The Benefits of Doing Nothing

Walk into any classroom and you are likely to see the teacher doing stuff. They’re lecturing, meeting with students, conferencing, planning, assessing, entering data, designing units, or circulating throughout the room. Few teachers give themselves permission to do nothing. But they should. Doing nothing is important.

When I say doing nothing, I of course mean doing nothing outwardly.  While it may appear that we our sitting at our desks and counting the ceiling tiles, our brains are busy at work.

The reality is that teachers don’t spend enough time thinking because we’re so busy doing.

Our Best Ideas

Our best ideas often come to us when we are idle. Before I started this blog, I was an aspiring novelist. In the course of telling a story, I’d often get stuck. I couldn’t figure out what should happen next. The worst thing I could do was think more about the problem. Usually, my best ideas came when I left the work alone and did something mindless. It’s hard to come up with great ideas when we’re under pressure to do so.

The same thing happens with teaching. I have very few innovative ideas in February. But in the summer, when my mind is rested and I’m not stressed out from long days in the classroom, I regularly come up with new things to try for the upcoming school year. Teachers need to set aside time to just sit and think.

Sitting and thinking, instead of always doing, provides teachers with the mental space to be creative. I keep a notebook where I write down things to try in the classroom, and once a month I force myself to just sit and think of stuff. Ideas can come from books, blogs, colleagues, social media, or my favorite place, left field.

Reflection

Time to think allows teachers to actually reflect on what’s working and what isn’t. We’re all told how important it is to reflect on our lessons. It’s part of every teacher evaluation system I know of. But most teachers roll their eyes and think, “Yeah, right. And when am I supposed to do that?”

They ask that question because they don’t give themselves permission to do nothing. For most teachers, the thought of their principal walking in and seeing them sitting down and staring off into space is scary. We feel like we must always be working, and we fail to realize that thinking counts.

Time to think and reflect also lets teachers revisit their vision for the classroom to see if this year’s group is still on track or if things have gone off the rails and a recommitment is necessary. Every year, I write down my personal goals and the vision I have for my room. But once caught up in the day-to-day grind, I sometimes find myself just plugging along without thinking about the big things I want my room to be about. Without time to sit and think, I lose track of where I’m supposed to be leading my students.

Time to think can also save us trouble down the road. Taking a few minutes to think instead of responding emotionally to a student’s misbehavior, or a parent’s disrespectful email, or an administrator’s new idea can mean the difference between having a job and not having one.

When Helping Doesn’t Help

Students also benefit from a teacher doing nothing. Especially at the elementary level, too many of us rush in to save a student from failure or even frustration. We don’t want our students to struggle, and when we see them doing so, we want to help. That’s how we’re built.

But failure and frustration teach, often better than we do.

Stand back. Do nothing. Send the message to your students that they can do it without you.

I can always tell if I’ve helped too much when the state test rolls around. Since I’m not allowed to help at all, those students who I’ve not allowed to struggle don’t know what to do without my assistance. They don’t know how to solve problems because I haven’t allowed them to struggle with them. I’ve failed them, not only for that test, but in some ways, for life. There won’t always be someone around to help, and some problems just require that you sit there and think.

Next Play — Forgive Your Students

forgive students

I’ve been knee deep in college basketball viewing even though my bracket looks like the remnants of … well, I was going to compare it to some horrific disaster, but there’s pretty much no way to do that without offending large segments of the population.  Anyway,  it’s not good.

As I watched the fast-paced action, I couldn’t help but find parallels between the game and teaching. Both require constant decision-making. There are moments of thrilling triumph followed quickly by disappointing failure on both the court and in the classroom.  In-game adjustments are necessary and have to be made without a lot of time to consider the very best strategy. Choosing one tactic means not choosing a host of others. Like a coach, a teacher can be a master technician and an inspiring motivator and still lose if the players don’t execute. And some days, you just can’t make a shot no matter how hard you’re trying.

While the games played across my TV this weekend, I worked on three chapters in my latest book, Happy Teacher. One of the chapters is titled, “Forgive,” and it’s about–you guessed it–forgiving students who mess up.

