October Goals

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The 2014-2015 school year is up and running!  I’m ready to settle into routines, create some margin on the edges of my days, and leave the mad rush behind for a season.  Somehow.

A quick reflection on September’s goals:

-Setting boundaries on my workday: Moderately successful.  Most days I got to work somewhat earlier than 7:30 (to be discussed below!) and left between 5:00 and 5:30.  I took work home more often than I would like, but I didn’t dwell too much on that, as it was “the mad rush season.”  I did experience several times throughout the month of feeling more relaxed and refreshed from the evening and night, and I credit that to not having any work at home.  If there is nothing that I can do about the task or stress that pops into my thoughts, I find it much easier to leave the thought behind and focus on the present moment.  It’s a true break from work, which I desperately need to create on a daily basis.

-Working out four times per week:  Epic failure.  I worked out probably four times total in the month of September.  Well, maybe eight times.  I guess that’s not an “epic” failure, but it wasn’t enough exercise to help with stress and increasing the happiness chemicals.  The problem was that I felt compelled to go to work the moment I woke up, instead of taking 45 minutes, or even a half hour, to exercise.  In the morning, I chose work over working out.  When the workout was planned for the evening, such as a yoga class or an outdoor activity with friends, I was more likely to honor my commitment, even though I much prefer working out in the morning.  (To be discussed below!)

New goals for October!

-In addition to setting boundaries on my work hours, I want to get back in the habit of leaving work completely prepared for the next day’s teaching.  The 7:30-8:30 hour can be used for lesson planning, paperwork, etc….there is plenty to do!  But my first priority at 3:45 will be to get the room and materials ready for the following day.  When I feel completely ready for the day’s teaching, I am hoping it will be easier to honor my commitment to come to work at 7:30, not 6:30 or 7:00.

-For a goal for personal time, I would like to take a lesson from what I am learning about setting boundaries on my work hours.  It’s time to set some boundaries on my sugar consumption!  For this “mad rush season,” I have basically been feeding my poor body an IV drip of sugar, processed carbs that quickly turn into sugar in my bloodstream, and caffeine.  I haven’t even been making green smoothies, which is my staple for consuming fruits and veggies when times get tough!  Sugar is the same as crack — I have no science to back that up at the moment, but you know it’s true! — so that’s what I’m going to address in October.  I would like to get in the habit of eating something “dessert-y” just twice a day, morning and night.  Generally, that will look like sugar in my coffee (or flavored syrup in my latte) in the morning, and some kind of dessert in the evening.  (Does that illustrate just how much of my diet has been candy, cookies, coffee shop baked goods, cupcakes, ice cream….)  A twice-a-day sugar habit may not be ideal, but an all-or-nothing attitude is what gets me into this mess way too often!  Me and self-control have never had a great relationship, on any issue, and it’s time to change that.

“We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”  –Galatians 5:23 MSG

September Goals

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Good instruction — check.  Good classroom management — no problem.  Good assessments — you got it.

What I struggle with is time management, task management, and stuff management.  Believe it or not, I struggle with what happens when the kids are not in the room.  And it spills over to the time that the kids are there, because the non-instructional time includes planning lessons and prepping materials for the instructional time.  There is always more that can be done during non-instructional time to improve instructional time.

If I could have an hour of plan time for every hour of teaching time, I would be SUCH a better teacher.  But unless I commit to working 12-hour days…well, actually that happens more than I would like.

Which leads me to my second point:  I struggle with balancing non-instructional work time with personal time.  If I have work to do, I skip exercise, sleep, grocery shopping, housework, hobbies, interests, and worst of all…socializing.  (I do not make a good introvert.  I need my social time.)

So..the plan.  Last year, I focused on small habits that would make a big difference.  It was very effective.  This year, I’m adjusting it just a bit.  Each month will have two goals.  One will be something that happens while I’m at school, most likely related to my non-instructional work time, and the other will be something that happens in my personal time.  The overarching theme of these goals will be “sustainability”…creating for myself a work atmosphere that lends itself to excellence over a long period of time, rather than forever living in “emergency mode” and focusing simply on surviving the next 24 hours.

For the remainder of September, my first goal is to work from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with rare exception.  I am setting boundaries on my time.  I could spend an infinite amount of time in my classroom, and my drive and perfectionism would like me to spend all my free time there.  In the moment, my perfectionism usually wins, unless I have a bigger picture in mind.  It may help me to stick to a schedule for awhile, be efficient and prioritize my time, and leave work at work.  This is not a new goal; I’m just getting a head start on it this year!

