This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Stephanie Reece.
Being a teacher is demanding in many ways. I have always struggled with the mental load of the job. I was always focused on pleasing others, trying to be perfect, and making sure I’m doing the “right thing.” This resulted in me spending hours after school analyzing the events of the day, questioning myself and my decisions I had to make.
Did I do ________ correctly? (Usually, I told myself I did not.)
What should I have done instead? (List several other options.)
How will that impact my students tomorrow? (List worst-case scenarios in my head.)
Reflecting on your choices as a teacher is a wonderful skill and can help you improve in many ways. My way of “reflecting” was not positive, helpful, or healthy for me at all. It was exhausting to come home from a day of teaching to my brain cycling through this process. In hindsight, it’s no surprise that I was questioning how teachers continue to do their jobs each day when this was my norm. As I would later learn, it IS possible to improve my situation.
I first approached the idea of reframing my thinking about teaching in Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching by Angela Watson. As I was reading these parts of the book, I finally felt hopeful that I had found some answers to change my habits I had learned. Over the past three years, I have learned more about reframing my thinking in Angela Watson’s other resources, including her books, podcast, and the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club.
Around the same time, I started seeing a therapist for my struggles with depression and anxiety. I realized my therapist was giving me similar suggestions about reframing my thinking, so I knew it could be powerful. It took me a lot of work, but there were several ways of thinking I have tried from Angela Watson’s resources to improve my perspective around my teaching.
Reframe #1: You Always Choose How You Spend Your Time
In education, there are many decisions that are already made for me. At first, it seemed like there was a lot about my job that I could not control and I struggled with this. In Fewer Things Better, Angela Watson explained the reality that we can ALWAYS make choices of how we spend our time. She explains several ways to think about how in reality, there are very few things that actually have to be done a certain way. This was a lightbulb moment for me because I had always thought there were very few things I could do to change my predicament, and this is not true.
For example, we all need food to survive, but the source of that food has positives and negatives. Home-cooked meals can take more time, but they may be cheaper or healthier than ordering food out. This is just one of several options in this example. In the book, she walks through some ways of thinking through choices you have to make in order to make positive changes in your life.
By looking at how I spent my time in this way, it has helped me acknowledge I have more control over my time than I thought. If I choose to spend my time on one task, it means I am saying no to other tasks that may be more enjoyable or important. I could choose to work constantly outside of the school day, but that means I am giving up time with my family, friends, or time I could spend on hobbies that can fulfill me in other ways.
I started practicing this change in thinking and always frame my schedule as a set of choices. There are times when there are hard deadlines, so I choose to put in the time to have my work before then. There are others who make choices that lead them to not meeting the deadlines, but I know I would rather choose
Reframe #2: YOU Are Who Your Students Need
When I first started teaching, self-doubt was a big challenge for me. I am someone who needs affirmation in many areas of my life, but I learned quickly as a teacher that positive feedback is not common in education. Most administrators probably want to give positive feedback to their staff, but there is no time, or they don’t feel it’s necessary since they don’t get it themselves. Instead of focusing on this as a negative, I reframed my thinking so I can give myself my own reassurance and positive feedback.
A key idea that Angela Watson brings up frequently is the importance of bringing yourself into your classroom to share with your students. It is essential your students see you as a human first – with your talents, strengths, struggles, and flaws. This can be intimidating to put yourself out there for students to criticize, but there are many students that will connect with you.
The idea of showing up as myself in my classroom helped to address my issue with questioning my decisions and self-doubt. I changed my thinking to tell myself,
I am who my students need, and I can make decisions that will benefit them. I realize I may not be the perfect fit for EVERY student, but my knowledge, experience, and modeling can be helpful for many of my students. All students have different needs, and as long as I am trying my best, I can feel good about that.
There is a caveat to this: I am not perfect, and I am aware that I will make mistakes. I can get frustrated and take that out on a student, or I sometimes can snap on a colleague in a moment of impatience. Instead of beating myself up about the mistake, I am willing to apologize to the person or people involved. I also realize the value of making mistakes because I can learn from them, and I can model this process for my students. I still have moments where I question myself or doubt my judgment, so the reframing has been helpful to get me out of an unhealthy cycle where I beat myself up about it.
Reframe #3: Instead of Comparing Myself to Others, What Can I Learn From Them?
I have always had the privilege of working with colleagues that have a wide range of talents. They seemed to have it all together when it came to school. They could reach kids in different ways than I could, their data looked better on assessments, they were planned out further than I was…the list goes on. The comparison trap can be discouraging when I feel like I cannot measure up.
I had to work to reframe my thinking when comparing myself to others. Instead of seeing it as a source of stress, I could be grateful that I had opportunities to learn from them. I would ask myself, What can I learn from this colleague? What can I adapt to fit my own needs and preferences?
One example is I have a colleague who accomplishes more than most people. She is very efficient, thorough, and she is always thinking ahead in her lesson-planning. At first, I felt constant pressure to try to keep up with her. I tried planning to the same level of detail and put in countless hours to make things pretty and perfect, like her materials seemed to be. After I had exhausted myself, there are a few things I learned.
First, she plans the level of detail in her lessons because she is comfortable with that and prefers it that way. I learned that there are certain things I don’t need to be as detailed with. I can be okay with winging certain things, especially as I reuse and tweak things between years. I also learned she makes things pretty because she enjoys doing it, and that is not something I like or excel at. I decided to let that expectation go for myself, and I would be surprised if my students have ever noticed.
On the other hand, I learned how helpful it can be to plan ahead or at least have an idea of where instruction is heading over the course of a unit. This is a skill that has taken time to build, but I have learned how to think through this by brainstorming and planning with my colleague who is already very good at planning ahead. It helps me to feel less stressed with the day-to-day prepping because I have an idea of what the end will look like and when that will be.
There were several ways I learned that my colleague and I are similar AND different, and I finally accepted that is okay. Instead of stressing about the differences, I changed my thinking and have learned SO much from her that has helped me to grow. I used to see our differences as a flaw, but now I see them as ways we can push each other to think outside our comfort zones and to help each of us grow.
The Daily Work
Not only have I worked on this myself, but I try to share some of the reframing strategies with students when they are stuck in negative thoughts. It takes time and repetition, but hopefully they will learn from the work I have done and it will help them to grow, too.
It is unrealistic to think that I will never question my choices, stress about work, or face challenges as a teacher. However, from reframing my thinking consistently over time, I have drastically improved my mood and my feelings around my job. These are areas I will always continue to work on, and reframing my thinking has helped me to embrace the work.