Self-loving, Courageous Future Adults…

May we be them, may we raise them, may we teach them!

It has just registered with me today that a phrase that I heard consistently throughout childhood was, “she loves herself sick!”, and it wasn’t a celebration, it was a put-down. This wasn’t aimed at me, but more of a warning about how not to behave. And I’m sure I am not alone in this. “He thinks pretty highly of himself”, “she thinks she’s all that”. We come from a society where it is seen as a personality flaw to have confidence and pride in yourself, for any reason. I’m guilty of it myself! I’ve had thoughts about a student who has shown him or herself to be a little cocky, thinking that they need to be brought down a peg. Well, I guess I have been a product of my environment.

I note that in all of the professional learning and teacher training I have done in student wellbeing, trauma, disabilities, and so on, not once has there been a focus on developing self-love in a child; and yet how many of us now find ourselves as adults in this situation where we are trying to break our habits of negative self-talk? The Growth Mindset approach comes close, but it doesn’t really explicitly address this idea. I imagine how different my life might have been if my self-confidence had been nurtured by those adults in my life, and it makes me realise that we have the potential to change the self image of our future adults by modeling and encouraging a strong sense of self-worth and self-compassion for our children in the classroom and in our homes.

Of course, no-one ever purposely undermined my sense of self. Those who made comments like those listed above just wanted me to be humble; to ensure that I didn’t put myself above others. It’s a balancing act, that’s for sure! Children are filled with so many mixed messages, it’s like the Coronavirus in education messages from our Government, but for all of childhood! See, I was a pretty child, and as I grew up, I had what most people around me saw as the “ideal” body. I was told constantly that I was “beautiful” and “hot”. I had one major female role model in my life who would introduce me by me dress size throughout my late teens and early 20s! “This is my Grandaughter, Chelle. She wears a size 6! That’s a size 2 in the United States!” The same Grandmother would consistently make comments about other people’s weight, bad dress sense, and lack of attention to their appearance. I was warned not to start eating cream buns from the high school canteen, because I would undoubtedly start putting on weight. I needed to “take care of myself”!

So, as far as I knew, my self-worth was connected solely to the way I looked. I mean, I know that I was loved for more than that now; and the people who said these things thought that they were building me up. But when this fixation on physical appearance is coupled with “she loves herself sick”, and statements by the same female role model to herself in the mirror along the lines of “you’re so disgusting, you make me sick”, what is a young girl to think? Of course, I developed eating disorders, and a terrible relationship with myself. I also grew older, and, with age, looks fade away, and when your self-worth has been based upon beauty, you have to scramble to find another way to hold your head high. Of course it can be done. It would just be easier if we could skip that step!

I will make the point here that I don’t believe that this is just a “girl thing”. Of course, my personal experience was very much related to the female perspective, but I have seen first hand how low self-esteem can impact a young boy’s experiences of everything at school, and then there is a whole other issue for children who do not identify with the gender that they have been issued. Whatever the case , building an appreciation for kindness, empathy, courage, and the other things that make the world better but that can’t be seen from the outside, will go a long way to building up all children.

These little people in our care need to know how worthy they are right from the beginning, and this is a difficult task for those who come from homes where self-love is frowned upon. We need to find a compromise for these conflicting world views, and build students up, whilst teaching them to also be kind and compassionate towards others. The messages should not be mixed, but balanced.

I propose that we start by getting children to list their own strengths. What a joy it is to have a sharing circle where everyone has to say something positive about a classmate. In the past, I have had children begging me to do this activity when we haven’t done it for a while. They love the way they feel, hearing someone say such kind things about them. But now I realise that I am just reinforcing their need for other people’s approval when the focus is on what other people think. From now on, I will have them first say something positive about themselves (unrelated to anything about appearances or possessions), and THEN make a comment about someone else. I hope that I can teach them that their perception of their own identity is not less important than how others see us. In fact, it’s the most important thing of all. We need to remind children that the people in their lives will come and go – the only person we are ever guaranteed to remain in the company of is ourselves, so we need to feel good about who that person is.

Why Self Love May Be The Ultimate Fountain of Youth - The Kid Whisper
Let’s teach them to love themselves from the very beginning.

I have clear recollections of thinking to myself “if I wasn’t me, I wouldn’t want to be friends with me” from the age of 4. I thought I was so annoying – my voice, the things I said. When I got older it was because I showed too much gum when I smiled, and I smiled too big in photos. It was the way my thighs rubbed together at the top. It was because I didn’t have the right branded clothes, or because of where I lived. Oh…My…God what a relief to be free of those attitudes and judgments I held over myself! And what a lesson for me when I have the job of raising my own children, and teaching others! Imagine if we could help a whole generation to skip these feelings of not being “enough”.

As teachers, we are certainly taught to separate a child’s behaviour from the child, and there is a great deal of value in this. We use compassion to examine reasons why the child may be presenting with certain behaviours. Imagine if we could get the child to stop and have a think about some of these things himself! (I use “he” because I have a particular child in my mind as I process this) If we could remind the child that yes, his medication has worn off, but he is also missing his Dad, he only ate sugar-filled foods at lunch time, and the maths we did in the middle session was really hard. Have some compassion for yourself, mate! Give yourself a break! Would he take some pressure off himself? Would he find it easier to get through the day without so much disruption to others?

I seriously believe that if we could teach people to treat themselves as they would a small child, they would be halfway down the path of self-compassion. I am on a Stage 3 class this year, and I regularly hear the phrase “I’m too dumb”. I wonder what they would be saying to a kindy student who said those words out loud? Yes, we need to teach a growth mindset, and to teach them to learn from mistakes and to step outside their comfort zones, but imagine how much more willing they might be to do these things if they first believed that they were worthy of anything! Perhaps if they all brought in a photo of themselves as a small child, and I gave them the task of caring for and nurturing that child, it would open up a brand new understanding of self-love and compassion? We probably need to also remove some of the focus on competition from our vernacular as well. If children didn’t compare themselves constantly to others, they would have no reason to feel less than, or better than, anyone else. Without competition against others, we would be satisfied with where we are on our learning journey, striving only to better our own achievements as opposed to being better than others.

If we balanced our praise and support of individual children with kindness and service to others, gratitude practices, and a growth mindset, I am sure we would have an increase in academic outcomes, fewer behaviour challenges in the classroom and in the home, and a better society and future for humanity. I have written about children collecting their pieces of armour and numbing themselves throughout childhood and into adulthood, but maybe self-love trumps all of these other concepts?

I always come back to this point that we need to lead by example. If you are not practicing self-compassion, or if you still have those negative voices popping into your head more than the other ones who jump in and say “shut the hell up, and have some compassion towards yourself”, then you need to have a look at that. Because children know. They know when we say one thing and do another, and they will pick up on it as a weakness.

Love yourself first, because that’s who you’ll be spending the rest of your life with.

Author Unknown

And, get rid of those sayings “he’s a bit cocky”, “she thinks she’s better than everyone else” and so on. Replace “she loves herself sick” with “if you don’t love yourself, you will make yourself sick”.

Be strong, be kind, be compassionate. Be the example.

Tread gently on this journey.

Another treasure from “365 Days of Wonder”

Holy cow, this is a crazy time! I wrote a post about this earlier in the week, but I ended up taking it down after being asked repeatedly by people if I was OK. I decided I needed to rethink my approach, so here we are. Let’s break this situation down.

Number one for pretty much everyone across the globe is a stark and sudden change to the way we lead our lives. Since we’re in the business of teaching and learning, what does this mean for us? Well, everything we have ever been trained as teachers to do – behaviour management, our ability to present new learning in a variety of ways to meet the needs of all learners, our focus on wellbeing based on the daily signs we see in our students – it has all gone out the window. From one day to the next we suddenly found ourselves in this new environment, trying to teach students that we couldn’t see, using a platform that neither ourselves, nor the students, are familiar and comfortable with. We don’t really know how much we’re expected to teach them, or how much we’re accountable for, and there are differing opinions about, among many other things, whether we should check in with students via live meetings, or whether this is too much of an invasion of privacy.

Parents have suddenly changed their roles as well. They are trying to parent and teach, sometimes coming from a background of very little education. They have multiple children at home, all working with different teachers who have different expectations. Many of these parents are trying to work from home themselves whilst overseeing their children’s learning, and some of them are teachers, teaching someone else’s children online, meanwhile trying to support their own kids’ learning. What??? This is hectic!!!

So, my question is, what are your expectations on yourselves? I’ll tell what I have done, just as I always do through stressful situations without realising until after the fact – I began comparing myself to people who were worse off. I kept on saying “well, at least I still have a job”, without giving myself credit for the chaos that I am dealing with on a daily basis. I mean, it’s great to be thankful for our own situation, but we need to be a little compassionate towards ourselves as well. I have seen so much of my old paranoia and insecurities creep back in. It was like an opening was created for that scared, nervous little girl who was the driver of so many of my “issues” for so long. The wonderful thing is that this time I spotted her fairly swiftly. I reassured her that I would take care of her, and I sent her on her way. But I have to keep reminding myself of that promise.

