The Importance of Gratitude For Teachers

A thanksgiving table settingNovember is apparently the month of gratitude, if status updates on Facebook are an authority. The connection with the American celebration of Thanksgiving is likely the connection. I think it is great, although gratitude can become an important part of every day of your life, as opposed to something you focus on in November. Gratitude has been a big part of changing my life!

There are many good reasons why a teacher – or anybody – should embrace gratitude. In this post, I want to list a few of the reasons why you should explore the concept of gratitude, i.e. the “benefits of gratitude.” In an upcoming post, I intend to list a few ways you can be more grateful and express your gratitude.

Gratitude Makes Your Perspective More Positive

Your perspective is your map of the world, i.e. how you experience reality. Everybody experiences reality differently. Let’s look at two teachers. They both have the same kids (during different periods). One is mean, hates kids, and never wants to get up in the morning. The other is cool, loves kids, and views every day as an exciting opportunity. Same kids. Very different perspective.

Some people believe that the world around us determines our outlook. So, they say, if it rains or the stock market crashes, your day must be bad. However, this is not true. Rain and market crashes are neutral stimuli. Farmers love rain in the middle of a drought, and people pay good money to get wet at water parks. Also, people that sell short love market declines, as do bond holders, because they are typically inversely related. Can you see my point? Our perspective determines our reality.

Gratitude is a major perspective changer. One of my favorite phrases is “you can’t hate what you are grateful for.” When I was at a recent extra-school event I was required to attend, I admit I wasn’t too thrilled. Giving extra time for no extra pay is not something that thrills me (I strongly believe if people do extra work, they deserve extra pay). Plus, some of the students were not being cooperative. A particular group of guys was being extra boisterous. Rather than get mad, I decided to find something to be thankful for in these individuals. I suddenly realized they were being kind of funny, and I wish I had their energy at that late hour of the evening. Suddenly I went from being angry and bothered to relaxed and in a good mood. Gratitude acts as a powerful perspective changer, and it shifts your perspective to the positive side of life.

Gratitude Makes You Happier

At that recent extra-school event, we were at a conference center. There were a few staff members that were extra mean and bitter. Anytime a kid did anything even remotely unexpected (like moving a piece of furniture), I heard about it as a chaperone. And, they didn’t express their concerns nicely. I was amazed how anybody could have such a horrible perspective in life and other people. These staff members saw a bunch of hyper teens that loved breaking the rules. I saw a group of teens giving up their evening time (not many teens would do this) to learn something valuable that were full of energy. My perspective was much, much different, and gratitude shaped that perspective.

Studies have shown that simply listing a few things you are grateful for each day can make you happier. In fact, being grateful can “reset” the happiness point in your life. Many teachers end up cynical, unhappy, and even hating the very students they are supposed to care for. Can you imagine how gratitude can change your perspective on these students and make you happier? The truth is that it can! In my next post, I am going to explain ways you can take advantage of the power of gratitude, so stay tuned!

Canceling Halloween: Group Punishment Gone Wild

A glowing plastic Jack o'lanternA Pennsylvania school recently made the national news for canceling Halloween. They cited lower attendance rates, costume safety issues, poorer students feeling left out, and a lack of consistency with the celebrations.

Rather than address each issue individually, the school deals with it in the typical educational way: punish everybody. Write up skippers? Nope. Address unsafe costumes with individual parents? Nope. Help poorer students find costumes? Nope. Talk to teachers about being consistent in their parties? Nope. Take the easy (and joy killing route) and cancel Halloween! Yes!

If I sound passionate about this topic, you’d be right. It’s not so much the issue of Halloween, but the educational tendency towards group punishment. Throughout school, I was a good kid who rarely got in trouble. However, I experienced many group punishments. In many cases, I had no control over even being in the group. The teacher would put me in a group, then punish me when some of the group misbehaved.

I rarely use group punishment in teaching because it’s extremely unjust. I understand that teaching is extremely difficult and group punishment is sometimes a quick and effective way to discipline. However, I know from personal experience how frustrating it can be to be punished even though you’re genuinely innocent.

I think the School District is making a similar mistake, just on a smaller scale. They’re letting genuine concerns that occur because of a few people ruin the Halloween fun of the vast majority who play by the rules. Finding and implementing solutions would be more difficult, but it’s worth it. In the end, excited kids shouldn’t have to sit through a “fall festival” simply because the school’s leadership isn’t creative enough to figure out solutions.