My second goal is to exercise four times a week.  Morning versus evening workouts…not a good battle over the last few years.  Run versus yoga versus walking/hiking versus ultimate frisbee with friends…also a battle.  “How can I become a ‘runner’ unless I run four times a week?  I should give up frisbee if I want to be a ‘runner.’  And just walking won’t help me become a ‘runner’ — I may as well just stay home unless I’m going to run.”  It’s time to stop fighting the battles.  I really love those four ways to exercise: running, yoga, ultimate frisbee, and hiking.  What if I did each of them just once a week?  This is a question I’m going to explore for the remainder of September.  It would be four workouts — four MORE workouts than just giving up for indecisiveness over what kind of exerciser I want to be!  And it feels more sustainable than having a rigid commitment to one type of exercise, and trying to fit the others in as “extra.”

“Keep on pushing back the dark…”  This lyric has been in my head as I ponder these goals.  Living in emergency mode creates quite a lot of “dark.”  I don’t want to live there anymore.

photo credit: ezra1311 via photopin cc

The Fire

Some women are lost in the fire.  Some women are built from it.

Two days of school, done.  176 to go.

Considering that the first day of school is generally the hardest, most exhausting day…this year will be great!  Seriously.  It was a cake walk.  Easy peasy.  Easy as pie.  Easy as a $3 hooker.

(I may be feeling skeptical about the reliability of this generalization?)

I expect it will get harder.  DEVOLSON is coming, after all.  This teaching thing is hard stuff.  50+ hours a week, at a breakneck pace, is enough to overwhelm anyone, and burn out many.  I was browsing my favorite teaching blogs today, and the word “sustainable” struck me a couple of times.  As in, a pace and workload that is sustainable over the course of a year or a career.  (Read this.  And this.)  A teacher’s pace and workload are unsustainable.

I love the challenge…but the intensity wears on me.  I love the purpose-filled nature of this job…but I am not Superwoman and I can’t always save the day.  This is the fight.  This is our fire.  “Sustainable” is going to be my word this school year.  Stay tuned as I consider and define what that means for me.

Book Report: Lean In

A few months ago, the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg caught my eye at Target.  I had never heard of her.  I didn’t know anything about this book.  But the title intrigued me, and the book jacket description intrigued me more.  It stayed in the back of my mind for awhile.

A few days ago, I finally bought the book.  I had watched Ms. Sandberg’s TEDTalk, and I could wait no longer.  I knew I would have to intentionally read Lean In through a filter of “I’m NOT in business.  The culture of a school is certainly very different from the culture of an organization whose objective is to make a profit.  How can I apply this to my own career?”  Throughout the book there is an underlying current about women in workplaces surrounded by men.  As I’m sure you would expect, elementary education is the opposite of that.  Women dominate both the teaching staff and the administration in my school district.  I wanted to read Ms. Sandberg’s story, but my question was…  Does gender really affect my workplace experience in any way that is worth addressing?  Ms. Sandberg made a few excellent points that are, in fact, relevant to my experience.

You are in charge.  Don’t wait for opportunities to find you.  Don’t wait for the perfect time.  Your career is a jungle gym, not a ladder, and you can climb whichever direction you choose.

Don’t leave before you leave.  Don’t take action based on children you don’t yet have, for example.  Take a break when it’s time to take a break, not in anticipation of needing a break.

The work-life balance is an important concept, but a bad name.  Who would choose work over life?  Instead, we should remember that engaging in purposeful, compelling work is an important and satisfying part of life.  I especially loved a story Ms. Sandberg told to illustrate the challenge of setting boundaries and sticking to them.  There were two married women with children and one single woman on a panel of speakers.  The married women were discussing how hard it was to balance their lives, and the single woman interjected that she was tired of people thinking that issue was only for people with kids.  The single woman’s need to go to a party is just as important as the married woman’s need to attend her child’s soccer game.  You have every right to a full life, whether married or single, parent or childless.  The kicker is, you have to set your own boundaries.  Your employer is going to continue to make demands on your time.  It’s your responsibility to decide what you are willing to do.