Most student screw-ups are similar to unforced errors on the basketball court. Players travel. Students blurt out. Players commit stupid fouls. Students say stupid things.  Players run the wrong play because they weren’t listening to the coach. Students do the wrong thing because they weren’t listening to the teacher. Players don’t perform with enough focus or energy. Students don’t perform with enough focus or energy.

Coaches can often be seen shouting at their offending players and they might sit them on the bench for awhile to drive their point home. Similarly, frustrated teachers might scold a student for her transgressions and give the kid a warning or send her to time-out. But eventually, both coach and teacher must move on. They must forgive, because there’s a lot more game left.

One of my favorite phrases for reminding myself to forgive and move on is “next play.” Former Duke basketball player and ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas wrote about “next play” in his book Toughness.

Bilas played for legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, who knows that tough teams win. Tough players have the ability to focus on the play at hand and not the one that just happened. We’ve all seen basketball players thump their own chest and fail to get back on defense, just as we’ve seen players sulk after a mistake and lose focus for the next couple of plays. In a game as fast moving as basketball, you can’t have players that aren’t focused on the moment. “Next play” was a mantra on Coach K’s teams.

“Next play” is a reminder to concentrate on the task at hand. It’s an attitude check. It fights against complacency. It cuts away the drama associated with failure. It’s a fresh start.

And it’s just as valuable a philosophy in the classroom as it is on the hardwood.

Teach your ass off, just like the coaches in this year’s tournament. Have high expectations for your students. Hold them accountable when they mess up. Sit them on the bench for a spell so they can refocus if you need to.

Then tell yourself, “Next play,” and forget about what just happened. It’s over. There’s nothing that can be done about it now. Forgive your students. Get them back in the game, because the clock is ticking and there’s a lot on the line.

 

 

 

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.

Fewer Decisions = More Energy

Every teacher I know wishes they had more energy at the end of the day. They want to give their best to their family, just like they gave their best to their students. They want to exercise, work on a hobby, play with their kids, talk with their spouse, and some of them even wish they had more energy for checking papers and planning lessons.

In my last post, Why Teachers Are So Tired, I wrote about the four reasons teachers are so drained at day’s end.

This week and next, I’ll look at what teachers can do to reduce decisions, use less willpower, avoid emotional peaks and valleys, and handle worry so that they go home with more energy. In this article, I’ll tackle the first of those: making fewer decisions.

How to Make Fewer Decisions

It sounds simple enough: just make fewer decisions. And for some people in some jobs, it might even be possible to simply, through force of will, decide fewer things at work. But as teachers, we are inundated with situations that require us to decide. Planning is nothing but a series of decisions. We decide every time we check papers, when we rearrange seating charts, when a student asks to use the bathroom, how to handle a behavior problem, and on and on. We don’t have the luxury of simply not deciding. Our principals, colleagues, students, and parents are all waiting for us to choose. So how do we decide less?

Actually, we’re already doing it. Now, we need to do more of it.

Make it Automatic

Mark Zuckerberg wears the same gray T-shirt to work every day. When asked why he said:

I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.

Zuck’s ‘Drobe:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Obama explained his wardrobe this way:

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.

Steve Jobs, Henry Rollins, Christopher Nolan, and even Albert Einstein later in life all subscribed to the same belief. They knew that the more decisions you make, the more tired you will be and the less energy you will have to make more important decisions later in the day.

Choosing your outfit is one decision you can easily remove from your day.* Once you start thinking about it, you will find there are many other decisions you can automate, and some you already do.

Most of you follow the same route to work and back every day. You don’t decide, you just do it. Same for nearly all of your morning routine. In fact, if you’re like me, you’re bothered when your morning routine gets thrown off for some reason.

You probably automate much of your banking. Thanks to technology, I make many fewer financial decisions than my dad did. I don’t have to decide when to deposit my paycheck, when and how much money to move into my daughter’s college fund, when to pay the bills, or how much to put into savings every month. All of that is set up ahead of time and now just happens.