How can we not become insecure when we suddenly have a new job to do, with no-one to guide us from a place of experience and knowledge? How can we not feel inadequate when we see those posts on Instagram and Pinterest from super creative teachers who have found ingenious ways to engage their students through this new platform. All of a sudden we’re thinking that we suck compared to all of these tech savvy show ponies! We think other people – teachers and parents – are judging us as incompetent. Well, that’s where my head started to go, anyway. It didn’t help when, through those early days of the pandemic, our own Government seemed to deem us as unimportant – they didn’t appear to care that so many of us were vulnerable to the disease, maintaining a focus only on the fact that the children weren’t. At least this began to change as things developed. I am blessed to be part of a school where our leaders have our backs, and parents, for the most part, appreciate our efforts and understand that the changes have been as challenging for us as they have been for them. We put out a parent survey at the end of last week, and the parent comments were overwhelmingly positive and supportive. I hope that people everywhere are having similar experiences.

So, how do we keep ourselves grounded through this? And I must add here that it is of utmost importance that we DO keep our feet on the ground. Those children might not be in front of us each day, but they are watching to see how we respond to this, nonetheless. I think we need to start with a mantra. I do it through a short morning meditation, reminding myself that I am doing the very best that I can do with what I have been given. I focus on keeping myself open to learning new ways, but remind myself that I must be realistic in my expectations.

Everyone's Best is Different — Project HEAL

We also need to set ourselves a schedule, particularly when we’re working from home. I start my days at home at 7:30am. I am getting better at stopping for a proper lunch and movement break, and have set up my yoga mat in my home office for regular stretches. I am not into sitting in front of the computer for an entire day, but there has simply been no way around it in these early weeks. I MUST learn new things on here, and so I have been gentle with myself about it. I make sure that I finish off and shut down my computer by 4pm. I have a daughter who is in year 10, and I have to check in with her about her learning as well. I am SO thankful that she is very independent in this, and my biggest struggle is getting her to leave her bedroom!

This week I am going to try setting up my day with the morning for staff and student conferences, answering questions, live check-ins, and filming the daily message out to families; researching and planning the next stage of learning in the middle session (tutorials, Facebook groups, Google searches, etc.), and marking and doing an end of day check in the afternoon. After the school day has finished I plan to mark student work, record student attendance/exchanges, and make contact with the students I haven’t heard from for 2 school days in a row. I will also use this time to answer questions from parents and get anything sent off that students are needing. I’ll let you know whether it all goes to plan.

As always, there is the constant battle between work and home lives. I aim to get in the habit of closing my office door after I finish my work day, and I always take at least one full, uninterrupted day off on the weekend. It is tempting to just do a little more when we are pretty much housebound, but I plan to revisit lots of my old hobbies. By the time this is over I will be fluent in Spanish, I’ll be making my own jewelry, I will have macrame wall hangings everywhere, and I will have written the book I’ve been thinking about since I was 14 years old. You just watch me…

Exercise is majorly important for our wellbeing, especially now that our job has suddenly become sedentary! I need to be moving for my brain chemistry as much for my physical fitness, so I make sure I get out to walk the dog or go for a run each day. There are great yoga classes online. My favourite is Yoga with Adrienne! I swear that EVERYONE can benefit from this, and it’s so doable in your own home!

How to Eat Healthy When You Work From Home | Healthy Living for ...
This is a great site with tips for maintaining a healthy diet throughout the chaos of working from home.

We need to make sure we’re eating properly as well. I have been surprised in the first few days when suddenly I realised that the school daywas almost over and I hadn’t stopped for lunch! I thought the opposite would be the problem – constantly snacking out of boredom. But there is no time for boredom at all! I already had an alarm set for 5 minutes before the schoolday lunch hour, so I am going to really use that as my strict stopping time this week. I will get myself organised in the morning so that I have fruit and healthy snacks close by for eating at the desk outside of the lunch break.

There is one other thing that we have to protect ourselves against. Whilst we have mostly supportive parents in our school, I will share a story that provided a great learning and growing opportunity for me. My students were chatting to one another through Microsoft Teams in the morning. I used to say “work-related comments only”, but I soon realised that my students are desperate for some contact with their peers, so I have let the morning greetings go lately. I step in and remind them of expectations if they overstep a mark, but generally they’re appropriate and positive. On this occasion I had just reminded the students that they all needed to have a look at their literacy learning grids before our meeting so that they could tell me which activities they planned to do. One student said that he was unable to check his because his mother hadn’t gotten his things ready yet. I made a comment about how, as a year 6 student, he should be responsible for his own materials. I did it in a lighthearted way, and I wasn’t very serious when I said “take some responsibility, young man”. Now, he knows me, and would have known that I was half joking; but, of course, Mum doesn’t know me that well, and without my facial expressions, or the tone of voice, she thought I was “rousing” on her son. A big lesson for me! Be mindful of how much is lost in written communication. Of course, I apologised, and explained the situation as best I could, but Mum did not want to let it go. I checked in with my Executive, and they agreed that I had not actually done anything wrong, but that it could easily be misinterpreted and I was right to send the response I did. When the parent continued to send messages further messages about the same incident, I quickly disengaged with her and made the decision that I would refer her to my Principal if she had anything further to say.

My reason for sharing this story is that we are bound to have more issues like this one in this flipped learning situation. Suddenly we have parents in our learning environment. Now, I have nothing to hide, and don’t generally have a problem with this, but we need to acknowledge that this is another reason why we should be kind to ourselves. We didn’t negotiate any of these professional observations, and they won’t be referred to in our PDPs, but there is no way to avoid them. We must remind ourselves that we are the masters of our own craft, and call on the confidence with which we deliver our lessons in our classroom as we step into other people’s homes (virtually) to do our job. If parents are not happy with the job you’re doing, ask yourself if you are happy with your efforts. If the answer is “no”, learn from it and then let it go. We are doing no-one any favours by getting upset about what parents think of us.

There you have it. There are so many difficult things you are facing. I implore you to be gentle with yourselves. When in crisis mode we all tend to judge everyone around us so harshly, and this is only because we are scared. All of the darker emotions come from fear, and here is the biggest threat to our collective safety and wellbeing that we have ever known. Refrain from judging the frightened people fighting over toilet paper. Be patient with the parent who is trying to work from home and supervise the learning of four children at the same time. And give yourself a break. We’re all doing the very best we can with the tools and the knowledge that we have in this moment. Keep your heart open and be kind – to others as well as to yourself!

Teacher Tired

This past fortnight I’ve been a little quiet on the interweb, navigating my way through one of those crazy hectic teacher times (this is one of the things that took over my world for a week or so). I’ve been using my exhaustion as a bit of an experiment, trying to work out how to battle that ridiculous level of tiredness that comes with teaching territory.

There is no tired quite like teacher tired. There are times when I think I would love one of the federal or state decision-making politicians to follow me around, just for a day, and see what really happens. I reckon they would throw their hands in the air and say “we’ll give you anything you want!”.

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For the non-teachers who stumble across this, here’s what my day looks like, and I’ll tell you right now that I am no exception. This is typical for all primary school teachers who are dedicated to their work…

Alarm goes off at 5:30 am. Yes. It’s early. I just love to take my time in the mornings when the world is quiet. I touch base with my daughters, who stumble out of bed sometime before I leave, and make sure they have everything they need for the day. One is 20 years old, so she rarely needs much. The other is 15, and she makes her own lunch and is pretty much self-sufficient in all things schooling. I occasionally iron her uniform or transfer her some money so that I feel I still have a role in her upbringing.

I leave home somewhere between 6:45 and 7:05 for my 25 minute commute. I fill my drive with something uplifting. Occasionally music, but more often an Audiobook or podcast. Something like this one, something that nourishes.

I arrive at school between 7:10 and 7:30. When I pull up I sit in my car and do a very short meditation – a few minutes at most. I quickly scan through my body and then set an intention for the day.

I scan in, usually check in with exec about things that are going on, or students that I am concerned about, then head for my room. Here there is usually a list of things that I have left on my whiteboard that I was too tired to do the day before, so that’s where I start. Then I work on my daily powerpoint, planning the sequence of the day with Learning Intentions and Success Criteria for each lesson, taking previously prepared materials and making sure they are where I need them for easy access. There is usually some photocopying to do (we don’t have the technology resources to be doing everything online). This time is incredibly valuable. If I don’t have enough time to properly set up for the day, it affects EVERYTHING else. Anytime students have to wait for me to get something organised, behaviour issues start to arise.

The bell goes and I head down to morning assembly to hear the day’s messages and collect the kids. I greet my learners and give them start-of-the-day instructions before they enter the room. I insist on quiet as they come in, reminding them that they’re putting their brains into learning mode.

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Kids can be so mean to one another, and it’s an extra layer for a teacher to navigate.

