MINIMALISM IN TEACHING

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This post may be more directed to fellow teachers, but since we’re all former/current students, and many of you have children attending school, I trust you’ll find some value in my writing.

I started teaching after I discovered minimalism, so I entered the field with the intention of applying my newfound beliefs to my classroom. Minimalism, I found, isn’t easily transferable without conscious decision-making and frequent maintenance.

First, let’s define minimalism as removing the excess to focus on what’s most important. By focusing on what’s important, you should find purpose, experience growth, and feel a sense of fulfillment.

The workplace doesn’t have to be different from your home life in this regard, but I’d like to explain why it’s so hard for teachers to apply minimalism to their work lives and what is possible with a new mindset.

Teachers’ lives consist of nothing but excess. Teacher salary is a hotly debated topic. It’s generally founded on the fact that teachers must work well past their contracted hours (without overtime pay) in order to fulfill every responsibility given by the powers that be. Many of these responsibilities appear to distract from the true purpose of our jobs: teaching.

In short, teachers are expected to embrace the excess, regardless of how it impacts their classroom teaching or personal lives.

When it comes to actually teaching in a public school, finding purpose in every aspect of the required curricula is nearly impossible, so it’s naturally more difficult to feel a sense of fulfillment.

But this isn’t a secret. Like many others, I signed up to be overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. I knew what I was getting into. And, now that I’ve found a way to incorporate minimalism into my teaching, I love my job.

Let me explain using the definition I gave earlier. As a caveat, this applies to my role as a teacher not only in my general work life, but also the impact I’m having on my students (which shouldn’t be two separate things but often are).

Find purpose.

As I entered the field, I knew I was readying myself for excessive responsibilities that detracted from my teaching. I also knew that I was entering a field of high burnout rates, and I needed to find a meaningful purpose for myself as quickly as possible.

Enter the middle schoolers.

I realized that, if I can give them a purpose for entering my classroom, I would have my own purpose as well.

It took me a few years to get this one down, but every assignment given has a meaningful purpose. When a student asks the obligatory, “Why are we doing this?” or “When am I ever going to use this?” I have a meaningful response that does not include, “because it’s on the test” or “because I’m the teacher.” (Ever heard those before?)

In an English classroom, I have a significant amount of wiggle room to include ample critical thinking application and real-world skills paired with topics relevant to their lives. And after a couple years of doing this, the obligatory, “But why??” questions typically diminish naturally.

Experience growth.

For a teacher (or anyone, really) to experience growth, there has to be a certain level of openness and curiosity. Instead of sticking to the same routine, method, and material, you have to be willing to try something new. Disrupting routine for adults can often be just as much of a shock as it is for kids, but welcoming this disruption is where we experience growth.

I don’t want to have a job based entirely on routine and repetition. That’s one reason I got into teaching. I need room to learn, grow, and really, just try new things. None of these requirements cease to exist when you become an adult despite how many people treat their adult lives this way.

Feel a sense of fulfillment.

When you find purpose and experience growth, fulfillment should take care of itself. But in the real world of public education, there is still all of that excess to deal with that can damper the effects of your classroom practices. Unfortunately, there is limited wiggle room here. Unless you’re ready to take down the school system, removing excess in teaching most likely means a shift in mindset. Find ways to move through the excess with more efficiency, and stop taking it so damn seriously.

Your focus should be finding purpose in what matters and spending time being present in those moments to experience that sense of fulfillment. You may be surprised how minimalism can give you a new understanding of your work, whatever it is that you do.

Photograph © Conal Gallagher Some Rights Reserved

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