It’s the key to making fewer decisions: automate as many of them as possible.

Go through your entire day. How many decisions do you already automate? What else could you automate? How about your workout routine? If you get to the gym and decide which equipment to use and what order to use it in, you’re using energy. If you just do the same thing every time or follow a predetermined schedule, you’re saving energy. Analyze every part of your day and eliminate as many decisions as possible. Don’t decide what to have for dinner every day. If you plan your meals for the whole week, then eating dinner goes on autopilot.

Decide Less At Work

At school, we’re well practiced in this. We call them routines, but the reason we teach them, model them, and have students practice them for the first two weeks (or two months) is so that they’ll become a habit and no one will have to waste energy thinking about them. How many other parts of your school day can you automate? Your entire morning routine? Your end-of-the-day routine? How students line up to leave the classroom? You probably already do these, and thank goodness. Can you imagine having to decide, every day, how you want students to line up?

Since many teacher decisions happen as a result of student behavior, a solid classroom management plan is a must. It can prevent problems that will require decisions from you. If consequences are clear and consistently enforced, there is no decision to make. You simply follow your pre-established plan. For more information on classroom management, I highly recommend Michael Linsin’s blog, Smart Classroom Management. He knows way more about it than I ever will.

Do a decision audit. List out everything you do in a typical day. How many of your decisions are already part of an automatic routine, and how many more could be with some simple, proactive changes?

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*If your principal has a problem with your wearing the same thing every day, just tell them that if it’s good enough for Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, then maybe they should worry about more important matters.

What other decisions could you automate? Share your ideas in the comments so we all benefit! Thanks.

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Sources:

8 Reasons Successful People Are Choosing to Wear the Same Thing Every Day

Why Mark Zuckerberg Wears the Same Clothes to Work Every Day

The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha

 

 

 

 

10 Ways to Stay Motivated About Teaching

Being motivated about teaching is easy in September. You’ve just had a long summer of relaxation and you’re looking forward to starting fresh with a new class. Like a Detroit Lions’ football season, it doesn’t matter how bad things sucked last year, there’s hope that this year will be different.

However, much like those hapless Lions, by the time winter hits, hope has been replaced with reality. Those new ideas you couldn’t wait to try didn’t exactly turn out the way you imagined. Your resolution to be more positive, or show more gratitude, or not let stupid district initiatives get under your skin has been forgotten. The precocious kid you thought was so much fun the first two months is now just an annoying know-it-all who takes great pleasure in correcting your every mistake. You’re not even halfway through the year and you’re not sure how you’re going to get through the rest of it.

It can be tough to stay motivated during the long winter months. So if you find your energy sapped and your greatest fear is that the principal is going to walk in and see you delivering an uninspired lesson to an inattentive class, you might try some of these ten ideas to stay motivated.

1. Change Something

Part of the problem with the middle of the year is that you’ve settled into your routines and every day can start to feel the same. To break the monotony, change something. Swap subjects in your schedule. Start something new, like student blogging or scheduling a Skype with an author.  Start playing music as students enter in the morning. Do a lesson in the gym.  Perform a science experiment that isn’t part of your curriculum.  Make the days less predictable.

2. Address Problems

A mistake I made early in my career was avoiding problems in my class. I’d think to myself, well, the year’s half over now. I’ll just change how I do things next year so I won’t have these problems again. Hopefully, you’re smarter than me. Your motivation to do the job well will be destroyed if you have festering issues. Face them head-on.  Re-work a routine. Change your attention signal if yours isn’t working. Sit a student by herself if she can’t sit by others. Think of it as testing solutions. You have 4-5 months to try out new interventions. If they fail, try something else. If they work, you can add them to your toolbox and use it the rest of your career. Get testing!

3. Experiment

Just as you can experiment with solving problems in your room, you can experiment with the curriculum. Instead of waiting for a new class to try out that thing you heard about at a conference, implement it right away. If you come up with a new way to teach something, try it! Collect some data. See if it works. Tell others about it. Turn your classroom into a testing ground for innovation.