It is from this point that the minute by minute, or second by second by second, decision making process kicks in. There is usually one student who needs a “quiet word”, someone in tears from a rough morning, someone wearing a non-uniform black hoodie, someone who forgot their lunch, and so on. We settle for morning circle where there is some reprieve because it is such a set-in-stone routine. As the day goes on there are an unrelenting number of decisions to be made. I recently read somewhere, when researching teacher exhaustion, that the number of vital decisions that have to be made surpasses even those of a brain surgeon. They may not be immediate life-threatening decisions, but they range from anything between “I can’t find my maths book” to “I’m scared my Dad’s going to hurt me and my Mum”. Some other examples are “I didn’t take my medication this morning”, “Mia keeps talking about me behind my back”, “can I please have a band-aid”, “my brother punched me on my back and it’s really hurting”,and “I feel like I’m going to vomit”. The decisions are rarely life-threatening, but they are quite often life-altering ones.

Amidst these decisions and the juggling of pre-adolescent behaviours, I try to squeeze in some teaching. In a week I need to try and ensure that 28 children, some of whom have learning difficulties, behavioural disabilities, parents in the middle of a divorce or any other factor of need that means learning about complex sentences is the last thing they are interested in right now, are being taught everything from the week’s spelling rule through to regrouping in subtraction and why we need to reduce our use of plastic. But of course there are interruptions to the day – phone calls from the office, emergency drills, important visitors, and so on.

Then there are the extra-curricular factors – the gardening and environment group, the choir, the PBL team. Yes, these are a choice, but they are the things I am passionate about and I definitely get a kick out of watching the students’ joy as they learn to sing a song in another language, for example.

The day is chaos from 9-3. And then they all leave and it’s like walking out of a heavy metal rock concert. Every cell in my body is buzzing, my ears are ringing, and I just want to lie down and go to sleep. But there are Sentral entries to write up, there are meetings, things to discuss with executive, conversations with colleagues, work to mark, and a room to reset for the following day. I put a limit on myself to make sure I am out by 5pm, and I try to avoid bringing any work home through the week. Once I get home there is often a child to pick up or shopping to do. Thankfully, I have an amazing partner who does all of the cooking, shopping, and most of the laundry. I am definitely the emotional go-to for my children though.

So why am I so bloody tired?

Over the past fortnight I have examined all of my practices carefully, looking for a solution to this crippling exhaustion. I have examined my diet, my exercise, my organisation, my down time, and my passion. Of course, no one thing is going to fix it, but there are some things that are starting to make a difference…

  1. Water – I never think to drink enough water when I’m teaching, so I have appointed a waterkid in my class. This student reminds me at random times throughout the day to drink.
  2. Eat more – so often during a break I am called away to do something “important”. Firstly I assess whether it’s “important” enough to sacrifice my half hour. If it is, and there are times when it unarguably is, I make sure that I have some snacks that are easy to eat on the run – yoghurt, fruit, meusli bars, etc. If I don’t eat throughout the day, my brain starts to melt down and I can’t get a sentence out without using the wrong word, let alone teach anything in a logical manner. With unrelenting requirement for thinking, you MUST keep up your glucose levels to keep feeding that brain.
  3. Switch work off at home. Once I am there I don’t check emails or mark any work. It’s different on the weekend. I like to spend a few hours on just one day getting ready for the week ahead, but through the week I compartmentalise work once I’m home. What can you do to switch off? Have a look at The Third Space for ideas.
  4. Reflect and let go – I don’t stew over my mistakes. I learn from them and plan for a different outcome next time. I used to lay awake at night, beating myself up over something that I had messed up, or “failed” in. There is no such thing as failure now – just a learning experience and opportunity for growth.
  5. Exercise – I try to exercise at least 3 times a week to push those endorphins through my body. It has been tough this past fortnight, but I can see some more space for it now that some big events are over. Importantly, if I can’t exercise, I need to give myself a break over it. This is an area I’m working on. Exercise helps to reduce stress, but when I miss it because of time or energy lacks I am way too hard on myself, inducing more stress! Crazy, I know!
  6. The best one yet…Love. My boss gave me a great book to read – The Third Space by @dradamfraser. This book combines all of the things I have learned so much about over the past year. All of my work on happiness, love and integrity comes together with advice on how to reset my intentions for every single microtransition through the day. It’s about approaching every tiny little task from a space of love and compassion, and not bringing the residue from my last transaction into the next moment. Of course, it takes some serious mindfulness, and I haven’t mastered it yet, but I am on the way, and I think it’s the icing on the cake.
  7. Accept what I cannot change – of course, there is the administration side of things that is so burdensome, and mostly beyond my control. All of these tick-a-box activities for accountability that are counterproductive to teaching. I used to get angry about them, but I’ve decided that I don’t have the headspace for that anger. I just do what I can, when I can, ensuring that the small humans in front of me are always my top priority.
  8. Celebrate the wins – it gives us all a boost to take a moment to reflect on the successes we’ve had. I know I have had lots of breakthroughs with my students this past couple of weeks – kids opening up about the things that are blocking them. I’ve also seen some remarkable progress in students’ writing and understanding of some maths concepts. I take a moment to smile at these. What have you done today that has put a smile on someone’s face?
  9. Cancel when you have to – this weekend I am supposed to be in Sydney for a Union meeting. At the beginning of the week I recognised that I am on the verge of melt-down, and, where I would have previously pushed through and done everything because I didn’t want to be seen as not coping, I decided that I actually don’t care what anyone else thinks, and pulled out of the event in order to re-calibrate and climb on top of the housework and programming and preparation for school. Did anyone freak out? Not a soul. In fact, I think others respect the boundaries we put in place for our well-being more than our superhuman efforts to juggle everything.
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So, have I found the remedy for teacher tired? Not by a long shot. Am I looking forward to holidays in another 4 weeks? Absolutely! But I think my days are getting easier as my mind gets calmer. I bounce back from things faster, I don’t waste time worrying about things I can’t change, and I don’t waste time worrying about things that I can. I love my job. I love it from the very soul of me, and I know it’s what I am meant to be doing right now. I still look forward to the day where I can maintain an equilibrium all day long, and feel energised until it is time to settle into bed for the night, but I will be happy just to experience a contented kind of tired. I’m getting closer every day.

#teachertired #thethirdspace #celebratethewins #knowyourlimits

Take Off Your Armour

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What a week it has been – both privately and professionally! As I faced some big “life” matters, I realised that one of the things that has stopped me from connecting to important people in my life is our armour. We spend our whole lives collecting bits and pieces of protective armour as we go through life’s battles, and now I have begun to take mine off. The more I discard, the more I see others are still wearing. And, most heartbreaking of all, I watch my students just starting to collect their pieces. As we “armour up” we rarely give ourselves the love and compassion we need to get through difficult experiences, but instead we feel we just have to “get on with it”. We put on a band-aid and don’t check to see if there is anything festering underneath. Now, I am not entirely sure whether this pressure comes from ourselves, our society or a combination of both, but I know that it’s what I did. Grief upon grief. I tried to create this person around the armour, showing the world the version of myself I wanted them to see, and yet never really knowing what that was. As my true self has begun to emerge through discarding those protective layers, I am, quite suddenly, comfortable with myself.

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These children I see in front of me are not comfortable with themselves. They don’t know who is responsible for terrible things in their lives, but they know it hurts. This week I have seen children devastated by relationship breakups, leaving them with the sudden loss of a family member from their lives. I’ve seen a child excited at the prospect of getting to spend a night over Easter at Leukaemia House with his mother, who has been in hospital 3 hours away from him since Christmas. I’ve had a bright, bubbly girl fall to pieces because her mother’s best friend has taken her own life. I’ve seen a boy with Autism called all sorts of names by another child who got a kick out of seeing his distress – this in my classroom where I bang on about kindness and compassion until their ears bleed! Girls whispering about one another, boys trying to “man up” and stay cool in front of their peers. They’re all picking up their pieces and building a forcefield around themselves. They’ll stop some of the hurt, but they’ll stop some of the love as well.

So I have been pondering what needs to be done to change this path. See, I cannot accept that this is just what they have to go through as human beings. Why don’t I pull those children aside and make sure that they understand that these terrible things that are happening are definitely not their fault, and tell them that this is going to hurt for a while and they shouldn’t try to stop the pain? I don’t spend enough time on this, and I think it could make so much difference!

I think what we need to do is be open about more things in our world. We should seriously have conversations with children when we know there has been a separation in their family and explain what grief is. We should rally their classmates around them and wrap them in our love so that they don’t need armour to protect them. We should NEVER try to make a child feel better when he or she is experiencing grief or trauma, apart from saying “I love you and I’m here for you”. We don’t want to dull their pain, but share it around so that it isn’t as heavy. We make so many things taboo, but maybe the way forward is openness and honesty about the things in life that hurt, always with the understanding that with pain comes growth and healing.

