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Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Aug 25, 2019

Teach like yourself: Why YOU are the person your students need most

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Teach like yourself: Why YOU are the person your students need most

By Angela Watson

My guest today was introduced to me by a podcast listener who thought there was a lot of similarity between Dr. Gravity Goldberg’s work and my own.

I looked her up, and am SO grateful for the introduction because she is my people!

So many of the messages that I’m passionate about pushing out into the educational world are the same things that Gravity is saying, too.

If you are not familiar with her work, Gravity is an educational consultant and author. Her work ranges from demonstrating lessons and leading workshops to developing curriculum and customizing professional development programs. She was a staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and an assistant professor of education at Iona College where she was awarded the Excellence In Teaching honor.  She is the author of multiple literacy texts published by Corwin and Heinemann, and her most recent book, which we’ll talk about today, is called Teach Like Yourself: How authentic teaching transforms our students and ourselves

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ANGELA: So I want to start with the subheading from your book that stood out to me the most because I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in a book for teachers before and it’s this: remember there is nothing to fix. I think this principle really underscores the advice that you give and teach like yourself. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

GRAVITY: I grew up in that era of self-help books that were really big in the eighties and nineties and I remember watching my parents and my mom’s friends reading self-help books. I think the equivalent of that in teaching is this idea that there’s something wrong with us or something missing from us that we would need to go and fix to be the better teacher.

The idea behind that is teachers need training to fix deficits, or teachers need some outsider or a policy or a program. And in my now 20 years of experience and a lot of research and working with teachers, I realized that’s actually one of the biggest myths that get in the way from teachers being able to show up as themselves and be their best versions of themselves, and the idea that there’s something wrong or broken that needs to be fixed. That belief alone really gets in the way of a lot of courageous teaching.

So instead, what if we started from a place of curiosity and discovery and realizing that there’s always more to learn and study? We can sort of own our gifts and talents and try to build from the strengths, as opposed to thinking there’s something broken that we need to fix. And so I feel like my work with teachers is often changing our mindset around that belief.

Once we can believe that we’re already whole and there’s nothing broken, then we don’t need to sort of help ourselves or read self help books; we can go on professional studies and coach ourselves and be with colleagues and really see it as a joyful learning opportunity as opposed to the mentality of, “Am I doing it right?” That question is often because we think there is a right way that we’re living towards.

So I really encourage teachers, if you notice that you’re viewing yourself through the lens of something that needs to be fixed or something that’s broken, just start there. I’ve never ever met a teacher that was broken. I’ve only ever met teachers who weren’t able to see their own gifts and talents.

I can’t help but think how this whole mentality trickles down to the way that we see students and the deficit lens there: this idea that there’s something wrong with kids if they’re reading below grade level or something we have to fix in them, as well. And I think that seeing in yourself that there is nothing wrong with you — you are not broken and you have nothing to fix — once you can understand that, you can show up in the classroom as a whole healed person. It transforms the way that you see your students, too. Do you think that’s true?

Yes. Actually, for me, the doorway was through my students. I think I didn’t come to that realization about myself as a teacher, or the teachers I get to work with now, until I started to realize that about students.

I wrote a book called Mindsets and Moves, which is all about the mindset that we carry about our students and there, I call it having an admiring lens. I use the word admire to counteract that deficit thinking you’re talking about. When you look at the etymology of the word admire, it means to study with wonder and awe. I have to say, my husband’s the one to introduce that term in that way to me, and he is a teacher also. And I think just what would it be like?

The vision of the kind of educational landscape I’d love to see for all humans is when the kids and the adults are studied with wonder and awe, as opposed to looking at them as numbers or data points or something that needs to be fixed.

So yes, there’s such a huge parallel between the way we view our students and the way we view ourselves. And we can start in either place, but for me, the goal is to view all of us in that same way.

There are three shifts that you mentioned in the book that help us teach more like ourselves. They are: shifting from being interesting to being interested; shifting from predicting failure to building on success; and shifting from their challenge to my challenge. I think these are really interesting concepts and really powerful, and I’m wondering if we can unpack each of those a little bit.

Sure. Teach Like Yourself is really in some ways part memoir because I’m exposing my own journey as a teacher. I also chose to share the parts from my day-to-day work (I’ve worked with teachers almost every day in their classrooms for the past 15 years). So it’s also these shifts that I saw teachers starting to do when they showed up more fully as themselves.

