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.” ♦