As it stands right now, we seek out support and assistance when there is a major incident, such as a death in the family. And yet, every day I see students experiencing traumas of broken relationships, bullying, neglect, domestic violence, and even just general schoolyard “friendship” issues. All of these things hurt children deeply. We teach them to use the Catastrophe Scale, telling them not to make such a big deal out of things. Of course, they need to know how to keep things in perspective, but we shouldn’t be telling them that these things are not supposed to be hurtful. Instead we should give them safe protective tools. We should remind them of how wonderful they are, and that when someone is nasty to them it is a sign of lack in the nasty person. We should never tell them not to let it bother them, but help them to process it. The Catastrophe Scale has its place, providing we are not brushing off their pain and hurt with “don’t make a big deal out of nothing”.

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I know I am on shaky ground here. I am not a psychologist, and there are school councillors to support students through big life issues. I just think that we could have a wider impact if we all learnt to be okay with pain. We run from it, hide from it, dull it, ignore it. We hope it will go away. What I have learned is that when you stop and acknowledge the pain, feel it, marvel at it, our understanding of the world becomes clearer. If we push it down like it is something to be ashamed of, it just changes shape and does more damage, causing more pain in different ways, not just to ourselves, but to others around us as well.

Last year one of my dearest friends lost her husband, very suddenly and traumatically. I remember watching with awe as she opened her heart to feeling the grief, rolling around as the waves of pain threatened to drown her at different points. Of course, I ached so deeply for her, knowing that there was nothing I could do to soften it, other than sit and wait until she needed me for something, anything. I also stood, amazed, as I watched these tiny tendrils of new growth sprout from the very heart of her anguish, wrap around her, and make her formidable. She never tried to dull the pain. She grew from it, loved it, and still nurtures it every day.

I have seen many people navigate their way through grief, but rarely have they opened their hearts to it. Our society’s general approach is to numb it, wait for them to be ready to “move on” from it. People think we should use our battle scars to toughen up, armour up. I just don’t think it is working.

So, I implore you to think carefully about what your students are experiencing. It is so difficult when there are so many things we are juggling on any given day as teachers, but if we just take a different perspective, it might actually become easier. Let’s help children develop resilience through honesty, understanding and appreciation for who they are. If a child values himself as a worthy and wonderful little being, he won’t find it so distressing when another child calls him names. We must stop children developing the desire to harden up and fight back!

I have been known to adopt the attitude of “take a teaspoon of cement”. I am definitely not saying we should pander to the little things that kids can get so caught up on. I do think we should assess things more carefully though. If someone is crying because they made a mistake with a seemingly tiny matter, perhaps there is something deeper that is bothering them. Children’s processing of one thing often manifests as some trivial reaction to another. We should be alert. We should lead with compassion. Sometimes our assessment might show us that they are just pushing buttons or testing boundaries, but sometimes we might find that there is a pain festering below the surface, and what we see is just what seeps out of the cracks in their armour.

Does this make sense to you? I believe that it will make sense to the people who have already begun to remove their own armour, but if you’re operating from within your own protective shell, keeping the pain of the world at bay, you’ll be resistant to all I have said. Life is not some war to be fought. It is a garden. There is mud, there is death and decay, there is darkness. But there is also growth, regeneration, flowers, colour, sunshine and cool rain. Throw down your arms. Teach these kids to pull the weeds and nurture themselves and those around them. Things don’t grow inside a suit of armour. It is dark and heavy. People will be amazed at how much lighter they’ll feel when they strip off those layers!

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Relationships, Relationships, Relationships!

I’ve said it before…organisation is not my strongest point. I’m a big picture kind of person, and not so much a finer details person. I am definitely getting better over time, but I am also learning that no-one can be great at everything! So, in order to tame my anxiety over the things that don’t come naturally, I am learning to focus on what I am good at. And this brings me to relationships.

I’ll say at the outset that whilst I successfully develop strong bonds with students and families, I am still just a little awkward around colleagues until I have had time to develop a rapport with them. I am pretty ordinary at small talk and trivia, and have a history of doubting my own abilities and assuming that everyone else is coping so much better than I am with everything. So this part is a work in progress, but certainly progressing.

I had never thought too much about relationships in my work, other than the fact that I knew they were important. It didn’t register with me that this was one of my strengths until a colleague pointed it out with gusto, motivating me to ponder the issue and keep an eye on what others were doing. Over time I realised that building bonds does not come naturally to everyone. People would give me warnings about how difficult particular parents were to deal with, and yet I would get to the end of a school year without ever having had an issue with said parents. So, I have analysed it and come up with a few things that I think have helped me.

Creating a Safe Space

Almost all teachers in this day and age do this seamlessly, but I guess it still doesn’t hurt to share.

Working in a relatively low socio-economic area, I know that so many of my students come from homes where they don’t always feel safe. I think that growing up in a similar environment as some of these kids in front of me now has helped me to really get a good understanding of what they live with. The fear can come from so many things – not knowing whether they’ll be fed because of a parent’s substance abuse, a violent person in the home – parent, step-parent, sibling; emotional abuse stemming from another’s unprocessed personal trauma; poverty and homelessness. In order to make a difference to my students’ lives, one of the most important things that I can do is set up a space where abuse of any kind is not tolerated, and where I am constantly on the lookout for where things just aren’t right – no lunch, dirty fingernails and clothing, changes in moods and behaviours. When I see something that doesn’t look quite right, I act on it without any fear of being seen as overreacting or creating dramas. I was initially more reserved about acting upon my intuition, but time has taught me that no parent has ever been annoyed at my investigations into their child’s wellbeing, and there have been enough saves due to my vigilance to make it worth the discomfort of any phone calls or conversations. The children and families of my class quickly learn that they can trust me to have their best interests at heart.

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Follow the link for resources to contribute to your “safe space” classroom.

So, what do I do? If I hear a child say something unkind to another, I jump on it immediately, and remind them that any disrespect for another will not be tolerated. I make a bigger deal out of it than necessary, just to really hit it home. We have a marble jar, where marbles go in for kindness and feel-good experiences, and come out for the opposite. We’re “filling our bucket”, so to speak (that link is for information about the book How Full Is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath – a great resource). If I see someone looking a little down, I have a quiet check-in with them. It’s usually something small, but occasionally something bigger. I respond without judgement, making connections to times when I’ve felt like that, and offering suggestions and support where there is space for it. Sometimes they admit that they need to talk to a parent, but that it feels too uncomfortable, and are totally happy for me to make contact and bring it up on their behalf. If someone has no lunch, I organise something for them to eat. It’s mostly little things, but noticing is the key.

Approaching all situations without judgement

I have a history of indignance. (Did I just make up a word? Look at me winning!) I used to feel indignant about everything that wasn’t morally or ethically right, asking “how could a parent allow that to happen?”. And then one day I realised that I am not perfect myself (I know – shock horror), and that I have actually done some things in moments of pain and trauma that I am not super proud of. I mean, I’ve never physically hurt my children, and I’ve always made sure that they were clean and fed, but there are some emotional traumas that they have experienced as a result of things happening in my own life. Once I learned to forgive myself for not always being perfect, I got better at forgiving others. Now my soap box rarely comes out.

What I have really grown to understand is that absolutely everyone is doing their best with what they have at any one moment in time. If a mother is speaking to her child in what we deem as an inappropriate tone, it will not help for us to get on our high horses and make judgements about her wrong-doing. Of course, we have to report any situation where we think a child may be in any kind of danger, but we do that without bringing assumptions about her inherently bad parenting skills. Perhaps she grew up being spoken to like that and it’s all she knows. Maybe she is in an abusive relationship and her fear comes out in the form of anger. Maybe her child is REALLY hard work and she needs support or a break. Is she a single mum? There is ALWAYS a reason for a person’s behaviour. Not an excuse, but a reason; and if we keep this in mind and approach from a place of love and compassion, we will always be more successful in developing partnerships with families.

So, what do I do? If it’s a wellbeing issue, I report it directly to my principal or the appropriate executive. Love and compassion do not stop me from acting accordingly when there is any risk to a child’s welfare involved. I consider who is being impacted and extend offers of support to those available – in the form of kindness…a cup of tea while Mum catches her breath, some time to sit or walk with a friend if it is a student during class time. The need for loving compassion isn’t usually this acute though.

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Kindness and understanding is more often required for the little things, and is required to help me process things for my own sanity just as much as to support the child in my class. For example, I have felt frustrated with a parent’s lack of action with regards to investigating some learning difficulties for her son. I began to get carried away, and was halfway up my high horse when I caught myself and climbed back down. I approached this parent when I saw her in the playground one morning and asked how things were going with getting an appointment. She broke down and admitted that she was having significant financial difficulties, and that the boy’s father (they were separated) was not forthcoming in contributing to costs. So I said for her to leave it with me and I would see whether the school counsellor might have any suggestions. Well, I discovered that the counsellor was absolutely able to do some screening and get things moving, and she had some advice about where to next once we had some idea of what we were dealing with. So now I make no assumptions about what parents are or are not doing to support their kids, but offer a range of options rather than just handing over the responsibility without checking for obstacles.