1) Shifting from being interesting to being interested. This is something that I especially felt like my secondary colleagues were judging themselves on, if they could hold the attention of their students by being really interesting. And to me, this is sort of edutainment and its worst. This is like being gimmicky, being racy or flashy sometimes with older students, or feeling like you need to put a screen in front of kids with outrageous content.

The thing about that is that it’s unsustainable as a teacher–the amount of energy you’re putting in for the small amount of learning that kids are doing is often not worth it. But also, I think it’s insulting to students because what we’re saying is that our need to be interesting is more important than our need to be interested in you as a student.

And when I started instead to say, “The way I’m going to engage students is to be a better listener, not to talk more in a faster, more exciting way. And I’m going to ask questions of them to get to know them and really figure out what is motivating them and how can I bring that into the classroom.”

I also realized that’s what teachers are looking for. We’re all looking for someone to be interested in the things that we’re passionate about.

So for those teachers who were feeling totally exhausted or that the bar is so high for what it means to even keep kids’ interest these days, it’s really a shift to saying instead, “What can I learn about them to incorporate that in the classroom as a way to engage students?”

2) Shifting from predicting failure to building on success. I recently had the privilege of hearing Cornelius Minor speak. He and I both came on from the lineage of Teacher’s College and the Reading and Writing Project. He’s brilliant. For those listeners who don’t know his work, I highly recommend him. He talks about it in a slightly different way than I do. And then I realized also our colleague Christine Raz talks about it. So there are lots of people talking about this in slightly different ways.

I just want to say that because whenever I see that pattern, I realize this is a really big trend. The idea of this is really from a psychological perspective — we know that what we believe our kids can or can’t do, our expectations are what they will reach. And that’s been proven time and time again and lots of studies that if we believe our kids are going to fail or can’t do something, then we’re going to be right. That’s the unfortunate reality of that.

But the other thing that I see sometimes is teachers who are, to be quite frank, just totally exhausted and not sure what to do next and not being supported enough in their schools. When I bring an idea or when I share a resource with them, the immediate reaction is sometimes, “Well, my kids can’t do that.”

I think that mentality is we’re already predicting the failure before we even give kids the opportunity to try. So instead of going right to what they can’t do, to think about the last time my students had success, What did we do and how can we use that to bridge from where they are today to this thing that I think is going to be really hard for them?

And so I really have started to speak up in the best interest of students when I hear any statement about what kids can’t do before they’ve even tried. I point that out that we’re really just predicting. There’s no truth yet in that. It’s just a prediction. And our predictions when we read books can be wrong and our predictions about kids are often wrong.

It’s really a shift of recognizing when we’re predicting and not using that as our planning but instead to use the last success to help us plan for what students are ready for.

3) Shifting from their challenge to my challenge. This one, in some ways, is like the semantics of language but it’s also really bigger than that. When students are facing a challenge, there are a lot of different ways we talk about that. We talk about it often in schools: deficit thinking, students who can and can’t. In our worst moments I would say we label students like low and high. None of those labels are helpful. I know as a mom, I would never want my child labeled that way.

So really, whenever we’re talking about kids through labels, or if we’re talking about kids as strugglers or striving or whatever term we’re using, instead of talking about it in terms of like, “What’s the challenge the student is having?” we can also look to ourselves and say, “What’s the challenge I’m having in teaching this student or these students?”

We can take ownership of the fact that our students come in with a wide variety of experiences and a wide variety of gifts and a wide variety of challenges, just like us adults. And really, there’s nothing we can do to change who those students are, nor should we be trying to. What we can do is take a hard look at ourselves and say, “What’s the challenge in that for me?”

I remember one year I had 27 third graders, and 19 of them were very physically active boys who did not want to sit for 45 minutes and read every day like the expectation was.

I could spend every day complaining about how challenging these kids were. Or I could say, “What’s the challenge in this for me as a teacher? What is it that I can learn or what is it that I can address to help this be less of a challenge for them?” And as soon as I made that shift, I felt like there was hope and there was more for me to study. I got curious and excited, and that year totally changed.

I think part of it is it’s just not good for kids. It’s helpful for us teachers to acknowledge the challenge for ourselves because that’s where we can learn and grow, and see there’s another way our classrooms could go.

I like your point there about how it’s so much more empowering and exciting for you as a teacher when you’re able to reframe things in ways that make you feel like you have more control. And I think that personal power is a theme that I see a lot in your work. You recommend that every day, teachers make a conscious and intentional effort to tap into that power. Can you talk about some different methods for doing that?

