Peter Mishler’s new book has advice, affirmations, and self-care for teachers
2020 was helluva year. How do educators move forward?
Throughout 12 years of teaching, high school English teacher Peter Mishler would occasionally note a sentence or two about different experiences he found important in his career. When remote teaching became a reality in March 2020, those notes and ideas served as the foundation for what became a book—For All You Do: Self-Care and Encouragement for Teachers.
“I’ve often spent mornings before school trying to find methods to prepare myself for the day, and how to overcome certain challenges of the day because there’s just so much that can happen,” he says about the inspiration for writing the book. “You just never know day to day.”
Timing for this project felt right not only because of how much personal growth Mishler feels is achieved through showing up to his classroom year after year, but also because he knew returning to the classroom in August 2020, virtually or in-person, would make for a tough year for teachers.
Mishler teaches at Olathe West, which returned to in-person learning March 1. However, he has been teaching from home with the students that chose to learn remotely for the 2020-2021 school year. Mishler has found a number of positives in teaching virtually, including the ability for students to show up to class with their preferred name and pronouns displayed on the screen or to have their cameras off during class. Next year, Mishler will be leading the English department for a new, virtual school in the district. He hopes it will serve as a powerful, alternate space from an in-person environment for students.
Online learning also shifted his classroom demographics, from predominantly white to majority minority identities. Mishler describes this as a powerful experience that also exposed necessary changes in his curriculum from the College Board for an AP class.
“One of the things [the College Board] wants students to be able to do is to navigate difficult readings, namely 19th and 18th century texts, and the ones that are held up as models are sometimes written by people—writers who dominated that time in the history of writing in English—who were racist,” he says. “And so these readings are supposed to be employed to teach critical reading skills, but you can’t do that when the reading or the writer is summoning these beliefs. Of course, these writings bring up important conversations, but we’re talking about learning to become a better reader, here, not just learning how to engage with various ideas—and you can’t learn to read unfamiliar writing if you’re not reading in context, and you can’t learn to read something if the context or message is harmful, knowing that this person who is held up as a model writer has views that are directly antagonistic to your personhood, your peers’ personhood. This year has demonstrated clearly for me what antiracist teaching needs to look like, and the work that I need to be doing in that regard.”
According to Mishler, the complexity of this year has been exacerbated by issues outside of the pandemic itself, like the presidential election, police violence and the politicization of COVID-19.
“There’s been a lot going on, in terms of the stressors that students are facing and trying to understand the world that they live in during this time,” he says. “My students have been, I think, relatively at peace with the remote [learning] aspect, but having to navigate all of these other factors that are a part of their lives and figuring out how to have conversations about those things… because I teach English and we’re always thinking about communicating and persuasion and argumentation and reading and reading in context. I like to think that we’ve had a good year working in that regard, but to compound that with learning remotely and then all the other multifaceted responsibilities that teachers face in any given year, when maybe those political crises aren’t as acute, it has made it, for me anyway, a year that has taken a lot more care and thoughtfulness.”
Although he described his school year as largely good, it challenged him to know how difficult it has been for other teachers.
“Knowing how difficult this year was for teachers and knowing that they in a lot of cases faced a lot of criticism: [how] they should have been in classrooms throughout the pandemic, how they should be teaching regardless of the circumstances, and weathering the typical critiques such as ‘teachers have it easy anyway’ and ‘their unions are too powerful.’ This year has allowed those fallback arguments about American teachers—it’s brought them all back up again as people have wanted what they’ve wanted in spite of this pandemic.”
He continued: “So, knowing that that’s the messaging going on about teachers and then knowing that teachers are having to do the work that we’ve always done—I think it’s been the most challenging. To know that that’s some of the messaging that’s in the air about teachers right now. That there’s a critical stance against teachers. That’s been hard.”
Every few pages of the book are dedicated to a different aspect of the profession that is typically represented by the “all” in “thank you for all you do.” Mishler covers topics like the physicality of teaching, the power of authenticity, meeting the needs of our times, the need for breaks, violence in our schools and resilience.
“I would say that most of what’s in the book I am thinking about or practicing daily in an unconscious way,” he says. “These things have all accrued or accumulated over time, and so I think that a teacher can find themselves deep into their career sort of equipped with ways to meet the profession a little bit more healthfully than before. But that’s not saying that I don’t know any teacher veteran, or not, who doesn’t still think that it’s hard. Even when they’ve had some experience. So I think there’s also knowing that that’s sort of part of the deal is also a part of this, and that’s just how it is. But at the same time, I think folks who’ve been around long enough that people with more power are willing to listen to us—that feels like my goal now, to try to protect other teachers and to make this job more appealing and more safe, more certain for younger teachers. So hopefully, we’re moving toward a culture that is a little bit better for teachers.”
Something that surprised Mishler while writing was “On Honesty About Our Profession”—a passage that honestly discusses conflicting feelings of wanting to stay or leave the profession. While this discussion could be perceived as negative, writing about it led Mishler back to a more grounded place to continue teaching.
“I feel more confident about teaching than ever now that I’ve gotten that out on the table,” he says. “Because I don’t think I’m trying to come to a conclusion about this. I don’t think there is one really, maybe. It’s just I feel more like it’s helped me to pare away what doesn’t really matter and just kind of focus on what does that will sustain me in continuing to do this.”
Peter Mishler’s book For All You Do: Self-Care and Encouragement for Teachers will be available for purchase May 18.