Educate myself

In my first setting as a teacher I was confronted with an enormous range of traumas that students were experiencing. I had students in Out of Home Care, students living with an abusive parent, substance abuse, students who had witnessed extreme violence, students who were being severely neglected. And this was all in one class! One student came to school one morning with dark circles under her eyes and just wanted to go to sleep. After a check-in with her I discovered that the previous night her Dad had come around to the house when he was drunk and violent, and that Mum had stabbed him with a kitchen knife. She had spent the night between the hospital and the police station!

So what did I do when faced with so many challenges? I was brand new to teaching. I was an empathetic soul, but I was trying to prove myself as a teacher in a classroom where students had a lot more on their minds than phonemic awareness. I quickly learned that they needed safety more than anything else, but I also began to research ways in which I might best support them. I did some courses on trauma-informed practice, and read as much as I could, learning about the impact that trauma has on the brain and behaviours. I discovered that if I could train the students to expect to be safe in the classroom, they gradually became more and more able to let down their guard and concentrate on lessons.

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I have more recently learned that there is no place for me to decide whose trauma is real and whose is imagined. I used to do this. Even thinking about my own life, I would say “well, at least __________ hasn’t happened to me”, and belittle my own experiences of trauma by doing so. I now know that trauma is relative to individual experience. The brain and the cells do not compare our own trauma to ones that could be seen as worse. One a cellular level, a trauma response is a trauma response, whether it comes from a relatively small car accident where no-one was significantly harmed, or from seeing your family shot by a militant group in the Middle East. Who are we to judge whose trauma is the most horrific? Our job is to support the human beings in front of us.

Education has helped with relationships every single time…supporting students with ASD and their families, supporting a student with Type I Diabetes, supporting students diagnosed as IM and IO, and so on. When you go out of your way to learn about what families are facing, not only does it provide pathways for more successful learning outcomes, but families feel supported and valued.

I used to spend hours and hours worrying about “my kids”. Sleepless nights, clouded thinking, a sense of no control. Do you do this?

Now, I have let go of the worry. The only thinking I do is around problem-solving. I have great relationships with families, even the ones who are known to be “difficult”. As soon as they know that I am not judging them as right or wrong, and that I can say “it must be difficult” instead, they relax and share. I must admit, it is easier when you have a supportive team. When you share your concerns about a student’s wellbeing and know that you’ve been listened to and plans made to address concerns, it is far easier to leave worries at school.

I guess the most useful thing you can do to build positive relationships within the school community is to just be humble. Keep your heart open and leave your high horse at home. And always remember that you are the living example for your students. Show them how to live and lead with an open heart, and they will be more likely to do the same. Trust your intuition. This is how we build a better world.

How Was Your Week?

Mine was CRAZY. But I think I’m doing just fine. The first full teaching week for the year didn’t exactly go to plan, as we had so many new enrolments that the Stage 3 classes all ended up with well over 30 students in each. Thankfully, we got enough bums on seats to qualify for an extra teacher, which meant restructuring the Stage 2 and 3 classes. Others fared worse than I did – one teacher had planned her teaching and learning for Stage 2, and ended up with a cross-stage 2/3 class. On top of that, she hasn’t taught Stage 3 before, so she was swimming without a life jacket! Compared to that, my week has been a breeze.

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As I’ve reflected on the week that was, however, I realise how momentous these first days with our little humans are. Now, mine are fairly large little humans, being at the end of their primary school journey, but the things I have seen this week remind me that even those kids who are too cool for school are still just that – KIDS. What an intense path we are on! Helping them to grow, but trying to get them to slow down. It’s such a fine balancing act, and we are so privileged to be a part of it.

What I did realise very quickly was just how big a class of 33 is. On that first day when we were walking to the classroom and I stopped to look behind me, I thought “holy cow! Can I do this?”. There were so MANY of them! And they were so BIG! There are a few who are already well taller than me. But, I took a deep breath, and jumped in.

This morning’s musings have been particularly satisfying. Despite my daily meditations, and my boundaries allowing for a clear finishing time and no bringing work home, my head was still so busy taking in all of the needs I could see and wanted to meet that my mind just constantly jumped from one thing to the next without pause. I realise now that I need to take more moments of stillness. I have decided to take 5 minutes to sit and write my reflections at my desk after 3pm each day. I’ll try this next week and see if it helps me to step out of auto-pilot mode. It might help me to switch more seamlessly into Mum mode for my own children as well. Even though they’re almost fully cooked, they still need their Mama to lean on and draw the boundaries for them.

So, here are some highlights (names have been changed)…

Probably the most challenging for the week is Jack. He is in out of home care (OOHC), but has been there for a long time and has a solid relationship with his main carer. Jack has ADHD, as well as a number of other letters that often accompany OOHC kids. He is normally medicated, but came to school without having taken his tablet for the first couple of days of term because they were out of them. The class were getting used to ignoring his constant movement and speaking, but he began to show up as a different kid once the supply of meds was replenished. Suddenly we had this calm, quiet, co-operative student on our hands, and only during the middle session, when meds began to wear off, did we see the Jack we’d previously seen.

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On Wednesday, however, Jack was, once again, unmedicated. He started the middle session coming and going from the classroom, and the Principal had a chat with him when she stopped into classes to say “hi”, and then the Wellbeing AP tried when she was coming by to check on another student. Both times Jack stood still for 5 minutes after they’d left. I finally gave up trying to teach through the constant interruptions, and sat the kids on the floor to read another couple of chapters of Wonder. This is when Jack reached his crescendo. He took himself into the withdrawal room, saying he wanted to lie down on the cushions in there. Next thing he’s yelling out at the top of his voice “f*** your mother, your mother’s a c***” and similar statements. There wasn’t enough time to find an executive to pull him out before the bell rang for second break, and the students filed out looking a little shocked and uncomfortable, despite hearing this kind of language regularly in their community. I guess it’s a long way from normal to hear a child using it in the classroom! I am so thankful that I have a supportive Principal. When I reported the incident to her she called home immediately and told Jack’s carer about the day’s events. Jack had told me himself that he had thrown his tablet under the kitchen cabinet that morning, and that’s why he was unmedicated. The next morning I was called down to the office to find Jack and his carer waiting for a chat. “Uh oh”, I thought. “This might get rough”. But carer was 100% on the same page, trying to get Jack, who insisted he hadn’t said those things, to own up to his behaviour and apologise.

The thing is, I feel so torn about Jack and his medication. He’s like a zombie when he arrives on those days when he has taken his tablet, so I can understand why he doesn’t WANT to take it. On the other hand, he is so EASY on those days! He is learning, the other children are learning, my mind isn’t so busy trying to respond to behaviours that I fail to notice other student needs. The medicated Jack is easy, and who wouldn’t opt for easy?

The breakthrough happened yesterday. Jack himself knows that once he comes in from recess, that is, second break, his medication has worn off and it’s hard to sit still and focus on anything. I had noticed on those other days that one thing that seems to calm him is colouring or drawing, so I always offer this when he is unsettled. Yesterday, when I picked up the students from their lining up spot, Jack was running all over the place, taking short cuts to class through the garden, yelling out, making silly noises. As the other students filed into the room, I pulled Jack aside and reminded him that even if he has trouble focusing and sitting still, there is no excuse for inappropriate language or behaviour, and as a Stage 3 student he needs to own his actions. I put the class to work, and Jack said he didn’t want to do what they were doing, so I just ignored him for a few moments while I circulated and made sure everyone understood and was ready for their art activity. Then I glanced over at Jack and saw that not only had he collected the materials he needed to do the activity, he was sitting on his own and had made a solid start on the task!!! He was using markers instead of pencils as instructed, but, hey, that’s not a hill I was going to die on!

So, I think Jack has done his dash. He has now shown me that he absolutely can control his behaviour and his impulses, and yesterday’s success is now my yardstick. And this early breakthrough is a MAJOR cause for celebration in my eyes!

Apart from Jack, there is Johnno, who seemed to be intent on filling every exchange with some comment involving the terms “gay” or “fag”, usually to get a reaction out of both myself and his classmates. I gave zero reaction, but pulled him aside for a chat about the difference between laughter because people are uncomfortable, and laughter because something is genuinely funny. I told him that often when people are making those comments it is because they have something going on with their own identity, and that if he needed support with anything, I’m there in a heartbeat. He seemed to tear up a little at this, and there have been no more comments during class time (the playground is another matter…but I’ll focus on the successes).

Of course, there are the usual Stage 3 girl “issues” created out of nothing. There is one student in a state of perpetual sadness because she’s at the centre of a nasty custody battle, one student I need to dig deep to find patience for because he behaves as though he is superior to everyone else and knows more about everything than anyone else does, and a hundred other issues that I am still working out how to process, but I am tackling them all one by one, doing my best to prioritise the needs for smoother teaching and learning and healthy personal growth.