Sure. First, I just want to be really clear on what I mean by personal power because as I’ve been getting to talk with teachers around the country recently, a lot of teachers who (rightly so) are kind of confused by that. Like, what do you mean personal power?

Power has been written about by lots of people and the person I draw upon the most in the book is Amy Cuddy. And she talks about the idea — which to be honest is like a Buddhist philosophy, too — but the idea of the only real power you have is the power over yourself … that you really don’t have power over others.

Another way that I kinda think about it is Byron Katie says it this way: She says there are three kinds of business. There’s my business, your business, and God’s business. And we get into issues when we confuse the three.

There’s this idea that personal power is really the only true power. It’s my business. It’s how I’m going to show up every day. What’s my mindset, what are the choices I’m going to make? Are they really aligned with the kind of person that I want to be in the world?

And so if we can let go of the power we don’t have — we don’t have the power to choose our students or their parents, we don’t have the power to make the school budget, or the power to choose our curriculum resources, or the weather, etc. — we shouldn’t focus on that kind of power, but to focus on our own.

Amy Cuddy’s research has shown that personal power actually is more powerful. When we view ourselves as victims or powerless, that plays out by creating anxiety. And her research and her team have studied this cycle where when we’re feeling anxious, we feel less powerful, but it’s reciprocal. When we feel less powerful, we become anxious.

The result of that is that we become self-focused and literally cannot focus on other people around us. I see this a lot. And to be honest, I’ve had these moments, many a time in my career as a teacher where for example, I might be being observed by someone who I don’t feel totally comfortable with or there’s people in my classrooms that feel threatening to me for whatever reason.

I get anxious and that anxiousness makes me feel powerless. And then being powerless makes me so focused on myself and what I’m saying, I’m literally missing the other humans, the students in the room, and missing the cues of what they need.

So the antidote to this is not waiting for a district mandate to give us power. Luckily, it’s not that. Instead, she talks about the fact that what we focus on and how we talk to ourselves and what we fill ourselves up with is where we create that personal power.

The favorite one of mine — because it takes 30 seconds or less and it’s free and no one needs to give you permission for it — is to visualize. She calls it priming yourself for feeling personal power, and the way you prime yourself is to visualize a time in your life when you felt powerful and to just take 30 seconds. That’s all it takes. I often close my eyes, but you don’t even have to and imagine or envision yourself in a time when you felt powerful.

By priming your brain in that way, you’re actually retraining your brain to feel powerful instead of looking for places where you’re powerless. And Cuddy said that people often say to her, “How could that actually work? How could visualizing a powerful moment for just 30 seconds actually do anything?” She said, “Well, think about what happens when we do the opposite instead before something. If we picture a time things didn’t go well, we’d go into negative self-talk and we’re already at an anxious state.”

So instead of waiting and seeing by chance how the day’s going to go, starting every day, whether it’s the drive into work, whether it’s while the kids are coming in, whether it’s with the kids — I often suggest teaching students this and as part of your morning routine — before you do anything else, you all take a moment (students and teachers) to have this priming of your brain for feeling personally powerful.

So that’s one, and I’ll just quickly mention, she talks about having a mantra so that you talk to yourself in positive ways. As an athlete but also as a teacher, I often find myself saying to myself, “I’ve got this. I can do this.” Another one I have that’s literally tattooed on my wrist is, “Be here now.” So when I start to get anxious about what could happen, just be here right now. So these two are free. They take very little time and they can really change our whole outlook of how we can feel more powerful in the classrooms to be ourselves. And I really suggest that teachers teach these students so that they can do them.

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Can you talk more about “don’t make every day game day”?

My husband is a teacher also, and he’s been working as an instructional coach — we try not to totally let teaching flood into every part of our lives, so it’s more around dinner time that we reflect a bit — and we were both noticing the extreme amount of pressure that the teachers we were working with were feeling like every single time somebody would ask them something, it felt like Game Day or like the championship game.

We know what that’s like because we are both athletes ourselves. I played soccer in college and you know, there’s a reason whether it’s practice days and scrimmage days and game days.

No team, no matter how good you are, could possibly play their best with the pressure of every single day as a game day. You have to have those days to muck around and try something, and let it be light and fun and know it’s probably not going to go well.

I think teachers are often sent the message that every one of their school days has to be the game day. The amount of pressure that builds up with that is really unsustainable. I’m not suggesting that we spend months of the year just playing around, but we need to be able to have a playful attitude.

