Teach Like a Cat

A couple summers ago I read Dave Burgess’s book, Teach Like a Pirate. If you’re not familiar, Burgess focuses on the presentation aspect of teaching. He advocates dressing up, incorporating movement, bringing a ton of energy, and lots of other strategies to enliven your lessons. You can watch him in action here. It’s an inspiring read, and when you’re done you want to ramp up the energy level of your instruction.

That feeling lasts about a week.

Then reality returns, and you realize you just can’t do that for every lesson, not even most of them, because it’s mentally and physically exhausting. Because I want teachers to have long careers impacting many, many lives, I disagree with Burgess’s approach, even as I admit that he’s right. Being a showman will lead to more engaged students. But it will also wear out most teachers really quickly.

So instead of teaching like a pirate, I propose you teach like a cat.

I have a cat. Her name is Gizmo. She has a lot of qualities that teachers who want long and fulfilling careers should make their own.

How To Teach Like a Cat

Be More Chill

Gizmo spends 90% of her time just chilling out. She’s almost always calm and in control. While the rest of us are running around getting dinner ready before softball practice, Gizmo is lying on the couch watching us with seeming bemusement.

Teachers should also spend most of their day in a state of calm. I detail why in this post, but to summarize, calm teachers tend to have calmer classes. Calm leads to more focused work. Calm people make better decisions during stressful moments. When you’re calm most of the time, your moments of enthusiasm will have more impact. And, most importantly of all, by remaining calm, you conserve your energy so you don’t burn out.

Bursts of Energy and Fun

While Gizmo is almost always calm, she has moments of energy and playfulness. She chases after a balled up Hershey’s Kisses wrapper, batting it across the hardwood floor. She swipes at me as I walk by, inviting me to play with her. She boxes with me, patting her paw against my palm over and over.

To keep things interesting, teachers should present fun and energetic lessons on occasion. They should provide highly engaging activities for their students where possible. While most of the day will be calm and focused work, bursts of energy and fun make learning memorable and school a fun place to be. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to make every day a Vegas show, but do look for opportunities to liven things up.

Ask For What You Want

Sometimes my wife gets home late and it’s left to me to feed Gizmo. I usually forget. But Gizmo won’t allow me to forget for long. Every time I get up, she runs to her food bowl. She rubs against my leg to get my attention. She meows. Gizmo wants three things in life: the attention of my wife, to be left alone by the rest of the family, and food. She makes these desires known in no uncertain terms.

She asks for what she wants.

So many teachers are afraid to self-advocate. They beat around the bush, engage in passive-aggressiveness, and avoid any potential conflict. Instead of asking their principal to stop micromanaging them, they avoid the principal as much as possible. Rather than asking for money to purchase classroom materials, they assume the answer will be no and never ask. Instead of asking for a day off to attend a conference that will improve their teaching, they just assume the district won’t pay for it.

Teach like a cat. Ask for what you want. The worst that can happen is someone says no. (Or, you get fired for being pushy and annoying.)

Stop Feeling Guilty

Sometimes, Gizmo horks up a furball right in the center of the living room. One time, she did it into the opening of one of my daughter’s hats. Another time, she deposited one just outside my bedroom door so that I stepped in it. As far as I can tell, she’s never felt bad about it. Not once. I’ve watched her do it. She spits one up and walks away, as if it’s a perfectly natural thing to do.

Which of course, it is.

It’s also natural for teachers to want to take a break. I know teachers who come to work sick because of the guilt they feel over leaving their students with a sub. On some Friday afternoons, it’s totally normal to want to put in a movie because you’re beat and your students are done listening to you anyway. It’s natural to not want to check a pile of papers on Sunday night. Teachers need to be like my cat and stop feeling guilty for doing what our bodies and brains are telling us to do.

Ignore the Critics

Gizmo could not care less about what we think of her. She’s totally dismissive. Rude about it, even.

Sometimes I’ll walk into the closet and she’ll come shooting out of her weird hiding place. I’ll damn near fall down trying to avoid stepping on her. I shout at her. “Gizmo, get out of the way!” She doesn’t give a rip. She just yawns and relocates to the couch or meows at me to feed her again. If we leave the piano keys uncovered at night, Gizmo will prance across them, playing a lively, discordant tune that wakes up the entire house. We’ve learned there’s no point in scolding her.