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Apart from the successes with Jack and Johnno, the students were riveted by Greta Thunberg’s TED talk, which provided a wonderful opening for our cross-curricular unit on Sustainability. Everyone is loving Wonder, and everyone seems happy with their teacher. We had our first Choir session, and the children LOVED it, and we picked an awesome and unexpected pile of squash and zucchini from the garden. Importantly, there were loads of laughs with colleagues, and I can feel that I have a wonderfully supportive Stage team. I can see that I need to be more thoroughly prepared so that I have more room in my own brain to focus on student engagement, but overall, it was a successful week and I wouldn’t change a thing.

To be better next week, I am spending today planning and preparing, and keeping Sunday free to refill my cup. I have a student starting in the class on Monday who has a number of special needs, but I am visualising only positive outcomes. I think my systems are working. I’ll keep learning and looking for new ideas, but I refuse to get hung up on my mistakes. The biggest take-away for this week that was is that every student has a story. The behaviour is not the child.

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So, how are YOU feeling? Other than exhausted, I mean. What challenges have you faced? Does your community sound similar to the one I teach in? Do you have any advice for me? Let’s share our stories and make them all the normal. Build each other up. Celebrate.

It’s going to be a wonderful year!!!

Keep It Calm

I’m going to start this post with a disclaimer. I am in no way an expert on staying calm throughout term and sticking to boundaries. I began making changes at the end of last year, and it definitely made a difference to my stress levels, but I’m on this journey with you. I’m just sharing the things that have been successful so far, and the things that make sense from all of my extensive reading over my Summertime rest and recuperation period. We can give it a shot together!

Over the past few weeks as I have gradually begun to get things in order for a new teaching year, I have read many, many posts from teachers, particularly at an executive level, about how they can best support their staff. There is no doubt that stress is a MAJOR issue for teachers, and the repercussions are enormous – bigger than we even realise from the average teacher’s perspective. The NSW Teachers Federation invited members to participate in a survey a couple of years ago to give voice to their feelings of being overwhelmed by the sheer workload of teaching. 18000 people CHOSE to respond (an irony in itself, given the fact that they were already so overworked), and the evidence that action is necessary was cemented. Right now, we can help to force solutions at the top by being active in our unions and speaking up about the challenges, and executive staff can lead from the heart (see my previous post) to help lighten the load, but there are lots of things that YOU can do to help yourself.

Boundaries

The first thing you need to do is work out your boundaries now, and draw a line around yourself. For example, I have set myself a boundary of being in my car and driving out of those gates by 5pm each day, and not bringing work home. I will have at least one full day each weekend where I do no school work whatsoever. I will loosen these rules over the weeks that reports are due, or during things like Starstruck where my choir expects to be performing this year. These work hours are one of the strict boundaries that I am comfortable putting in place. Then, if I break my own rules, I need to accept that I am responsible for my own wellbeing when my stress levels start to rise. You can read advice from the Queen of Boundaries, Brene Brown, here.

Setting those boundaries, though, is one thing. An important next step is writing them down. The neural pathways that are fired up when we write something down with a pen far outweigh those that we use through the processes of thinking, talking or typing. Think of handwriting your boundaries as drawing that line around you. Handwriting helps your brain to recognise what is important and what it needs to focus on. Until you write your boundaries down, they’re just vague ideas that you’re more than likely going to forget about within hours of finishing this article. Once you have boundaries, you’ll feel much better about saying “no” to the things that try to push you past them.

Rituals

I am constantly surprised at the impact that tiny little routines can have on my day. At the end of last year I began to introduce some of these. It didn’t take much effort, because they were all things that I could do on my way to work, or with the students. I did develop a ritual of doing a short, 3 minute meditation on arrival. I do this in my car before crossing paths with any colleagues or children, and I use this time to set small intentions for the day. It creates a bit of a seal between my home and work time, and helps me get my head in school space and let go of “Mum” thoughts. I also started Mindfulness practices with the students. For the first 10 minutes of class after first break, I either do a guided meditation for the students, some breath work, or even mindfulness colouring. During this time they are not allowed to sit with or speak to anyone else, even to borrow colouring materials. This is time for them to focus only on what is right in front of them and to reflect on how they are feeling in this moment in time. I have also developed a habit of taking 5 minutes after students leave to just sit at my desk and reflect. I hold off writing Sentral entries, rushing to meetings, making phone calls just for 5 minutes of stillness.

Your rituals could be anything. Taking the dog for a walk before work, journal writing, a cuppa on your own during a break. But, like boundaries, you should write your intentions down. Even have them in a place where you can see them to help you establish them as habits. By the end of a fortnight, if you do these things every day, you will have set them up as a normal part of your life.

Live in the moment

Something didn’t go to plan? Ask yourself, “is there something I could have done better?”. If the answer is “yes”, then tuck it in your mind (or write it down) as a lesson for next time. If the answer is “no”, then cut the cord and let it go. We can choose whether to hold onto things that have happened, and replay them in our mind, and worry about the impact it will have, but what will any of those things get us? One of the biggest changes I plan to make this year is to let go of anything that I cannot cannot change in the current moment. I remember a quote by the Dalai Lama, something I read many years ago. This is not verbatim, but you’ll get the gist. He said “if there is something you can do about it, no need to worry. If there is nothing you can do about it, no need to worry”. After recent reading of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, this concept makes even more sense.

Teachers are known for their perfectionism, but is this what we want to model for our students? Or do we want them to accept themselves and their mistakes? Do we want to show them how to worry themselves sick over something that is in the past? Or show them how to learn a lesson and move on? We have more than enough to do without worrying about something that is over and done with already! Reflecting is good. Worrying is pointless.

Stop Comparing!!!

My biggest barrier, and a thing which has caused me the most stress, is comparing myself to others. I look at all the things someone else does successfully that I struggle with, and think that I should be doing better – I should be more like that person. Well, that’s what I USED to do. These school holidays have involved me having a good hard look at these habits, and concentrating on all of the things that I do well. My Grandad used to say “keep your eye on the doughnut and not on the hole”, and it’s time to heed his advice. I’ll bet plenty of you are in the same habit of noticing who is better than you are at different things. Well, we are all amazing because we have all gone through teacher education. We all care a great deal about others, and we all dedicate our lives to helping children reach their potential. And, we are all doing our best. It’s time to quit the critical judgement of ourselves and others and accept that everyone on this planet is doing their very best with what they have and what they know in this moment. Give yourself a goddamn break!!! What do we want to show our students? Walk THAT walk!

Sharing

Tell people what you’re doing! As I’ve mentioned in other articles, we have developed a habit as teachers to just complain to one another. Step outside of that box and tell your colleagues about your rituals. The more of us who are taking care of ourselves, the safer others will feel to do the same. If you are an executive reading this, get your staff to set themselves some self-care routines and share them. We need to make this our normal – not an exception. Can you imagine a school where people didn’t feel frantic?

Let’s lead the way. Let’s normalise self-care for the sake of the future adults in our care as well as for our own quality of life. Teachers, you are the key. Little eyes and ears are watching and listening. We love what we do. Let’s do it better, and feel better doing it.

#happyteachers #fixthefuture #walkthewalk #mindfulness #boundaries

@BreneBrown @EckhartTolle

Lead from your heart, not from your hurt

Whether you are part of the executive team at your school or someone who strives for excellence in classroom practice, if you are a teacher, you are a leader. There may be people reading this who are not teachers at all, but who still lead in different areas of their lives. Some of us are more forthright about leadership positions than others, but however you lead, it is vital that you acknowledge how much of an impact you have on those around you. You have the power to empower, or to disempower the people in your charge. So take a moment to consider where your motivation comes from.

In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown systematically lists the traits of empowering leadership, and I will begin here by saying that EVERYONE in a position of power or leadership should engage with this book. Having experienced both the best and the worst of leadership styles, I could give you a firsthand account of how you could destroy another person by using your position to fill a personal need or make up for some sort of lack in your own life, but there are therapists I have paid for that! No, this here is about bringing out the best in the people around you, whether those people be students or colleagues, and building them up for a more efficient and effective outcome.

Many people believe that our personalities are fixed, and an inherent part of who we are and how we do things. They think that we are either compassionate and empathetic, or we’re not, and that these are traits that we can’t really alter. The great thing that the science tells us is that unless you are a sociopath – a person who doesn’t have the capacity to feel empathy towards others – these are skills that we can learn. Of course, the way that we are raised makes a difference to how we respond to others’ pain and hardship, but we can all change this aspect of ourselves with a little practice.

With so many great resources out there, it isn’t necessary for me to go into enormous detail. I guess this is where I want to speak about the basics, but make you aware of the schools of thought that are out there. It is this style of management that could make this world a better place, and where better to teach it than in schools and classrooms? So I have broken it down to what I see as the top 5 principles of leadership for humans:

  1. Find out what makes your people tick

Connection is one of the most underrated aspects of human existence. I seriously believe that a lack of connection is responsible for most of the world’s problems…drug abuse, anxiety and depression, anger, social media, our need for fast and easy, our desire for money…all of these are in some way linked to our basic need to be seen and heard and understood. So I believe that one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader is to find out what is important to people. I don’t just mean knowing what is happening in people’s lives outside of the workplace, although this is important as well, but find out where your team’s ethical and moral standards lie. If you know, for example, that a person values honesty above everything else, then you will know that this person will want you to come straight out and explain the situation in a way that resonates with them. Dare to Lead has some wonderful resources for establishing such connections, and you can find them, as well as many other resources, here.

