Cultivating Happy Habits

(Photo credit: Elizabeth M)

(Photo credit: Elizabeth M)

If you are reading this post, it means that you didn’t let my cheesy headline deter you. I realize that it could have—I mean, how lame does the phrase “happy habits” sound? But I’m hoping you’ll soon understand that cultivating happy habits can actually be a very useful and powerful practice.

To give some background: as part of my training program in counseling, I participate in various field placements that give me the opportunity to conduct therapy in a variety of settings with a diverse set of clients. Currently, I am working with the U.S. Department of  Veterans Affairs. As part of my experience with the VA, I’ve helped lead a group that provides an introduction to mindfulness. Our group provides the group members—veterans who have often experienced trauma and are now dealing with subsequent anxiety and depression—with tangible things they can do to achieve improvements in their lives. One thing we encourage is the mindfulness practice of developing happy habits.

So what are these habits? Happiness researchers such as Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, have found that certain routine practices have been shown to literally improve one’s level of happiness in a rather short amount of time. Achor suggests a set of five simple things you can do every day that will make you significantly, noticeably, measurably happier:

My Struggle with Standardized Testing

(Image credit: Oliver Tacke)

(Image credit: Oliver Tacke)

You don’t need me to tell you how obsessed educators often become with state tests. At my first placement school, we held pep rallies to inspire confidence and excitement in students. At the next school I worked at, an after-school club produced a music video devoted to the state test (check it out—it’s pretty amazing). Entire school days were devoted to taking practice tests.

Even though I hated many of the things about the state test, it was very easy to get caught up in my schools’ energy and become completely consumed by testing. I found myself spending hours creating questions that mirrored those that students would see on the tests. I made sure every lesson had some connection to testing.

Then one Monday, I got my wake-up call. My school had devoted the previous Thursday and Friday to practice testing. These practice tests would serve as one of our school’s final gauges of student preparedness and what still needed to be accomplished before the real tests were to take place. I cheerily entered my principal’s office to greet him and find out how my students had done. He handed me my class’ scores. My heart sank. My students were nowhere near where I expected they would be, where they needed to be. I burst into tears. It was unlike me to display such emotion in front of a colleague (or this early on a Monday morning), but I couldn’t control it. I had been placing so much weight, importance, and expectations on these scores. It felt like all my hard work was wasted.

Bringing Back the Joy: #180goodthings

Student taught by Victoria Hong (Los Angeles '11) at PACE Early Childhood Education – Christian Fellowship site.

Student taught by Victoria Hong (Los Angeles ’11) at PACE Early Childhood Education – Christian Fellowship site.

All new teachers know the struggle: no matter how rewarding our jobs can be, there often are days that are almost too challenging to bear. However, whether we realize it or not, something keeps dragging us out of bed in the morning, some glimmer of hope for the students we serve.

It was this glimmer that inspired 2012 Baltimore corps member Chery Sutjahjo to find a way for educators to spread good vibes through social media. The result is #180goodthings, which Sutjahjo, a first grade teacher, hopes will connect corps members in a positive and inspiring way.

The idea is to pull one small nugget of joy from each day that you’re in the classroom and post it as a status, photo, or video. Rather than dwelling on the thousands of daily challenges you face (which is often our default setting), keep yourself sane by remembering why you signed up for this. Most days, this is something small. It could be artwork drawn by one of your little ones, a passing grade from a previously failing student, or a positive parent phone call. These little glimpses of joy are special to our unique situations—and they are worth celebrating and sharing. After posting a few times, you might even find yourself seeking out those extraordinary and exciting moments each day.

In Search of Perfection: Part II

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(Photo credit: Marco Sama)

In my last post, I discussed the pernicious effects of perfectionism, which, when left to its own devices, can wreak all kinds of havoc in our relationships and on our emotional state. At this point, you may be asking yourself how this applies to you and your role at TFA, but I assure you that it does. Even those of you who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool perfectionists will bump up against events in your life that will test your ability to accept and let go. In the classroom and in many areas of life, you very likely feel that you are in control of most things that occur on your watch. But one of your challenges at TFA (and in life) is to learn where your power is and where it isn’t. If you find yourself not being in control all of the time, this does not necessarily mean that you’re failing. In fact, if you can give yourself a little leeway by not getting too invested in things turning out a certain way, you may be surprised at the outcome.

In Search of Perfection

(Photo credit: Vestman)

(Photo credit: Vestman)

We have all encountered some version of perfectionism within ourselves. But while perfectionism and its outcomes may have some benefits, there’s a downside to its allure.

On the positive side, striving for flawlessness can often mean that you are thorough and scrupulous when approaching projects, which can be a useful skill. In fact, it is a close cousin to “relentless pursuit.” It means working tirelessly and unremittingly until you reach a goal. There is no question that in order to make significant gains in much of life, a level of relentlessness and even perfectionism must be present. You might have seen this in yourself when, after decorating and arranging your new classroom for the first day of class, you spent another half hour rearranging the desks in an effort to maximize student interaction. Some level of perfectionism might even be partly responsible for your acceptance into TFA in the first place: a great resume, excellent grades, a well-thought-out lesson sample, and perfect interview responses. This all contributes to the success that you have achieved thus far. Like I said, being a perfectionist can come in handy.

Spring Break Job Search Tips for Educators Who Just Want a Break

rtaImageIf you’re an active job seeker, Spring Break isn’t so much a break as an opportunity to polish your resume, research job openings, and write cover letters. But, at times it also feels like a sacrifice.

You trade the beach for the library and sleeping in for submitting applications. And most of the time it seems worth it—except for one thing: you need the break. Spring Break may have started for other reasons, but it’s become a much-needed chance for teachers to relax and refuel.

So, if you spend your whole break laser-focused on the job search, what happens when you return to school as depleted as when you left? (Hint: You’ll probably spend most of the first day back glaring at your tanned colleagues and their fun-filled stories.)

The good news is you actually don’t have to choose between Spring Break and the job search; with a little planning, discipline, and these six tips, you can make progress on both your job search and your tan.

Anxiety: How Much Is Too Much?

(Photo credit: Herry Lawford)

(Image credit: Herry Lawford)

Unfortunately, anxiety is an emotion I am all too familiar with. I’ve battled anxiety throughout my life, watching it wax and wane depending on my life circumstances, engaging in an ongoing process of learning how to cope with my anxious feelings. During my time as a corps member, my anxiety was particularly bad. It even got to the point where I experienced a panic attack—a really scary experience that I didn’t fully understand at the time.

I’ve been out of the corps for several years now, and have begun training in a counseling psychology graduate program. Through my training, I’ve learned some helpful things about anxiety that I wish I’d known back when I was a CM.

How to Cope with Disillusionment

(Photo credit: blameless-eyes)

(Photo credit: blameless-eyes)

During my first year of TFA, our principal enjoyed lining the kids up before school and berating them before they started the day. One morning in particular stands out: she paced back and forth, told the students that they acted like animals in a zoo, and explained that it was no wonder that “those schools in Beverly Hills don’t want you.” She went on to compassionately explain that her parents had the decency to raise her in a neighborhood where there weren’t gunshots at night, unlike the parents who were raising them. As they stood there, forced to listen to her racist and offensive ranting, I thought, “How in the world am I supposed to be effective with these kids when this is the tone that is set from our administration?”

At this point in the school year, it is normal to feel disillusioned. All of the plans, dreams, and good intentions that you carried forward into your classroom crash up against the realities of broken systems, economic disparity, unsupportive colleagues, discouragement, difficult administrators, and more.

So now what? When you’re having a particularly low day, remember these points: