Teacher Voices: Pausing to Sharpen Your Axe

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Natalie DiFusco-Funk |

Teacher Voices, Professional DevelopmentThe week before Thanksgiving, I attended a conference where I was lucky enough to hear Mark Brown speak about finding YOUR best self. At the end of his powerful speech, Mark shared a motivational tale of two lumberjacks.

In the story, a young lumberjack challenges the current, older World’s Greatest Lumberjack. The man accepts the challenge: For six hours, chop wood, and the man with the most logs at the end will be declared the winner. They begin, and after 50 minutes, the current champion stops and heads to the woods for 10 minutes before returning, while the challenger continues chopping, never pausing. The current champion continues this pattern for the remainder of time — 50 minutes chopping, 10 minutes in the woods. At the end, the logs are counted, and the winner is the older man — maintaining his title of World’s Greatest Lumberjack. The challenger is outraged at his opponent. How could he have won if he stopped for a total of 60 minutes during the competition? The World’s Greatest Lumberjack turned to the young man and said, “Sometimes you have to pause to sharpen your axe.”

Sometimes you have to pause to sharpen your axe.”

I’m a fifth grade teacher, mother to a toddler, and the 2016 Virginia Teacher of the Year. I’ve been on fast forward for over a year now. I realize that I need to pause, and that pausing is not a sign of weakness, but rather, a chance to sharpen my axe.

As we near the end of the calendar year and look toward the New Year, I’ve been thinking about ways I can pause to sharpen my axe both professionally and personally. I’ve also been very reflective about time and how I spend my time away from my classroom.

Guilt-Free PD

You all know the feeling. You sign up for Professional Development that will take you out of the classroom. You work diligently to write plans that will be easy on the substitute, but also keep your students moving forward. Then you attend the PD session, whether it be for one day, a few days, or a week away from your classroom. The longer you are away, the greater the teacher guilt. It’s part of our genetic makeup as teachers. However, what I’ve come to learn over the past year and a half, where I have been out of my classroom 24 days and counting (the most in my career aside from my maternity leave) is that the time away made me a better teacher upon my return. We are professionals, and as professionals, we need time to sharpen our axe. The next time you are at PD feeling guilty, change your lens. Instead of feeling guilty, engage deeply. Be present. Think about what you are hearing and seeing and how it can sharpen your axe, and in turn, impact your students.

Take a break. Stay awake for safety sake.

You know those signs on the highway that say, “Take a break. Stay awake for safety sake.” Well, teaching is like driving 80 mph down the Interstate, in the dark, while it’s pouring down rain outside. The Interstate — our classroom. The dark – the unexpected scenarios we handle daily. The rain, coming at us from all directions – our students who we care for deeply. Sometimes, what we need to do is take a break. As I look forward to my two weeks off from school this year, the first time ever in my career, and probably the last time this will happen for a while, I plan to take a complete break. No school work. No catching up or getting ahead. A complete shutdown of all things relating to my role as a classroom teacher. I’ll even put an “out of office” automatic reply on my email, and literally unplug. Not because I don’t care about my work, but rather, because I care so deeply. By taking a break, I will be able to rest and recharge. I will play with my two-and-a-half-year old son and enjoy his first year understanding the magic of Christmas. We will cuddle up and watch The Polar Express until I know all the lines by heart. I will come back to school in 2017 with a full tank of gas and be ready for whatever weather challenges are thrown my way. Taking a break, a complete break, is another way we sharpen our proverbial axes as teachers.

As the holidays approach, and all the chaos that ultimately ensues, think about how you can take ten minutes to sharpen your axe, and don’t feel guilty about any second. A sharper axe makes you a stronger teacher.

You can listen, learn, and read more from the 2016 Teachers of the Year through our podcast series, Leading from the Classroom: Insights from the 2016 Teachers of the Year. Keep checking back for even more podcasts, including Natalie’s, and posts from the Teachers of the Year in the New Year.

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