How to gain energy from kids instead of letting them drain you

EP04: The flow of energy in a classroom is often one-way, with the teacher constantly giving and students sitting by as passive recipients. But kids can be your greatest motivator and energizer! Discover how to create a reciprocal energy flow through connecting with and enjoying your students.

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a talk radio show that you can listen to online or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. Learn more about the podcast or subscribe in iTunes to get new episodes right away.

Our topic for this week is gaining energy from students. Now theoretically, a lot of our enthusiasm for teaching should be coming from that seemingly endless source of energy that is sitting right there in front of us as we teach…the kids. Seeing them learn should be inspiring us and motivating us to work harder and keep putting forth the effort.

But in reality, it doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes the kids just seem to suck the very life out of you, they take everything you’ve got, and they always need more. They never run out of energy! Think about dismissal time at your school. Students are bouncing off the walls and racing to their buses while teachers are ready to collapse in a heap on the floor from exhaustion.

You may not have ever thought about why it happens that way. But the reason is actually pretty simple…and you can address it immediately: it all has to do with the classroom energy flow.

If you want to be unshakeable in your enthusiasm for teaching, you can’t just give all your energy to kids; you have to feed off of their energy, too. That creates a reciprocal energy flow.

You see, we as teachers often spend our days giving, giving, giving to our students while the kids sit and absorb (or deflect, in some cases.) The flow of energy is one way so that students are the constant recipients and have an excess at the end of the day. They sit still and listen while the teacher presents; they half-heartedly complete assignments while the teacher incessantly praises and encourages; they goof off while the teacher does circles around the room redirecting behavior and trying to keep the entire show running smoothly.

You can’t let that happen, or you will burn out very quickly. I am super passionate about this concept of creating a reciprocal energy flow, and it’s one of the central tenants of the book I’m finishing up right now called Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What. It’s coming out this spring and I can’t wait to get it in the hands of teachers so I can spread THIS message:

If you want to be unshakeable in your enthusiasm for teaching, you can’t just give all your energy to kids; you have to feed off of their energy, too. That creates a reciprocal energy flow.

How to gain energy from kids instead of letting them drain you: Angela Watson's Truth for Teachers podcast

So how do you create that reciprocal energy flow? There are a couple different aspects to consider. The one I want to focus on today is intentionally connecting with and enjoying your students.

The relationships you have with kids are ultimately the determining factor in whether or not you stick with this profession. If you are so focused on “covering the curriculum” that you never get a moment to step back and appreciate all of your hard work and your students’ hard work, you never get a moment to just marvel at the learning process, you never get a moment to have a casual conversation with a kid and connect with him or her on a personal level…then you’re never going to get that burst of energy and motivation you need to keep going. You’re going to keep expending all your energy trying to get your students to pass a test without ever experiencing the moments of delight that should be inherent in working with kids.

If you feel like teaching is not fun anymore, then you need to create a reciprocal energy flow. The only way you’re going to enjoy teaching on a daily basis is if you take time to have fun with and truly enjoy the kids.

If you don’t enjoy them, what’s left? The meetings? The paperwork? The testing? The kids should be your greatest source of joy!

children are not a distraction from our most important work

But see, we get frustrated with kids and they drain our energy when we’re overly focused on the goal or task at hand: everyone must complete this assignment, everyone must master this standard…right now! And so any child who is trying to share a story or is off-task becomes an infringement on our goal. We see them as a distraction from the most important thing when in fact, the students themselves are the most important thing.

This is the secret to being a happy lifelong educator: learn how to tune out all of the distractions that pull you away from connecting with and enjoying your students.

I teach students, not standards

You have to make the conscious choice to remember that you are teaching students, not standards. I have a shirt in my Spreadshirt store with that saying on it–I teach students, not standards–and it thrills me every time a teacher buys that shirt and wears it proudly. We’ve got to spread that message.

You might be thinking right now: I agree, but my principal doesn’t. I agree, but school leadership won’t let me teach like that. 

I want to get real with you. You might not ever hear someone from your district or state tell you that the kids come first and your relationships with them matter most. You can’t wait for an authority figure to give you time in the day to enjoy your kids and make personal connections with them.

You have to create routines in your classroom that allow you to connect with and enjoy your kids. Stand at the door in each morning and greet students as they come in. Play basketball or jump rope with them on the playground at recess. Invite them to eat lunch with you in the classroom sometimes. Take a moment to step back during students’ cooperative learning to just observe them, watch what makes them laugh and laugh with them, listen to see what topics they’re passionate about, appreciate them as people in your classroom who have their own unique personalities and interests and quirks.

One of the simplest ways I’ve found to intentionally connect with and enjoy my students is through a system I call Daily Connections. Let’s say you have 30 kids in your class this year. Make a simple list that says Monday and write the numbers 1-6 after it. Then write Tuesday and the numbers 7-12. Then write Wednesday and the numbers 13-17, and so on. Or, you can download the free template I’ve created.

Daily Connections: an easy way to make individual connections with students (free printable)

Make a photocopy and fill in all the names on your current class list.  So if you have 30 kids, make an extra connection with the first 6 on your class list on Mondays, the next 6 on Tuesdays, and so on. Post your Daily Connections list with that day’s 6 names somewhere only you can see, because the kids aren’t supposed to know this is a relationship-building strategy, it should be very natural, and then go out of your way to start a conversation or have one-on-one time with those kids on the designated day. You can spend an extra minute talking with those kids when you check their homework, when you’re walking them to lunch, at recess, at dismissal, or even during your instruction.

