The Mind Shift that Saved my Career
I remember the day when I recognized I had to make a shift in my approach to teaching. Not necessarily my instructional approach, but a shift in my mindset in order to save my career as a teacher. It was my second year teaching, and I was in graduate school earning my Masters degree in Teaching. I mindlessly ran through my long daily to-do lists, which included lesson planning, lunch duty, meetings, grading, graduate work, and not to mention all the personal responsibilities. I spent every waking minute working and studying, and living on automatic (I’m sure many of you can relate). At work I planned, delivered lessons, checked for understanding, and moved on to the next task without really paying much attention to what I was really doing in class or truly checking on my students. Honestly, I was in a haze of stress that did not allow me to see what was really happening in my classroom or even in my life at the present moment. I was constantly thinking and stressing about the next task rather than focusing on the present. As I reflect back, I realize that I didn’t even know that I was completely out of balance and exhausted until one day when my stress impacted my students.
On the day I woke up from the stressful daze, I conducted a typical lesson that I had created and implemented many times before. There was nothing unique or stressful about this particular lesson. It was my sophomore general education World History class. At the end of the previous day’s lesson I placed students into groups of four and asked each group to read an article in their World History textbook for homework. This was your average jigsaw reading activity. At this point I don’t remember what the topic was, and for the purpose of this blog post it doesn’t matter. It was an easy task that I had done many times already and by the midpoint of the academic year my students had already done such activities. The following day I asked students to meet in their groups. Students were to discuss the article they had to read for homework using guided question I provided, and then create a poster with an image and 4-5 bullet points on the major take aways about the article to share with the class. Again, a simple task that we had done several times before. Students could refer back to the textbook and if they didn’t read the article they could quickly scan over it.
As I walked around to check on students’ progress, ask questions, and clarify any concerns I noticed that two groups were discussing the same article. At that moment this activity became a disaster, at least that’s what I thought. I couldn’t believe that two groups had the same article. I became upset with the second group and proceeded to tell them that they did not listen to my directions and that they were to read the 5th article not the 6th. One student in the group protested that I had assigned their group that article. I snapped! How dare a student question me and blame me for what was clearly their mistake, I thought to myself. I proceed to tell the group that they needed to read the 6th article and summarize that article for the class. Again, the same student protested explaining that she and her group members read the article I assigned them the day before and shouldn’t have to read another article because of my mistake. I lost it. My voice raised, and I scolded this student in front of her group and the entire class. I explained that I didn’t make the mistake and continued to blame the student. I was at this point shouting at her that she didn’t listen to my directions. “The world isn’t fair!” I exclaimed to this teenage girl. And before I walked away I told her and her group that they needed to work on the 6th article. By this point I notice that the entire class was quiet and looking up at me. I quickly tried to compose myself, but it was too late I lost my cool, and what’s really frustrating as I look back is that I turned my anger and frustration to a student when it was clearly my mistake. I did assign two groups the same article without noticing, because I was too busy worrying about the next task that I wasn’t focused on my directions.
I could not believe that this incident, which typically wouldn’t cause such conflict, had blown up to a shouting match with a 15-year-old student. I’m sure many of you can relate and have encountered similar situations. That day I replayed that critical incident several times in my head. When did I become THAT teacher? You know…. The teacher that was so out of touch. The tyrant teacher. The stressed out teacher. The moody teacher. I was really not myself and more importantly it was impacting my students. This incident was when everything shifted for me and I knew I had to change my mindset in order to save my career.
I realized I was so caught up in my day-to-day tasks that I lost sight of what my mission in teaching was. I forgot why I was working with youth. I failed to remember why I was staying up late every night to go to graduate school. I even disregarded the excitement I had when working with teenagers. I had to reclaim my life and my true self. I had to anchor myself back to my mission and purpose in life. Notably, I realized that my students and I are connected in deep and meaningful ways. That the learning environment was co-created by the teacher and students, and if I walked into my classroom unaware, tired, moody and reactive that this negative energy would impact my students and they would also become unaware, tired, moody and reactive. I also realized that the student that I shouted at was also suffering just like I was. She too had her long to-do-lists, just like I did. She probably had the typical teenage anxieties and pressures, and here I was adding to her struggles. For what reason? Was it my personal pride? Was it my own exhaustion? Was it the fact that I was no longer grounded in the present moment? The answer was yes to all of the above and probably some others causes that lingered in the unconscious mind.
I sometimes think back to that moment wishing I could change it, but as I write about it I realize that that moment had to occur in order for me to wake up from the modern, stressful daze I was living in. The next days, weeks, and even years I became a different teacher. A teacher that was more flexible, that was present, and that was willing to admit I was wrong. Did I fail some days? I sure did, but that’s because I’m human and on a wild and beautiful journey. The realization after the critical incident was not the end of my journey into becoming a mindfully compassionate teacher, but it was one very small step. I often fall back into old habits of maintaining a hectic schedule that pushes me to unknown limits, and that at times prevents me from enjoying the present moments and being aware. I have had additional moments similar to the one I described and even more dramatic and traumatic ones.
I chose to describe this event in my career, because it was the point in which I knew I had to make a change in the way I approached my work as an educator and life in general. This critical incident created space for me to reevaluate what was important and explore alternate approaches, which led to mindfulness practice and mediation. I hope that this inspires you to pause and think about the moments when you were not at your best with students, parents, or colleagues. No judgement. We all have those moments. Maybe it was an incident that occurred this week. It may be time to sit still and explore that moment. Ask yourself, is it time to reevaluate my approach and is it time to try mindfulness practice? If it is, continue on this journey with me on exploring mindfulness, meditation, and how to incorporate these practices in meaningful ways.
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