To find joy in teaching again, I needed to grieve

I practiced self-care and gratitude. I decorated and organized. None of it worked. Here’s what did.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

I had high hopes for this school year. After two school years disrupted by COVID, I needed a fresh start. I redecorated my enrichment classroom, painting giant words in silver glitter to inspire my students: “dream,” “create,” and “wonder.”  

I tried to absorb the hopeful messages, but it wasn’t easy. This school year has been hard and strange in previously unimaginable ways. Even as routines become more normal, I don’t feel normal. Many days have felt like a slog. 

Inga Puffer (Courtesy photo)

I wondered how I could reclaim my spark and even contemplated switching careers. I knew if I was going to continue to teach, I needed to find a way to heal my mind and rediscover the joy that teaching had long brought me. 

First, I committed myself to self-care — dropping by the microwave a few times a day to warm up some green tea and bringing a hot lunch instead of the trail mix I was used to reaching for. I started every class with three deep breaths to calm myself and my students. It all helped, but not enough. 

So I started planning exciting new classroom activities. I incorporated more games, brain breaks, discussion, and movement. I’ve added working memory exercises and calming activities like jigsaw puzzles. When I saw my students open up to one another or make it through a class period with sustained attention, I felt success. But something was still missing.

I Marie Kondoed my classroom. I simplified my wardrobe, choosing comfy work-appropriate outfits to wear on repeat (e.g., pink pants on Mondays). I decluttered my classroom. I arranged my class time into structured blocks to make planning easier. Inspired by the book “Atomic Habits,” I tried to get kids into the healthy habit of learning one new vocabulary word a day and trying one tough math problem for five minutes. Teaching them that small, consistent effort pays off has been much more effective than repeating the mantra “persevere” to an unreceptive audience.

I practiced gratitude, taking the time to think through what I did well each day and what blessings I had. There are so many. 

And yet, despite all of it, last Monday, I came home frustrated and tired. Nothing terrible happened. I just felt frustrated that small setbacks were impacting my mood so much. So instead of reading and going to bed, reminding myself that I would feel better tomorrow, I slipped out on the back porch to gather my thoughts. 

Alone in the quiet, I began to cry, and I kept it up for two hours. When I finally went to bed, I cried myself to sleep. I felt so dramatic with my soaking wet pillow. But crying felt so necessary. 

I came to school Tuesday hoping I could make it through the day without crying. I used three tissues on my commute to school. But then something unexpected happened. As I unlocked my classroom, I smiled at the children in the hallway. In that moment, I felt happy. My smile was more genuine. And the rest of the week, even in tough moments, I felt just a little lighter. 

I felt so dramatic with my soaking wet pillow. But crying felt so necessary. 

I’ve been reading a ton of self-help books on my quest for joy. Ironically, I think I’ve been numbing my emotions by reading about them incessantly. It wasn’t until after I cried that I realized my tears were a phenomenon I’ve been reading about but not putting into practice. In “Rising Strong,” the writer Brené Brown teaches, “We run from grief because loss scares us, yet our hearts reach towards grief because the broken parts want to mend.” 

I hadn’t realized I was feeling grief. I am a rare, lucky person who didn’t lose a close family member during the pandemic. My privileges are too many to list. My teaching job is a dream — I have the freedom to teach creatively, and I love my students. Why should I feel grief? Just the thought of it makes me feel guilty. 

But I did feel it. I cried for the teacher I was before the pandemic, for all the days when I played a read-aloud on YouTube instead of gathering on the carpet, reading the dialogue with silly voices and pointing at the pictures up close. I cried for all of the hugs not given, for all the worry that I would make one of my sweet students sick, for all the inadequacy I felt teaching virtually while I knew some kids were playing video games.

I wasn’t thinking as I cried that night; for once, I was feeling. I’ve spent the last few years coping. Along with the literal barriers that kept us safe during COVID, I built up emotional walls to make it through each day. I don’t think I’m completely healed from one night of crying. But I learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes, the best self-care is to let myself crumble. When my walls begin to crack, light can find its way through. 

Inga Puffer has been teaching for 16 years in Greenville, South Carolina. She has taught middle school English, third and fourth grade, and now teaches gifted and talented and enrichment classes. She loves to teach, read, and spend time with her family.