She just doesn’t care.

Many teachers care entirely too much about what others say or think about them. Be your own critic. Ignore the rest. Stop allowing others to make you feel bad about yourself. Be like my cat: do your thing, and screw what people think about it. You won’t please them all anyway. (I do recommend that you be less obvious about it than my cat.)

Sleep More

Like all cats, Gizmo loves to sleep. I’m pretty sure it’s her favorite thing to do. Teachers, like many Americans, don’t get enough sleep. It’s recommended that you get 7 to 9 hours a night. But the CDC estimates that one in three Americans don’t get that much. You can’t be your best if you’re not well-rested. Teachers, even those who stay calm most of the day, must be on. They must be mentally engaged and observant. You can’t be any good if you’re tired all the time. Get your sleep.

Don’t teach like a pirate. Pirates are scary and they die early deaths. Teach like a cat instead.

Why We Shouldn’t Admire Workaholics

On the last school day of each year, my district recognizes retiring teachers at an ice cream social type of event. The entire faculty attends. The principals of the retiring teachers stand up and tell some bad jokes, then they say some nice things about the teachers. You know.
One year, one of the principals started her speech by talking about how dedicated Judy was. “Anyone who knows Judy knows that she’s the first one here and the last one to leave every day, even after all these years,” she said. We were supposed to be impressed. I wasn’t.
There are two types of workaholics, and neither of them deserve our admiration.

 

The Addict

The first type of workaholic is the kind of person who has great passion for and is highly skilled at his job. He gets up in the morning and can’t wait to get started. He works all hours of the night because it’s a thrill. He gets a buzz off it. Rather than burning him out, the work invigorates him. It’s in his blood. When we think of people like this, we often can’t help but think of them in any way other than their association with their life’s passion. Think of Steve Jobs and you think Apple. Think of Mark Zuckerberg and you think Facebook. They’re the embodiment of that whole, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” thing.
There’s nothing to admire about someone who spends an ungodly amount of time doing the very thing that gives him a lot of pleasure.

 

We don’t admire other people for doing what they love to do. Nobody is going to write a book about me because I spend hours watching football and eating potato chips. There will be no biopics made about some fat 35-year-old who spends six straight days playing video games. I had an uncle who loved to drink beer. Not only would he have done it for free, he gladly paid others for the privilege. There’s a name we give to people who can’t stop doing things they love to the detriment of other areas of their lives. The word is addicts. We don’t tend to admire them. How is being addicted to one’s work fundamentally different from being addicted to heroin, pornography, or gambling? Why should anyone admire a workaholic who does nothing but dedicate untold hours to something he really really gets off on?

 

To answer my own question: The only difference between workaholics and addicts is that society values the workaholics’ addictions more than the addicts’. It shouldn’t.

 

The Misguided

The second kind of workaholic is sadder than the first. These are people who do not love their jobs, but they kill themselves at them anyway. They sacrifice the best years of their lives, missing out on their kids’ childhoods, straining relationships with those who love them, and making themselves miserable for the sake of pride, a misguided sense of dedication, guilt, or the almighty dollar. Picture the Wolf of Wall Street guy.

 

There is nothing to admire about someone whose appetite for approval and recognition destroys so many aspects of the rest of their lives. Workaholics like these wouldn’t exist if society did not reward them with the very thing they so desperately want, its admiration.

 

Workaholic Teachers

Here’s why it matters for teachers. There are those who genuinely love teaching. They are passionate and skilled. For them, teaching is not really work. The long days don’t burn them out. They get physically tired, but not mentally or spiritually drained. They’re in “flow” when teaching. These teachers are rare. Many of them are excellent. But we should stop holding them up as a standard all teachers should aspire to. You can’t instill passion where it doesn’t exist, and if the only people we’re willing to put at the head of classrooms are those who live and breathe all things teaching, then class sizes are about to skyrocket. The world needs a lot of teachers. The U.S. alone has 3.1 million of them.

