I was recently listening to an interview with Amy Morin in which she described some of the 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. As I was listening, I found myself grabbing a pen and the paper bag my lunch came in. It was the only paper I could find while scrambling through my bag on the train. She didn’t go through all of the 13 things but I scribbled down as many notes as I could because it struck me that what she was saying about people in general was totally relevant to teachers in particular. When I got back home I looked her up and found the rest of the 13 things.
1. They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves
When I was getting my degree, I did my student teaching in a public high school. I loved my mentor teacher, she was lively and full of creative ideas. That one classroom was like an oasis for me in the school because whenever I set foot in the teachers’ lounge, I was hit by a barrage of complaints. According to the teachers eating lunch or taking a break, students were disrespectful, there was always too much work and basically they hated their jobs. As a beginning teacher, this was demoralizing and I always had to shake off the feeling of doom and gloom when I left. No problems were being solved in that lounge, it was just a place teachers went to feel sorry for themselves collectively.
Teaching is not an easy job and there is plenty to bemoan, but approaching a problem in a “poor me” way does nothing to alleviate the situation; it just makes everyone feel bad. A much stronger approach would be to examine a problem with the idea that it is not something that is being done to you but rather something that exists that needs to be addressed and worked on. What strategies do other teachers use to combat that problem? How could I learn more about the root causes of the problem in order to better understand what is happening and how can I affect the situation?
2. They Don’t Give Away Their Power
Teachers are working with many different groups of people, all of whom have a stake in controlling what is happening: students, parents, administrators, other teachers etc. It is easy to let all of these other groups make you feel powerless as a teacher but you are not! Ultimately, you are the one who makes the day to day, minute to minute decisions in your classroom. You decide how you want your classroom to be in all of the important, vital ways.
I love to have complete autonomy in my classroom in that I love to decide exactly what to teach and how to teach it. Unfortunately I do not always have that luxury. Right now, for example, my administration has decided that my value as a teacher is judged on how well my students do on the TOEFL exam. Not only that, the TOEFL exam my students are taking consists entirely of multiple choice questions. Basically I am teaching to one specific test. I could just throw my hands in the air and say well, that’s it, I have no control over what I am teaching and let it go at that, but that would not be being true to my convictions as a teacher. Within my mandate to increase my students’ test scores, I have all the control in the world. I plan my lessons and design the activities I ask my students to do, according to things that I hold important about teaching, namely learning should inspire a love of learning, students should have autonomy and take ownership of their own learning and the classroom should be student centered.
Don’t give your power away to the students. I am a huge advocate for student autonomy but that does not mean I let my students take complete control of the classroom. I want them to take control of their learning but I have control of the classroom. It is my job to make sure that my classroom is a safe place for all of my students, that the focus stays on learning and is not derailed, and that everyone has a voice.
Don’t give your power away to the parents. Years ago, as a relatively new teacher, a student in one of my classes failed because she had exceeded her absences and was unable to complete her homework at a level that would qualify her to take the next course. I was teaching a basic academic writing course and skills learned there would be applied to the research writing course that came next. Without the basic writing skills, it would be next to impossible to do the work required for research writing. This student’s mother called me and requested that I change her grade because the family would really like for her to pass. At that point I was younger than the mother and it was difficult to say no, but I reminded myself that I had trained for this job, I was qualified and I had the power to say no. I politely explained to her that while her daughter showed a lot of potential, she had not done the work or gained the skills she needed so she would need to reenroll for the class the next semester. The mother was not happy but she accepted that I had her daughter’s best interest at heart and wanted her to be able to write well.
Don’t give it away to the administration. I have had the good fortune to work with some great administrators who were teachers before they became administrators most of the time. They have understood the challenges teachers face and have generally been very supportive. They have a lot of things to think about other than what is best for my individual groups of students though. It is my job to make sure that I am always an advocate for my students and I stay true to myself as a teacher. For me that means tailoring my classes to my students and not blindly following a curriculum that administrators hand me.
3. They Don’t Shy Away From Change
According to Amy Morin “There are five stages of change, Morin writes: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.” Following through with each of the five steps is crucial. Making changes can be frightening, but shying away from them prevents growth. “The longer you wait, the harder it gets,” she says. “Other people will outgrow you.”
I often see teachers doing the same thing year after year even thought they know that on many levels what they are doing is not working. It is easier to keep doing things the way they have always been done than to take a risk and change things.
