Why the biggest change we need to make this year lies in ourselves.
Last month I agreed to challenge myself to spending a month without complaining. How difficult could this be? I asked myself. A friend had posted this challenge on a popular social media site and immediately I decided to jump at the opportunity. Why? I’ll admit it, I always enjoy challenging myself in new ways and furthermore, I wasn’t happy with my mood lately. It was the end of a school year that was particularly difficult for me due to many factors. But what I soon discovered was much more important- being positive today is more difficult than ever, but the reward is worth the effort.
On the job as well as in our personal lives, we are more stressed out than ever. The modern teacher must be able to decorate a classroom, maintain discipline, plan and develop curriculum, differentiate instruction, collaborate with colleagues, report to administration, and prove effectiveness all while keeping grades up-to-date and communicating concerns with parents at home. Add in that most teachers supplement their workdays with additional clubs, tutoring, or coaching opportunities and it places a great deal of stress on our shoulders to be as efficient as possible with our time. We are also humans too– trying to pretend that our personal lives don’t bleed into our attitudes at work is also a lie. But it is incredibly important to leave negative emotions at the door in the classroom in order to achieve the best results for our students.
In the end-of-the-year evaluation my students completed, they labeled teacher attitude as the number one factor affecting their enthusiasm for class work each day. When greeted with energy and excitement, they felt that they were able to focus more than in a negative or dull environment. This should not be surprising, as students’ emotional needs must be met before they can focus on their learning. If your students can sense that you do not want to be in class that day, how do you think they will feel as you continue with your lesson? As an amateur actor myself, I believe that my greatest roles have not come on stage, but with the group of students I lead in my classroom on a daily basis. In order to drive student engagement I have to identify exciting approaches to content, make meaningful connections with the students and adapt on the fly when I identify that something isn’t working in a particular lesson.
It is easy to explain factors for negativity today, but more important are the solutions to the issue. Below are some important keys I find to staying positive in my life:
1) Look for the good in everything.
This sounds simple, but the common expression “the glass is either half-empty or half-full“ points out an interesting conundrum in life- most experiences are neither bad nor good on their own, but can be interpreted very differently depending on the lens of the person experiencing them. Taking a car accident for example, person A may be angry that they now have to deal with the damage to their vehicle while person B may be thankful they survived the ordeal and that no one was hurt. Clearly in this situation both drivers have suffered, but the one who is positive tends to come to a better outcome. Why? When we are in a poor state of mind, we tend to be more reactionary as individuals, blaming our luck, poor circumstances or even others for our problems. Conversely, the person who is able to identify the positives even in the most challenging situations will glean lessons from the experience and will typically feel more empowered to take action. Due to their belief that something better can come of a bad situation, they tend to think of better solutions and take action quicker than their counterparts. In short, positive people persist no matter the obstacle they face.
As educators, positivity can readjust our thinking and allow us to further grow our craft. Take a challenging student for example. It is easy to quickly label them as a problem, readjust their seat in the classroom and to develop a contentious relationship with them early on in the school year. The key however, lies in looking beyond the behaviors in order to better understand the reason for their choices. Student issues can range from lack of understanding, negative friendships, social ostracism, even to family issues at home. By developing personal relationships with our students early on, it is easier to identify both strengths and concerns, and to develop a more personalized approach to their success. This varies on a case-by-case basis based on the needs of the student. For example, a student who seeks attention may benefit when given a special role in classroom activities, such as passing out or collecting homework each day. Students who are more withdrawn may need someone who can identify their interests and talk them up on the subject between classes. But for all students, it is important to acknowledge their personal victories, no matter how small. This can be done by contacting home to tell the parents about their great attitude in class that day or simply making a quick positive comment to them on the way out the door. By fostering personal relationships, we in turn receive a stronger investment from the students we teach. This starts on day one during the school year- while it is important to talk with colleagues and to be informed about the students first entering our classroom, it is also just as important to give each student a fresh start. This means to avoid snap judgments and to find methods to empower students who traditionally struggle or act out during class. Every day we must be willing to come into the classroom and treat our learners with the same positivity and respect that we want from them, regardless of the behavior from the previous day.
Secondly there may be lessons in class that just don’t land, or situations that arise that our somehow beyond our control, but it is important to remember that every failed lesson or challenge we face can teach us how to improve for the future. At the end of each day, reflect on the daily events and decide two things: what went well, and what do I need to improve on next time? Even if something did not work out, there are always opportunities within failure if we are willing to learn and make adjustments. Reflection allows us to identify our strengths and bolster our weaknesses.
And what if a problematic situation arises that is beyond our control? Look beyond your frustration to understand why the concern came up in the first place. There will always be times when people above you make decisions that you may not agree with, but it is how you take on the challenge that will ultimately determine the result. Moping and complaining do nothing more than waste time that could be better spent finding potential benefits or solutions to the issue at hand. Skip the negativity and decide for yourself how can I turn this problem into a solution that benefits everyone involved? Administration will also take notice of the people that are willing to act on initiatives and take chances rather than complain and drag their feet.
2) Pay attention to what you say and how you act.
Smiles are contagious, and the way you project your emotions and personality affects the feelings of the people around you as well. Take a greeting, for example, if you walk up to someone with a smile, open arms, and an enthusiastic greeting, they will react much more positively than if you drift up with your hands in your pockets and a frown. This is because people like being around others who make them feel better about themselves and life in general.
Taking this into educational context, ask yourself what the students see first on a daily basis when entering your classroom. A friendly greeting in the hallway goes much further for a student than strolling past a teacher huddled over their desk checking e-mails or grading papers. Making small adjustments at the beginning of a class can lead to big results later on. During instruction, make sure to show the students that you really value and understand the lesson you are teaching. If you take the material enthusiastically and can connect real world value to a lesson it will help students to follow suit. The material we teach is only as half as important as the passion in which we deliver it.
