About 100 TOK Essay rough drafts, averaging 5 pages each.

This past week I joined in solidarity with the vast majority of teachers in Hillsborough County Public Schools who chose to “work to contract.” For all five days we arrived to work at our appointed time and left when our day was over. Like many–if not most–Americans in the workforce, we left our work in the building and went home to spend time with our family and friends.

It may have been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in 14 years as a teacher.

Don’t get me wrong, going home each day and being able to spend time with two of my favorite people ever–my wife and my mother, who was in town for Thanksgiving–was incredible. We talked, we laughed, we ate delicious home-cooked meals, we watched shows together and just generally enjoyed each other’s presence and company.

But it was difficult because I hadn’t truly realized how plugged in I am to school virtually all the time. Whether it’s working on school stuff for my IB students, reading and doing research on education issues, advocating for our profession, representing HCTA, lining up podcast guests, communicating with elected officials, or writing posts for Teacher Voice, I clearly sleep, breathe, and eat education.

And I love it.

I also hate it in another sense, though. On the very first day of WTC I came home, put down my bag, said hello to my mother, and then immediately opened my laptop to send an email I thought about on my drive home. These habits have become so ingrained that I didn’t realize I was breaking my attempt to work to contract until my wife asked me what I was doing. I am glad she said something, because it immediately put me in a different frame of mind. I closed the laptop and walked away.

The rest of the week went well and I managed to keep my promise. I worked only the time I was scheduled. I enjoyed spending time with my colleagues before school when we picketed and walked in together every morning. I also had to prioritize my tasks in order to maximize my productivity. This was particularly difficult for me because when my students or coworkers ask me to help them in any endeavor I drop whatever I’m doing to answer the call. And while I still did this, I could see things starting to pile up.

Take the Theory of Knowledge Essay rough drafts I received on Monday. I wanted to try and read them by the end of the week. I should have realized how nearly impossible that goal was, but it motivated me to read and comment on at least a few while I could. But the more immediate tasks always came first. I had to teach. I had to write letters of recommendation that had imminent deadlines. I had to help get a necessary computer program up and running. I had to_____________.

And if you’re a teacher, too, you know that list of “I had to’s” is probably a mile long.

In the end, I feel like I was able to reclaim more of my personal life. I feel a little more rested, a little more balanced. I will probably try to work to contract as much as I can for the rest of my career, to be honest. But I also know there will be times when I have too much work to be done and have to bring it home.

The vast majority of teachers always do.

Because we know what’s at stake is too important: our kids and our future.

Nearly twenty years ago, I became enamored with the academic study of religion. During my first college class on the subject, REL2300: Intro to World Religions, I learned that one of the first true scholars of religion, Huston Smith, was instrumental in exposing Americans to the world’s faith traditions during the 1950s. The son of missionary parents, Smith was raised Methodist but his inquisitive nature led him to become a participant observer in numerous traditions across the decades.

While watching a PBS special that featured Professor Smith being interviewed by Bill Moyers, Huston relayed his experience living in a Zen Buddhist monastery for more than a month. When he completed his training as a novice monk, his roshi (teacher) told him a proverb that was the distillation of Zen Buddhist philosophy:

One of many Post-It notes I keep on our bathroom mirror; I think about these words every day.

These three simple phrases gripped me immediately when I first heard them. So much so that they left an indelible impression on my mind and have become a personal mantra that I repeat to myself every day when I wake up, multiple times throughout the day, and again before I fall asleep. In essence, this Zen saying explains a great deal about who I am as both a person in general and a teacher specifically.

Infinite gratitude to all things past

As a human being, I am grateful for everything that has ever happened to me, good and bad. Every part of my past has culminated in who I have become in this moment. I am so thankful for all who have been instrumental in my life, starting with my parents, my brothers, the rest of my family and friends, and above all, my beautiful best friend and wife.

As a teacher, I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have what I believe to be the best job in the world. Each and every day I am humbled by the thought of all of my students, past and present, who have become an integral part of my life. I treat my students as if they were my own kids and want nothing but the very best for each of them. I am also thankful for all of my colleagues. Whether a fellow teacher, administrator, or anyone who works with our students in any capacity, I am grateful that you have had a hand in shaping me into the teacher I am today.

Infinite service to all things present

Being a teacher means living a life of service and often putting others before ourselves. I am firm believer in the idea that the surest path to happiness and life satisfaction is one that is other-centric. While I can go overboard at times to my own detriment, I would guess this is the norm for many who work in the education profession. We all care deeply about our students and their future, which is why we work so assiduously to ensure their success in the present.

Infinite responsibility to all things future

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons I am such an optimist has everything to do with always keeping one eye on the horizon. Each new day that dawns is a promise renewed, an opportunity for all of us to become the best version of ourselves, especially those of us who work with students on a daily basis and teach them by both example and non-example alike. Ultimately, I feel a tremendous responsibility to all that the future will bring to the next generation of teachers, students, and citizens in Florida.

There is a wonderful synergy among these three phrases and they have fostered a personal change in me that I cannot quite put into words. What I’ve learned in the last twenty years of telling myself these words day in and day out is that they form a virtuous cycle: by being grateful for all things past, we are motivated to be of service to all that is present, and by taking care of the present, we demonstrate our responsibility to the future.

If you’ve read this far, I want to close by sharing one of my favorite short videos on gratitude. The imagery is from time-lapse photographer and videographer Louis Schwartzberg’s TED Talk on beauty, but the narration is by Brother David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk from my own religious upbringing and tradition, Catholicism. I hope that it serves as a reminder that we have so much to be grateful for not only on Thanksgiving, but each and every day.

Finally, thank you for supporting the Teacher Voice project. Even if we’ve never met in person, I am inspired, encouraged, and deeply grateful for you reading these posts and listening to the podcasts. I have been overwhelmed by the response Teacher Voice has received in the first five months, and I truly believe it will continue to become a platform for education stakeholders all across the Sunshine State.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving with your family and friends, everyone!

Frameworks Logo

This episode of the Teacher Voice podcast is an interview with Amanda Page-Zwierko, the executive director of Frameworks of Tampa Bay, an organization focused on bringing SEL (Social Emotional Learning) and life skills to youth throughout the Tampa Bay region and beyond.

Amanda Page-Zwierko
Amanda Page-Zwierko

Please listen and share with others who are interested in learning more about SEL and how it is helping students here in our own local school districts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Thanks for listening and sharing, everyone. Have a great week!