The Grateful Teacher.
Here is one thing I have learned about parenting so far: It's all in the attitude.
As we packed up for a three stop, week long trip yesterday, I noticed something. When I got anxious, tense or annoyed at life, Bo got fussy. When I was chill and content to be doing the thing I was doing, even if it was unpleasant, Bo was smiling and talking and being pretty much the cutest baby in the know universe. (My completely unbiased opinion, of course.)
This feels so true: The circumstances don't change, but the way I approach them changes everything.
I know we are in the midst of an interpretation series here at indent, and I promise we will get back to that right after Thanksgiving, but the approaching holiday, being at NCTE, and some struggles I am experiencing made me wake up this morning wanting to write this post instead.
It's about gratitude.
Because it's the same with teaching, isn't it? I can't always change the circumstances I find myself in. I can't change the kids in my class, they way they act up or shut down, what they come to me knowing how to do. I can't change the people I work with, the politics of my school building, or my salary. Even if I work to change the testing culture, in the short term, I can't change that either. What I can change is my attitude, the way I think about the circumstances of my teaching life.
Once, I was complaining to a mentor and friend, Frank Vogt, about someone I found very difficult to work with. When I was done, he smiled and said, "It sounds like she is your teacher." This was an incredibly annoying thing to say. And confusing - what does that even mean? (I tried to keep the snark out of my voice as I asked him.) He explained that any struggle we have is an opportunity to grow, and so anytime we have difficulty with someone, we can choose to see them not as our enemy, or as an obstacle, but as the person who is going to teach us something greater about ourselves.
It was still really annoying.
But, it's true. This is the choice I have - to take the difficulties in my life as a burden that I feel sorry for myself over, or to take them as gateways to greater wisdom, fulfillment, and serenity.
Admittedly, this is really hard to hold onto in the midst of said difficulties. In the middle of a long school day, an impossible class, a failing unit, or a Pearson testing marathon, it can prove out of our reach to stay in gratitude, at least when left to our own devices. Sometimes I find myself waiting to feel grateful, and I just don't. I feel frustrated, depressed or anxious, and I stand there hoping that by willing it to happen, gratitude will just fill me up magically. But it almost never happens like that.
Instead, I have been taught by my spiritual community to think of gratitude as an action, not an emotion. It is something we do, not something that happens to us. By taking grateful actions, then, we become grateful people.
As we go off to our various holiday scenarios, let's take on grateful actions. One possibility: for the past ten years I, along with a group of friends, have written a Gratitude List regularly. (I wrote a little about the gratitude list here awhile back.) On the surface, it's a simple tool. You make a list of what you are grateful for. Recently this has become a Facebook thing - "write down three things you are grateful for for three days!" I email a list with some friends of mine. On my list every day? Coffee. I am very, very grateful to coffee.
But what I would like to suggest today is that the real work of the gratitude list is not when things are good, but when things are hard. The magic happens when we list things we are grateful for within the struggles we face. It's easy to write a list of stuff we are happy about. "I'm so grateful that everything is going so awesome for me!" But it's hard to sit in the tough stuff and ask ourselves where there are places for thankfulness. For example:
1. I have a confrontation with a kid in my class that doesn't go well - the kid still misbehaves and I get upset. Instead of stewing on how bad the kid is, or sinking into shame over my failings, I can take a step back and look forward. On my gratitude list that day, I write:
"Grateful that I know what I could have done better. That I took the time to reflect on my choices instead of blaming the kid. Grateful that I didn't yell like I wanted to."
2. Heading into testing season, I am angry and outraged at the injustices of high stakes testing. I write:
"So grateful for my beliefs about kids and teaching. Grateful that I am not alone, that I have a community of educators that stands with me. Grateful there are things I can do to help change things. Grateful that I can be a source of comfort and confidence for my kids."
3. It's winter. I've been teaching five paragraph essays for what feels like forever. All I want is sunshine, and a poetry unit. I am depressed. I write:
"Grateful that all things pass. That spring will come. Grateful for hot chocolate and for the fact that if I need to I can just push pause on everything and teach my kids to write essays off of songs. Grateful for my kid's patience, and how good kids are, even when things get boring."
You get the idea. By pausing in the midst of difficulty and acting grateful, by looking for the things that are good and positive and true (even if I don't feel them in that moment), we allow ourselves to let those positive parts grow bigger. We feed the good and starve the bad.
This is not to say that we cover up the bad feelings, the anger or the sense of wanting to be better than we are. (I am not, for example, saying that in light of the Ferguson ruling last night we should all just make a gratitude list and feel better.) Instead, by focusing on the things we are grateful for, we create the energy we need to keep fighting, to keep improving. Focusing only on anger or dissatisfaction saps us of energy. Gratitude fills us up again.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Kate and Maggie
Big Idea: Staying Grateful in Education. Tiny Detail: Gratitude Lists.