The environment also makes a big difference, is your classroom experience warm and inviting, or cold and nondescript? Find ways to take advantage of your atmosphere to encourage excitement from the students. Can’t afford fancy posters? What can you have students create at the beginning of the year that can serve as motivators or make their room more personalized? Don’t be afraid to mix things up for lessons either- desks and chairs aren’t bolted to the floor for a reason- how can you best set up your classroom for the needs of the day? In my humanities class, for example, when we were studying the topic of apartheid, I set up a scenario where the minority privileged group were treated like royalty and had free run of the classroom and printouts of all the materials, while the majority sat on the floor, fighting over supplies and struggling to understand their treatment. The ensuing interaction and discussion led to an experience that the students walked away remembering and sharing, no matter how strong my PowerPoint lecture was supposed to be. Long and short of it is that students need to feel that they matter, and if you make an effort to take a personal interest in their lives, and make the material they learn real for them, then they will be willing to do much more for you later on. Connect with, support, and believe in your students, and you will find their capability boundless.
3) Choose your friends wisely.
Have you ever had that friend who complained about everything: The weather, the person who wronged them at the store that day, why their job sucks, etc? How excited are you to spend time with them on a daily basis? Misery may love company, but company prefers happiness. How do people choose their friends? People tend to migrate toward individuals who make them feel better about themselves and their lives. In business, how do we choose our leaders? Leaders are people who can inspire passion and enthusiasm in others, and it is no different in the social arena either. Maintaining a positive outlook not only helps you to preserve and foster relationships, but it helps others to see you as a leader and people will want to be around you more often. Everyone loves the person that can make them laugh, while we have all had hard times in our lives, it is the happy people we tend to keep going back to time and again because they improve our lives as well.
We’ve all heard this before, but choosing to stay around negative people yields a greater cost than you may think. We are always emotionally influenced and affected by the people we spend our time with. Even if you are the positive friend in a negative group, you are being brought down by your peers more than you realize. Particularly this is true in the workplace, where disgruntled coworkers look to others for sympathy or agreement. While everyone has a bad day and it is important to support a friend, some people never seem willing to break out of this cycle of sadness. It is okay to be supportive, but if you are in the company of a constant complainer, avoid giving advice no matter how strong the urge is, or try to even change topics entirely. After all, many of the people who complain to you about others likely do the same behind your back, and many negative people also tend to resent those who they deem as positive “do-gooders” and may actually be offending by your attempting to help.
Still want to keep the negative friends? Moving with a negative crowd can lead to damaging consequences on the job as well. What does your employer think of you when they see you around the negative, gossipy complainers at work? Sometimes guilt-by-association is just as bad as the actual practice of performing the unscrupulous action. You may get passed over for an exciting opportunity or job because your boss has the wrong impression of your attitude. Conversely, spending your time with coworkers that are passionate about their jobs not only pays dividends with the impression you make on coworkers and leadership, but can lead to great resources and connections going forward. Remember, you are who you choose to surround yourself with. When you put yourself around happy, motivated people, chances are you will feel more enthusiastic and energetic yourself.
4) Worry about yourself.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill. But with every different position, association, role or seat at the table of life comes a litany of responsibilities and consequences you never dreamed of. Spend your time supporting the people around you and the paths they take in life. It is easy to become envious of others, but focus on the things that make you give you joy. You owe it to yourself to do the things that make you happy, and you owe it to your friends to support them in their own choices as well. There are many paths to success in life and no one journey is the same as the next. Choose which path is right for you, and don’t be afraid to take some turns along the way if something doesn’t work out. Every journey in life has its share of celebration and regret, but make sure that in the end you are happy with the choices you’ve made.
It is also important to remember that self confidence is key in every situation. You will never be able to control what everyone thinks about you or says to others when you are not in the room. And honestly, it shouldn’t matter. Know that you are truly special in your own way, spend your time perfecting your strengths and don’t worry about the lives of others beyond supporting the wonderful people around you. Respect yourself and love who you are, stop regretting the past and focus on the future. It is never too late to become the person you want to be.
5) Manage your time wisely.
Set aside time for yourself. It is indeed possible to fly too close to the sun when you attempt to reach for the stars in your career. Make sure that you are able to find time to live a full life beyond the walls of your workplace. Most teachers today take their work home with them, and spend many hours planning instruction, catching up on grades and e-mails before we return to work the next day. While it is important to meet deadlines in an appropriate amount of time, no one can work every waking moment of their day. Find ways to reduce the workload into more manageable sessions, plan out small breaks or rewards for yourself. Exercise, read, or find a hobby that interests you beyond the confines of your workplace. Plan your time in advance so you know what must be done, but you can also find time to relax in between your required activities. Life is only worth living if you are able to make the time to do so, and no one will ever willingly take work off your plate, either, that decision is up to you. Set goals that are achievable so that when you accomplish them, you feel further empowered and enthusiastic, rather than defeated by expectations that are too lofty for anyone to accomplish.
Simply put – A negative person is more likely to bring others down and blame outside forces or people for their problems, while a positive person is more likely to feel in control of their circumstances, and feel empowered to make changes to correct an issue. Step up and be more positive with your life- there are countless reasons why it is better for you in every way in the long term. As a word of caution- this is by no means intended to be the “next fad diet” where you spend the next month being positive to the people around you, before you regrettably binge on the fat of negativity when you put yourself around the wrong people again. No one will ever be 100 percent happy, 100 percent of the time- just ask anyone who has ever had to make a phone call to his cable company- But making small, meaningful goals for being more positive will yield results quicker than you think. Put the right practices into place now, and pretty soon, your positive feelings will become a happy habit that you will wonder how you ever lived without.