Book Report: The Power of Habit

If motivation is responsible for what we do intentionally, then habit is its partner.  Charles Duhigg explores the science of habit in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business.  Habit is responsible for what we do without thinking or making a conscious choice.  The first time we do something, like maybe starting the coffee pot first thing in the morning, we do it on purpose.  And if we do it again the next day, it’s a tiny bit easier.  Eventually, we don’t really think about it or choose it, it’s just what we do.  That’s a habit: we respond to a cue (getting out of bed) with a craving (caffeine!), followed by a routine (making coffee) that delivers the reward we crave (caffeine!).  You might not even know what the cue is, or what the reward is.  If you figure out what reward is delivered, you might not even understand why it’s a reward.  (What is so rewarding about biting one’s nails?)  But that’s the habit loop, responsible for many of the actions we take.

I thoroughly enjoyed that stories from various people and organizations, especially the chapters about Febreze, Starbucks, and Saddleback Church.  There are lessons for every area of my life, from career to housework to exercise to spirituality.

A very relevant lesson for most readers involves turning something that feels hard to do into something easy by exploiting how habits work.  Creating a new habit is all about identifying a cue and following it with a routine that delivers a reward.  This is pretty basic common sense.  But the key, Duhigg says, is the craving.  While you’re building a new habit, think about the reward often.  You can make your brain crave something that the routine will deliver.  For example, in order to turn running into a habit, I think about the reward delivered by running: I feel happy, pleasantly warm, and full of energy for several hours after a run.  If I crave that feeling, it’s easier to go for a run before it becomes a nearly unconscious habit.

Duhigg’s second lesson for the reader was how to change an unwanted habit.  He lays out advice for identifying the routine you want to eliminate, the cue that signals your brain to do it, and most importantly and most difficult to figure out, the reward that you are craving.  Once those three factors are identified, he suggests inserting a new routine that will satisfy the same reward.

What I would have liked to see is advice for what to do if another part of the habit loop, not just the routine, is unacceptable to you.  A smoker who craves nicotine and wants to quit smoking, for example, doesn’t usually want to rely on patches or gum for the rest of their lives.  They want to eliminate the craving for nicotine.  But smoking is surely too complex an example, addiction plus habit working together.  So I put this to the test in my own life, with my ridiculously powerful habit of eating dinner — and overeating — while watching TV.  So I followed Duhigg’s advice, and I experimented with other routines to decipher the true reward.  I expected it to be that I just like to overeat.  (People just like to overeat, right?  Some evolution-related drive that humans no longer need?)  And the desire to overeat as a reward is not acceptable to me.  It turns out…I don’t like to overeat.  If I’m paying attention, I find it almost impossible to eat past fullness.  The reward I was getting was mental rest.  The very state of NOT paying attention is what I crave!  I spend many hours of my day in a high-stimulation, high-interaction, high-decision-making environment, which I love, but when I get home I want to “zone out” for a bit.  Finding a routine to deliver that reward is acceptable to me.  Overeating is not necessary, at all, to deliver that reward.  Most days, I find that a few minutes of playing a game on my phone is perfectly satisfying.  Then I can go on with my evening.  I’m still experimenting with other routines that might satisfy the craving.  In this situation, Duhigg’s theory holds.

Book Report: Drive

Daniel Pink’s engaging and relevant book, Drive, identifies three factors that impact motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  This concept has obvious implications for how I run my classroom.  My students will be highly motivated if I can satisfy their need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work.  But I find myself focusing on my own need for these three things, and their implications in the field of teaching.  For me, mastery and purpose are both motivating factors in my job.  Teaching is challenging without feeling impossible.  And it is always clear to me that teaching affects the greater good.

If you ask, “Can I turn around this whole organization?” the answer, unfortunately, is no.  You can’t.  No single person can.  But maybe that’s not the right question.  Instead, ask yourself, “Is there on thing I can do tomorrow in my own domain to make things a littler better?”  The answer to that is almost always yes.  Start small.  Pile up small wins.  And worry less about changing everything than about doing something.  (Drive, page 176)

Autonomy is the hard one.  Autonomy is where I need to identify something in my domain that I can make better.  It’s hard, at first glance, to identify much autonomy in the job of a classroom teacher.  Pink says we desire autonomy over task, time, technique, and team.

I currently teach 1st grade.  The task is what it is, to some extent.  I initiate my priorities, such as teaching conflict resolution rather than having a reward and punishment economy, and my focus, as a model literacy teacher for my district.  And I am always aware that I chose this field of work, and this specific assignment, and every time I sign another contract, I am choosing it again.  When reframed this way, it’s all the task autonomy I need.

