I am super excited to feature an interview with Dan Tricarico here in this post as part of my Truth for Teachers podcast. I normally condense the blog posts for interviews to focus on the key points, but because Dan and I were simply having a casual conversation about this topic, I decided to include the full transcript this time.
Dan and I have been working for the past 7-8 months on creating something together that addresses teacher anxiety. It’s called Finally Free: The teacher toolkit for conquering anxiety, overwhelm, and the pressure to do more.
Today we’re going to give you some of our favorite mindset shifts and advice from the toolkit, and talk about some ideas that will really make a big difference in how you feel.
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WATSON: So Dan, you’ve been teaching high school English now for 25 years. What are some of the mindset pitfalls that you’ve observed yourself or other teachers fall into which create extra anxiety?
TRICARICO: Well, it’s a very stressful profession. Every profession is stressful, but I think that teaching is very unique. I don’t think a lot of people understand exactly what we do or what we’re up against every day. Some of the pitfalls I’ve seen during my career, and one of the big ones I’ve observed in other teachers that create anxiety, is isolation. Most teachers are in one room, they have very little connection to other teachers. I know in some schools you have to poke your head out the door and look all the way down the hall and hope that the teacher pokes their head out at the same time because you can’t leave your room. It’s against the law to leave the students unsupervised. So there’s just very little interaction, and that creates isolation, and that can raise anxiety.
Another thing is there’s just often a tremendous lack of support from the administration, from the district, even the state. For example, I’ve been declined for the last four conferences I’ve asked to go to just because there wasn’t funding for it for whatever reason, and I’ve had to pay for a number of conferences on my own. I’ve just stopped asking for supplies because they’re just not there or I’ve had to pay for them myself. And that creates anxiety because, for example, our PTSA does an annual PTSA supply day drive, and they ask parents and local businesses to donate supplies to the teachers. I keep asking, when was the last time Apple or Microsoft had to have a supply drive? It just doesn’t happen on that level, but we have to get donations because we just don’t have the stuff.
The other big thing I see, and this is not going to be news to teachers at all, is just a tremendous sense of overwhelm. There’s just always so much to do, and we have a 24/7 job. The powers that be keep adding and adding and adding and adding things for teachers to do with very little support, certainly no more compensation, and the teachers keep agreeing to do it because they’re givers and they put everybody else before themselves.
The problem is when you put all of these situations together, it’s a perfect storm of anxiety, stress, tension, and it just adds up, and it’s not sustainable. I can’t imagine doing anything else other than teaching. I love teaching. I’ve loved every minute of it. And I know a lot of educators feel that way, and that’s why we put up with this stuff. But one of the reasons that you and I do what we do is because, like I said, it’s not sustainable, and the stress has to manifest itself somewhere. A lot of times teachers burn out and I’ve seen them leave the profession, and you and I just want to make sure that it’s dealt with in a healthy way.
How do you, personally, cope with those moments of anxiety and all the pressure that comes with teaching?
That’s a good question. There was a while when I wasn’t sure how to cope with it, and in fact wasn’t coping with it very well. I slipped into some clinical depression. I was on antidepressant medication, and that’s about the time I said, “You know, I’ve got to do something here. This is not okay. I have to make it to retirement.”
And I saw other teachers melting down and burning out, and that’s when I started the Zen Teaching Project. I said, “These are some elements I can use to kind of calm down, to relax, to focus on what’s important, to get rid of the stress and have some intentional self-care practices.” I’ve used things like meditation and participation in what I call my Zen practice, which for me is writing because that’s the activity that makes me feel renewed and rejuvenated and fulfilled. But for other people, it might be gardening, quilting, working out, or whatever.
In the process of working through the Zen Teacher Project, I’ve come up with what I call The Five S’s. Actually, I didn’t come up with them, but I label them “The Five S’s,” which are stillness, silence, space, subtraction, and slowing down. And I have to tell you, practicing The Five S’s has really made a huge difference in calming me down and lowering my stress, decluttering and being still, and being silent, and just breathing, and stopping, and slowing down. Because we don’t do that in our society.
Stay focused on the 5 S’s: stillness, silence, space, subtraction, and slowing down.
Just one quick example: As you know, I private tutor on the evenings and weekends. Almost every teacher I know has a second gig to kind of make ends meet, and that also increases the stress and tension. And with every client, I arrive about 10 minutes early, and I park kind of down the street from their house, and I just sit in silence and stillness for a while to meditate or go over my lesson plan or just think about things, and it’s become so valuable to me.
I’ve gotten some funny looks from the neighborhood watch people, but that’s okay. I’ll take it. I don’t care. It’s important to me to do that. We could all do that. We could do that on the way to school or on the way home before we kind of re-enter that family situation that sometimes just shoots us into cyberspace.
