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Alex brought me a copy of the free amNewYork newspaper most mornings. In fact, he usually brought a few copies to share with his classmates. When we discussed current events, he was often the first to talk.

“Can we discuss the protests from yesterday? Did they ever find that missing plane? How did the Mets do last night?”

This was a major shift for Alex, and part of a larger evolution for me.

For teachers – perhaps for workers anywhere – burnout happens. Over time, our wells run dry. Overwhelming tasks and limited rewards make us jaded. If someone could bottle the answer to this problem, they’d probably make millions.

I don’t have a remedy so valuable, but I do know what helped me navigate the trouble spots of my teaching career. My happy discovery was bringing my passions back into the classroom not only invigorated me but also helped the students I had struggled most to reach.

Back in 2006, when I first began teaching, I felt latitude to bring a little of myself into the classroom. I incorporated drumming into classroom activities and opened each day with a discussion of current events.

But as time wore on, I found it difficult to continue bringing my own passions to the table. Despite being in a school where individual ideas are celebrated, more of my class time went to activities related to state tests, data analysis, and the ever-changing demands of politicians. As the layers built, I found myself losing the essence of what made me want to become a teacher.

I remember having conversations with myself about how I could climb out of the abyss — or at least be happier in my job.

Eventually, I realized I needed to regain some degree of sovereignty over my classroom no matter how intense the demands from the outside world. So I decided morning news discussions were going to be an essential part of my day.

This brings me back to Alex. The year before, he was making minimal progress, was reading below grade level, and had a poor work ethic. His troubles were widely known. But then Alex found the news.

The first time he brought me a newspaper, I was floored. This student – troubled and difficult by all accounts – was embracing our morning news discussions. He began following current events on his own. His reading improved. His focus increased. His class participation skyrocketed.

We were both using the news to get us where we needed to be. For me, it was an escape from burnout. For Alex, it was a part of school he could finally embrace.

I’ve seen fellow teachers incorporate humor, crafts, music, and meditation with their communities of students — whatever motivates them as individuals. At the suggestion of some of my colleagues, I used chess as another outlet and I saw other students come to life in new ways as they strategized and engaged in learning without any associated test.

There can be downsides. Discussing the news means controversial topics come up, and awkward conversations can follow. Time learning chess isn’t direct math instruction. I only was able to work chess into my class after state testing was finished.

But as I watched my student Pat, who had struggled all year, become our de facto chess champion, it became clear chess was worth the effort.

As Pat declared, “checkmate!” I had found a new way to keep the flames of teaching lit.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.