Four Ways to Be More Popular This Halloween

A Halloween pumpkin blow-upHalloween is a fun time of the year for young people. Heck, it’s also a fun time for adults. Or, it can be, if they allow themselves to have fun. As a teacher, Halloween is a great time to increase your overall popularity and connect with your students. After all, the best way to increase your popularity, and your overall success with your kids, is to share common interests. Read on to learn our four tips to have a popular Halloween with your students.

Tip One: Dress Up

At my former school, teachers were allowed to dress up. The students absolutely loved to see their teachers in a costume. I’m not sure why, but I think it humanized an authority figure. Seeing us in funny or scary costumes helped them connect with us on a more human level.

Yet, where I taught fewer than half of the teachers (and none of the administrators) dressed up. Perhaps they couldn’t be bothered or thought it made them less authoritative. That’s the wrong attitude. Students know you are an authority figure. Be a human being for a day. Also, putting a little effort in a costume can pay big dividends in terms of rapport building.

Tip Two: Candy!

I’m a health nut, but I also recognize that some days, especially holidays, it’s important to let go a little. So, even if it makes them a little hyper and is unhealthy, give out something sweet to your students. This is true even if they’re in high school. Believe it or not, a small gift from you could earn you a lot of respect and admiration from your students. Many of them have never received a gift from a teacher, especially as teens.

Tip Three: Decorate

If you have a classroom of your own, then decorate it for Halloween. You don’t have to go overboard, but put a few decorations around your room. If you can find something really cool and memorable, it’s even better. Cool Halloween decorations will get students talking about you and let them think you’re creative and unique. It’s always good, for both their respect and popularity, to stand out from the crowd.

Tip Four: Loosen Up

You don’t always have to be a strict disciplinarian. If you’re a little on the stricter side (which is OK), then maybe Halloween is a good time to relax yourself just a little bit. Once again, it allows the students to see a different and softer side of you. Keeping control of your classroom is essential. Being controlling isn’t. Let Halloween be a time to mellow out a little bit.

Here’s hoping you have a safe, fun, and popular Halloween!

Sports: A Simple Way To Bond With Your Students

Men playing college footballTeens love sports. OK, not all of them. But, when you take the number of teens who play some type of sport  at school or otherwise, combined with those who love a particular sports team, then you have an overwhelmingly clear majority.

Yet, I know many teachers who absolutely hate sports. They bash them around students and complain about their negative impact on the life of the school.

I think some teachers dislike sports for a few reasons. They:

  • Are “intellectuals” and feel that mindset is incompatible with sports
  • Think that athletics take precedence over academics
  • Have no personal interest in sports
  • Feel that sports are violent or a waste of time

Let me answer these particular objections briefly.

  • I have a Masters degree from a top university, studied Greek and Latin, and can tell you all you want to know about philosophy from Plato to Heidegger. I also never miss a chance to watch the Cleveland Browns or talk about them. Being intellectual and loving sports aren’t contradictory.
  • Athletics do take precedence over academics sometimes. It’s a sad fact. However, a kid’s interest in sports can actually be an asset, especially if they come from a family that lacks structure and accomplishments. Rather than being at war with sports, teachers should help students build on their sports successes to also find success in their schoolwork.
  • While everyone is allowed his or her own opinion, there are many different types of sports out there. The odds of having no interest in all of them is pretty slim.
  • Athletic contests can be violent and, for some kids, they are escapes. But, this doesn’t make all athletic activity bad or a waste of time. Sports mean a lot for many teens. It doesn’t matter what we think. It’s a reality.

I always enjoyed talking about sports with my students because it was a theme about which many of them had real passion. They were impressed that I knew a lot about the topic and cared about it. Also, by talking about it with them, it showed I cared, not just about the game, but about them!

Even if you don’t like sports, taking an interest is an easy way to bond with your students. If you enjoy sports, but don’t share that with the students, then maybe now is the time to bring up the topic. It’s an easy and effective way to build rapport with even the most troubled and “difficult” kids.

Want to Be A Popular Teacher? Then Be Excellent!

Man with water running

Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I was in elementary school, I idolized my teachers and showed them respect simply because they were my teachers. However, as I became a teenager, simply being my teacher wouldn’t cut it for instant respect. In order for me to admire them, they had to actually be admirable to my teenage mind. I wanted them to be excellent in ways that meant something to me.