I feel autonomous over technique — how I accomplish my goals — because I perceive my principal and coaches are teaching new techniques to be helpful, and not mandating how we use those techniques.  I own my learning in that area.  I also constantly find myself trying techniques and methods not initiated by my bosses.  I feel free to do that in my job.  There is no status quo to follow or defy when it comes to technique.

Team is a more pliable issue than it seems.  No, we do not get to choose our fellow grade-level teachers.  For the record, I happen to adore my team.  But there are other ways to define “team.”  Since I am a model literacy teacher, my coach and principal and I are a team.  Other model teachers become my team.  Like-minded teachers become my team.  My students and I are a team.  I have the autonomy to access whichever team I need in each situation.

A side note on teams:  Having relationships with people who think and work differently from us is part of life.  It is also valuable.  I try to consider every difficult interaction an opportunity to practice kindness and compassion and an others-centered focus.  I’m not great at any of those things, but practicing them is more important — and ultimately more satisfying — than choosing my favorite people to work with.

Time is a tricky issue, for everyone.  Someday, I will crack the code of mastering time management for classroom teachers.  For now, I’m renaming some things.  I have “contract time” when I am required to be at school.  The problem with that is this:  When contract time is over for the day, any other time I spend on work feels like unpaid overtime.  The truth is, teaching is a salaried job, not an hourly job.  Instead of “contract time,” think of those specific hours as the “performance.”  Delivering instruction is only half my job.  The other half is responding to that performance and preparing for the next performance.  And absolutely nobody cares or checks to see when or where I am doing that half of my job.  Whether I choose to spend 12 hours a day in my classroom, or whether I rush out at the end of contract time and spend 8:00 pm to midnight every night on my couch working, or whether I work exactly 7 1/2 hours a day during the week and spend 20 hours on the weekend…the only thing anyone is watching is the effectiveness of my instruction, not how or when I do the things that make it happen.  My job is 50% autonomous, regarding time, when renamed in this way.

I think the “one thing I can do tomorrow in my own domain to make things better” is to be conscious of how I talk about that other 50% of my time.  Those planning and responding hours have great value.  Done well, they make the performance hours more fun and less stressful.  The planning and responding are what drives instruction, what allows us to be intentional and strategic, what makes us effective at all.  And what I say affects what I think, which affects how I feel.  I crave the feeling of being completely prepared and able to focus entirely on the moment while the students are there.  It is engaging to look at student work and consider next steps.  It is satisfying to see progress.  All of those moments happen during that other 50% of my job, the part that I can do whenever and wherever I want.  It’s not a bad way to look at things.  :)

May Habits … Connection Rituals

This month needs to start with a reminder to breathe.  Do what Colbie, Common, and Elmo tell you to, and feel better.

Most teachers, I imagine, fight an ongoing battle between “I desperately want to take as much time as it takes to make each child feel heard and loved,” and “WE NEED TO WORK AS HARD AND AS FAST AS POSSIBLE!!!”  The first voice would result in 26 well-loved children who can’t read, the second voice would result in 26 angry children who hate to read because everything is a fight.

In May, I’m going to focus on daily connection rituals in my classroom:

  • Morning Meeting:  pass a stuffed animal around, everyone gets to tell something
  • 3-Minute Relaxation:  belly breathe, listen to a secular, kid-oriented meditation of some kind
  • 3-Minute Dance Party:  our favorite right now is “Happy” by Pharrell
  • more to be found and invented!  :)

These rituals are about connecting with each other and with our emotions.  We are having more and more angry and/or violent outbursts lately, and it doesn’t matter where they came from as much as what we do with them.  Kids can learn to respond to their emotions.  I can learn to do better, too.

Today we listened to “Belly Breathe,” followed by the story “Sea Otter Cove.”  One of my occasional monsters said as soon as it was done, with a big sigh, “I liked that.”  Another, more articulate, sometimes-monster said, “Wow, that was cool.  I was feeling mad, and now I feel good.”  More of this, please!

This time of year, I always think about how little time I have left with them, and what is the most important thing I can do for them.  My intention is to send them into summer with a mindset that says, “School is awesome!  I will miss this.  I can’t wait for 2nd grade.”  That seems like something that will propel them forward.

(By the way, self, connection rituals might be a good habit to start the year with, too!)

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