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Reclaiming a Sense of Joy – Quick Strategies for Easing the Stress of Teaching by Shane Safir

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It’s the end of the school year and I’m sitting with a young principal I coach who has deep expertise, heart, and know-how. Suddenly, she breaks down sobbing. “I’m miserable in this job,” she says. “I want to stay the course, but I don’t know how to get my head above water. I just don’t feel any joy in this work.”

When we live in constant stress, our brains start to downshift. According to scholars Geoffrey Caine and Renate Nummela Caine, downshifting is a psychophysiological response to threat that results in a sense of helplessness or fatigue. A downshifted person has a nagging sense of fear or anxiety and begins to lose the ability to feel excitement or pleasure.

The good news is that we can upshift our brains by actively infusing joy into our work life. Joyful experiences—even brief ones—flood the brain with chemicals like dopamine and serotonin that overwhelm our primitive stress responses. So how can we find more joy?

8 Ways to Reclaim Joy

Since my conversation with the principal, I’ve been practicing and modeling the reclamation of joy. Here are eight ways you can join me.

1. Get outside during the school day. Hold a collaboration meeting, coaching session, or class outdoors to shift the group energy. So many of us spend our days locked inside the school building—stepping outside for a five-minute walk or simply to feel the breeze or sun on our face can change our perception and our brain chemistry. Even a small dose of movement can release endorphins and provide a much-needed brain break.

Recently, I met an Oakland principal and her leadership team at a nearby lake to open their back-to-school meeting. The principal led three rounds of a community circle: “Share your favorite summer moment,” “share something we don’t know about you,” and “share an artifact that tells a story about your journey as a leader.” Afterward she randomly assigned partners for a lakeside walk and talk, inviting everyone to reflect on the legacy they want to leave behind. It was simple, mobile, and powerful.

2. Bring music. If your classroom or staff room feels solemn, enliven it with your favorite music. Better yet, invite students or colleagues to share their favorite song or artist on a rotating basis. Music releases positive neurotransmitters, calms the brain’s high-alert settings, and can build cultural proficiency as community members share their musical interests.

3. Model micro-affirmations. Researcher Mary Rowe defines micro‐affirmations as “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening.” Micro‐affirmations can take many forms, such as offering a hug to someone experiencing a setback, giving a colleague some positive feedback, or facilitating an appreciations ritual that invites people to publicly celebrate one another.

4. Start class or professional development with a guided visualization. If people seem stuck in a downshifted state, help them access joy by leading a guided visualization. Ask participants to close their eyes or focus on a soft gazing point—not letting their eyes wander—and settle comfortably in their chairs. Then lead them to slow their breathing down and imagine a moment or place that brought them joy. Invite them to explore the colors, thoughts, and feelings that come up when they think of this place. Afterward, ask people to share how the experience felt and how they can bring those feelings into the school day.

5. Cancel a staff meeting. This might be my favorite joy hack, and it was my first piece of advice to that sobbing principal. Everyone’s feeling burned out? Don’t let your task list trump the reclamation of joy. Cancel a staff meeting and give the time back to teachers.

You might plan an alternative, just-for-fun activity like a hike or happy hour, but make it optional for folks who really just need a break.

6. Write a card to someone who’s had your back. It feels great to appreciate others. Think about a colleague in any capacity at your school who holds you up in ways big or small. This could be another teacher, the custodian who cleans your room, or the person who ensures that you’re paid each month. Write that person a card and tell them what you appreciate about them.

7. Practice three to five minutes of mindfulness. Consider starting your day with a few minutes of mindfulness. Just close your eyes, slow down your breathing, and notice the rise and fall of your chest, the sounds that typically act as background noise, the sensation of your heartbeat, your meandering thoughts.

8. Keep a joy journal. I often ask my own children, who are 9 and 12, “What brought you joy today?” Ask yourself that question at the end of each day, taking time to jot down your reflections in a journal. Writing is a form of story editing, as explained in the wonderful book Redirect by psychologist Timothy Wilson. When we take time to write or rewrite the stories we carry about our work life, we can change negative narratives into hopeful ones, and reconnect with our sources of joy and energy.