There are so many new and innovative ways to approach teaching and learning, why not take a risk and try one of them out. Just a few different learning models are
I have tried all of these in my classrooms successfully but there are other methods out there I have’t tried so it is time for me to get changing and try something new.
Another change not to shy away from is teaching new courses or even teaching new levels and at different schools. I started my teaching career at a language school in Japan before going on to teach at a University in Turkey, a community college in Tucson, a public high school in Brooklyn, and then universities in Turkey and Japan again. Each position has given me many new insights into teaching and has added to my skills. In Japan I learned how to give my students thinking time, I became comfortable with silence. In Turkey I leaned how to incorporate content into a writing course, in Tucson I learned how to teach muli-level courses, in Brooklyn I learned how to use Learning Menus, implement a Service Learning program and teach art, back here in Japan again, I have been learning how to incorporate much more technology into my teaching. By being open to change, I have continued to grow year after year.
4. They Don’t Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control
There are so many things teachers can’t control but there are even more they can! I was once given 6 different classes to teach every day. That meant 6 different preps and 6 different text books that I had no part in choosing. It was crazy! I was a beginning teacher and it took me a long time to plan lessons at that point. At the end of each day I was exhausted and I simply didn’t have time to create 6 different lesson plans for the next day. Clearly there was a lot I couldn’t control in this situation. I really wanted to be a good teacher and develop my skills though so I chose one class (the one that had the worst text book) and I devoted myself to making that class the best I could. I looked at the language the text wanted me to teach and I created new, more interesting materials. I focused on expanding my materials development skills in just that one class and that gave me a sense of control. When, after a few months, one of my students transferred from that class to one of my other classes, she wanted to know why that class was so much better than the other ones. She could see that even under such controlled circumstances, it was the things that I could control in a classroom that made all the difference.
Things you can’t control:
The level of your students when they arrive to your class – Meet every student where they are and help them reach the next level whatever that is. Sometimes you get a huge variety levels in one class. I remember once I taught a class in which some of the students were totally illiterate in their native language and had not learned any English at all yet, while others were almost fluent and just wanted to work on polishing their writing and grammar skills. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn how to differentiate my classroom and ultimately it made me a better teacher.
Class sizes – Big classes can be tough, but so can really small classes. Every size of class has it’s challenges and we can’t control what those challenges are. We can control how we teach those classes though. At the moment I am teaching one class of 20 students and one class of 4 students. In the past I have taught classes of up to 50 students. I am supposed to teach them the exact same content but because of the number of students in the classes, I have to adjust some of the activities. I love all of my classes for what they have to offer. Big classes generally have a lot of energy. I can organize games and students get to talk to lots of different people every day. Small classes can still play games but they are different. The energy level is generally lower but the focus is often more intense. I have to work harder to get big classes to say in the target language and students have to take more of a leadership role in those big classes to keep things running smoothly. As a teacher, what I can control is how I manage the class sizes I am given.
How Politicians View You and Your Students – Because teachers have a direct affect on so many people’s lives and they are often paid by the government (tax payers), everyone has an opinion about teachers and teaching. This can be positive, and it is wonderful when it is, but it can also be incredibly critical and even disrespectful. You can’t control that, but you can control how you relate to your students and their families. By creating a community in your classroom and developing relationships not only with your students, but also with their families you are affecting how they view you and that is important.
Depending on where you teach, your students may be a part of a minority group. Opinions about minority groups vary greatly and have direct and sometimes devastating effects on peoples’ lives. You can not change that but you can make sure your students know their rights and know how to fight for them. You can be an advocate for your students and you can raise awareness for their issues.
5. They Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone
This is one I have to remind myself of all the time. I always want everyone to be happy all of the time but as John Lydgate said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” and you will drive yourself crazy trying.
Part of our jobs as teachers is to evaluate students. This is great when students are meeting our expectations but it can be incredibly difficult when they aren’t. I am not a huge fan of using grades to motivate students for a variety of reasons, but I do have to hold my students to standards and students need to be aware of when they are not producing the work they need to produce in order to achieve the skills they need. This means pointing out where students need to work harder. Not all students are going to appreciate it and some students will even get angry. I remember having one student yell at me after I broke the news to him that he had failed the class. He was out of line for sure, but nevertheless I felt bad and went over everything I could have done differently in my head. Ultimately, he had not done his homework and had exceeded the maximum number of absences for the course though and my job was not to make him happy. At that point, my job was to hold him accountable.