It only takes a few minutes. Just stop, slow down, be still, be quiet, listen to your intuition, listen to the universe, and see what happens. For me, that’s been transformative, so I highly recommend The Five S’s.
That piece of stillness, I think, is so important, and you are a much better practitioner of that than I am. I really struggle with that. It’s taken years of practice, as I know it has for you as well. But it’s something that I still struggle with because if I had 10 minutes to wait on someone, I would probably want to pull out my phone and answer a couple emails …
Oh, I do that too.
Yeah, exactly. It’s such a temptation. We really have to be intentional about saying, “Here is just a couple of minutes to myself. This is what I say I want all the time. Can I just have a couple minutes of peace and quiet to myself?” Instead of rushing to then fill that with something stimulating and to feel like I’m doing something, just to relax back into that stillness. I think that is so powerful, and I don’t feel like this is something people are talking about enough in general, but especially not with teachers.
That’s one of the things that I love so much about your message, it’s not big, complicated, time-consuming stuff. I mean, you’re talking about just a few minutes of self-care, right?
Absolutely. I mean, some people feel like they have to fly to the Caribbean and spend a few days at a resort. No, it’s just a few minutes. Even when I was growing up, blue-collar family, we could never afford anything like that. So just finding those few minutes.
You said a very important word, which is “intentional.” If we wait for it to happen, it’s not going to happen. We have to plan it. And the second thing is I’m as addicted to my phone as anybody else in this world and this society we have today. I’ll find myself on my phone when I’m in those 10 minutes, and I’ll say, “Wait.” Again, it’s coming back, reminding myself, waking myself up again and saying “Wait. You wanted those few minutes, you have them now, don’t be on your phone.”
In the Finally Free toolkit, which we created together, there are 10 audio modules, and each one addresses a different aspect of teacher anxiety and overwhelm. So there’s one that a teacher can listen to when you feel like you’re drowning and can never do enough, one for when you’re worried about not being able to reach a student or prevent failure, one for when you feel guilty about letting others down, and so on.
We basically surveyed teachers to find out the types of anxious thoughts they were feeling most frequently and then we created 20-30 minutes of audio speaking directly to that issue in a way that is meant to be encouraging and helpful. It’s something you can listen to over and over again, whenever you’re struggling with that feeling. Which of those modules is your favorite, and why do you think it’s so impactful?
I think for me, the last module, number ten (Freedom from Neglect) is my favorite because it’s all about self-care, and that’s my jam. That’s what I’m all about. I think that module is so important because in our society, our culture, we don’t value taking care of ourselves. We seem to idolize this idea of busyness and overwork and over scheduling, and that’s why everybody’s so frazzled and burned out. No one stops to take care of themselves anymore, and that’s why I’m on my soapbox.
I always like to talk about how there’s a difference between being selfish and practicing self-care. Selfish says, “I want this for me, and I want more for me than everybody else.” Self-care says, “I want this for me, because I need to take care of myself so that I can be better for myself and everyone else.”
That’s a huge difference. It sounds the same and it kind of looks the same from the outside, but it’s different, and I think that’s one thing we talk about in that module. When I think of my favorite, that’s the one that comes to mind.
The second one I love would be Module 2: Freedom from Worry about Students because I think every teacher worries about his or her students. A lot of teachers you’ve heard refer to the students as “my kids,” right? We take their well-being very seriously and we lose sleep over how they’re doing and their home life and all of that.
And I don’t know if it ever stops, because I’m thinking of a former student of mine who now happens to be a Facebook friend, and she’s been posting that she’s having some health issues and she’s been in the hospital, and I’ve been very worried about her. She was in my class over 20 years ago, she’s over 40 and an adult in every way, but I’m still worried about her, because she was “one of mine,” and I don’t think that ever goes away.
Those are two modules that I really get behind and say, “This is something that teachers are dealing with, and these lessons might really help them.”
That emotional component, that emotional connection to students, it’s so important to your success and effectiveness as a teacher, but it can be very draining because you’re giving of yourself all day long. I think that’s just such an important point. I thought about this question for myself, to think about which module was my favorite, and I feel like there are little gems in different ones, and I particularly like the two that you pulled out.
I think I also really like the one about freedom from guilt because that sort of ties into this whole obligations-to-other-people type of thing, too. Because a lot of times, I think as teachers, we feel guilty about letting other people down, and we’re always letting someone down, right? Because when you stay late at school to do more for your students, you’re letting down your family, and then when you say, “Nope. I’m leaving at 3 o’clock. I’m going home. I want to be present with my family,” you feel like you’re letting down your students or your colleagues or the school community, and so it’s this sense that you just can’t please everyone, and it’s very draining when you try.
