Academic journal article English Journal

Finding a Way to Stay: Making a Path for Sustainable Teaching

Academic journal article English Journal

Finding a Way to Stay: Making a Path for Sustainable Teaching

Article excerpt

After a long day at school, the Colorado State University Writing Project (CSUWP) leadership team sat in a busy campus coffee shop, shoring up the will to finalize our professional development programs for the summer. Kelly, a district literacy coordinator and coauthor of this article, observed: "What I'm seeing every single day is that teachers are exhausted. They need time and space to sit together and read and write. They need time to just be"

Questions unfurled: What would professional development that allowed teachers to "just be" look like? Was it OK to foreground the "development"part, even ifit took time away from what normally constitutes the "professional"?

As career educators fiercely dedicated to the profession, even we had to admit that our earnest teaching aspirations were being gnawed away by external demands. Quietly, wearily, angrily, we wondered if the dedicated teacher and the whole-hearted human being could coexist. Like Parker Palmer, we considered, "How can we who teach reclaim our hearts, for the sake of our students, ourselves, and educational reform?" (19).

In this article, we contend that the prerequisite for teaching courageously is developing staying power. As fewer enter the profession and attrition rises, a teacher shortage looms (Sutcher et al.). Yet we feel it's still possible to share our passion for learning with students. We are confident that Paulo Freire's promise still holds: reading the world and the word critically can help them rewrite it to challenge systemic inequities. We stubbornly believe that "teaching to transgress" is the key to social change (hooks).

Consequently, we worked with a group of educators in 2017-18 to develop a theory of change we refer to as "sustainable teaching." In the following sections, we describe our work in the Institute for Sustainable Teaching (IST). Cindy provides an overview of the program model and our working theory. Kelly then describes mindfulness strategies from her IST workshops, and Molly focuses on the embodied teaching practices she facilitated in the IST and is currently using with her own students. Emily concludes by describing how our sustainable teaching framework has profoundly shaped her classroom practice.


As CSUWP director, I began recruiting educators for the yearlong IST in spring 2017. In recruiting materials, I explained that the IST was devoted to "helping teachers 'fill the well' by providing them space and time for personal restoration and professional renewal." Our goals were to "explore the concept of sustainable teaching and develop the resiliency practices needed to stay in teaching for the long haul." We borrowed the phrase sustainable teaching from a chapter title in Mary Rose O'Reilley's book, The Garden at Night: Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life, which we also read during the IST.

We determined to keep the IST small because of its intensive nature and ultimately selected fifteen participants: teachers across disciplines and grade levels; instructional coaches; and coordinators in curriculum and in migrant education. Racial and gender diversity were also present among IST participants, who spanned the gamut of public and charter schools in rural, urban, and suburban contexts. Participants worked with students from diverse and homogenous populations, as well as undocumented students and nonnative English speakers.

The IST structure consisted of a weeklong summer workshop, followed by four Saturday seminars during the school year. In the summer workshop, we developed a working theory of sustainable teaching, discussed professional texts, learned mindfulness practices, and participated in workshops led by a local psychologist and a creative nonfiction professor. Mornings were devoted to writing, discussion of shared readings, and workshops. Afternoons included ninety minutes of independent "restoration time," when participants were free to read and write whatever they wanted, walk, listen to podcasts, meditate, do yoga, or make art. …

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