Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching
by Angela Watson, 240 pages, Due Season Press, July 2011
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I had a pretty good day yesterday. Granted, my son almost made the whole family late for school, I hit some unexpected traffic on the way to an appointment, I ate too much Chinese food at dinner, my house is a mess, and I didn’t finish a bunch of things on my to-do list. But none of that bothered me nearly as much as it used to.
For this, I have Angela Watson to thank. I was already a fan of her website, The Cornerstone, but now that I’ve been reading her book, Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching, I’m learning how to re-train my mind to react to things differently. My normal aggravations haven’t disappeared; I’m just handling them a whole lot better.
Pulling from her own personal study of texts that range from positive psychology to spiritual growth, Watson shows teachers how to respond more calmly to the things that typically make us overwhelmed, depressed, angry, and bitter. It’s not just for teachers, though: Awakened would work for anyone in any context. I plan to push this book into the hands of many, many non-teachers for years to come, because we all deal with negative colleagues, demanding bosses, unrealistic expectations, and having too much on our plates. It would work for parents. It would work for real estate agents. It would work for CPAs, especially during tax season. But for teachers, whose line of work has its own special way of crushing the soul, this one is a must-have.
Specific Strategies that Literally Change Your Mind
There’s a saying that begins, “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit…” The idea is that everything you are, the way you experience and interact with life, begins with your thoughts. I believe this is true. The problem is, it’s hard to control your thoughts, and many of us are victims of our own minds, being pushed and pulled in whatever direction they decide to take us. In Awakened, Watson shows us how to fight against that, how to actually gain control over the reflexive and reactive ways we respond to our lives and reshape them into healthier, more intentional ways of experiencing the world.
To do this reshaping, she helps us recognize all the habits of mind that wreak havoc on us. For me, one of the most powerful take-aways was the discussion of the language we use, both in our heads and with our voices. As the descendant of a long line of Italians, it’s in my genes to exaggerate. I’m never hungry; I’m starving. I’m never tired; I’m exhausted. This is so ingrained in me that I actually get frustrated with people who use milder terms: When another mother describes her toddler as “challenging,” I cringe at the understatement — this is someone who is clearly not in touch with her feelings!
But after reading Awakened, I see that mother in a different light. She’s choosing her words carefully, deliberately describing her child with more realistic language, because as Watson explains, doing so can actually make a situation seem more manageable:
Replacing extreme terms is a really important strategy if you’re prone to panic or anxiety attacks, or even just dramatic outbursts and assuming the worst case scenario. If you play close attention to your word choice, you’ll notice how influential it is on how you feel and what you think later on. If you think something is really awful, you’ll probably waste a lot of time thinking about how awful it is rather than expending your energy on problem solving.
One of the most helpful aspects of Awakened is its use of alternative scripts. Instead of just describing how to change our thinking, Watson provides tons of examples of what that new thoughts might actually look like. For example, in the section on pessimistic thinking, she shows us the difference between “permanence” thinking, where you believe a situation will never change, and a more accurate way of processing a situation:
Permanence Thinking: This student is so far behind that he’s never going to catch up. I can’t do anything for an eighth grader who can barely speak or read English!
Accurate Thinking: This student is far behind now, but he could potentially make significant growth this year. Kids who don’t speak the language at the beginning of the year are often holding conversations with their peers in English by June. It’s unlikely that he’ll be reading on grade level by then, but he’s hardly an impossible case. His English will probably improve incrementally each week that he’s in our school. The efforts I make to help him do matter!
These samples are a crucial piece in helping us develop a new mindset, because for those of us who don’t already practice this kind of healthy thinking, it can feel like a foreign language at first; examples help us get there faster.
But Education is Riddled with Problems!
Some might approach this book with cynicism, believing that it dismisses problems at what is arguably the most highly contentious period in education’s history. But read carefully: Watson does not deny the problems in education — big-scale issues like testing and small-scale ones like disruptive classroom behavior — in fact, the book is full of examples from her own history that illustrate how she has coped with very real problems, first in unhealthy ways that were leading to her own burnout, and later in ways that made her happier and more productive in her work.
And while she acknowledges the significant problems in education, she maintains that we do ourselves no favors by wallowing in them.
Maybe your situation IS really bad…Perhaps most people would agree that in this case, you’re deserving of pity and should be allowed to feel sorry for yourself. But what does that accomplish in terms of your ultimate purpose in life? If a habit is not serving you well, leave it behind.
The point of this book is to keep yourself healthy so you can do the important, satisfying work you were meant to do. If you’re committed to fighting the things that are wrong with education today, reading this book will only fortify you, giving you the personal peace of mind to make significant changes without destroying yourself in the process.
A Christian Book?
Something to note before you read: Angela Watson is a passionate Christian. Her faith has influenced her growth as a person and presumably her desire to share what she’s learned with others. But this is not technically a “Christian” book. Watson does discuss her faith in the early parts of the book, but quickly adds that the techniques she shares will work for anyone, and that they draw from and are compatible with many spiritual and secular traditions.
And she keeps this promise: Only occasionally does she quote scripture, and more often than not, the philosophies she describes actually remind me of Buddhism. This may be because I’ve studied more Buddhism than Christianity, but my point is that the book is in no way heavy-handed on religion. Still, it bears noting that readers should be prepared for the occasional reference to God and the Bible. Because this book has already done so much for me personally in just a few short weeks, I really hope that readers who are predisposed to be turned off by any reference to Christianity will give this book a real chance. And if you are a Christian, you’ll be excited to learn that Watson has published a devotional study guide to accompany this book.
A Dog-Eared Favorite
When I need a change of perspective, a supportive voice, or some wisdom to shake me out of a rut, I have a small collection of books I always go back to: A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Sarah Napthali’s Buddhism for Mothers. The spines of these books are well-cracked. Their pages are underlined and dog-eared. And I can say without question that Awakened will now join them.
It’s easy to find teaching books on methodology, classroom management, educational technology and instructional design. Every year, new books are published that tell individual teachers’ personal stories of triumph and failure. But the list of books that care for the mental health of teachers is much, much shorter, and this one belongs at the very top.
It’s definitely given me a lot more good days. I hope it will do the same for you. ♦