 

The rest of the workaholic teachers–those who either lack passion or skill– won’t make it much longer. They are exhausted. Many are on the verge of burning out. They’re under the false impression that to be any good, they must put in long hours. They’ve lost any semblance of a work-life balance. They’re giving up so much because they feel external pressure to do so. They’re leaving the profession, sharing their stories, and those stories are keeping young people from even entertaining a career in education.

 

We’ve done that to them. When we as a society admire workaholics, we send the message to teachers that they must break their backs to be valued. It’s a dangerous message, and we are now reaping what we have sown. 

Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm

 

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Like most Americans, I associate success with passion and intensity. The Detroit Pistons of my youth would have never won back-to-back championships without the intensity of Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. Indiana basketball would have never been Indiana basketball without the passion of coach Bobby Knight. Fiery speeches never cease to motivate me, whether delivered in person or on the silver screen. I admire outward displays of passion.

This belief shaped my early years of teaching. I enthusiastically presented a lesson one moment, snapped angrily at misbehaving students the next, and passionately motivated my students to do their best on even mundane tasks. To be any good, I reasoned, I had to be intense. I had to bring it every day! Every lesson! I needed to be, as Anton Chekhov said, “an actor, an artist, passionately in love” with my work.

I have since come to believe that I was wrong. I now believe it is far better to spend nearly all of my teaching day in a consistent state of CALM. In fact, I try to be calm 90% of the time.

Here’s why:

In my article Why Teachers Are So Tired, I talked about four things that exhaust us: making too many decisions, using willpower, experiencing high-intensity emotions, and worrying.

High-intensity emotions wear you out because they activate your body’s fight-or-flight response system. Your heart rate rises, your sweat glands activate, you startle easier. This happens regardless of whether your high-intensity emotions are positive or negative. So getting angry at Billy for sticking a straw up his nose for the third time is just as draining as passionately introducing a lesson on fractions.

There are many teachers (and non-teachers like Chekhov) who believe that the only way to be a good teacher is to be intensely passionate, to put on a show! If I suggested to Dave Burgess that it’s better to be calm than intense, he’d likely throw his book, Teach Like a Pirate, at me.  Certainly, there are some teachers who can maintain a high amount of energy class after class, day after day. The rest of us are tired just thinking about it.

A calm teacher benefits herself and her students in many ways. First, students tend to reflect their teachers. Calm teachers lead to calm classes, and calm classes allow for more focused work. When was the last time you tried to concentrate while feeling intense emotion? It’s not easy. In fact, brain-imaging research shows that when we are feeling intense emotions, our amygdalas activate. We need to then use other parts of our brain to calm ourselves enough to get our work done.  Think of the last time you learned something new. Did you pump yourself up with some AC/DC? Did you do fifty jumping jacks to elevate your heart rate first? I doubt it. Those kinds of activities might be good before a football game, but they’re not very helpful if you’re trying to learn Portuguese.

Second, staying calm will allow you better self control. People who are calm have the ability to choose their actions instead of reacting emotionally. If you think of the worst decisions of your life, I bet they were made when you were experiencing high-intensity emotions–both good and bad. By staying calm, we can react to anything that happens in our classroom in a way we won’t regret later. So when Billy shoves that straw up his nostril, you’ll be calm enough to smile at Billy and say, “Throw the straw away,” and not “For shit’s sake, Billy, how many times do I have to tell you to stop sticking straws up your stupid nose!?”

It’s easy to forget sometimes that we’re role models. When we seesaw back and forth between high-intensity emotions and when we react emotionally to events around us, we are modeling to students that it is acceptable to do the same. How many times have you told a student to think before they acted? Take your own advice.

Third, your emotional moments will have more impact. I’m not suggesting that teachers never show emotion. I am suggesting that we deploy emotions strategically for maximum effect. There are times when we need to be intense to get students’ attention or to get them excited about an upcoming lesson or unit. Go for it! That’s one of the joys of teaching! But there are other times–most times–when calm is the better choice. When you intentionally use emotion you’re still in control, and because you’re not always emotional, you’ll have more impact when you are.