There are many leaders who operate from their own morals and values, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, providing that those morals and values are in line with compassion and empathy. But wherever you operate from, if you don’t consider what is important in life to the people you are dealing with, particularly in difficult conversations or situations, you may be blocking that extra level of connection and thereby not being as effective as you could be. In our classrooms we do this as a matter of course. We KNOW we need to get to know our students in order to get the best from them. Somehow we lose this concept when dealing with the people around us, and this creates so many obstacles!

2. Be vulnerable

Most leaders across the world view vulnerability as a weakness. They think that by admitting that they are nervous, or don’t have all the answers, they are ceding their power. World leaders, look to Jacinda. There is NOTHING that will make me respect a person more than hearing them say “I made a mistake with this and I’m sorry. Can we work together and see if we can come up with a solution?”. It immediately opens up a connection between myself and that person, and I naturally want to help them find a way to fix things. Hearing a principal explain to the staff that they are under a great deal of pressure from above, and this is why they are feeling a little impatient and frustrated right now, reminds us that they are human as well. If we have made connections with our teams they will back us up when we fall down. And in a school, we should all have each others’ backs!

I will share a “this is what you don’t do” story though. I was in my first or second year of teaching. It was a fairly small school, and I was chatting to the principal after a staff meeting. I remember making a comment about how I was feeling so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of attention that was required to do this job. Not just juggling tasks, but the mental capacity to care for and nurture these children in a low socio-economic setting. The principal responded with “well, how do you think I feel?”, and proceeded to list all of the things she had to do, pointing out that her job was so much harder than mine. This was not her being vulnerable. This was belittling, and another way in which this person undermined the self-esteem of those around her. A response like “yeah, it’s tough. Especially in these first years” would have made the world of difference to me. Even if she’d said “yeah, I get it. I am under a lot of pressure as well”, I wouldn’t have walked away from that conversation feeling like I’m just a whinger who should be coping so much better than I am. This was Principal 1. Don’t be like Principal 1.

3. Don’t shy away from the tough conversations

We use so many things in our lives to avoid those difficult conversations. Sometimes we mask our avoidance with concern for the other person; “Today has been tough for him. I’ll check in with him in the morning”. Sometimes we don’t actually know what we want, or don’t have a replacement behaviour for the one we’re trying to address, so we just let it slide. Sometimes, even when we’re in a higher position than the person in question, we are afraid of the repercussions of addressing this person’s actions, and allow behaviours to continue, even when they are damaging the effectiveness and cohesion of the workplace.

I haven’t been in an Executive position in a school. I have led teams in hospitality, and I have run my own businesses, and of course I lead a team of students in my classroom each day, so I have definitely faced situations that I REALLY wanted to walk away from. At the end of last year I called a meeting with someone high up in the education department as I needed to address something that had been bothering me for a long time. I had used all kinds of avoidance tactics because I was intimidated by this person. I had met with him on a few occasions preciously, and always felt demeaned and belittled by the end of our conversations. This time I prepared for our meeting. First, I got clear on the outcome I was after. I had this in my mind as I wrote down all of the points that I wanted to make. I studied tips on how to maintain my power with someone who traditionally uses his masculinity to intimidate women (this was a known fact among teachers and leaders in my area), and chanted a mantra to myself as I drove the half hour commute to the meeting. I took my notes in with me, and referred to them throughout. And I got the outcome I was seeking – which, really, was just to be listened to so that he could factor in my perspective when making his decisions. It was so much better than I had anticipated, and not once did I feel as though I was ceding my power. I was on a high for weeks after that meeting, and I actually developed more respect for him because he listened to me.

I think the most valuable thing you can do to prepare for a difficult conversation is to know what outcome you are seeking. I also believe that there is nothing wrong with having an agreed rule within the workplace, where no complaints are allowed without also presenting the desired outcome. When we teach PBL we make sure that we explicitly state the expected behaviours. We don’t say to the students “I’m really sick of you all running on concrete surfaces. I wish you’d just stop it.” We say “I’d like to give you a reminder that we walk on hard surfaces to keep us all safe”. Be clear on what you want – everyone.

It’s also important to give the person you’re meeting with the heads-up, particularly if it’s a heavy matter. It is a common courtesy to say “Chelle, would you mind stopping into my office after school? I need to have a chat with you about the incident that occurred this morning.” When there has been no indication of what the meeting is about, I know that I start picking everything apart, and stressing about what I have or haven’t done. I go into anxiety overdrive, and I can’t function effectively in the classroom for the rest of that day. It’s also good to give the person an opportunity to speak up. There might be another perspective to the incident that we haven’t considered, or don’t know about. It can leave a person feeling exceptionally disempowered when they haven’t been given an opportunity to explain from their point of view.

And, finally for this point, make sure that the person is supported to achieve the outcome you agreed upon. Perhaps another colleague could be assigned to help guide and teach the person how to reach the outcome. These are people. They have so much going on in their lives. We can’t just agree that things should be done a certain way and expect them to seamlessly make the shift – well, not in most situations anyway.

4. Practice Gratitude

Daily gratitude practice has been scientifically proven to rewire the brain. Instead of automatically scanning our environment for what is wrong, which is what humans naturally do, we begin to habitually look for what is right. In his book The Resilience Project , Hugh van Cuylenburg introduces the GEM concept. It stands for Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness, and Hugh explains how this acronym can help everyone, everywhere, be happier.

The school as a workplace can be so heavy and overwhelming that it is difficult to see anything but the struggle. Having a leader who encourages a whole staff to search for things they are grateful for on a regular basis has got to help to build cohesion and camaraderie. After all, we’re all in this for the same reason. We all want to make a difference to the lives of these kids. We are compassionate, kind human beings, but some of us can be so difficult to work with. It’s like we use up all of our joy on our performances for our kids, and then have nothing left but complaints for our colleagues. If your goal as a leader was to develop a happier staff, imagine what it could mean for productivity, loyalty, and that feeling of enjoying work – of wanting to be there!

Hugh van Cuylenburg’s story is an engaging and enriching one. I am very happy to state that it was my 23 year old son who put me onto it – it means that he is becoming enlightened at a much younger age than I did! Hugh has touched people across Australia in all walks of life, and he has developed this Gratitude Journal to support people to develop positive habits in their own lives. I know daily gratitude practices have changed my life for the better, and I can’t think of how they could be damaging to anyone, anywhere, no matter what they are facing in their lives.

We live in a society that operates from a deficit model. “I’d be happier if…” is our go-to. A bigger house, a promotion at work, losing weight, they’re all things we aspire to. Unfortunately, when we get those things, we soon discover that they have not provided us with a deep sense of satisfaction, and we develop a new goal, thinking that actually, what I need is…Actually, what we need is to appreciate what we have. Let’s build workplaces where people automatically scan for things they appreciate. It makes the tougher aspects of school life so much easier to deal with.

5. Have fun!

One of the best parts of my working week is on Friday afternoon, where all staff who are available get out of their rooms as early as possible and meet for a chat and a laugh. Sometimes there is a wine or beer involved, but it’s not actually about drinking. It is time to get to know each other through stories and jokes. Sometimes it gets a little sad and heavy, but it’s all in the name of building our connections, so doesn’t ever feel like a bad thing. We really get to know each other through the fun times. We see aspects of each other that we didn’t know about or expect. It makes the workplace a much better place to be.

I know teachers who can’t be bothered with things like dressing the windows for the Bookweek window competition, and who won’t dress up for parades, or who feel frustrated at having to attend school events outside of work hours. I think these are wonderful opportunities to engage with each other, and the broader community, in a different way! So, when you are asking teachers to put in that little bit extra, ask in the name of fun. Order pizza for them when it’s a late event – get them to sit together and eat at the same time. Take some time out. Dance, sing, dress up in silly costumes. These are the things that make a school. You know how cohesive a staff is by the number of people attending and enjoying extra-curricular events.

And there you have it. I am no way an expert on leadership. There are plenty of those around. I am just a teacher who has seen both sides of the coin, and who wants all of us to live up to our potential. If you lead from your heart, you will make invaluable connections with everyone around you. If you lead from your hurt, or a sense of lack and desire for power, you will only alienate your staff. I know who I will give more of myself for.

#gratitude #teachersleadtheway #fixthefuture #makeworkfun #leadwithlove

You need a growth mindset to teach a growth mindset!

Ever since I started teaching, my walls have been plastered with positive slogans and messages about the importance of making mistakes, and being kind to ourselves and one another. And yet, for the first half of my own journey I was whinging and moaning in the staffroom about students, parents, colleagues, the system…you name it. We all bonded with a whine and went home and drank wine.