As you prepare to go back to school, remember that learning should be a joyful enterprise. Look for opportunities to laugh, breathe, and smile as an educator, and you’ll find your energy is contagious.

 

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How to Become and Remain a Transformational Teacher – David Cutler

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However talented, no one is a natural-born teacher. Honing the craft takes significant care and effort, not just by the individual, but also by the school at large. Though experience does matter, it matters only to the extent that a teacher — regardless of how long he or she has been in the classroom — commits to continued professional development to refresh his or her status as a transformational teacher.

Along those lines, even after a decade in the classroom, I don’t claim to be beyond criticism — not in the least. Still, I wish to offer some advice on constantly striving toward perfection, however elusive that goal will always remain.

Constantly Share Best Practices

As a first step, work toward recognizing that, no matter how long you’ve been in the classroom, there will always be someone else who’s more effective at a certain facet of teaching. When I was a first-year teacher, a veteran colleague inquired how I’d engaged such strong student interest in the American Revolution, something that he’d struggled with achieving.

I shared my lesson plan, which culminated in a formal debate about whether the colonists had acted justly in rebelling against British rule. Moving forward, I felt more confident and comfortable about asking that colleague for help with providing quality written feedback, which he excelled at doing.

Find a Trusted Mentor

No matter how much experience you have, it’s crucial to find and rely on a trusted confidant. As a new teacher, I spent countless hours chatting with colleagues about best practices and where I feared that I might have fallen short. Not once did they pass judgment on me, or suggest that whatever I had done (or failed to do, in certain cases) was beyond repair.

Instead, they offered thoughtful advice on how I might do things differently. No matter the subject, I value hearing fresh perspectives from new and veteran teachers about becoming even better at my job. Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas.

Commit to Classroom Observations

I do my best to observe other teachers in action. This year, I benefited from watching a colleague inject humor into his English classroom to cultivate a more relaxed but effective learning environment. In turn, I tried to strike a similar balance in my history classroom, which helped students feel less afraid of sharing ideas and learning from mistakes.

I’m equally grateful for observing a colleague teach French to students whom I also instruct. She possesses a gentle firmness that learners respond to, but more importantly, students know that she cares about them — and they don’t want to let their teacher or themselves down.

Change Things Up

I also observe other teachers to see how they change things up, especially when I get too comfortable in a routine. It’s certainly easier to teach the same books and content each year, but it’s also incredibly boring, which can lead to burnout. This summer, I’m working to revamp some of my American history curriculum to fall more in step with what students are learning and doing in their American literature class.

For example, when juniors are studying the Cold War in my class, they’ll be reading Alan Moore’s Watchmen in their English class — an award-winning graphic novel highlighting many Cold War-era fears and tensions. For both classes, students will complete a yet-to-be-determined project to showcase their understanding.

Model the Usefulness of What You Teach

In line with changing things up, I’m always looking for new ways to model the usefulness of what I teach. More than ever, I find that students want to know how they can apply what they learn in the classroom to the real world. In American history, I continue to de-emphasize rote memorization in favor of activities requiring clear, analytical thinking — an essential tool for whatever students end up pursuing in college or as a career.

On most assessments, I allow students to bring a notecard. It seems less important in the age of Google to assess how much students know. Instead, I’m significantly more concerned with how much sense they can make of all this information so readily available to them. In all of my classes, I also make it clear that knowing how to write well will play a significant role in their future success.

Caring Beyond What You Teach

To motivate my students toward success, I strive to show that I care about them beyond the classroom. I do my best to chaperone trips, watch sporting events, and attend plays and other student-run productions. I advise the Model United Nations Club, which allows me to share my passion for diplomacy and fostering change.

I also coach cross-country to help students see that I value maintaining a healthy body just as much as developing an inquisitive mind. The most transformational teachers that I know have a deep understanding of how their role transcends far beyond any subject that they’re teaching. Such teachers have the most lasting impact on their students long after graduation.

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