Many of us respond to the stressors of bureaucracy and school or district expectations by constantly worrying, complaining, and trying to control factors that are out of our control.
Frustration is bound to surface when we focus more on the mandates we’re powerless to change than on our response to the mandates, which we can regulate.
In other words, the system can be problematic AND our reaction to the system can be problematic. Both things can be true. So, we can examine and improve systems as well as our response to working within those systems.
We can work to create institutional change while simultaneously prioritizing our own mental health and well-being. Activism is not incompatible with individual well-being, but an excessive need for control definitely is.
When we feel responsible for controlling students’ behavior and work habits, the classroom environment, and the way parents/caregivers and other faculty behave, we are destined to be miserable. Other people will rarely meet our ideals, and trying to force them to do so will feel like a full-time job in itself. Who has time for real teaching and learning when there’s micromanaging to be done?
The second edition of my new book addresses this. It’s called, Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching. The release date is November 15th, with pre-order options available now for Kindle and for paperback and audiobook soon.
Read or listen to an excerpt from the book about replacing unrealistic standards and changing the stories we tell ourselves about control. You can get the full book or audiobook by going to TruthforTeachers.com/awakened.
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Let go of: I need people to know the “right” way to do things
Replace with: I can accept other people’s ways and methodologies
I was once contracted for instructional coaching at a school that did not require teachers to keep lesson plan records. The faculty just followed the pre-packaged curriculum and taught whatever the teacher’s manual told them to, rather than using state standards and grade level expectations to drive their instruction.
I was astounded that the school allowed a for-profit curriculum company to determine what their students learned and at what pace with no deviation. At the time, I’d never seen anything like it.
When I came home from work that day, I was still preoccupied with the situation, and my husband asked what was on my mind.
“It’s this new school I started today — teachers aren’t required to keep any lesson plan documents! I asked to see one of their plan books and they had no idea what I was talking about!”
He listened carefully before replying. “Keeping a lesson planner that’s based on state standards … is that the only way to teach? Has every teacher in every classroom throughout time taught like that?”
“Well, no, but that’s how we do things nowadays! We need curriculum maps and pacing guides to make sure the kids are taught everything they need to know!”
“Did you have those documents when you first started teaching?”
“And weren’t you an effective teacher?”
“Yeah, but I wrote lesson plans with clear objectives!”
He thought for a moment. “Are any of these people effective teachers despite not having plan books? Are their kids learning? Are there still good things happening in that school?”
I was forced to admit he had a point. I’d observed in several classrooms, and the school definitely had some outstanding teachers.
In fact, one of them had the most innovative teaching style I’d ever had the privilege of witnessing — watching her in action was absolutely captivating. (Even now, many years later, her approach and skills still stand out in my mind.) Obviously, she knew what was developmentally appropriate for her students and understood grade-level expectations well enough that there was no need for her to write lesson plans.
Talk about cognitive dissonance!
Though I couldn’t wrap my mind completely around that paradox, I was able to return to my belief that there is more than one effective way to teach and plan for teaching. I had lost sight of that belief because I couldn’t envision coaching teachers without lesson plans.
I’d fallen into the trap of thinking I couldn’t possibly do my job well without certain basic supports in place, just as I’d done so many times before as a teacher.
After that reality check, I decided not to focus my energy on overhauling the way the school had been run for the last sixty years. I was contracted for a very short period of time and decided that my energy was better spent on modeling best practices and helping teachers incorporate them into their own instruction.
Through this approach, I stepped back from my place of judgment. Though I didn’t like the school’s strategy and still felt it was important to have lesson plans documented, I accepted the situation exactly the way it was.
As I supported the faculty in using different types of technology and hands-on activities, the teachers saw a difference in the way their students learned. I focused on what they needed, rather than trying to force them to operate the way I believed was best.
A few weeks later, a teacher approached me after a professional development session I’d conducted for the staff. He said, “You know, it would be nice to have a way to keep track of all these new strategies and when I’m going to implement each one. Do you think I should keep lesson plans like you mentioned that one time? Could you help me set some up, like a template or something?
That experience taught me a powerful lesson about the difference it makes when we respect other people’s approaches and give them space to draw their own conclusions.
