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Rewrite the Story You Tell Yourself About Teaching


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Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What
by Angela Watson, 274 pages, Due Season Press, March 2015
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I don’t know about you, but I have a steady stream of self-talk going in my head. And sometimes that talk can get pretty negative. It happens a lot when I have to shop for groceries. This is what it sounds like: I HATE going grocery shopping! Hate it hate it hate it. It’s completely draining and the store is full of annoying, slow people, and once I’ve paid for the groceries, I still have to get them home and put everything away. And a few days later I have to do the whole thing over again. SUCK!

And sure enough, the shopping experience does, indeed, suck. It takes too long. People get in my way. The world conspires to make sure all of my negative biases toward shopping are confirmed.

Only recently have I figured out how powerful my self-talk can be, how much the stories we tell ourselves about our lives can actually shape them.

I learned this from Angela Watson’s new book, Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What. In the book, Watson provides simple, practical strategies individual teachers can use to make their work less stressful and more enjoyable, without moving to a new district or changing anything that’s required of them.

Number 19 is “Rewrite the Story You Tell Yourself About Teaching.” Picking up where she left off in her 2011 book, Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching, Watson describes how we can actually change the way we experience challenges if we can recognize the stories we tell ourselves, then replace them with new ones.

“Identify any story about teaching that is making you unhappy, and then write the story you want to live,” she says. “Write the story that is true to your values and what you believe is most important.”

Does writing a new story really work?

I tried applying this advice to my own shopping situation.

I rewrote the story, told a new one that was much more positive. It sounded like this: Grocery shopping isn’t a problem for me. Keeping healthy food in the house for my family is important to me, and I’m grateful that we have enough money to get what we need. The kids are going to be so excited when they see all the yummy stuff I bring home. I’m glad I can nurture them this way.

I’ll admit, it didn’t sound like me. Not at all. But in a way, that was a good thing: The real voice in my head can be pretty whiny.

“You might not fully believe this new story yet,” Watson cautions. “That’s okay. Start telling it to yourself anyway, because this is the kind of story you want to live.”

Armed with my new—if false-sounding—narrative, I headed to the grocery store. And even though I had a few frustrations, I repeated my story (yes, in my head…I didn’t walk through Meijer muttering to myself!) and found that the whole experience really was better. A lot better. I dare say I even felt a couple moments of joy (they had really nice clementines that day).

And you know which part of the new story had the biggest impact? Grocery shopping isn’t a problem for me. This was the one that really sunk in, probably because it was so chill, so relaxed, so completely opposite from the hysterical complainy voice I was used to hearing. For once, the voice in my head was the voice of a rational grown-up.

It actually worked.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Teaching

Only a fool would say teaching is an easy job. It’s almost universally understood that being a teacher is one of the most challenging and difficult jobs around. And depending on what district or state you’re in, depending on the budget you’re working with, your class size, and the culture of your school, you may have it harder than others.

So finding negative stories to tell ourselves is easy; the stories are ripe for the picking. The challenge is recognizing them as stories, rather than realities. They are the lenses through which we view our jobs, and as such, they can be changed. They can be rewritten. It doesn’t change the circumstances we are in, and those circumstances are still absolutely worth trying to change, but there’s a shift in energy when you switch from calling something “impossible” to calling it “challenging.” Words really do have that much power.

One of the negative stories I always told myself as a teacher was that I was a slow grader. I would look at the pile of papers I had to grade and think, This is going to take forever. I’m so slow. It’s impossible to teach English well to this many kids. Until I get smaller class sizes, I’ll never be able to do a good job.

Instead, I could have said something like this: I may not get to all of these papers tonight, but I’m going to give quality feedback to the students whose papers I do grade. Maybe I won’t grade as much student work as teachers in other subject areas, but I give good, challenging assignments, so the feedback I do give is going to make a difference.

I know that would have felt better. I would have spent less time and energy wallowing in misery, and I would have felt good about the work I was doing. And this is the point of Unshakeable: No matter what kind of situation you’re in, you can control how it impacts you. You can take deliberate steps to enjoy teaching every day.

New Stories + New Habits = Real Change

Rewriting your stories is just one way to make your work more enjoyable. Watson suggests that the best way to really make these new stories stick is to pair them with new habits that will reinforce your new story. Those new habits are taught in the book’s other, easy-to-digest chapters: building in periods of rest and downtime throughout your day, creating curriculum “bright spots” you can’t wait to teach, and deliberately choosing to love kids most when they act most unlovable. (Other bloggers have written about these chapters — see the list on Angela’s blog, The Cornerstone for Teachers.)

