Making a Case for “Good Enough”

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We have all encountered some version of perfectionism within ourselves. There are certainly ways in which perfectionism benefits us. Striving for flawlessness can often mean that you are thorough and scrupulous when approaching projects, which can be a useful skill. Perfectionism likely played a contributing role in your life successes thus far—a great resume, excellent grades…you get the picture.

But perfectionism doesn’t come without its drawbacks. Since it is rare to actually ever attain perfection, you can begin to believe that nothing you ever do is enough. You can get caught up in the small, irrelevant details, and make simple tasks into really complicated ones. In fact, perfectionism can also lead to procrastination. Why start something if it can never be perfect?

In our efforts to be perfect, we sometimes defeat ourselves entirely and actually end up performing worse than if we had aimed for merely “great,” “darned good,” or, dare I say, “good enough.” And perfectionism can also mess with our relationships. Aside from the amount of time that it takes away from relationships (perfectionism can be a real time-suck), it also creates a barrier whereby we don’t allow ourselves to be the imperfect individuals that we are by virtue of being human. Said another way: if we spend all our time worried that the other shoe is going to drop (i.e., that they’ll discover I’m not perfect), then we run the risk of never being our true selves with others. And if we hold others to the same standard of perfection, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment—the reality is, people are just not perfect.

So I want to challenge you, not to strive for perfection, but to accept “good enough”. Consider the amount of relief that will result from removing the pressure of perfection from your life. You may find that you have more time to participate in self-care activities. By not being perfect, you will show more of your true self, your humanness to others, resulting in deeper and more authentic relationships. And, ironically enough, you may just notice that your work is better when you don’t feel the need for it to be perfect.

Shameless Optimism: 4 Ways to Get to Know Your Students

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In her TED Talk, Every Kid Needs a Champion, educator Rita Pierson said, “You know, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” When I first watched this video, everything seemed to make more sense. I was having issues with classroom management for many reasons and among these was the fact that not all my kids knew me well enough to like or respect me. Once I cultivated strong relationships with my students, I noticed that things in the classroom went much smoother. Here are four things that I did to get to know the kids in my classroom:

  1. Say How You Feel. One of the best things I ever decided to do was to be totally honest with my first graders about my feelings. I tell them when I’m disappointed or when I’m really proud of them. I hope that my kids never feel as though they have to guess what’s on my mind. I also encourage them to be honest with me by using sentence starters like, “Ms. Grant, I didn’t like when you did this because…” or “Ms. Grant, when you said ______ it made me feel _______.” Being honest and sharing your feelings (the good and the bad) help strengthen relationships and build trust.
  1. Call Home. There is one student in my classroom where this really strengthened our relationship. I would call his mom and talk to her for a few minutes, but I would spend the rest of those ten minutes talking to him about his day or what he was watching on television. Sometimes I would even watch the same show he was watching. Calling home and talking to a student is another way to show him/her that you care.
  1. Have Lunch Together. I think most kids—especially those in elementary school—love having lunch with their teachers. It’s the perfect chance to chat about the day and to see how a student is feeling about life in general. This is also a great time to find out about their interests.
  1. Give Pep Talks. In my classroom, I give at least three pep talks a day. These might be in reaction to extreme behavior or for something small. I always make sure that my demeanor is calm and that my tone is neutral. Pep talks help to remind students of their full potential and how much you believe in their success.

Tell us in the comments: How do you get to know the kids in your classroom?

Shameless Optimism is a regular column by Deniann Grant about keeping calm and maintaining a positive attitude in the classroom.

Don’t Take It Personally

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I refuse to participate in the online dating scene. Here’s why: Imagine you’re at a bar, and your blind date is running late. You sit awkwardly at the bar swiping through Instagram posts and old text messages in an attempt to look less lame.

Why are you really fiddling with your phone? You don’t have any new Instagram updates and (let’s be real) no one has texted you. This habit is a coping mechanism, something to make you feel less weird and to help you put up with the uncomfortable emotions you are experiencing during your wait.

Well, it is the same with kids. In the classroom, your kids also display a range of coping mechanisms for the awkward, uncomfortable, strange, frustrating, anxious, and unfamiliar situations they encounter every day. I can fondly remember a number of coping mechanisms that my students displayed during my time in the classroom: head on the desk during a difficult lesson, relentlessly vying for my attention or asking to go to the bathroom, or—my favorite—slamming the door with every ounce of their strength after being asked to step in the hallway due to a behavior infraction.

In the moment, all of these behaviors can make your blood boil because of their conspicuous and seemingly confrontational nature; however, I’m here to tell you—don’t take it personally. In general, these performances are manifestations of the reality that in some social situations, under certain stresses, and when encountering unfamiliar emotions, we often don’t know how to embody our feelings.

For instance, last year, on the first day of classes, when I looked over a student’s shoulder as he completed coursework, he yelled in a very angry tone, “Don’t look at my paper!” However, I knew not to take the offense personally. I leaned down to the student’s desk and replied, “I apologize. Next time, I will ask before looking at your paper.” (Of course, I had to explain to the student why his tone was inappropriate for addressing a teacher, but that’s another article.)