In our educational system, it’s far too easy to believe that there’s only one correct way of doing things and that we must force it into existence. This is part of the culture of standardization: the pressure for everyone to be doing the same thing the same way at the same time, instead of being responsive to the individual humans who are part of the system.
It’s always a struggle to balance nudging people and policies toward positive change and practicing radical acceptance of how things are in the present moment. However, I’m convinced this is the path to productive change without burning out.
No matter how much energy you expend on improving your school, it’s imperative to embrace whatever stage things are currently at. Appreciate separate realities as well as the process of growth. For me, this has been one of the most essential keys to success as an instructional coach, and I believe it applies equally to classroom teaching.
Let go of: I need to identify all problems and fix them immediately
Replace with: I can let go of the interpretation that something’s wrong
We have the choice in every situation to interpret it as stressful or not stressful. You can make it easier to select the less stressful perception by training yourself not to see potential setbacks as problems.
Let’s say you have an important skill you need to teach students today in preparation for an activity later in the week. You’re crunched for time but it’s critical that you get through the entire lesson in one period.
Fifteen minutes in, someone comes to your door and says they need to pull your entire class, five students at a time, to do hearing and vision screenings in the hallway.
Though your first instinct might be to groan and wonder how you’re supposed to teach with constant interruptions, you can let go of the interpretation that something is wrong. Tell yourself:
Okay, this is a change of plans, but it’s not problematic. These screenings are important, too.
And, It will actually be easier to individualize with a smaller class of kids. I can be flexible. I’ll use this class period to have the kids work collaboratively in groups of 5 so that an entire group of students leaves together and comes back together, and the rest aren’t disrupted. I’ll shorten the final activity of the period to make up for the fact that each group is going to miss a couple minutes of the collaborative activity. It’s not ideal, but it’ll be fine.
The alternative is to choose the interpretation that this is a major inconvenience. You can sigh at the person doing the screenings, even though this isn’t their fault, and feel your heart start pounding with indignation as you think about how administration doesn’t respect your instructional time. You can then forge ahead with your lesson as planned, regardless of the fact that students will miss part of it, causing more problems when you do the upcoming activity and the kids feel totally lost.
It all depends on whether you create a story in your mind that there’s a problem. You can choose the interpretation that there’s nothing majorly wrong, and simply let the situation unfold with the knowledge that you are free to adapt.
This approach can be extremely valuable in all sorts of work-related scenarios:
- One of my students is so far behind the others. I can choose the interpretation that there’s something wrong: he MUST catch up, and being behind is disastrous! Or I can choose the interpretation that this student and I are both doing the best we can under the circumstances. He’s missed a lot of classes, and that fact can’t be undone. And developmentally, I think he just needs more time for mastery. I’ll do my best to monitor his improvement and support him, but I won’t stress out. This is just reality, and catastrophizing it doesn’t change anything.
- I’ve already explained the homework three times and I still have students asking me if they have any homework and what the assignment is. I can choose the interpretation that there’s a problem (they weren’t listening, they don’t care) or I can choose the interpretation that this is not a big deal. Students don’t always listen or remember things. That’s a fact of life and not necessarily something I have to work to fix. It’s certainly nothing to stress over. I provide as much support as I can to minimize these occurrences, and that’s the only time I need to think about it. It’s not a problem for me!
Note that letting go of the interpretation that something’s wrong does not require you to ignore your own needs or gaslight yourself into believing everything’s fine when it’s not.
This is simply one tool in your thought-work toolbox that you can pull out when it’s helpful. If something is truly bothering you, it’s your choice whether to address it or let it go. You can decide when to speak up, and when not to.
You always have the option to release the interpretation that something’s wrong when you want to feel better about the situation and not expend too much time and energy on it. If you feel like your thoughts about the situation are not serving you well, you can let them go and choose another set of thoughts instead.
Let go of: I need to make sure everything goes according to my plans
Replace with: I can be happy when things don’t go my way
Trying to make the world conform to our preferences requires a tremendous amount of energy, so it’s important to be intentional about which battles are worth fighting.
You could try to coerce everyone in your household to manage chores to your exact standard.
You could sternly correct your students every single time they forget to write their names on their papers.
You could complain to your team members about a task so often that they just take care of it for you.
