January has never felt like the start of the year for me. When I was teaching, September always signaled a new beginning: a blank page and the possibility to plan and start fresh. One of the first steps I took to start preparing for a new school year was purchasing a new planner and filling it in with my schedule and obligations. I would write on the top of the first page: What am I going to do this year? Many lists followed with to dos like: run a half-marathon, read a book a week, fill all my students’ learning gaps, differentiate daily, cultivate empathy in my students, teach my son how to tie his shoes, meal plan every Sunday, grade at least 10 essays a night when I’ve assigned a paper, and on, and on. Looking back on it now, I realize that the preparation process that I thought was going to center me and prepare me for the school year, was actually doing just the opposite. It was replacing intention with to dos. My anxiety was set into motion before I stepped into my classroom, and as I color-coded each component of my life with different gel pens, and began to fill in the days, I realized that the answer to my question, what am I going to do this year was: everything.
Often in moments of high stress, I have always channeled my inner Giles. Giles is the character in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible whose punishment for pleading the 5th is death by rocks piled on his chest. Instead of saying no or stop to his persecutors, Giles says,
When I taught this play, I would ask my students if Giles’ statement was admirable, heroic even. Many thought it was brave of Giles to stay strong even during extreme pain, fear, and powerlessness. This belief, I feel, is highly reflected in the society that we live in, a society that values taking on more and champions product over process. This is the society our schools operate within.
In my own work and life “more weight” had become an affirmation of my own worth. Each item on my to do list felt like another rock, and instead of saying, “this is too much” or “no more rocks, please,” I said, “more rocks,” and I thought, “I can handle this.”
So this September, I purchased my planner, re-stocked my gel pens, and rolled up my sleeves to chart out another year, another schedule. And then something miraculous happened: I came down with walking pneumonia. I was the sickest I had been in a long time. The kind of sickness that demands you stop everything and get into bed and rest. I didn’t have a gel-pen color for rest. Rest was not in any of the boxes in my planner. They don’t teach rest in the curriculum, and I felt ill-equipped to honor what my body needed, which was to be still and put the whole plan on pause.
(Walking Pneumonia Recovery Kit)
So as much as I wanted to jump out of bed, and tackle my to do list and adhere to my schedule, I forced myself to stop, and during that pause I took stock of my beliefs. I channeled my inner Brene Brown and dug deep. Instead of asking myself, what am I going to do this year? I took down my thoughts with some much-needed self-talk, and shifted my thinking. The question became: What do I hope this year will bring?
To support my exploration of this question, I pulled out Elena Aguilar’s list of core values from her book, The Art of Coaching. I scanned the list, and looked for the values that resonated with me both in my personal and professional life.
They were: joy, balance, and authenticity.
When I looked back at my calendar from the past year, I quickly saw that these values weren’t reflected in my actions. My beliefs and my behavior were out of alignment, and I felt anxious, unbalanced, and depleted.
In order to honor my belief that process is more important than product, I would have to shift my thinking. This blog is going to explore the process of using self-talk to shift my thoughts from “more weight” to more joy, and how I support teachers to do the same so that teaching feels sustainable and joyful.
I work with educators who teach within systems where taking on “more weight” isn’t a choice, it is an expectation. While it would be a “single story” or a blanket statement to say this is true of all schools, it isn’t. However, I think it is fair to say that based on my teaching experiences, and the conversations I have when I coach teachers, it is a expectation that weighs on many. You can teach another section, right? I know you’re not certified in Math, but you can teach it, right? You can be on the hiring committee, it only meets twice a month, right? More weight. I believe that in order to make teaching sustainable, teachers need weight removed, not added. Teachers need to find joy in their teaching and have the time and the space to try new things and reflect on their impact in the classroom. Teachers need less weight. We all do.
