells me to do.

There’s a lot that’s really firing me up. But I think a lot of it can probably be captured in the phrase, humanizing pedagogy. I think it’s important to get into that space where we are humanizing every single person that is participating in the educational system wherever they’re doing it because we have a real opportunity to do that right now.

Yes. And yes to the shout out to Dr. Bettina Love. Her book, We Want to Do More Than Survive is THE book, THE book for this moment.

Oh, man. Oh, man. We stan.

I’d listened to your episode that you did on your podcast with Dr. Love. It was amazing. I’ve reached out to her team three times over the past nine months asking her to be on Truth For Teachers. I haven’t gotten a response. I’m not giving up!

Don’t give up! I’m going to see if I can bring it all together because two dope humans who really believe in schooling for the right purposes. And full disclosure, I’m fairly certain, it was NEA that was able to get her for us so that helped. But yeah, she’s amazing. And that conversation was so enlightening, and educational. And we were just, again, starstruck, we’re like, we can’t believe we’re talking to Dr. Love. We’re like talking to Dr. Love. What?

Tell us more about your podcast while we’re on the subject of that.

So, Too Dope Teachers and a Mic is a couple of school teachers from the City of Denver, myself and my amazing partner, Kevin Adams. We started just chopping it up about the things that we would laugh about and complain about after staff meetings. And then, we got in in our heads that maybe we should do a podcast.

And what we attempt to do in a two-person format is to just talk about ways that we need to be re-mixing this conversation on race, power, and education. We both had very particular experiences, both as Black and Brown teachers, and as Black and Brown students. And we’ve done a lot of thinking around what anti-racism really looks like in the classroom. So, the pod is super fun. We’ve had some really, really cool guests. We’d love to have you on at some point, not putting you on blast on your own show.

No, you know I’d love to, absolutely.

Let’s do it. But we just really find that there’s a wider conversation that primarily teachers of color are having, but that is now becoming relevant to a lot of people.

And then, we feel like we’ve gotten our own incredible professional development out of it. Just these folks that we get to talk to, and the insights that they give us, it’s really, really humbling and staggering. So, yeah, we have a lot of fun on the show.

What to do when your energy and passion are drained away

What would you say to an educator who’s listening to this and thinking, I wish I had that kind of energy and passion? I feel like I used to, but I’m mostly just discouraged, and now just drained by everything that’s asked of me. What does a teacher who’s failing like that need to know?

So, the first thing they need to know is, it’s not always like this. I think most days, my breakfast consists of coffee and adrenaline.

But I think part of it comes from a deep understanding of how I take and what I need. I need to laugh every day. It’s like Jim Valvano, as he fought cancer, he talked about how you need to laugh every day, you need to be moved to tears every day. And you need to learn something every day. If you’re doing that, you’re living a pretty good life.

And I would add engaging in some creativity. So, I write freestyles for my students to sum up what I experienced with them that day. I don’t do it every day. And I’ll share that with them. So, there’s a creative piece to that.

I guess as I’ve aged, I’ve continued to remind myself that my body can’t take giving 200% every minute of every day anymore. But I’ve gained some wisdom. I would venture to say in my 40s, where I can say, “I cannot bring my energy if I’m spread so thinly, if I’m neglecting the things that matter. How am I going to be any good to anybody else? How am I going to be a positive presence in the lives, and in the lives of my students, if I’m not even a positive presence in my own life?”

So, really, really just drawing that line. I said when I first started with the 40 Hour Teacher stuff, I set an alarm to close my computer at 4:30. No matter what I was working on, close the laptop. I wouldn’t even shut down — this actually became a problem with updating it!

But that alarm would go off, and I was just telling myself, “No matter what you’re doing, close the computer. Because you can come back to it tomorrow when you’re back in your workday. And everything can wait.”

The other thing I would say to teachers is that you can work around the clock, you can work 24/7, you can find a way to not ever need sleep, food, water, or to go to the bathroom. And everything that a teacher is expected to do still will not get done. It still won’t get done. It’s endless.

And so, we’re in a position where we can choose to end it, and just say it’s over, I’m closing my computer, and I’m going to watch Netflix. I’m going to cook a meal. I’m going to do those things. Also, meal planning — I didn’t talk about how important meal planning was in that stuff.

So, anyway, I really do think that it’s just knowing that I’m not 100% energetic every single day. And I’m real with how I feel. I communicate it to my students. I’ll tell them, “I’m feeling really sensitive today y’all. I don’t know why. So, if I am weird today, this is probably why, and I’m working on it. ”

So, yeah, that’s what I would say is it’s easy to get discouraged. And there needs to be a real conversation that you have with others. And if you have a relationship with your leader — and I fortunately did  — where you can say, “I am falling apart, and I need to breathe. I still believe that most leaders have a conscience where they’ll say, “I do not want you to fall apart.”

It’s about just recognizing where you’re at and prioritizing, What is it that I’m able to bring every day, and how do I best cultivate that?

The most important thing to know about teaching authentically

This is great. I want to close out with a takeaway truth. What is something that you wish every educator understood about what we discussed here today and teaching authentically?

I think I have two, because I go overboard.

So, the first is just to be a learner. The best educators that I’ve ever known were tireless learners. Students and communities are your teachers. And see your colleagues, and your students in their communities, and celebrate them. Every year is different. Every class is different. And this is because of the humans that we come into contact with.

And the other thing I would say is to set dedicated boundaries for yourself — where, “I’m not doing anything during this time, this is my time for me” — which is really important.

So, for me, my boundary is 3:30 to 4:30. I just don’t schedule things, that’s when I exercise. That’s when I relax. That’s when I just don’t work on things that have to do with my job.

And at first, it was really tough to do that. And there are obviously times where I do have to work into that time. But I have it in my Google Calendar, and literally, it just says 3:30 to 4:30, stop.

And then, if I need to work after that, or whatever, or if I need to cut it a little short every now and then, that’s fine. But I don’t make it a habit.

It’s always a reminder that this is YOUR time, and we have to tell ourselves that because so many teachers feel guilt for taking care of themselves. So, be a learner and don’t feel guilty.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. Hi Angela, I’m a kindergarten teacher teaching ESL at a bilingual school. English is my second language, so besides improving my teaching, I’m also working on improving my English, and your podcast helps me achieve them both! I listen to your podcast during lunch break almost on a daily basis, and it helps me get through the rest of the day. Thank you so much for your amazing podcast and providing the transcripts!

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