Once one new habit is in place, others can be stacked onto it. By doing this, you are going beyond simply changing the mental language you use to describe a situation: You’re actually changing the situation with new habits.

What could your new story be?

Let’s try it right now: What is one negative story you keep telling yourself about your teaching? Is it that no one appreciates you? The kids don’t want to learn? The end of the year can’t come soon enough? Standardized testing has ruined your teaching?

Can you write a different story? One that doesn’t deny reality, but acknowledges your own strength, your own capability? A story that notices the good things that are happening right in front of you? A story that puts you in the driver’s seat, even if your circle of influence is small?

The process is not always easy, and change isn’t necessarily fast, but it’s something you have complete control over. At a time when so many teachers feel powerless over every aspect of their work, realizing this can be empowering.

“There will always be better days and worse days,” Watson writes, “But over time, you can create a lifestyle in which you experience more highs than lows. You can spend more time at the peaks, and not descend quite so low into the valleys…We can choose our mindset, choose our actions and reactions, choose to create a fun and positive learning environment in our classrooms, and choose to love teaching every day…no matter what.” ♦

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  1. Julie says:

    When times get tough and the students start getting under my skin, I take a moment to thank God for the challenges he presents me with each day. It always seems to help. (Though sometimes I have to repeat it multiple times per minute, lol)

  2. Jung says:

    I’ve been long term subbing since February and my credential is expiring in July. I haven’t heard about being hired at this school yet, so my motivation is plummeting. We still have a lot of content to cover before the end of the school year but all I can do is worry.

    • I’m so sorry to hear that, Jung. That’s got to be so distracting. I wonder if you can identify the story that keeps running through your head these days? When you worry, what are you actually telling yourself?

      • Jung says:

        When I worry, I think: “Why did I spend all that money (to buy science lab materials) on a school that doesn’t appreciate me? What if I’m not cut out to be a teacher? I wish I had prepared more for the phone interview.” I didn’t end up passing the phone interview portion, but I try to highlight my best moments: “My students deserve a high quality education. Don’t be just a sub. I can do better at the next interview.” Your blog has really helped me these last few months. I’ve used your website for advice and practical resources, ie, rubrics. Thanks 🙂

  3. Grace says:

    Great perspective; reminds me of many things I’ve heard from my counselor. A great reminder as I start applying for teaching jobs!

    • Absolutely, Grace. Job hunting can wreak havoc on a person’s attitude and self-image, so practicing positive self-talk and noticing when you’re telling yourself negative stories can be a big help. Good luck!

  4. Judy says:

    I understand this completely…thanks for putting it into words! Discouragement is an evil and it is so very easy to fall into the pattern…Your reflection made my day.
    Keep up the great work!

    • Thank you, Judy! You’re right, it is SO easy to get discouraged. Ironic that being happy actually takes effort, but once you realize that, at least you have a clear path to take!

  5. Erin says:

    Thank you so much, Jen! Just what I needed to read today. It’s really easy to slip down that slope and being mindful of the chatter in your mind can completely change your perspective and your energy. I will choose my story! Thanks for all you do.

  6. Nicole says:

    My district recently adopted a new curriculum and is forcing teachers to teach to this because it “meets the rigor the standards require.”I am becoming discouraged that they are forcing us to teach boring and devolopmentally inappropriate lessons for the sake of “rigor” and testing.I have been teaching for four years now and feeling closeto a burn out. I love my school and students, but when your hands are tied and forced to teach things you know in your heart is not the best for children, what do you do? I am desperately reflectng on how to rewrite my story .

  7. This is fabulous! I’m going to link it on my latest blog post
    “5 Ways to Reflect, and not Regret, Teaching”
    (minus the punctuation, because I’m lazy)
    Push the Positive, Change the World!
    @GwynethJones – The Daring Librarian
    PS. For groceries, I splurge on PeaPod delivery by Giant. Once a month – yes, it costs a little more but I tend to spend less because no impulse buying! My 2¢.

  8. I am going to retire in May 2017 after 17 years of teaching English. I have one more semester to teach starting January 4, and I want to get through it honorably and not miserably. Many students talk about me negatively and 30 students/parents requested to be placed with a different English teacher this year. I don’t yell, although they say I do. They are lazy and don’t want to read or write. All they want to do is text and play on their district-provided tablet computers. Any advice for me as I finish up this last year and go out into the world again?

    • Hi Donna,

      I have been thinking about your question for a couple of days now. You’re at such an important crossroads in your life and your teaching career, and I hope I can help.

      I can only imagine how painful it would be to have a large number of parents request to have their students moved out of my class. This kind of thing can have a snowball effect, and to have it happen so close to retirement would be a terrible way to end your teaching career. The good news is, you still have about 5 months left. In that time you could just coast, counting the days until it’s over and you can move on to something else. Or you could completely turn things around.