At the end of last year we had transition sessions where students and teachers for 2020 were given the chance to connect briefly. My Stage 3 colleagues and I decided to do our transition as a stage. As part of our activities we asked students what they expected our classrooms to look/feel/sound like. The students gave all of the right answers, teachers nodded their encouragement at terms like “respect” and “have a go, even if you’re not certain”, but I left that session thinking that what they had suggested was what we wanted to hear – it didn’t feel like they REALLY understood what it meant to respect another person in the face of adversity. I know that what these children are saying is at odds with their behaviours away from the direct supervision of us teachers.

So I came home and pondered some questions. What has been lacking in my own Growth Mindset classroom culture? How can I help my students adopt these concepts holistically? And I believe the answer to this last is “my own Growth Mindset”.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The staffroom should be a place where we can go for some venting when frustrated or stuck, or ANYTHING. We should be able to go there for some collegial support. But it’s important that we don’t get stuck on the problems. It is in no way helpful to have a staffroom where the main focus is on complaining, as I was apt to do in my early years. An empathetic ear is one thing, a bitch fest is another thing entirely, and rather than contributing to staff unity, it becomes divisive and destructive. One minute we’re complaining about a student who won’t follow instructions, and then we’re talking about a lack of support from the school or the system, and then we’re talking about how terrible the parents are, and not one positive thing has come from the process, apart from us feeling somewhat heard, and often self-righteous. I know many great teachers who avoid staffrooms altogether because of the negative talk that goes on there, and they are the people who should be helping to establish our positive environment!

Of course, it isn’t easy. Teachers are under incredible amounts of pressure, and it is very easy to become overwhelmed and emotional. In fact, it’s hard to avoid at the busiest times of the year, but here are some things to consider…

What is a growth mindset all about anyway?

The infographic below gives a general outline of the differences between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. Carol Dweck examines how people’s attitudes help to shape their relative successes or failures in life, and maintains that just by changing small things, such as our wording, we can drastically alter outcomes.

I have dabbled a little in NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), and my learning here supports everything Dweck asserts about a growth mindset. What I have decided is that the biggest thing that contributes to my happiness in the workplace is me.

When we are talking to one another about how tough this is, or how stressed we are, or how frustrating it is that parents won’t take responsibility, all we are doing is feeding the negativity. Perhaps we should instead be framing issues as how we want things to look so that we can consider solutions.

How do you talk to yourself?

Now, changing our self-talk is not an easy thing to do. We have spent a lifetime considering the things we don’t like about ourselves, and it won’t just stop overnight. But consider this: words don’t need to be spoken out loud to be heard. People don’t need to hear me say “I am hopelessly unorganised” to know that this is an issue for me. It’s in my self-deprecating laugh at my inability to lay my hands on the piece of paper I need at any one moment. It’s in the eyerolls that I give myself when there is any discussion about being organised. By telling myself that I am unorganised, I am perpetuating disorganised behaviour. It has been my self-fulfilling prophecy. So, I began testing out the theory, and I changed the language I use with myself to “I am learning to be more organised “. Well, a switch flipped, and each time I lost a piece of paper, or put down a resource in a silly spot, I said to myself “whoops – I’ve done it again” and consciously thought about where I SHOULD have put it. Slowly, but surely, I am becoming more mindful of what I am doing when I am busy, and I am definitely making improvements. It is contributing to my happiness at work!

Does your workplace adopt a growth mindset?

Workplace culture is very much dependent on the leaders of the organisation. However, some of the biggest obstacles to harmony in the workplace come from the attitudes of the workers themselves. Imagine if every single person who had an issue with something came out and discussed the issue with a view to achieving a positive outcome, rather than just expressing their discontentment! Imagine if we celebrated the achievements that came from our efforts, rather than just looking at where we have failed, or how our workplace is failing us. We need to be there for our students as a team, and we need to look for a common goal and work together to get there, rather than stand in our own way with our fixed mindset.

I, as much as anyone, know how limiting it can be to face massive hardship in the workplace and feel completely powerless to achieve anything. I went through months of feeling completely helpless, and resorted to just talking about my problem, rather than how to solve my problem. I wanted other people to feel sorry for me, to say “that’s so unfair, you don’t deserve this”. I made my problem part of my whole personality. Eventually, though, I found the people who helped to fill my cup. I went back to the union and asked for more support. I started focusing on what I envisioned for myself as the best outcome, and I made something happen. I took the blame out of the equation and looked for the resolution. And I am a better, more appreciative worker for my experiences.

Monkey see, monkey do

If we are telling our students that mistakes are awesome because they help us to grow, and then beating ourselves up because we haven’t kept up with our assessment records this term, how can we expect them to take our advice to the heart of their learning? When we teach our kids through a growth mindset model, we get them to consider a mistake that they’ve made, use it to highlight an area for growth, and then focus on mastering it without getting lost in the feeling of failure. So many teachers are perfectionists! We spend far too much of our energy thinking about how we haven’t nailed it this time. Instead of celebrating an area for growth, WE get lost in our feelings of failure! Well, enough is enough. Flip the switch, guys. How can you model your own growth mindset and show students that you are looking for opportunities to learn and improve? I am going to start setting my own goals when students set theirs. I am going to talk about my mistakes when I make them, and how I am learning from them.

Here is your challenge. How can you rephrase your messages to yourself, to your students, and to your colleagues? It doesn’t matter what your motivation is – success means different things to different people – but whether you want to progress your career, or just be happier, I guarantee that developing your own growth mindset will be a big part of your journey. And if we all spoke to ourselves with love and compassion and approached obstacles as opportunities to grow and learn, imagine what the world could look like!

#walkthewalk #fixthefuture #bethechange #growthmindset.

My year without laminating…

by Chelle Heath

Usually a teacher’s year starts with the laminator going hell for leather. My family even bonds through cutting out thousands of resources – lettering, name tags, tote tray labels. Well, we used to. This year, we’ll have to play Yahtzee instead.

Up until now I’ve convinced myself that it is often more resourceful to laminate things in high traffic areas, or games and activities that I use in the classroom. Now I feel a little embarrassed about that. As I have become more mindful of what happens to a thing after we finish with it, I can’t believe that I was okay with such a practice for so many years!

See, every time you encase a piece of paper in plastic, you’re creating another legacy for your children and grandchildren…and great-grandchildren, etc. At this point in time our understanding is that that piece of plastic will simply break down into tinier and tinier pieces until it becomes microplastic. It will never be reabsorbed and reused by the Earth. Is it worth the cost just to have a classroom that looks pretty and shiny? Is that more efficient than having to reprint on regular paper or cardboard once things are worn out? As I’ve been scrolling through Pinterest and Instagram for classroom ideas, it makes me feel almost physically sick to see all of those freshly laminated signs and displays; and the irony should not be lost on any of us! We’re trying to teach our students to care for an respect this planet, but creating more plastic in the process. And this is plastic that cannot be recycled at standard recycling plants.

But let’s not get lost in the shame and humiliation of what we have been doing. Let’s consider the alternatives. Luckily, there are more of us who are wising up to our mistakes, so Instagram and Pinterest are beginning to feature more “green” alternatives to classroom practice. It’s not difficult to find ideas.

The most obvious one is to just use paper or card for signage and displays. I know that last year I chose to only laminate the tags and signs that were going to be in contact with grubby little hands every day, and the things that I pulled down from display are still perfectly fine to be reused. This year I am not going to laminate any of them. I expect that they’ll start to look tattered after a little while, but I aim to just reprint on light card when necessary. This also allows for changes to be made where processes and organisation can be improved. How often have you set something up because it works in theory, only to find its flaws in practice?

Write and wipe sleeves are great for many of the resources that I would previously have laminated. You can print games that you have downloaded and just put them into the sleeves while they are in rotation. Yes, it is still plastic, but one set of sleeves can last for a year and save hundreds of laminating pouches. These are available at Officeworks and many other places that sell stationery and school supplies.

Some companies are beginning to look for biodegradable alternatives to the traditional laminating pouch, and there is definitely headway being made. At this point, however, biodegradable options are not readily available, and aren’t always reliable in standard laminating machines. I am sure the day will come when environmentally friendly options will be the better alternative, saving on paper and printing, but until then, paper is the go.

And then there is always the question we should ask. “Do I actually need this?” Sometimes we get a little trigger heavy with the PRINT button, or we print and then it gets picked up accidentally by someone else before we get to the printer to pick it up. Do you have a “secure print” function on your printer at school? USE IT! You’ll save so much paper and so much time!

Will you join me in this challenge? Imagine how much difference it would make if even a tenth of the teachers in our country pledged to get through a year without laminating! This is a change that is easy to make. We can do this! All we need to do is ask ourselves, EVERY TIME, what is the cost of my choice to this planet?

#walkthewalk #banthelaminator #teachershavethepower #fixthefuture #shinierisnotbetter

Dr. Eric Perry

Psychology to Motivate | Inspire | Uplift

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