GUEST POST BY RYAN ESTRELLADO
I used to worry about how all my hobbies and interests would advance my education career. They eventually did, but only after I let go of my expectations and started doing them for the right reasons.
I’m not the only one who scrolls through Instagram to avoid work right?
Ok, hearing nothing, I’ll assume you’re noticing the same thing I have: educators are expressing their creativity on Instagram in inspiring ways.
There’s one account where a school psychologist makes beautiful school psychologist-themed stickers. There’s another where a teacher shares lesson materials she’s made for her students. Then there’s my favorite: educators doing comedy.
One day I was flicking through my feed, slowing every so often to admire an educator-branded crew neck or a witty meme about educator stress, when I realized something. Educators want to express their natural interests and creativity so bad that it’s bursting out of the classroom and onto social media.
If you feel the need to be more creative in your education job, you’re not alone. It can raise scary questions, like “What if bringing my creative side to work is a waste of time?” or “Am I the only one who cares about this?” If those are questions you ask, you’re not alone. Here are four ways I’ve learned to honor my creative side at work.
Find a Detail of Your Work That Brings You Joy
I knew a school principal that could make his whole staff laugh so hard at meetings you’d think they were at a comedy show. I knew an administrator who designed her office so well that I could feel my mood change for the better as soon as I entered it. I knew a teacher so hell-bent on turning tough behaviors around that she promised parents she’d call home only for emergencies and to share something awesome their kids did. And she loved those phone calls.
It’s easy to believe we should only invest time in things that further our career or make us more money. Of course, career advancement and higher salaries have their benefits, not the least of which is the chance to do more good work.
But those aren’t the reasons why I share the stories of these folks. It’s because they found something big or small they could access whenever they wanted to feel like themselves at work. That’s a good enough reason.
Take some time every day to look inward as you work. Are you enjoying yourself? If so, what are you doing that lights you up inside? These are the little things that are available to you every day. If you tell yourself they don’t matter, they won’t. If you take time to indulge them and even develop them as a skill, they will.
Something ironic happened for the school principal, administrator, and teacher I wrote about earlier. Enjoying the little moments and challenges that energized them had an unintended side effect. The little moments they indulged for themselves became the thing they were known and loved for by others.
Your Job is a Place of Practice
The most interesting solutions I’ve used for problems in my education job were the ones I found outside my education job. And my job became a place to practice new skills in service to students and myself.
Here’s why our education jobs are the ideal place for creativity: No matter what our role is, the job boils down to something creative, loosely defined. We’re always making something. Writing emails is writing. Developing lesson plans is designing. Helping parents at the front desk is creating an experience. Getting organized is building systems.
I wanted to learn about design thinking. Then I realized I could use design thinking while building presentations at work. I wanted to learn how to code and use statistics. Then I realized I could use those skills to build data tools at the office. I wanted to learn to write better. Turns out, work is a great place to practice that also. I started seeing work emails, presentations, meeting agendas, and memos as writing practice.
In college, we learned how to be educators. But that’s just our baseline training. What comes next are the unique interests you bring to your education career. For me, those are design thinking, data science, and writing. You probably have different things. And you don’t have to apologize for them because they’re what make you unique as an educator.
Get Comfortable With an Identity Crisis
By the fifteenth year of my education career, my skills were a band of misfit toys. I’d done school psychology work, I led programs as an administrator, I created special development at a county office, I built data tools for equity metrics, and I led the creative direction of a grant-funded project. I was also about to publish my first book.
And somewhere in the background of all the activity was a nagging question: what is my actual job now? Was I a school psychologist who leads projects and writes? Or maybe an author who moonlights as a special education administrator? No, wait—a data scientist that does public speaking? You can see where this was going. It was a full-on identity crisis.
But only if I made it one.
See, the discomfort that comes with exploring your interests and honing a skill may not be a sign that you’re wasting your time. It might be a sign that you’re learning about yourself. As you’ll see in the final suggestion of this piece, there’s a time and purpose for focusing on just a few things and seeing what happens. But there’s also the joy of unapologetically exploring interests because … well, just because. I like the way Austin Kleon puts it in his book on creativity, Steal Like an Artist: “Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece—what unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it.”
Stay With Things
Paula Scher is one of the most accomplished designers of our generation. So when she shares stories about creative work, I listen. Even when those stories make me uncomfortable.
In 2018, Scher was interviewed on an episode of Design Matters, where she dropped a gem of wisdom. It was a gem that helped me see my education career in a different way.
Scher told a story about landing her now legendary job redesigning the brand identity of the New York Public Theater. Where most would take full credit for a job like that, Scher took a more reflective approach:
“I stayed with it. That’s me. But the way it came about. No. That’s luck.”
Stories like this are uncomfortable for educators like me, who want to express creativity and curiosity in everything they do and be successful. That’s because it makes me face a harsh reality: Developing any kind of craft does not guarantee success in the way it appears in my imagination. I can’t control what success eventually looks like. I know, that’s scary, right?
It’s also liberating. That’s because admitting you can’t control everything frees you to be intentional on what you can control: the things you choose to stick with. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be a Pulitzer-winning poet. But you can write poetry every day. There’s no guarantee that your education consultation business will earn a seven-figure income. But you can make content for educators every day that you believe in.
So explore. Then pick something to stick with for a while. And keep your eyes open for success. It might show up in a way you hadn’t imagined.
As educators, we’ve got way more to do than we’ve got time to do it. That’s especially true during a pandemic.
But hear me out. Now might be the most important time to honor your creative interests. So much about the world is out of our control. It’s healing to take charge of our creativity as we educate, which is something we can control.
For your own personal well-being, spend a few minutes every day creating something that lights you up on the inside. That could be writing a few sentences in your journal, making a drawing, drafting a funny tweet, or designing a presentation slide. Stay with it like Paula Scher does. With a little bit of luck, the things you make could turn into something big at work. But that would be the icing on the cake. The cake is honoring your well-being by doing creative acts. And that’s a good cake.
Ryan Estrellado is a writer, educator, and data scientist. He is the author of the book The K–12 Educator’s Data Guidebook: Reimagining Practical Data Use in Schools and co-author of Data Science in Education Using R. Ryan tells inspiring stories about the reality of education work, from overcoming a fear of data to finding a creative practice in the workplace. For more K-12 education resources, sign up for Ryan’s free email newsletter at ryanestrellado.com.
- “Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece—what unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it.”: Kleon, Austin. Steal Like an Artist. Workman, 2012.
- In 2018, Scher was interviewed on an episode of Design Matters: Millman, Debbie. “Design Matters Live: Paula Scher.” Podcast. Design Matters, 2018, https://www.designmattersmedia.com/podcast/2018/Design-Matters-Live%3A-Paula-Scher. Accessed 16 February 2022.
- Redesigning the brand identity of the New York Public Theater: Seriously, I can stare at this project all day. “The Public Theater — Story.” Pentagram, https://www.pentagram.com/work/the-public-theater/story. Accessed 4 March 2022.
- For your own personal well-being, spend a few minutes everyday creating something: For more on the research about creativity and processing stress, see Nagoski, Emily, and Amelia Nagoski. Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Random House Publishing Group, 2019.