4. Reread a Favorite Teaching Book

An easy way to rekindle your idealism and pump up your energy level is to read books that motivated you in the past. No teacher can go wrong with Teach Like a Pirate or The Essential 55. Other books that I return to are The Promise of a Pencil, The First Days of School, Best Year Ever, and Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire.

5. Watch an Inspirational Movie or YouTube Clips

Every once in a while, one of the networks will do a feel-good story about a teacher who made a difference for kids. They always give me a shot of motivation about what’s possible. With the video-on-demand services available today, you don’t have to stumble on these. Hop over to YouTube and do a search for “inspiration for teachers” or search for keynote addresses from some of America’s most inspiring educators.

You could also watch a full-length movie. Teachhub.com has a good list of 12 Must-See Movies for Teachers.

6. Pick a Stretch Goal

A stretch goal is a goal that can’t be achieved by incremental changes. It’s a popular business concept that will undoubtedly make its way to our schools. Before you groan, consider choosing a stretch goal for your class to inject a dose of significance into everyone’s work.  It should be difficult, but not impossible to achieve. It should require serious commitment. A couple of possibilities are:

  • Every student will ace the next biology test.
  • Every student will read 150 words per minute by the end of the year.
  • Every student will be able to recite Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”
  • Every student will know their multiplication facts by June.

Having an ambitious goal to work toward–something that will necessitate changes to the way everyone does things–can be a great way to up everyone’s motivation, including yours.

7. Teach Meaningful Things

It can be hard to get excited about teaching decimals or heredity.  Some of the required content is just not very inspiring. So teach something that is meaningful to you. I like to carve out 20 minutes a couple of times each week to focus character traits.

59% of respondents to CBIA’s 2013 Hartford-Springfield Business Survey indicated they were having trouble finding and retaining qualified workers because applicants lacked “soft skills” like punctuality, interpersonal skills, teamwork, leadership ability, and work ethic. So teach students stuff that actually matters, like how to shake someone’s hand, the importance of appearance, working with others, and perseverance. Read picture books about honesty. Show video clips of people achieving their goals through hard work. Share life lessons about how you handled adversity in your own life.

Teaching these kinds of important lessons can remind you about why you became a teacher in the first place–to improve kids’ lives. In the end, it won’t matter what your students know if they don’t know how to comport themselves. So motivate yourself by teaching traits you’re passionate about!

8. Learn Something New

Pick up a book on using technology in the classroom and then try it out with your students. Go to a workshop or conference and let those new ideas inspire you to make changes. Follow people on Twitter who are constantly innovating (I recommend Alice Keeler for all things Google Apps for Education). We lose motivation when things go stale.  Keep learning and trying new things and you’ll always have a reason to get up and go to work in the morning.

9. Improve the Life of Just One Student

As much as we like to think we are making a difference in the lives of kids, the truth is that a lot of variables come into play and we can’t control most of them. To instill more meaning into your job, choose one student and dedicate yourself to improving his or her life. Talk to this student about his personal life. Listen to her stories. Give him extra help. Do little things that make a big difference. Write her a thank you card when she helps pick up the classroom. Challenge yourself to see what you can do to make just that one student’s life a little better.

10. Fake It

Sometimes you’re just not feeling it. You’re tired. The damn sun has been hiding behind clouds all week. Your class is acting up. Your motivation is at zero. The last thing you feel like doing is delivering an energetic lesson on the Civil War. This is when it’s time to fake it until you make it. Remember, you’re a teacher, which means you’re an actor. So put on your game face and perform. Sometimes, just pretending to be excited can actually make you more excited.

Bonus

If all else fails, take a day off. If you’re a low-energy dud who’s snarling at your students and grumbling at your colleagues, no one wants you there anyway, and you probably aren’t doing anyone any good. Take a day. Recharge. And come back with renewed vigor.

Question: What do you do to stay motivated during the winter? Leave your ideas in the comments!

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