Surely most of us would like to move beyond merely surviving in the new year to THRIVING in every aspect of our lives. Let’s consider three specific things educators can do to spark and/or renew our joy in what we do each day.
1. Focus on What Matters and What We Can Control
A new year is an opportune time to make lists. However, instead of writing out a bunch of resolutions (most of which are recycled from year to year and seldom kept), we can start with a different strategy. Begin by recording things that really matter to us. The list might include elements from our professional lives — 1) building better relationships with colleagues, 2) developing a new skill, or 3) improving our connections with students. We also need to consider our personal lives –1) making time for family and friends outside of work, 2) improving our health, or 3) growing spiritually. Some or none of these examples may apply to you, but what is important is that each of us makes a list of those essentials that matter most to us in our school and home lives.
Next, we need to list only those things over which we have direct control and can move us towards acting on our goals. Instead of playing the “If Only” game with ourselves (‘I’d like to be a better teammate to my nemesis, Mrs. Culsmucker, if only she would improve her attitude.”), we need to focus on what we can control. We can always control our choices and our efforts, so our second list should focus on things we can do no matter what the circumstance. Rather than saying, “I will be nice to Mrs. Culsmucker, if she is nice to me,” we can concentrate on what we can control: “I am going to smile when I see her, speak only positively to and about her, and I will be my best self around her no matter how she responds.”
In other words, rather than just making a wish list of how we’d like to have a better new year, we are more likely to attain our goals by realistically evaluating what we want and capitalizing on what already lies within us to move towards our purpose.
Be Fully Present with Students
I can think of no single better way to improve professionally in the new year than by making a vow to be fully present with the students in front of us. It can be challenging, but this is definitely something over which we have control. No matter how many or how few students we see each day, they each deserve our single-minded, respectful attention. For some of us, that may mean a shift in teaching style, changing our habit of multi-tasking, or innovatively rethinking our classroom management strategies.
How many of us get a bit incensed when we see parents dining out with their children and each of them is on a separate personal device totally ignoring the others at the table? And yet, how many times do we professional teachers do much the same thing by checking e-mail, responding to social media, surfing the web, grading papers, preparing lesson plans, chatting with other teachers, etc., when students are right in front of us? I know I’ve done it.
Early in my career I took pride in my ability to “multi-task” by giving students an assignment to work on while I graded, planned, and otherwise took care of my own work. I finally figured out that the most important part of my job was sitting right in front of me.
It’s so hard to check all the boxes, record all the data, and generate the mounds of paperwork presently required of teachers, but somehow, we have to find a way to promise ourselves, “When students are present, I will give them my undivided, focused attention.” Here are a few tips to get started.
- As much as possible get all grading, planning, and paperwork done ahead of time so the temptation to do it in class is removed.
- Be at or near the door to your classroom to make eye contact and greet each student as they enter. (I know you’ve been told this a zillion times, but it really is that important!)
- Unless you are using them for instruction, stay off all personal devices when students are present. Turn off beeps, buzzes, or anything else that distracts you from interacting with kids.
- During class, be fully mobile. Walk around, give feedback, interact, join a group, make eye contact, provide reminders, diffuse potential problems, and basically pay attention to what is going on with students.
- Remind yourself that no matter what other obligations are plaguing us, the time we spend actively involved with the students in front of us is one of the greatest gifts we can give them – and us.
“You are responsible for how you act no matter how you feel.”
–Robert Tew, American Writer
Practice Small Acts of Gratitude
Type the word “gratitude” in any search engine, and you will be inundated with scientific studies on the positive aspects of intentionally practicing gratitude. Research tells us it does everything from making us more optimistic, to helping us sleep better, to making us more socially competent, to prolonging our lives. I don’t believe in silver bullets, but I have witnessed how gratitude triggers positive feedback loops that can make all of us less cynical and more joyful. It is nearly impossible to feel negative emotions at the same time we are feeling truly grateful for something.
Maybe it’s because while we are busy being grateful, we take the focus off ourselves. Perhaps it’s because gratitude gives us a greater purpose. Possibly it’s because gratitude makes us feel more humane, or maybe it’s all of those, but even the most downbeat educators can improve their mental states by practicing simple acts of appreciation. I know when I feel negative, I can cheer myself by thinking about the best parts of my life or by doing something for someone else.
Let’s face it, educators are drawn to our profession because we are nurturers, and helping others is generally second nature to us. It really isn’t that much of a reach for us to develop the habit of being a bit more purposeful about it. Regularly reflecting on the good things in our lives as well as purposefully performing deeds of kindness can remind us about the best within us and reinforce how much of our happiness we can control. Using gratitude to THRIVE can begin with a few simple steps:
- Create some kind of gratitude journal. These are very popular right now, so you can find many examples out there. Even something as simple as ending each school day by writing 3 or 4 things for which you are grateful can temper feelings of being overwhelmed and underappreciated. (Seriously, just try it for a couple of weeks, and let me know if it doesn’t help.)
- Make positive phone calls to parents and guardians telling them about unique or special qualities you’ve observed in their children or about something remarkable the student did.
- Write a brief note expressing your gratitude for the positive qualities you see in someone else (students or adults at school). Be specific in telling them how they make a difference to you or to others. It can be an anonymous message you leave for them to find in their mailbox or desk.
There are, of course, countless other ideas for expressing gratitude to those around us. The method is not nearly as important as the planning and implementation.
In order to THRIVE we have first to clearly define what matters to us both personally and professionally. We need to identify which parts of our goals we can control and determine how to maximize the power we already have to make them feasible. We can improve professionally by resolving to be fully present with our students. We can grow personally by practicing gratitude. These three steps are simple, but not easy. They are inexpensive, but powerful. They are not the only positive steps educators can take, but these three can vastly impact how educators move from surviving to THRIVING in 2019.
Please let us know your thoughts on these and any other important resolutions you think teacher need to make for the new year.