But if you’ve ever done these things (or had someone do them to you), you’ll recognize that it’s a tough bargain. Eventually, people grow tired of always giving in or being reprimanded, and relationships suffer.
Perhaps more fundamentally, the controlling person has to be constantly on guard and always thinking about how they can manipulate the people and circumstances around them to make sure things go the way they want.
It’s good to work toward positive change, of course, and you don’t need to pretend that an issue doesn’t matter to you when it does. This is about acknowledging that the issue isn’t all-important.
Though you’d like to have things go your way, they don’t have to, and if they don’t, you will be okay. You’re training yourself to believe that it’s not essential to have your way in order to maintain your peace.
Take a look at your standards. You might be reinforcing irrational beliefs like:
- My classroom MUST be spotless at all times.
- Students MUST test silently without making a sound.
- Parents MUST sign and return forms on time.
Each of these beliefs is an unrealistic expectation that comes from a need for control. Life just doesn’t work that perfectly all the time.
Try to train yourself to be more easy-going and less attached to expectations by incorporating positive self-talk:
The kids have made a mess in the classroom, so we’ll review clean-up routines tomorrow—I don’t have to dwell on it or get upset. I’m not going to let some paper scraps on the floor ruin my good mood.
It’s too noisy for me personally when students work in groups, but they’re learning a lot, so I can set aside my personal preferences and be content. I’m glad that the kids are enjoying themselves, and it’s great that they’re practicing collaboration skills.
Parents and caregivers who don’t return forms in a timely matter create extra work for me, but my happiness isn’t based on their responsiveness. I can still keep a good attitude when things don’t go my way. Everyone’s late and forgetful sometimes, even me.
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Let go of: I need everything to be fair and make sense
Replace with: I can handle things that don’t make sense
It was disconcerting for me to realize that being good at teaching is not necessarily a requirement to be successful in the field of education.
Individuals who possess little or no instructional expertise can somehow land extremely powerful positions. And for those who are in the classroom, being an effective instructor is only a small part of being an effective teacher.
There are political games that must be played. There are interpersonal protocols to follow and administrative pet peeves to avoid. There are things to document in ways that defy common sense and basic reasoning.
What makes this so baffling and infuriating is that we’re constantly reminded of how altruistic our motivations are supposed to be. Teachers are repeatedly told, It’s all about the kids! We’re all here for the kids! The implication is that we’re on the same team, and if we each put the kids first, things will work out great for everyone.
After working in the school system for a while, we often discover that this is patently untrue! No wonder we get frustrated and disillusioned.
The truth is, the unwritten rules in teaching aren’t always that different from those in corporate jobs. Like every employee, part of our role is to make our bosses look good. We also have to do certain tasks to please our “clients” (students and families.) Additionally, we have to make things appear a certain way on paper and make other things happen in practice.
This is not fun. It is not fair. Often our students suffer the most. But upsetting yourself about these things changes nothing! Getting mad is a reaction, not a solution.
Many teachers resent having to “play the game.” Author Robert Leahy suggests that the key is to stop viewing it as game-playing. Think of it as a strategic approach to being successful in your school and/or district. Dealing with unfairness is part of the job; it’s not a personal affront to you, and you are not the only one affected.
Practice letting nonsensical demands roll right off your back; comply with them as needed but don’t brood and complain incessantly. Train yourself to see favoritism and inconsistent expectations as part of working in almost any job. Be patient with bureaucratic limitations and misplaced priorities.
None of these things are right or acceptable, but thinking about how bad they are is not helpful. If you constantly focus your attention on bureaucracy, you’ll get frustrated and burn out. Keep your mind centered on your students’ needs and not on all the behind-the-scenes stuff that wears you down.
This is radical acceptance; anything else requires you to carry the mental load of resisting reality.
It’s like getting mad about high gas prices or a long line in the grocery store. If you stubbornly insist, “No! I do not accept this! I will not make peace with this!” you’re causing yourself more suffering. In addition to the practical problem, you’ve created an emotional response that you need to regulate.
So, mentally detach from the situation, and return to the goal of maintaining healthy thoughts and an enthusiasm for teaching. Keep your mind set on thoughts that help you feel empowered:
I will not take things personally, and I will not frustrate myself by trying to control things I cannot control. I accept that sometimes things are unfair and do not make sense. I refuse to lose my peace over something inane.
