A Gift for Teacher Appreciation Week in the Form of Two Questions

May 2, 2016

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week! In 1985, the National Parent-Teacher Association declared the first week of May as a time to appreciate the work of educators throughout the United States. Since then, Teacher Appreciation week has become an annual tradition in American life.

I myself have enjoyed basking in the love that my colleagues and I receive during this week of celebration. Last year, I received homemade chocolate-covered strawberries and a beautiful plant (delivered to my office by two caring parents with wonderful smiles) from the Gardner Pilot Academy Home-School Association. I also attended the Boston Foundation’s annual Teacher Appreciation Week celebration of teacher leadership and innovation, Boston EdTalks.

I have no doubt that, in this coming week, I will again delight in the gracious appreciation that this week brings to our profession.

However, I also want to take a moment this week to share a gift with my teaching colleagues across the country. This gift is two questions to ponder during the other 51 weeks of the year,  when we may be not outwardly celebrated for the incredible work that we do:

If not now, then when?

If not me, then who?

I heard these questions from a fellow teacher, yoga instructor Muadi Dibinga, whose class I took this past New Year’s Eve. She was speaking about self-care. These questions resonated with me so much that I wrote them down on an envelope which I placed on the dashboard of my car. I read these questions at least twice each weekday – on my way to and on my way home from work.

I later learned that these questions originated from Hillel the Elder, a Babylonian rabbi, who asked:

If I am not for myself, who is for me?

And when I am for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

Hillel used these words as a way to explore the conflict between what is contained in oneself and what is outside the self. Learning of the longevity of these questions and their place in the ancient tradition of philosophy and religion made them all the more alluring and powerful.

For me, these words take on two different meanings, depending on my mood and the moment. A positive mood depends on everything I’ve done to make the day better for myself and others. Have I smiled, packed a healthy lunch, chatted with a friend or colleague, listened to my students’ thoughts and ideas, made clear decisions in moments of conflict, scheduled a little time for myself or my own family? If so, these questions remind me that I am doing the right thing. I have not waited to make my life a better place for myself and others.

But, there are dark days too. On these days, I find myself clenching my jaw, escaping into my office to avoid talking with people, snapping at a student, fuming from a disagreement with a colleague. And when I see these words, they remind me to put a pause on the moment. Because right now, I can call a friend for support, go for a walk and listen to music, cook a meal, read a well-loved book (usually A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), or take my daughters to the playground. And if I really listen to these words, I remember that this moment will pass, and I am the one who can help the next moment to arrive sooner.

As teachers, we are tasked not only with the duties of our profession but also with a responsibility as role models for our communities. If we care for ourselves, we will realize our best selves, and the impact we have on others’ lives is all the more powerful. When we stand tall and proud for ourselves, we can stand the same way in support of and in allegiance with our colleagues and our students. And this is especially important in light of the challenging political and economic times we are facing.

I am very much looking forward to the joy that the coming week will undoubtedly bring. But, in the weeks and months that follow, I am going to continue to celebrate myself and the successes of my teaching practice through the art of self-care because I am continually striving to be the best person and teacher I can be in this life that I am grateful to have received.

Jennifer Dines, NBCT

Jennifer Dines is the Director of English Language Learners at the Lilla G. Frederick Middle School, a Pilot School in the Boston Public Schools. Jennifer is a National Board Certified Teacher in the area of English as a New Language. She is a graduate of Berklee College of Music, Lesley University, Northeastern University, and the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. In addition to blogging for The Standard, Jennifer currently maintains her personal blog as well as a newer collaborative blog focused on writing across the curriculum: Follow her on twitter @literacychange.