I really like that module, Freedom from Guilt, because we’re sharing these strategies around how you can’t base your self-worth on what you do for other people, because then when you DON’T do something, you’ve made yourself less valuable. That’s a really dangerous road when you’re in a service-oriented profession like teaching because there are a lot of people who are going to want your time and your energy and your emotional labor.
None of us can be or play the role of the teacher or the life partner or the parent, whatever role we’re playing, we can’t be that person that we want to be 100 percent of the time. And so we have to retrain our minds to love and accept ourselves unconditionally, no matter what we do or what we don’t do.
One of the points from the toolkit that we talk about is separating who you are from what you do, because who you are is always just right, even when what you do is maybe not the right choice or maybe you made a mistake or maybe you let someone down. Who you are is different from what you do, and you have to really value yourself and get your sense of self worth from just being who you are, because you have inherent worth and value, and you don’t have to earn that. Your worth doesn’t come from pleasing other people 100 percent of the time, because that’s not going to happen.
No, and I think you’re absolutely right, and I think what you said about you’re okay the way you are regardless of what happens with what you do is so important, and that took me years to figure out. Like you said, it’s unavoidable. You’re always letting somebody down.
The energy that you have and the emotional component that you mentioned is finite unless you recharge it. That’s the beauty of it — it can be recharged. But try using your phone when all of the energy is gone, and you haven’t plugged it in. It’s not going to work, and you’re not going to get done what you do. You can recharge it, but it’s not going to work until you do, and you have to recharge yourself, too.
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I want to let teachers in behind the scenes a little bit to how we made decisions about the format of the toolkit because there really isn’t anything else like it. Basically, we decided you can go through the 10 modules and complete them in order like a course — we provide the structure for that, and you can sign up to get an email once a day for 10 days or once a week for 10 weeks and feel like someone is following up and reminding and encouraging you to stick with it.
And we did that because when we surveyed teachers about this, there were some people who worried they’d buy the toolkit and then never remember to use it if they didn’t have follow-up. But we were really intentional about calling it a toolkit because we don’t want this to be one more thing you feel guilty about not keeping up with. So you can just listen to whatever module you need, whenever you need it. You might listen daily for a week and then go a few weeks without using it at all.
You have this for the rest of your teaching career and can use it as needed. And though you do get a PDF version of the transcript if you’d rather read, it’s audio based, so you can just listen during your commute, or while exercising, cooking, cleaning, and just going about your regular routines.
Can you talk a little bit about why we chose audio over video and what we’re hoping the format of the toolkit does for teachers?
The thing that was amazing to me about this and about calling it a toolkit intentionally was that I consider myself a fairly with-it guy, and it was awhile into the process with you before I really kind of got the concept. That’s because I was used to online courses, and I was like, “Yeah, you would start at the beginning, you would go through, it’s kind of sequential.”
Then for some reason, as it will happen with students and learners, the light went on in my head, and I realized what you meant by “toolkit,” that each lesson was a specific tool to use when you needed it.
I looked at it this way: If I have a toolbox filled with a hammer, a wrench, a saw, and some WD-40, I’m not going to take them all out at once and use them in order. That’s ridiculous. If I need a hammer, I’m going to take out a hammer. If I need a wrench, I’m going to take out a wrench. You take out exactly what you need when you need it.
So that flexibility and that idea of, “I don’t have to do it all, and I have it whenever I need it, and I’m just going to take out this tool” is what we had in mind. Right now I’m dealing with guilt, so I’m going to take out the module on guilt. Right now I know I’ve been letting my self-care lapse, so I’m going to take out the module on self-care.
And you listen for 15 minutes, or 25 minutes, and bam, you’ve got a new plan. I love this image, that we are going to be that voice whispering in their ear and speaking into their hearts and mind about how to make small shifts to kind of change that mindset and take care of themselves. I am just so thrilled to be a part of that.
I love that analogy with the toolbox. I feel like this is sort of the coolest thing about when we work together, Dan, because we’re always thinking the same thing and saying the same thing, we just express it in a little bit different ways.
That’s the fun part.
Yeah, it is, it really is, because it’s not very often that I talk to people that I feel really have the same vision for helping teachers in this area that I do, and that’s how I feel about you and your work. For me, it’s just really exciting to feel like you are reinforcing all of the things that I’ve been teaching, and I’m reinforcing all of the things you’ve been teaching, and we’re coming from different perspectives with different life experiences, but driving home these key points in different ways. They complement each other so well. I’m so excited about it.
I think that’s true. I think we do complement each other, and in fact, I’ll tell you and I hope it’s okay if I’m saying this on your podcast, but I was very humbled when you said you were interested in working with me on this. I thought, “My gosh. She wants to work with me on this,” because I know your work, and I know how much you help teachers, and so I’m just giddy to be here, so thank you.
You’re very welcome. I think this is going to be amazing. I can’t imagine a better person to have partnered with on this.
Oh, thank you.
