Our Culture of Questions.
Honoring the desire to ask — getting creative about inciting more than one word answers from our friends in the helping fields (and humans in general).
“How was your day?” and “How are you?” are questions I believe we ask on auto-pilot. They are asked in quick, passing-by moments that leave little room for true connection. The number of times “good”, “fine”, “not bad” and “tired” come out of my mouth in response to those questions is astronomical. But those words do not capture the nuance that we as humans experience within a day.
I felt the gravity of those questions especially when I was teaching. Rather, the levity of them. To answer, “how was your day?” after being in the classroom with 190 students became overwhelming. Well, I don’t want to bombard the person who asked me, so I should keep it succinct. We are at happy hour, I don’t want to bring the mood down or take up space. So many wonderful and hard things happened today, how do I categorize them in response?
“How was your day?” Welp. I experienced at least 15 emotions I never knew I could feel, including but not limited to deep joy, adrenaline, pure sadness, heartbreak, anger, rage, sincere gratitude, and annoyance.
“How was your day?” Welp. A kid cussed me out in the hallway for contacting his dad who physically abuses him even though I had zero indication on the teacher portal that was the case. Another girl came into my room telling me about a tricky situation at home. That was before 4th period. Then my observation went horribly because not one student in my class did the homework. But I also got a lovely handwritten letter from a kiddo that brought a smile to my face and I laughed very hard with my 6th period and got to co-teach a lesson with one of my best friends. I am behind on grading and left work late because I had to report an abuse. So the day was… ???!!!%%$$$___________.
It is impossible to answer that question as an educator. Pointed questions allow us the proper space in sharing our thoughts and help educators process the day as a whole when an unexpected question is thrown into the mix. Sometimes, it is easier to answer “it was fine” than to delve into the myriad of things that went down from 7 am to 4 pm in that brick building. I have always teetered on the boundary of whether to divulge fully or in small increments, understanding that those in my life want to know about my day but may not know how to engage in it. For years I felt bad telling those in my life about my day as some were so extreme that I didn’t want to bring that home. But then those events compounded and I had to take a hiatus from the classroom for my overall health. Educators need outlets for both the negative and positive parts of our jobs, but I think we all need to learn what that outlet could and should look like.
**PSA: We can also ask non-educators creative questions about their days, too. Just sayin’. I am here talking about educators as this is my experience, but I think this needs to bleed into how we all engage with each other.
It Takes a Village to Teach a Classroom.
I write this as an entrance into how we talk to educators. It feels like the nation is always talking about us or for us, but never to us. Policies are made without our expertise and perspective, districts roll out new plans without consulting those they will affect, and administrations love to send out surveys that we fill out honestly with no consequential action made on their end. I often felt like my voice was muffled as a teacher, but my god this profession is complex and is begging to be sorted out over a few margaritas with pals served by a cute bartender you’re too tired to flirt with.
I have come to understand that a solid, healthy teacher does not happen of their own volition. It is the combination of boundary setting within the educator and the personal relationships that surround them.
This goes for inside the building (establishing meaningful and effective relationships with other teachers) as well as in our personal lives with our loved ones. The power that a friend, a spouse, or a family member has when engaging with an educator is immense. Those in the helping fields get trounced every day due to systems across the nation, but starting with a simple change in the line of questioning can support those in emotionally difficult jobs which can aid in the holistic health of the teacher, nurse, therapist, etc. The most important person in a classroom is not the teacher. The most important body in the classroom is the student body, but they cannot be taken care of by a calm and loving human if the person standing in front of them is not being taken care of themselves. It is never the kid’s job to act as a therapist to their teacher, nor is it yours. But dynamic and intentional questions can release an educator of built-up internal turmoil, making them a more present force in the classroom.
The Mental Health Professionals Take:
I asked my good friend who has been a school counselor for over 10 years the question, “What is the importance of personal relationships for those in the helping fields?”