Only when we reach a place of radical acceptance can we work to create change. We have to come to terms mentally with what’s happening in order to make it better.
If you really want to shield your students from the inequities and absurdities of the educational system, enter your classroom each day with laser focus on the kids. Don’t let bureaucracy preoccupy you to the point that you’re too discouraged to do your best for students.
Let go of: I need to know what’s going to happen next
Replace with: I can be okay with not knowing
The unknown can be a scary thing. Educators wonder if they’ll have a job next year, if they’ll have the same teaching assignment, and if they’ll get a pay raise or a pay freeze.
Many teachers spend a great deal of time contemplating and talking about the possibility of getting a new curriculum, having increased class sizes, or losing a colleague who’s quitting.
We know that anticipating problems is a destructive habit that can be broken. But cultivating the frame of mind in which the unknown is no longer frightening? That’s next-level self-development.
You will never be happy as long as you insist on understanding everything that’s happening and what’s going to happen in the future. There will always be something to try to figure out.
So, you can spend time mulling over every possible situation and outcome, or you can choose to trust that when the time comes, you’ll be able to handle whatever comes your way.
Often we can calm ourselves down by working out a plausible solution to problems, and convincing ourselves that’s how things will go. We feel more at peace because we think we know how things will turn out. But the outcome we envision is rarely what happens. It’s a mind game we play with ourselves. We become attached to our expectations of how things are “supposed to” go and are then disappointed with any other outcome.
What would happen if we made peace with NOT knowing?
What if we believed that things would ultimately work together for our good?
What if we trusted that our inner wisdom would surface when needed, and we would know what to do when the time comes?
It’s true sometimes that ignorance is bliss. I used to search out all the latest gossip in school, listening to every rumor about future mandates and trying to find out everything that higher-ups were doing.
I thought that having more information would make me better prepared for whatever the future held. The more I was in-the-know, the less likely I was to be blindsided by problems, and the more understanding I’d have about how the school and district really operated. I assumed that I was protecting and preparing myself.
With time I realized this was faulty thinking. Hearing about problems that did not directly affect me and that I had no power to solve was usually demoralizing. The conversation would end up as cruel gossip or pointless complaining and then I’d feel guilty or uncomfortable afterward.
Sometimes my so-called facts would make it hard to view or treat someone the same way as before. I’d find myself worrying about other people’s issues at random times and passing judgment on them. Then I’d waste my energy wondering if the rumors about funding and class sizes and staffing were really true.
The advantages of having the inside scoop rarely outweighed the disadvantages, and after a while, I just didn’t want to be burdened with unnecessary problems anymore. “Not my circus; not my monkeys” is a traditional Polish saying that comes to mind.
I think this mindset comes more naturally with age and experience. As the years pass, situations have to be more extreme to faze you and get you worked up. You’ve seen and experienced a lot, and know the value of not inserting yourself in every problem or giving your energy to everyone who wants it.
If someone starts to share a rumor with me and then bites their tongue, I no longer cajole them into going against their better judgment. “You’re right, you don’t need to tell me,” I’ll say instead.
When someone asks, “Did you hear the latest about…?” I sometimes reply, “Don’t tell me; I don’t think I want to know.”
They’ll usually laugh but I’ll insist, “No, I’m serious. That sounds like it’s going to make me mad and I don’t need anything else to be upset about.”
Though I still feel curious and even a bit nosy about what’s going on sometimes, wisdom tells me that I probably don’t need to know about most situations. There will usually be little benefit in uncovering someone’s faults or mistakes, or learning about a problem that’s potentially coming down the pike.
If and when I need to know, I trust that I’ll find out from a reputable source, and I’ll handle it then.
Not knowing can be a good thing, a real blessing in disguise. We often envy children for being worry-free and oblivious to all the issues we face as adults. But we rarely have as many troubles as we think we do. We bring extraneous problems on ourselves by trying to figure out stuff that doesn’t concern us or predict things we can’t possibly know about the future.
You don’t need to know everything that’s yet to come. Focus your energy on making peace with the unknown instead of trying to control it. Tell yourself that not knowing is often to your benefit. Even though you don’t know right now what will happen or how you’ll respond in the future, trust that you will know.
This post was an excerpt from my new book releasing Nov. 15th, Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching
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