So enough about us, because I could just talk about how much I admire your work and how much I love what you’re teaching teachers all day.
And I, you.
I want to talk a little bit more about how these mindset shifts happen over time. It’s not something where you can just read about a new way to think and that’s the end of it. You really do have to “retrain your brain” to think in ways that FINALLY create freedom from anxiety and overwhelm. And that only happens over time and with practice.
For me, it’s taken years of self-reflection and learning to get myself to the mindset I’m in today — not in some super time-consuming or emotionally intensive way, it’s just a matter of being mindful. It’s observing the thoughts that are helping me and those that are harming me and making sure I’m slowly practicing mental habits that are positive. And a lot of it has to do with the influences around me, and the things I’m filling my mind with. Has it been the same for you?
Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about goal setting recently, and I think what happens is people think you need to make these huge changes, and that just becomes so overwhelming that they don’t do anything.
But I think the watchword is consistency. The phrase I keep in mind is “tiny shifts.” That’s what I always think of is, “All I need to do is make some tiny shifts but over time and consistently,” like you said, because if you make those small changes over time, but you stay consistent and you keep practicing those tiny changes, you create new habits, and then that’s what sticks, and then that’s when the behavior changes.
If you’re so intimidated by the size of the change that you don’t even try, then nothing’s going to happen, and the behavior’s just going to stay the same. So what I love about our program here is how we emphasize the small changes that teachers can make over time to reduce their stress and increase their self care.
I think another thing to keep in mind is that it’s a journey. You’re on a path now, and the path is not always going to be smooth. There’s going to be bumps and bruises and stumbles along the way. That’s part of it, and that’s okay.
When that happens, you need to give yourself some grace and some forgiveness. You need to say, “That didn’t work out exactly the way I hoped, but I can try again tomorrow,” and just giving yourself that grace and forgiveness is going to help you keep going and be motivated instead of just throwing up your hands and saying, “I’m out.”
I think it can be especially challenging for teachers who don’t have a positive, supportive mentor. I was in the classroom for 11 years and was never formally given a mentor, and a lot of the teachers that I sought out on my own for mental support were very negative just like I was. I wasn’t looking for teachers who would make me better, I was just looking for people who would sit around and complain with me.
That did absolutely nothing for my attitude or energy level. And you and I, Dan, we’ve discussed this several times, how one of the greatest needs for teachers right now is an encouraging mentor. That’s something we’re hoping to be, sort of virtually through this toolkit: Two positive, supportive mentors who can encourage you on a regular basis and give you strategies for working through your anxiety when it feels overwhelming.
Having that mentor, finding people where you have that like mind, where you are sharing a vision, is so important. One of the things you’re making me think of is when I finally got to a point where I was older and more experienced and maybe had a few things to say about education, I started getting my first student teachers.
It’s when I got my first student teachers that I realized I love working with teachers and helping teachers. And years later, when I started the Zen Teacher Project, it was like heaven to me, because I was not only working with and helping beginning teachers — I was helping all teachers, whether it was in the blog or the book or the newsletter or the Facebook group, or now even in my online courses and this program. Just helping them kind of deal with these things and maintain their sanity and a level of performance and motivation so that they can make it through to the end of their career because I just saw so many who were just kind of not sure how to do that and bailing out. So this path has been amazing for me, and I definitely see it as part of my passion for education and even kind of like a calling.
Yeah, I know that it is a calling for you. This isn’t just something that you do, it’s something that you love and you’re super passionate about. And I’m really glad that you came on this show to talk about Finally Free and just kind of share your heart with teachers in this area.
So Dan and I are making one of the modules in the Finally Free toolkit available to you for free. It’s Module 1: Freedom from Comparison, which is designed for you to listen to when you’re feeling not good enough and comparing yourself to others.
You can go to finallyfreetoolkit.com to learn more about the toolkit, and scroll down to the preview where you can download the audio and PDF for that first module on comparison right now.
I encourage you to get that MP3 and let Dan and I speak some into your mind and heart around that issue.
Dan, thank you so much for coming on the show to talk about Finally Free and just share your heart with teachers on this issue. Can you give us a takeaway truth for the week ahead?
One time, the yearbook adviser at my school sent out a message to all of the teachers and said, “Fill in this blank, and we’re going to put it in the yearbook, ‘If my students only learned one thing from me, I want it to be … ‘ and then you had to fill in the blank.
And I put: “If my students only learned one thing from me, I want it to be that they realized they’re okay the way they are.”
That’s what I wish all the teachers out there now would realize and know: That you are okay the way you are and that anything you do to improve yourself is great, but there’s nothing wrong with how you are now, no matter what messages you’re getting, no matter what that internal self-monologue, self-talk is telling you. What you’re doing is great. The fact that you’re in education tells me that you’re okay, but you are okay the way you are, and don’t forget that.