As a teacher, I encountered this all the time. Students didn’t really care a whole lot about the topic I taught. And, unless you’re teaching video games, sports, texting, or listening to music, it’s likely your students aren’t terribly interested in your subject matter either. Don’t kid yourself! However, my students did like me personally. And, they did it because I was excellent in ways they cared about.

If you want to be popular and respected by your students, you’ll have to be excellent in ways they admire too. Most teens today really do want to connect with their teachers. But, if your only interests are outside of their experience, they won’t be able to relate to you. It also may be why you may feel you can’t relate to teens at times.

To appear excellent to your students, then you’ll have to either emphasize elements of your personality and talents that appeal to teens or find universally appealing ones. Fortunately, teens are fairly predictable in their interests. The most popular ones are music, sports, and humor. Unfortunately, teens typically don’t care about typical “education” accomplishments like awards for curriculum and classroom management.

One way to find out what your teens find excellent is to actually focus on what they are talking about. Find out their interests. While you don’t have to modify your personality based on their preferences, you can easily emphasize your accomplishments in those areas they care about. If you have nothing in common whatsoever with your students, then perhaps it’s time to develop some or find another career.

Let me give you a personal example of earning respect through excellence. I run extreme races like the Warrior Dash and the Tough Mudder. Whenever my students find out about this, they are amazed and talk about how cool it is. These races are genuine accomplishments and my students respond accordingly with admiration and respect.

Find ways to be excellent and they will love and respect you too.

Meditation and Prayer on the Way To Work

Paved path with barn on rightStudies show that prayer/meditation have many health benefits, including reduction of stress and more focused performance in various tasks (By the way, I am lumping meditation and prayer together for the purposes of discussion here, defining both generically as “gathering one’s thoughts and calming the mind”). As a teacher, dealing with possibly hundreds of equally stressed students, grounding yourself is very very important.

I find that prayer and meditation on the way to work have a profound effect on my day. I have  forty minute drive at the moment, as I look for a new house closer to work. One benefit of a long drive is that I have a chance to collect my thoughts for the day. There are a variety of ways to do this. Obviously, your faith will shape how you approach this, but I will share my approach.

I tend to use prayers from my faith tradition, Catholicism. I say the Our Father and Hail Mary, as well as focusing my personal spontaneous prayers from the Church Year. From a psychological vantage point, this has a calming and centering effect on my mind.

I also know the scientific benefits of mindfulness, a concept practiced primarily in the East, although Christians such as St. Teresa of Avila have discovered mindfulness without really mentioning it by name. Because of this I try to practice some on the way to work. Whether you are Buddhist or not is irrelevant; mindfulness is a practice backed up by modern science, and many of us use it not for religious reasons, but psychological ones.

Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally. This means simply taking in the moment by stopping any thoughts or judgement about the moment. Mindfulness is a type of meditation and is really simple to accomplish. The easiest way is to take some deep breaths and just be aware of the sensations of breathing. If another thought enters your head, let it pass and focus again on your breath. The point is to firmly plant yourself in the beauty of the present moment, as opposed to being worried about the future or paralyzed by the past.

Being mindful while driving is easy. I just take some deep breaths and enter a mindful state, and the drive suddenly comes alive. The worry of what “needs done” disappears, because I am in the moment, not in the future. This is why  mindfulness meditation is so relaxing. Even after a few seconds, you will find your body relaxing.

Whatever you do, I suggest getting some sort of prayer or meditation routine on your way to work. As I mentioned above, even if you are not religious, you can easily practice a few moments of mindfulness to ground your mind and body for the day.

Quick Wednesday Lesson: Sometimes Students Are Just Shy

Shy Girl

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I had to put in a seating chart in one of my classes the other day. Because of the random generated chart I made, a girl that I always assumed didn’t like me very much ended up right beside me.

Suddenly, she was talkative, happy, and her attention was directed my way.

I realized I was reading too much into her past actions (or rather, her inaction). She wasn’t mean, stuck-up, or aloof, just shy. The minute I changed the game a little (i.e. I made it easier for her to communicate with me – she wasn’t going to take the lead), she opened up.

This is a valuable lesson. We don’t know what a student is thinking. To assume a student, parent, or peer is hostile or unfriendly just because they don’t say much is the wrong approach. It is important to never write off anybody, or project your assumptions onto someone else.

It’s also important to realize that as a teacher, you can make little changes to raise the self-esteem of students and help them come out of their shells. Never forget that you, as a teacher, can really make a difference in the lives of students, even in small matters.