The biggest reason to stay calm is your own energy. Remember, high-intensity emotions drain our bodies. When teachers get tired they do stupid things. They say things they regret. They damage relationships with students and colleagues. They fire off curt emails that they later wish they could retrieve from cyberspace. One study even demonstrated that, as the day goes on, people are more likely to engage in unethical behavior. They also burn out, and burned out teachers are far, far worse than calm ones.

So how do you stay calm? I use three strategies:

1-–Self-Awareness–I regularly check my own emotions at work. How am I feeling right now? How’s my heart rate? Am I calm? Do I feel edgy? I make it a challenge and see how calm I can be. When a student misbehaves, that’s when I really force myself to remain calm. A lot of the time, my seeming lack of interest has the effect of deescalating the situation.

2—Deep Breaths and Perspective–When I feel myself feeling anything other than calm, I take some deep breaths and engage in self-talk. I like to use perspective, so I might say something like, “Is it worth getting upset about?” or “In the grand scheme of things, does this really matter?” or “Just three more hours and I’ll be home with a beer in my hand.”

3—Classroom Management Plan–the best thing I can do for my own emotions is have a classroom management plan that I consistently follow. When students misbehave, my plan tells me what to do. I don’t need to make decisions, and there’s no reason to be emotional. I just institute the predetermined consequence and move on.

I also remind myself that while Bob Knight had 902 career wins, John Wooden, a much calmer person, won 10 championships. He also lived to the ripe old age of 99.

What tricks do you have for staying calm in the classroom? Share in the comments so we can steal your ideas!

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Schedule Your Workouts

This post is from a chapter of my book The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss, available here.

Schedule Your Workouts

What you schedule, you do. When you add something to your calendar, you’re adding it to your life. You expect yourself to do it. You feel obliged. Teachers especially are so used to having lots of scheduled events that we can use our scheduling habit to our benefit.

Teachers, more than other people I know, are always on time. We have to be. If something is scheduled to start at 8:05, you can bet we won’t roll in at 8:10. If the school day begins at 7:35, I better be in my room when the students arrive. There will be hell to pay if I’m not (not to mention a lot of problems to deal with in the classroom).

I’m sure you’ve already experienced this carry-over in your personal life. I know that my 17 years as a teacher has made me extremely intolerant of tardiness. I just can’t understand how people aren’t always, always on time. It’s gotten so bad that if I know I am going to be late, I sometimes won’t show up at all. That’s how mortifying the idea of missing a scheduled start time is for me.

So chances are you already have a punctuality habit. Leverage your experience with scheduling and promptness to help you lose weight. Decide on a workout schedule that works for you. Put those dates and times on your calendar. If your calendar is on your phone, set a reminder. If not, use whatever techniques you already have for meetings and other events. Then use the habit loop you’ve already established. Mine goes like this:

  1. I see an upcoming event on my calendar.
  2. I take care of potential conflicts (like child care) ahead of time so I don’t miss the event or show up late.
  3. On the day of the event, I get anything I need and put it in my car.
  4. I make sure to give myself enough time to get to the event before it starts.
  5. I arrive to the event on time and participate.

Treat working out like any other important event in your life. Put it on your calendar, engage your habit loop, and you won’t miss another workout.

How Teachers Can Use Less Willpower

In a previous post, I listed four things that contribute to teacher fatigue: making decisions, using willpower, experiences high-intensity emotions, and worrying. In this post, I addressed how teachers can make fewer decisions. Today, I will share how teachers can use less willpower so they have the energy to make good decisions, even after a long day at work.

First, it’s important to understand that willpower is like a muscle: it can be strengthened with use, but it can also be overworked, leaving you unable to use it without recovery time.

Teachers, of course, use willpower all the time. Recalling last Friday, here’s a partial list of times I needed willpower:

  • Garbage truck in front of me on the way to work. I wanted to pass, but it wasn’t safe.
  • Arriving at work, I had a bunch of tasks to accomplish, most of which were tedious. I didn’t want to do them.
  • Resisted the temptation to snarkily respond to an email.
  • Donuts in the lounge at lunch.
  • Students playing with something in their desks instead of paying attention. Wanted to publicly scold.
  • Wanted to just sit and relax during my planning time, but forced myself to plan for the following week and prepare materials.
  • Lesson interrupted by the office PA system. Wanted to swear.
  • A student walked in late to class and interrupted. Wanted to lecture.
  • A student was on a game website instead of doing research. I wanted to take his Chromebook and throw it through a window, since this is the 100th time it’s happened with him.