In my work with teachers as an instructional coach, I support them to make shifts in their mindset and their teaching practice. At my company our mission is to light up teachers so they can light up their students. At the center of our beliefs is joy, a joy of teaching and a joy of learning. Teachers often come to the work feeling burnt out, overwhelmed, and worried that meeting with a coach every two weeks is something they just don’t have time for: it is more weight.
This is why I begin my work with teachers by asking them, what do you hope this school year will bring instead of, what do you have to do this school year? The responses range from, I don’t understand what you are asking me to no one has ever asked me that before.
So we start with a very small shift. Instead of collecting and grading every assignment, select three assignments a week that you feel will give you the most meaningful data about your students’ learning. For the rest, provide the students with a framework for self-assessing their understanding. Less weight.
A small shift might focus more on their energy around teaching. I am so exhausted and it’s only week two, one teacher tells me. I ask her to share what her exhaustion sounds like and looks like. What is she doing when she is exhausted? She tells me, grading. I grade a few papers when I wake up, I grade papers before I go to bed. We talk about how she feels like she has to get feedback to her students immediately. I suggest she think about one of her closest colleagues. I ask her, would you be disappointed in your colleague if she didn’t grade all of her papers right away? She said, no. Of course not! We decide that her shift is to replace her name with her colleague’s name when she feels the urge to grade papers first thing in the morning. She is going to try saying, “Would I expect my colleague to grade papers before breakfast or a shower?” No. Of course not! Less weight.
These shifts aren’t easy, and they take time and practice. Developing a ritual or routine to signal to yourself that you need to pause or rest has been one of the first shifts for me. When I find myself feeling like I am not doing enough or need to do more, I get up and turn the lights on and off. This helps signal to me that I need to shift my thinking away from, I can handle this to I am doing the best I can, and that is enough. My colleague, Romain gets up and takes a walk when he feels he needs to stop working and pause. My colleague, James, stands up, stretches and says out loud, “I am done working for today.” This signals to him that the computer shuts down, and his time with his family begins. No multi-tasking. No work and family, just family. Small wins, but the beginnings of a big shift.
Shift Small: Steps for Teachers and For All Of Us To Start Shifting
1) Create A Shift Ritual.
When you find yourself feeling exhausted, burnt out, or you need to pause, it can be helpful to develop a shift ritual. Whether you channel Romain’s walk, mimic James’ stretch and statement or try turning the lights on or off, a physical action can help you practice making a shift, and it will eventually become more automatic and instinctual.
2) Combat Your Thoughts With Self-Talk.
One of my favorite strategies to share with teachers is Instead of This, Think This. For example, instead of thinking, I have so much to do today, think I am open to what today brings. Write down your shift on a Post-It and stick it near your work space as a visual reminder. Share your shift with your students, and ask them to do the same exercise. So often our students say, “this is too hard” or “I can’t do this.” Instead of thinking, “this is too hard,” think “This is hard now, but will get easier with practice.” Instead of “I can’t do this,” think “I can’t do this yet, but I’m going to keep trying.”
3) Insert a close colleague, beloved teacher or your best friend’s name into your thinking.
When you set expectations for your teaching or yourself, pause and ask, would I be disappointed in her/him if ____________ didn’t get all of this done?
4) Bring Self-Awareness to Your Values and Your Actions.
Identify three values that are important to you, and write them down. Then, look at your calendar from the past few months. Did your actions align with your values? If not, how might you make some small shifts so that there is more alignment? For example, one of my values is balance. This means I feel anxious and agitated if I don’t make time for exercise, self-care, and my family. When I see a day on my calendar where there are no breaks and back to back meetings, that is a signal to me that I need to shift my schedule so I say yes to what will allow balance, and no to what will lead to imbalance.
Shifting is a process, and requires practice and reflection. It may feel that there isn’t time to do this work, but I have found that small shifts make a big impact on my work, in my personal life, and in my overall well-being. This work has become a passion project for me, which I will continue to explore and write about here.
Thanks for reading.