      I vote for option B.

      So how do you do that? I would recommend you start by talking to your students. I created a survey called the How’s It Going? Form that lets you quickly and easily gather student feedback about your class. I would issue this to them on your first day back. Take a look at my post about gathering student feedback as well, to help you make the most of what you learn. If you’d rather not pay the $2 for the form, get in touch through the contact page and I’ll send it to you for free. I really want you to do this.

      Very soon after you gather this feedback, set aside some time to talk to your students, a whole class period if possible. Tell them you want things to be different, you want to experiment with some new ways of doing things in your last few months of teaching, and see what happens. Try as hard as you can not to be defensive; students are not used to being asked for their opinions, so anyone who does will be pretty nervous about the repercussions. After having this talk with them, see if you can start incorporating some new strategies.

      Let’s talk for a moment about the yelling issue. If that many students say you yell, but you don’t believe they do, there’s clearly a disconnect. For some people, their tone of voice may convey something that feels a lot like yelling, even if the volume isn’t turned up. Regardless of how we define it, the fact remains that a lot of students feel yelled at. It’s clear that you don’t want them to have this impression, so I would advise you to have an open, honest conversation with them and see if they can describe the behavior that they think of as yelling.

      One other thing I want to address is your description of the students as lazy. Whenever I hear that, I interpret it to mean that the teacher no longer believes it’s possible to motivate them. Although I have had plenty of students who gave off that “lazy” vibe and were hard to motivate, when I take a good hard look at my teaching practices, I realize I’m not really doing everything I can to make my classroom an inspiring place. To reframe your thinking on this issue and take steps to fix it, read two of my previous posts, 5 Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Unmotivated Students and The Danger of Teacher Nostalgia.

      Finally, I would recommend you read Unshakeable. It really could have a significant impact on how you see all of this.

      Stay in touch and let me know how your first few weeks back are going. You’ll be in my thoughts, Donna. Thanks so much for sharing your story here.

    • Debbie Sachs says:

      Hey Donna,

      This is Debbie, a Customer Experience Manager with Cult of Pedagogy. Thanks for sharing your story. Wanting to finish up the year with happiness and honor is not only admirable, but I think, absolutely possible.

      You have impacted the lives of many kids over the course of your career. Remember that. Right now you sound pretty discouraged, which can happen, because teaching is one of the most vulnerable and hardest jobs we can do. To make change happen, what do you think about changing the stories you tell yourself about the kids? Think about how they may be impacting what you do and say. Angela Watson suggests in order to make real change happen, we need to rewrite negative stories into realities and combine them with new habits. I’m wondering what could happen if your story changed from “My students are lazy,” to “My students aren’t engaged in their reading and writing. Here’s what I can do. I can come to school every day, loving them, smiling, having a sense of humor, and continuing to hold high expectations with highly engaging lessons.” These are the things you can control that you can feel good about as you finish up the year. Seeking support from some marigolds (see our blog Find Your Marigold: One Essential Rule for New Teachers) and checking out the instructional blogs on our site may inspire some new ideas for increasing student engagement.

      The fact that you took the time to write in shows how important and meaningful this is to you. You’ve served kids for 17 years…that’s a big deal!!! Best to you as you finish up the school year and embark on a new journey!

    • Holly Burcham says:

      Hi, Donna! This is Holly Burcham, another Customer Experience Manager. I wholeheartedly agree with both Jenn’s and Debbie’s responses, so I’ll keep it short. Here are a few hands-on, in-the-classroom ideas that I thought you might be able to use to engage your students.

      Have you tried playing to their strengths? If they enjoy being on their tablets, you could try flipping your classroom while the students are in class and/or integrating Google Drive if you haven’t already. You could also get them moving around with discussion strategies like chat stations.

      I hope this helps. Thank you for being so open with us, and we all wish you a wonderful end to your teaching career.

  9. Thank you for this post. I struggle with being positive and then after I stop complaining I know that my role as a school administrator is to encourage, support, listen, learn from and model for the teachers I serve. Writing has helped a lot and reading posts like this one helps me reflect and gives me encouragement to continue. Thank you again for sharing this wisdom. Rest assured that I will share with my teachers although many won’t respond. I know that it’s not that they don’t have anything to say, they do. They are thinking and reflecting like me.

  10. This is a genius idea. I read a study a while back that showed how reframing stressful teaching narratives lowered stress more than just suppressing a stressful situation.

  11. Donia Thomas says:

    Thank you for this post, I enjoyed reading and learning more about shifting negative to positive thinking!

    Great job!

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