For example, I talked to a principal recently who was a courageous principal, and I said, “What are the things that you’ve learned this year?” And she said, “One of the things I’ve learned is when teachers take a risk and do something for one of the first times in a formal observation, and then reflect with me on how it went. Those are always the best observations.”

And I said, “But what if it doesn’t go well?” And she said, “Oh, they usually don’t. I don’t expect them to go well and it’s not about them going well. It’s about trying something, releasing the pressure from being perfect, and not doing the same old lesson you’ve been doing for the last 10 or more years. And instead, this is a teacher who’s willing to learn and be playful about it, and then wanting feedback.”

We need more administrators and leaders to send that message, and if you’re not in a district with a principal like that, it’s maybe just asking yourself, “Does today have to be a game day? Do I have to put that level of pressure on myself?”

The students are the ones who are feeling that pressure. It becomes a trickle-down that everyone is making every day game day. Then we wonder why we have a mental health crisis in our country, and extreme depression and anxiety. I think a lot of it is the pressure that’s unsustainable and often, by simply asking, “Does this need to be a game day?” The answer is often no, which just lets us move into a more playful mindset about our work.

I noticed that you used the word courageous there. And that’s something that I see a lot in your work, and I love that because I think a lot of the things we’ve talked about today really do take courage. This is not necessarily the normal attitude in a lot of educational spaces. So your definition of what it looks like to be courageous has a couple of different components. Can you share what that means to you?

Sure. I just want to say that I love this E.E. Cummings quote where he says, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” I think in some ways that’s what I want for all people, but certainly, for all teachers. I think there’s this way in which we’ve gone to a teacher prep program that’s anywhere from okay to amazing. I was lucky to go to an amazing one, but I still was thrown into a classroom and felt like I was sort of growing up to be like, “What’s the kind of teacher I’m going to grow up to be?” And a lot of what I did was just compare myself to the teachers I had had and I admired.

So could I grow up to be like Mr. Zach, my third-grade teacher who was just the wackiest, silliest, but the most memorable teacher I ever had? Mostly because he didn’t have third-grade expectations. He treated us like learners who were his equals in a lot of ways. And he did things that were so unpredictable because that was who he was, not to entertain us, but just because that was who he was. He brought that into the classroom.

For example, I remember we knew he was taking karate classes because he was teaching us physics in third grade by showing us how he had just learned to break a board with his hand in a karate chop. And he let us try — some of the kids I remember in my class were like, “Can we try that?” And he was like, “Okay.” And I talk about Mr. Zach in my book because he was really one of the most memorable teachers I ever had. And to me, it wasn’t really the board or the karate chop, but I knew what his passions were. I knew he was still learning himself and he brought that in, and he didn’t then say no to our own passions and interests.

So to me, part of being courageous is realizing there are going to be many teachers who students don’t remember their names. I have teachers when I think back at 40 years old, so it’s not that I’m that old, and I should remember their names, but I don’t. And then there are teachers like Mr. Zach who was imprinted on me. And so to me, part of being courageous is when you are fully yourself, and when you bring that into the classroom, you are going to be memorable for your students and something positive is going to stick with them.

Another way I think that we can be courageous is to choose to be seen. What I mean by that is it’s really easy to hide behind our content or our curriculum or the policies of our school. But when we’re choosing to be seen, we’re choosing to let our students know that we are not perfect, that we ourselves struggle with things and that we have our own self-corrections to make.

I won’t get into all of the details now, but I really open the chapter about being courageous with probably one of the most vulnerable moments of my teaching career. This is where I was teaching college seniors at the time as a professor, and I was collecting some student work and in one of the notebooks I collected, a note was in there.

I read the note and it was a note that was saying some offensive things being passed back and forth between two students about me. They were really hurtful things, and I went through a range of emotions like, “How dare them!” And then I was angry and then I was really hurt, followed by shame and not feeling good enough.

I remember venting to my husband about it, like, “I’m going to tell her this is unprofessional, this isn’t okay.” Luckily I gave myself some space because I realized something was going on for her. If she’s a 21-year-old woman about to graduate to be a teacher and she’s passing notes making fun of a teacher in her class, what’s going on and how wasn’t this class working for her? Instead, I took a few days and I asked her to come meet with me and I put the note in front of her. I didn’t yell at her and I didn’t accuse her of anything.

