Notes From New Mexico: Out of a Rut
by KARY SCHUMPERT
“The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.”—John Dewey
As educators, we are often creatures of habit. We have the lesson plans that work. We have the comfort of favorite books to share with our students. We have our beginning-of-the-school-year routines down pat. We find our groove in teaching fourth graders or the same subject for the ninth time. Then something hits us, that we are not in a sweet spot, but a professional rut.
Routines can be helpful, but very quickly they can become ruts. While much of teaching is filled with routines and rituals, how can we keep ourselves out of the ruts and our students in the lights of inspiration? How do we even know we are in a rut? It can be hard to tell, especially when we find relief in the familiar.
Two years ago, I was comfortably chugging along, beginning my tenth year as a classroom-based environmental educator. I was a decade into working for the same organization. I knew all of the lessons and programs that we offered to the local school districts. I had grown familiar with the teaching props and the schools. It was not until the spring of that year that I realized I had fallen into a rut. It was not until I found myself saying the dreaded phrase, “We always do it this way,” that I knew I was in deep. While other parts of my life were opening up, a fledgling writing career was taking off and my love of running rekindled itself into training for my first marathon, I had found a rut. I was not disheartened or disappointed, but I realized that I was not providing anything new in my teaching. I still received good reviews from the teachers whose classrooms I visited, and I still delighted in the smiling faces of three-and-four-year-olds and the pimply and earnest stares of middle school students, but I knew there was something missing.
I knew I needed to dust myself off and break a new trail.
I grew up in northern New Mexico, in a small town that was a stop along the Santa Fe Trail. Those wagon wheel ruts were familiar to me, but I never thought much of them as a child. It was not until years later, when, as a high school student, I got to work at the nearby national monument that celebrated the Santa Fe Trail. I met tourists who drove miles off the interstate to find those wagon wheel tracks. What was ordinary and familiar to me was history coming alive for others. The only difference was perspective.
That spring, I finally shook myself out of the ruts. I did lots of tiny little things. I attended a free workshop for secondary science teachers. It was great to hear ideas, advice, and ways to spread excitement for the sometimes-jaded high school crowd. I knew I could bring those ideas with me as I traveled school to school, class to class. I asked my boss if I could lead my co-workers in a quick idea-sharing session after a long day of teaching. Each of us brought in our “bag of tricks” and talked about the techniques that we loved to use to help with the repetition of similar presentations. We spent an hour one afternoon just talking about transitions to use in presentations, without losing time and the attention of our students. One day, in mid-April, instead of spending my lunch reading and eating tucked in the corner of a teachers’ lounge, I stayed in the fifth grade classroom where I was spending the day, and watched a teacher spread her magic. I did not say a word and came away with at least ten ideas to brighten up my teaching. An after-school conversation with a pre-school teacher, as I was packing up my materials, inspired me to think about more hands-on ways to involve students on field trips. Encouraged by my co-workers and the teachers around me, I also did some research online, and came up with a few articles for engaging more with adult learners.
As I look back on that spring, I realize how easy it was to get in and out of the rut. I did not spend oodles of money to take a graduate class. I did not travel far to a conference for a new perspective. All I had to do was look in my own metaphorical backyard. All I had to do was look up and over the rut.
If you are finding yourself in a rut, even while cozy and comfortable, I encourage you to shake it off. Turn to another frazzled teacher for advice and ideas. Walk down the hall and see how other teachers have their rooms decorated. Take inspiration from a new teacher, and in return share some of your hard-won wisdom. Make plans to attend the Community Works Institute’s Summer Institutes on Service-Learning. Go to the Community Works Journal and find articles on ways to inspire and deepen your teaching practice. Take a different drive or way to commute to work. Move the pile of books you have been meaning to read and find one in the middle of the pile and crack open the spine. Clear a space, in your classroom, in your mind, and in your heart for new ideas to emerge and grow. Walk down a different hallway and see if you can see the dust blowing away. Look up and see yourself blazing a new trail.
“I find that even small changes sometimes jog you out of a mental rut.” —Tom Perrotta
These little things might not be much, but they can be a start. Maybe, instead of a 20-minute lunch complaint session, see if you can share strategies with someone else. Alternatively, ask for help. Maybe you have an idea for someone who needs assistance. Maybe they have an idea for you. Even if it does not seem like it will work, relish in the camaraderie, instead of the commiseration.
It takes work and practice to stay fresh, to stay inspired, and to stay diligent. The first step of any new path can be scary and exciting. It might seem small, but your fresh idea can lead to something monumental. It can infuse new energy, new ideas, new creativity, new views. It can be just enough to go from “same old, same old” to begin again with fresh eyes and a clean start, even in the midst of the old.