So those are just a few simple ideas to help you gain energy from your students by creating routines that let you enjoy your students and connect with them. There are a couple of other aspects to consider when creating that reciprocal energy flow. One of them is choosing to love your students even when they behave in unloving ways, because let’s face it, not all of our students are easy to enjoy or fun to connect with. So, I’ll address that in a future episode.

Next week, though, I want to talk about a completely different aspect of creating a reciprocal energy flow, and that’s turning the learning over to students–giving them the responsibility for and ownership over their own learning. We as teachers have to stop burning ourselves out by doing all the work! We can empower kids to take charge of what they’re learning and how they’re learning it. So I’m going to share some practical strategies for that next week.

I’d like to leave you with a motivational quote for the week ahead that I call the Takeaway Truth. The quote is very simple:

Positive relationships with students are inherently energizing. Your students will notice that you are taking an interest in them and intentionally connecting with them, and that will pay off in spades in terms of students engagement and motivation. They will give you more energy in the classroom when they know how much you care.

Have a great week–you can do this! And remember, it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.

NOTE 3/15/15: I have edited some of the transcript to reflect changes in my thinking since this episode was published. There were some unfair generalizations about school leaders not valuing student relationships, and I should have worded that more accurately.

Next week: How to empower students to take ownership of their learning 

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go!  A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

See blog posts/transcripts for all episodes

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Natalia Alvarez January 12, 2015 at 9:56 pm

Thanks a lot. It is really helpful.

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2 Angela Watson January 14, 2015 at 1:43 pm

You’re welcome, Natalia! I appreciate you taking the time to share that.

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3 Jody January 13, 2015 at 12:17 am

Great message!!

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4 Angela Watson January 14, 2015 at 1:43 pm

Thank you so much, Jody!

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5 Rebecca Tabb January 13, 2015 at 12:42 pm

I left a comment on Facebook to this effect, but I didn’t like how it sounded so I’m rewording it here! This year for the first time I am realizing the important of connecting with my kids, sharing stories, laughing, etc. and I really feel it’s like a missing x-factor thing I wasn’t “getting” my first few years. I love all the ideas on this post/podcast. However, what I am left wanting is some ideas for creating this reciprocal energy flow while actually teaching. I feel like I spend so much time talking and I want to find practical ways to help kids engage more in teaching each other (effectively). I feel like I lose a lot of energy that way. I know Harry Wong talks about teachers spending more energy than the kids and that’s what I haven’t quite figured out…how to teach all day but not feel like I have to be “on” all day. Hope that makes sense. Can’t wait for the new book!!!

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6 Angela Watson January 14, 2015 at 1:46 pm

Hi, Rebecca! I really appreciate your comments. I, too, feel like I was missing the connections x-factor my first few years of teaching. I was focused far too much on the curriculum and not enough on the kids. I hope my words help other teachers from making that mistake.

I also relate to your comment about feeling like you have to be “on” all day, and you’re right that Unshakeable is going to give a LOT more practical strategies for addressing that. There’s a whole chapter on building periods of rest into your day. And, there are also a lot of strategies for creating the reciprocal energy flow DURING instruction. I think next week’s podcast will help you in that regard, too. :)

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7 Cindy January 18, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Thanks for the option of print version of your weekly podcasts. Where or how do I leave the feedback that is so important to you?

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8 Angela Watson January 18, 2015 at 10:09 pm

Hi, Cindy! Thanks so much for offering to leave a review. I really do appreciate it! All you have to do is visit the podcast page in iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/angela-watsons-truth-for-teachers/id954139712#. (The link will open up iTunes: click on “Ratings and Reviews” and then “Write a Review.”) Thank you so much!

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9 Cindy Manoske January 19, 2015 at 2:37 pm

Love this podcast about gaining energy from our students. I just downloaded and printed the template. :) Thank YOU!

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10 Angela Watson January 19, 2015 at 5:28 pm

Awesome! You’re very welcome. Thanks for taking the time to let me know.

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11 sheila January 19, 2015 at 8:45 pm

You are seriously a teacher angel!! Always giving me exactly the words I need to hear. …thank you!!!

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12 Angela Watson January 22, 2015 at 9:32 pm

That’s so sweet, Sheila, thank you!

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13 Ana February 1, 2015 at 11:27 am

I have discovered your blog today and I love it! I teach ESL in Argentina, and your posts have been really helpful. I’m following you on Bloglovin’ so I’ll be around. Thank you!

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14 Kathy April 25, 2015 at 3:26 pm

This past few weeks have been difficult not to have mixed emotions. I recently found out that I will be laid off due to budget cuts. Eight teaching positions were cut and most were teachers that were hired this year. My husband took a job in a bordering state not far from my present school. I don’t want to “begin over in a new state” and I have “ministry commitment ” as I am a pastor’s wife and am taking courses to earn my own credentials. I have been experiencing drained emotions due to this and facing the “testing” season as well. Thanks for the encouragement. I am not sure what the future holds but I know the one who holds my future in His hands.

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15 Angela Watson April 27, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Oh my, that is a really stressful situation! I join you in prayer…I believe God had worked out the solution for you before you even knew there was a problem. He will guide you and give your wisdom about what to do next.

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