6. They Don’t Fear Taking Calculated Risks
Doing things a different way can be scary. I know there are times when I have an idea that I think might work in class but I am not sure. Investing time and energy into something that may crash and burn seems like a risk when I am so busy with other things anyway. In her book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, Amy Morin recommends analyzing the costs of taking a risk by asking the following questions:
What are the potential costs?
What are the potential benefits?
What are the alternatives?
What is the best possible outcome from taking this risk?
What is the worst thing that could happen and how can I reduce the risk it will occur?
How bad would it be if the worst thing actually happened?
How much will this decision matter in 5 years?
7. They Don’t Dwell on the Past
There are a couple ways is see teachers (myself included) dwell on the past. First, they romanticize how wonderful, hard-working and respectful students used to be back in the day. I know I have been guilty of romanticizing the past and my own behavior as a student sometimes. It is easy to say things like “This generation is just lazy! When I was a student I did hours of homework every night and never complained about it. I was totally respectful to the teacher at all times.” Well, that is not true, I did complain, I didn’t always do hours of homework, and I am sure that I was disrespectful at times.” Whatever the case may be, the world today is a much different place now than it was when I was a student. Sure, I used to go to the library and spend hours researching by looking for books in the card catalog rather than a few minutes with a search engine, but that is just because the internet didn’t exist. While I do see value in researching with actual books instead of always using Google, that doesn’t mean there is not value in the way things are done now. As I see it, one of the things I bring to my classes is that I am a bridge between the way things were done when I was a student, and the way things are done now. I have the experience of having done things differently, and I can help students see that there are many ways to do things; they all have different advantages and disadvantages.
Another way teachers dwell on the past is to hold on to a student’s past performance. It is easy to label a student as hard-working, lazy, respectful, disrespectful, honest, dishonest and so on. Often these labels get passed on from one teacher to the next and we unconsciously treat students differently depending on what we “know” about the student. I like to start with a clean slate every semester and while it can be useful to find out something about incoming students in order to be prepared, I usually prefer not to. I like to give each student a chance to form their own relationship with me independent of what their relationships were with other teachers. If I start to struggle with certain behaviors over the course of the semester, it is a good idea seek out that student’s previous teachers and ask them if they had had similar issues and if they had found successful ways to help that student. Having said that, there are defiantly some issues that teachers need to know about beforehand in order to better prepare. It is important to know if any of your students have learning disabilities for example, so appropriate accommodations can be made.
8. They Don’t Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over
So many times I find myself thinking that students are not learning something as well as I would like them to. I want them to learn more vocabulary words and to be able to actually use them when they are speaking and writing. I want them to feel more comfortable taking risks while speaking and I would like for them to take more responsibility for their own learning. Yet, when it comes to actually changing the way I am doing things in the classroom, I am reluctant to change. It is easy to make the same mistake semester after semester, hoping that this time students will somehow do better with it. As a mentally strong teacher though, I must recognize that when my students regularly fail to achieve, it is actually me who is failing. In order to stop failing, I need to stop making the same mistake; I need to do things differently. I can’t expect different outcomes from the same actions. I may feel like I am doing the right thing but if my students are not successful, I am not.
Some things I have been working diligently on improving for the past several years are getting my students to retain the vocabulary they are learning for an entire semester and beyond, to be able to use it in a variety of contexts, and to help them to listen more effectively. In the beginning I was giving them vocabulary lists based on listenings they had done and just asking them to memorize them in order to take a quiz every couple of weeks. Students were not doing well on those quizzes and were rarely using the vocabulary in their writing or speaking. Next I tried asking students to choose their own words in order to increase their feelings of ownership for the vocabulary but I found they often choose very obscure words that were not really that useful to them. It was also very difficult to check if they were actually learning the words when every class was different. This year, after thinking long and hard, I went back to vocabulary lists that I choose based on how useful those words would be in a variety of contexts (I am teaching academic English). Instead of giving quizzes every couple of weeks, I am giving a quiz every single week and at the end of each quiz I have added reflection questions. Those questions focus on how students studied, what obstacles prevent them from studying and how they will overcome those obstacles. Every week the reflection questions are different and I ask them to discuss the quizzes with their friends. We are now in the fifth week and so far, students have been doing much better than in previous years both on the quizzes and in using the vocabulary. It is getting so easy for them we are actually discussing upping the number of vocabulary words. The key has been focusing on study habits and anticipating challenges that could derail those habits. I have also started a new system of vocabulary circles in which different students focus on different aspects of learning words and then they share their work with each other. I will describe this system in more detail in a future post. The point is, if you are not seeing the results you want in any part of what you are teaching, change things; don’t keep doing things the way you have been.