This job is not normal. No one is ok. I am a trained mental health professional and I am not ok. When my non-educator friends ask me ‘How was work?’, it feels like an impossible ask with the chaos, the fear, and the enormity of the mental health crisis that educators are wading through every Monday-Friday. I appreciate check-ins, and the ask itself, but for me, a great way to engage would be to let me know you appreciate me because you know my job is hard. It's ok to vent to me about how hard your job is. I'm a counselor, I'll listen. ‘How was work?’ is such a difficult question. For anyone! Appreciate us as educators. We need it. But more importantly, actively listen. Everyone in the helping field needs relationships outside of their work to provide levity, support, and a listening ear. You, as a non-educator, are vital to the teaching world. How you engage or disengage could be the difference between a healthy educator, and a crumbling one.
This is not a competition of how hard everyone’s job is. This is a lifting of the veil, exposing the daily goings on in a school building that many folks may not be privy to. That’s okay! That’s why I am here, writing. As humans, we experience a myriad of emotions throughout the 24 hours in a day, but what could change if we actively chose to dive into the harder moments with each other? Or bask in the hilarity of children with each other?
Let’s Practice. (What a teacher thing to say…)
Here are some other questions to consider asking a teacher who is a friend, spouse, family member, or roommate:
Instead of “how is school going?” ask: What are you teaching this year? What is your favorite class period? Tell me about some of your students!
I never get asked about my students. We love talking about them positively. It is good for the whole of humanity for teachers to speak in high regard about their students even when, especially when we are not with them.
Instead of “how was your day?” try: “How was ____ in class today?”
Learning a few names of students who your friend teaches means the world to an educator. Just one! We teach hilarious young minds y’all, and we have stories for DAYS. We would love you as a sounding board for those tales.
Try: “What made you smile today?”
Try: “Did anything make you upset today at school?”
Ask about co-workers! When you teach together, you are trauma-bonded forever. That is very real, and all educators feel it.
We get extremely close to each other because we all feel as though we are on an island. So get to know your friend/spouse/family members teaching colleagues! Invite them over, or grab drinks. Ask that colleague about how your spouse/friend is at work. Get the honest details because it’s always fun to involve our outside world. We make fools of ourselves on the daily, so go get the dirt on us!
Set a timer (this goes for spouses in particular) and allow your educator spouse to just let loose with negativity and complaints for a specific amount of time.
Say nothing, just listen and retain. Then when the timer goes off, that means no more work talk OR no more negativity. That is then a time for specific questions about what they just shared or purely a space to vent. We need outlets to let loose, but we also need to reign it in. So many great things happen in a day and we can focus on the one bad thing pretty easily. (This is advice from a married colleague of mine.)
As I am a Creative Writer and taught that as well, here are some more ~off the beaten path~ questions to ask educators if you are feeling up to it:
How did you feel walking into school today vs. how did you feel walking out?
Tell me something funny a student said today.
Any new ideas for lessons that sparked today?
If you were to make a metaphor out of the day, what would it be? (Goddamn I would love to be asked this question. Not only does it tie so many things together, but it also really makes me think about the school day with intention.)
Is anything worthy of a poem today?
Any new Gen Z terms learned today?
If the educator had a tough day, be intentional with what you ask. Sometimes, you are not in an emotional place to handle that, so be honest about that!
“I’m sorry your day was not great…what do you need right now? I want to hear about everything but I may need some time to gather myself so I can fully pay attention and listen.” I know this sounds like a therapy exercise, but I am not naive to the fact that many folks in my life also had stressors in their day and may not have the emotional bandwidth to dive into these conversations. (Not all conversations about a teacher’s day are heavy, but this is in case they are.)
If today had a taste, what would it be? Side note: I asked this of a colleague once and he said, “pop rocks made of gravel.” Sums it up. Quite nicely actually.
All of this scratches the surface of further posts I will make about the reality of classrooms and education today. We have to start somewhere, and that place needs to be accessible for all. Everyone knows an educator. If you are reading this, then you know one. Y’all…we just want to talk about these crazy kids and the things they say in our classrooms. We crave a space where that conversation can exist in an effective and fulfilling way.
So go ask an educator a dynamic question today. Nothing crazy. You’ll be quite entertained by their responses, I promise.
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