When I debriefed with other teachers, they cited the student’s behavior as inappropriate, offensive, and disruptive. I had another view. After observing the student throughout the class period, I noticed he expressed anger on his face every time the teachers moved to the next slide; it was clear he hadn’t finished writing down the necessary information.

It became apparent to me that contrary to the outburst being a personal attack, the student was expressing the uncomfortable emotion of feeling frustrated because he couldn’t keep up with the pace of the class. He didn’t want to seem like he wasn’t trying his best. His reaction was not a mischievous act, but a call for help.

In this way, whenever interacting with students, always remember to distance your emotions from their actions. Give them the same grace you give yourself when you turn to coping mechanisms like texting at a boring party, twisting your hair when you’re talking to a cute guy, or chewing your fingernails when you’re stressed: Don’t take it personally.

Practicing Mindfulness for Teacher Stress Relief

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In the early spring of 2007, I took my first graders on a field trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Back in the classroom in an effort to occupy ten minutes before dismissal, I had my students take out a notecard and write about the trip.

I saw a tulip and a duck and a daffodil. And I was happy.

I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but something about Ethan’s reflection stopped me in my tracks that afternoon. I have held onto that notecard for almost eight years.

Have you ever noticed how little kids play? Those of you who teach PreK and Kindergarten and those of you with young children, nieces, and nephews will know exactly what I’m talking about. Young children play attentively, joyously, and presently. They tend to be so absorbed in their blocks, or Play-Doh, or Ninja Turtles, that it never occurs to them to be (physically or mentally) anywhere but here, now. Young children don’t unplug the Easy Bake Oven to take a few minutes to dwell on yesterday, nor do they ditch the Legos in favor of fretting about tomorrow. Young children at play stay in the present moment. Young children play mindfully.

This fall I kicked off my dissertation research project, which aimed to use mindfulness as an antidote to teacher stress in a local Austin school. Mindfulness, as defined by John Kabat-Zinn, is the act of paying attention in a specific way: (a) on purpose, (b) in the present moment, and doing so (c) non-judgmentally.

In other words, being mindful involves intentionally focusing your mind upon this moment right now while simultaneously shutting up the Voice, that tape-reel of judgments and labels with which we attack so many thoughts and ideas.

Research studies document the positive effects that mindfulness practice can have on various symptoms of stress, anxiety, and physical pain. My goal, therefore, was to see if a six-week mindfulness group tailored to teachers might reduce their symptoms of stress. Quantitatively, the jury’s still out (the data should be analyzed some time next month), but qualitatively, participating teachers at this Austin middle school claim to have benefited significantly from the experience. One teacher even said that one six-minute session of mindfulness, in which he sat in silence and practiced focusing on the present, was, “one of the most profound experiences of my adult life.”

Mindfulness practice works like exercise or strength-building (with practice, results build over time), so while this blog post alone isn’t going to Zen you out immediately, my hope is that it might inspire you to start your own mindfulness practice, even just a few minutes a day. My hypothesis for the aforementioned teacher’s reaction, and for my own reaction to Ethan’s botanic garden reflection, is that both individuals were present in their surroundings. Six minutes of mindfulness for that teacher, and a mere six years of age for my student allowed each to stop, marvel, and smell the roses (tulips, and daffodils).

Shameless Optimism: Are You Nurturing or No-Nonsense in the Classroom?

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As a first-year teacher, I struggle, along with many others, to find a balance between being no-nonsense and nurturing in the classroom. How do you show your students that your high expectations are meant to help and not hurt them?

I learned late last year that a teacher’s tone is just as, if not more, important than narration and relationship building. Previously, I thought firmness equaled harshness and muffled anger. I even believed that I had to sound angry in order to get my point across.

Recently, I’ve discovered these four ways to be both firm and fair in the classroom:

  1. Speak Less: Don’t waste time trying to explain the value of obeying your rules. It can be very counterproductive and students may resist more. Talking is a good thing but the more you “nag” or “complain” about their behavior, the less likely they are to change it.
  1. Give Emotionless Consequences: Don’t bother being angry; nobody wins. The last thing you want to do is take misbehavior personally. The best way to show students that you mean business is by setting clear consequences and being consistent. When they realize there are consistent consequences for misbehavior, they will change their behavior (even if it takes a while).
  1. Have a Heart to Heart: If you find yourself getting angry by yelling for misbehavior, follow up with a calm heart to heart. Assure the student that, even though you may have raised your voice, you were not angry but disappointed because he/she was not living up to his/her true potential.
  1. Smile a Lot: Rewarding students when they are doing the right thing is just as important as consequences when they aren’t. A smile is often a nice reward for your students because it shows them that you are happy to be in school with them and that you appreciate when they work together to create a comfortable environment. Be firm in your expectations of students to create a joyful environment when they are at school and encourage them to be kind to others.

Tell us in the comments: How do you strike a balance between no-nonsense and nurturing in the classroom?

Shameless Optimism is a new column by Deniann Grant about keeping calm and maintaining a positive attitude in the classroom.

