This fall I’ve been in a bit of a rut. I haven’t felt like I was consistently showing up in ways that I strive to, with warmth and presence. I’m aware of how humans are wired to notice the negative more than the positive: According to psychologist Rick Hanson, “In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades implicit memory—your underlying feelings, expectations, beliefs, inclinations, and mood—in an increasingly negative direction.”
I share some strategies here that I’ve found useful when I feel worn out and in a bit of a funk—strategies that help me feel more present and positive. Teaching is tremendously challenging and complex work, and while this article isn’t meant to apply to situations involving trauma or mental illness, I hope it can help other educators take care.
Pay attention to my language
Language matters. This includes the language we use internally and the language we express to others. I find the following prompt useful because it helps me recognize that feeling challenged is often part of the story, but not the whole story: This is hard and ___ (I am growing, I am being strong, etc.). This encourages me to acknowledge what I am doing well despite (and as a result of) facing difficulty.
Another useful prompt that helps me reset myself is: How is the story I’m telling myself (or the language I’m using) serving me? This reminds me of the human tendency to put a negative spin on a situation, and it moves me toward action within my sphere of control. Questions to help me focus on what is in my sphere of influence include: Is this something I have control over? If so, how can I focus on action?
Finally, What do I need right now? helps me decide whether I need a break, more resources, or to shift gears.
Using mantras has helped me shift my mood as well—mantras like “Emotions and moods pass,” “I am surrounded by people who care and also experience challenges,” and “I will get through this.” Not only do these help me as a teacher, a colleague, and a learner, but also they help students as I model using self-talk to encourage and acknowledge. Emotions matter, and they are not permanent.
Examine my stories
Because I’m aware of how stories influence how I show up, how I feel, and my capacity to work effectively, I strive to examine the stories I’m telling myself about a situation. In The Art of Coaching Teams: Building Resilient Communities That Transform Schools, Elena Aguilar introduces the idea of river and rut stories.
River stories are helpful stories that highlight my learner mindset and focus on growth and what lesson I can learn from an experience. Rut stories are limiting and might lead to my feeling defensive to protect myself. I’m not able to problem-solve effectively and feel in a rut.
This is an example of a river story I tell myself: The problem of practice we are facing as a team is complex, and together I know we can find powerful strategies. And this is an example of a rut story: Our team always gets stuck on this issue. I think they’re blaming me for being a barrier to the process.
If I find myself telling a rut story, I try to focus on concrete evidence, in order to move away from making assumptions: What is really happening here? (rather than What is my interpretation of what is happening?). When I make assumptions, I jump to conclusions and imagine the worst, while focusing on my weaknesses.
Psychologist Kristin Neff suggests talking to ourselves as we would a good friend. This helps me work from a self-compassion mindset. For example, I might say, “Kathy, you are focusing on the negative and being really hard on yourself. Instead, let’s journal and get this down on paper and then do something creative to give some space.”
I can also look back at what I have done in the past that can help me in a current situation; this enables me to feel resourceful and empowered.
Finally, I ask myself if the story I’m telling is really me ruminating about something that is out of my control. If that is the case, I can choose to step away from the story and focus on something else. For me, a big area of rumination is worry: I worry that I’m not prepared enough for the presentation on Monday. But if I’ve done my best to prepare with intention, it’s time for me to step away and work on another project or get outside for some fresh air.
Be present and aware
Often the best solution for me is to be mindful and bring myself back into the present moment instead of ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. These are some strategies I use: breathe and slow down and take a minute to find gratitude in my life. It also helps to focus more intentionally on the task at hand by clearing my work space and turning off tech distractions.
As educators, we give our hearts and souls to our students. We care deeply about them as humans and as learners. I hope this article can help other educators feel more present in this moment and all it has to offer, be aware of emotions, and know that they are communicating through words and body language. I also hope it will help us feel comfortable with being vulnerable with each other and our students, because we all face challenges and tell ourselves stories.