You get the point. I’m sure you’re already mentally making your own list. In every one of those instances, willpower was required. By using it, I depleted my store of it, making it less likely I would have any left at the end of the day and also seriously taxing my body. No wonder teachers are pooped.

So how can we use less willpower at work?

Plan Ahead

Most of the time, we can anticipate those things that will require us to use willpower. I know that certain students are going to press my buttons. I know that if I don’t work now, I’ll be stressed later and have to use even more willpower to accomplish things. I know that when I get on the highway at 5 pm, I am going to get frustrated with traffic and have to use willpower to remain calm at the wheel and avoid bad decisions. (Fun fact: most car accidents occur between 3 pm and 9 pm. You might attribute this to the high number of commuters, but those people drive to work in the morning too. Might it be depleted willpower that contributes to poor driving decisions?)

If we can anticipate these events, then we can plan for them. This is exactly what Starbucks did when they introduced their LATTE training system to improve customer service. Starbucks gave their baristas very detailed systems to use when dealing with stressful situations, especially for when their willpower was low.

You can do this too.  Prepare ahead of time for how you will handle behavior problems. Implement your classroom management plan with strict fidelity and calmness instead of anger. Leave work 15 minutes later or take a different route home if you know your normal path will frustrate you. Emails from your principal usually piss you off? Don’t read them until dismissal.  Do you snack at night? Quit buying snacks and having them in your house. Does Kathy the science teacher annoy the hell out of you? Don’t go where Kathy goes. Identify your likely triggers, and plan ways to avoid or deal with them.

Distract Yourself

If you’re a teacher you’ve likely heard of Mischel’s  famous Marshmallow experiment. The “high delayers” resisted eating the marshmallow by distracting themselves, such as covering their eyes with their hands or turning around in their chairs so they couldn’t see the enticing object, or singing to themselves.

It might not be in many teacher training courses, but sometimes you just have to walk away or direct your attention to something else. Elementary teachers are masters at this. Instead of saying, “Steven, get your hands out of your desk! I’ve told you ten times already!” they will turn to angelic Sarah and say, “Sarah, I really like the way you have your hands folded in front of you.” If you make this a habit, you’ll use less willpower.

You could also distract yourself by thinking about all the beer you’ll drink after work, but that might not be as healthy.

Delay

Postponing can be effective if you’re trying to break a bad habit. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister explains that people who tell themselves “not now, but later,” are generally less tormented by the temptation of something they are trying to avoid. So if you find yourself using willpower to not check your email throughout the day because it usually stresses you out, then simply tell yourself you will check it at the end of the day.

Vent

It takes a lot of willpower to suppress your personality, beliefs, and natural inclinations. Psychologist Mark Muraven and his team found that people who exert this kind of self-control to please others were more depleted than people who held true to their own internal goals and desires. When it comes to willpower, people-pleasers are at a disadvantage.

Instead of suppressing your desires, you need to get them out. But you can’t go around telling off Kathy and you can’t respond to the principal’s email with your honest opinion because that would get you fired. Here’s a method I’ve used:

I sometimes receive an email from a parent or supervisor that angers me. My instinct is to fire back. That’s a bad instinct, but that doesn’t mean I have to hold in those feelings. It also doesn’t mean I should vent to other teachers or my wife because they’ve got their own problems and nobody really wants to hear about mine. What I do instead is write my honest, no-holds-barred response into a Google Doc and put it in a file. It gets my anger out and it’s there for me to revisit. On those few occasions where I have reread it, my anger is gone and I wondered why I was so pissed off at the time. If you do this a few times, you begin to realize that your initial feelings are likely an overreaction and it becomes easier to avoid indulging them.

Other Ideas

Other recommendations I have seen are getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and meditating. All of these things can help in any number of ways, but they’ve also been shown to help people manage willpower.

What about you? What do you do to avoid using up your willpower? Tell us in the comments!

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