New Year’s Resolutions: Ignore Goals, Embrace Systems?

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It’s that time of the year—the time when we reflect upon things we would like to improve in our lives and set goals for doing so. Unfortunately, as many of us can relate to, New Year’s resolutions are often abandoned after several weeks (the average resolution is kept for eight days).

For this week’s post, I want to share an article with you in which the writer offers a very different perspective on goal setting. While his arguments may seem counterintuitive at first, I think he makes a strong case for a method that can help us be our best selves. He cites entrepreneur James Clear, who urges everyone to distinguish between goals and systems (or the actions you take).

Clear writes:

If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your systems, would you still get results?…Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win.

Read the rest of Clear’s thoughts as well as three reasons why you should focus your energy on systems instead of goals at Inc.com.

How to Eat Like a Champ

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This article is not about diets.  If you want to learn how to lose weight or maximize your protein intake, Google it. However, this article aims to give some critical solutions to a tragic reality: busy teachers don’t eat right. To wit, here is an account of my typical morning as a first-year teacher:

6:30 a.m. 

I can’t hit the snooze button anymore. I must get up and get dressed for school so I can be the first to the copier to make my prints for the day.

 7:00 a.m. 

First one at school! Congrats. I forgot to grab breakfast. I guess I’ll take a look in my “reward drawer” and see what type of chocolate I have before I start teaching first period.

9:00 a.m.

Hungry. 

10:00 a.m.

Extra hungry.

11:30 a.m.

While walking my class down to lunch, my nose tells me that lunch is broccoli and jambalaya. The kids don’t eat their broccoli. I bet I can get a fork-full from one of their plates! I also owe myself a cookie from my “drawer” since my checks for understanding have been on point. Yum!

In other words, my eating habits were horrible. I skipped meals. I ate fast food regularly. And, as described above, my “reward drawer” was more of a panacea for hunger pains than a special treasure box for my students. Due to my poor nutrition, I had a serious case of malaise. I was tired, craved unhealthy foods, and consistently in a bad mood.

During my second year of teaching, I made a commitment to eat in a way that would provide nourishment and energy. I knew that my eating not only influenced my wellbeing, but also affected my ability to lead a classroom. With this in mind, here are four of the changes I made during my second year that helped me to develop a well-rounded, revitalizing diet.

  • Eat Real Food

“Food products” are commodities that are engineered to appeal to you—but they are not easy on your stomach. They often contain high levels of fats, sugars, and chemicals that are disastrous to your heath and energy. Use Michael Pollan’s “7 Rules for Eating” to discern between real food and food products.

  • Be Prepared

Don’t start the day without having at least two meals already prepared. Teachers have too much to do each day to worry about feeding ourselves three different times! Try meal prepping once or twice per week.

  • Cheat

Whenever you try too hard to avoid something, thoughts of that forbidden behavior will consume you. Yes, I am talking about cupcakes. Live a little! If you’ve earned a snack, have at it. Having a special treat or reward after a week of successful meal prep will help you to stay motivated and positive.

  • Drink Mostly Water

Beverage products are one of the easiest and most identifiable food products to eliminate when on a quest for a more balanced and energizing diet. Juices and sodas rack up unnecessary calories and sugar intake, and spawn cravings for unhealthy foods. Drinking water helps keep your system clear and hydrated, which helps you focus.

What are your nutrition tips for maintaining your energy throughout the day?

 

Why Laughter Is Healthy in the Classroom

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Years from now, if my students forget how to make a green screen on Final Cut Pro and the definitions in our Typography unit, or how to use specific software to edit their videos, that’s okay. Every day when I walk into the classroom, I make it my personal mission to make every student smile. Through my behavior and leadership in class, I try to promote positivity and embody an energy that brings happiness into the classroom.

I always tell my students that if I can be silly and make a fool out of myself in the front of everyone, they can feel comfortable being their silly selves, too. In my classroom I believe that the more smiles and laughter there are, the more enjoyable, accessible, and encouraging the learning process can be. By me just being my quirky self, whether it be when I dance, sing parts of my lesson, or crack jokes, I strive to create and model a learning environment where my students feel comfortable, less stressed, and just happy.

When I think about the teachers who left a positive impact on my life, from my 12th grade Government & Politics teacher to my 8th grade U.S History teacher, I don’t remember much of the content they taught me, the grades I received, or the assignments we completed. Instead, I remember the positive leadership they demonstrated, the motivation they provided, the inspiring and comforting words they shared, the advice they gave me, and the laughs and smiles I had while learning in their class. This is the impact I want to have on my students. Because like Maya Angelou famously remarked, “People will never forget how you made them feel.”

In my five months of teaching, the smiles and laughter I have helped spark in my students—even if just for a little bit—have made my teaching experience more positive, impactful, and memorable than I ever thought possible. I’ve learned that the more unafraid I am to be myself in front of my students, the more open, accepting, and fearless our classroom environment becomes. Years from now, I hope my students can look back and remember not just the content I taught, but also the smile I may have put on their faces.