Instead, I allowed myself to be seen and I said, “This really hurt when I read it, but I’m really interested in what’s going on with you? Like, what’s not working for you in this class? Because when I see this note, I’m seeing something that’s just not working.”

And by being vulnerable in that way and showing her that this is an opportunity for us to have a discussion, she ended up opening up about how stressed she was and how hard student teaching was. We had this really honest conversation, and we ended up in a lot of ways being closer than any other student that I had in that class because I chose to be seen with my feelings and emotions, as opposed to going into the role of authoritative professor and telling this student that what they did was unacceptable. She knew it was unacceptable. I didn’t have to lecture her about that or make her feel bad about it. I didn’t have to put my shame on her.

I share that story because I think there are so many moments in our career as teachers where we’re feeling an emotion that’s uncomfortable, and how we choose to be seen or not with that emotion is a turning point. And I get it that the developmental age of our students can have a really big impact.

She was almost an adult, so I could have a different kind of conversation about it with her. But to me, that’s the true sign of being courageous in a lot of ways — owning what’s ours and choosing to show up and let other people see it because that’s what we’re then allowing our students to do.

That’s really the last tenet that connects to that. To me, being courageous is choosing to accept and choosing to accept ourselves and our students for who they are. I know I mentioned Cornelius earlier. I was on a planning phone call with him and some other colleagues last week and we were talking about this idea of loving our students. And we were really talking about how bell hooks talks (I’m not going to get into all of that research now) but to me, part of being courageous is choosing the courage to accept and love ourselves and our students.

It almost feels weird to use the word love. Yet, I want to send my child to a school where he is loved every day. I think that’s a huge part of it, and we cannot give that kind of love and acceptance to our students if we don’t have that for ourselves.

So to summarize, for me, three big parts of being courageous are: Being ourselves, which is going to be memorable; showing up to allow others to see us for who we really are; and then accepting and loving ourselves and others in the classroom.

It seems when I say it like this you could roll your eyes, like, “Really? Be seen and love?” But I don’t think that’s what’s getting the attention in most schools right now. I don’t think most teachers are getting the messages that that’s what is expected of them in the classroom.

What is something that you wish every teacher understood about teaching like themselves?

I think maybe the obvious thing to that is that’s the goal — to teach like themselves. These things that work for others don’t have to work for you. What your students need is you.

The Beatles were the Beatles because nobody else had ever been the Beatles. And there’s been a lot of cover bands of the Beatles ever since. But we don’t know those cover bands, right?

There’s a way in which everyone needs to be themselves because that’s what’s needed in the world. And yes, it’s okay to sort of play cover songs at first. That’s how we all learn. But ultimately, it’s to hone our skills to be who we are, and I think that’s just the most important message.

I hope that every teacher can find that courage, self-love, and support from at least one person to say, “Yes, I’m enough and I’ve got some gifts and talents to offer and I don’t need to fix or change myself to be an effective teacher–in fact, that might have the opposite effect.”

Well, I know one place that teachers can get that support and that ongoing encouragement because these are mindset shifts. These are things that you can’t just hear once. It’s something that you really need to put into practice and hear on a recurring basis. And I know that one place they can get those resources is by connecting more with you. Where would you suggest someone who’s listening to this go after this if they want to learn more or go deeper with any of these concepts?

We have a Facebook community, a Teach Like Yourself Facebook group with over a thousand members from around the world, which I’d love to grow even more. So that’s one space where you can connect with me, but also other teachers who are like-minded in this way. I do have a blog and I am on Twitter and because I have a toddler, it’s a little sporadic, but you can follow me on Twitter @drgravitygllc or on Facebook.

And then with the Teach Like Yourself book, to be honest, I’ve re-read this book more than any book I’ve written multiple times and done the reflection exercises myself multiple times. So if you’re looking for some coaching and your budget is more like $20, rather than hiring a professional coach, then I also recommend reading the book and using the exercises, and getting one colleague to help reflect with you on that.

Thank you, Advancement Courses, for sponsoring today’s show. Advancement Courses offers over 200 online PD courses in 19 different subject areas for graduate credit and CEUs for K-12 teachers. And right now, they’re donating 10% of every purchase to fund DonorsChoose projects. You can submit your DonorsChoose project to them for a chance to get funded until September 27. To learn more, visit advancementcourses.com/truth.


The links to Dr. Gravity Goldberg’s books are my Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase through those links, I earn a small portion of the sale, at no extra cost to you.
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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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