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The Search for Validation

None of us got into the field of education for the accolades. Although we each certainly have our separate reasons, admiration and praise was never on the agenda, and the majority of us would have it no other way. Teaching, as they say, is its own reward.

Still, every professional needs positive feedback and validation. Not that anyone wants to sit around patting themselves on the back, but our brain’s reward system serves a very real function. And yet, there’s something about the field (or perhaps the personality types that choose to enter the field) that makes it hard to feel good about our own growth and progress. And we need that reassurance, according to a recent study done by the Harvard Business School. In the study, participants visited the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory and were asked to solve a variety of problems. Half the participants, however, were asked to have friends and family members send them an email prior to the study that described “a time when the participant was at his or her best.” After reading the email, they were off to work on the problem-solving tasks. According to Dr. Jooa Julia Lee, one of the co-authors of the study, “Overwhelmingly, those who read positive statements about their past actions were more creative in their approach, more successful at problem-solving and less stressed out than their counterparts.” As in any other workplace, educators need to know what they are doing right, need to feel confident in their progress, and hopeful for future professional endeavors. But in our current system, there are a lot of barriers to this sort of support.

The Data Dilemma

Here’s the thing: Education—across our world—is becoming more and more data-driven. And the truth is, mostly, it’s pretty darn useful. We have more information about our students than we ever have in history, mapping skills, behaviors, and challenges from birth to graduation and beyond. Everything is quantifiable. Ah, but herein lies the discomfort. Do these numbers and bar graphs really reflect the impact we have on our students? Is it a full snapshot of what we actually do as educators? Of course not. Yet, with teacher performance more often being tied to achievement data, it’s hard to stay upbeat. For every gain you want to feel good about, there’s a standard you might not be meeting. For every smile you can elicit in an assignment, there’s an achievement gap staring you down. Can we (and should we) really be measuring our own success and self-worth on statistics and testing? Should you be happy about helping three struggling students construct their first MLA-formatted essay, or sad because they didn’t meet their benchmark assessment goals this semester? Which of these makes you a “good” or “bad” teacher? The latter is all that shows up on your end-of-the-year evaluation. All you're held accountable for. But the former matters. It must.

Smile-Driven Accountability Measures

Seldom will students go out of their way to celebrate you in the classroom. And it’s not their job to do so. It’s a rare moon to have a student approach you with a firm handshake, a tear in her eye, as she thanks you profusely for that lesson on diagramming sentences or order of operations. Every once in a while, we get those golden moments, sure. The excitement in student’s eyes as a concept clarifies. The joy of watching exquisitely-done performance tasks. A “thanks for understanding.” And yes, even the elusive “that was cool, mister” or “today was fun, miss.” These are the moments—even few and far between—that remind us why we do what we do. Are these the instruments with which we shall use to gauge our successes? It feels more real to me than correlated numbers, but is it enough?

That “Never Good Enough” Mentality of Ours

Educators are constantly dancing on the edge of Occam’s razor. A million variables, relying on the simplest or most rational explanations to work with, because we need to act tomorrow morning. Not to mention the constant reflection, sorting through those variables: home life, emotional distress, intellectual struggles, equity, and socioeconomics. One statement remains true: Our students deserve the best. Every day, educators strive to do better, better, better. More engagement. More differentiation. More relevance. So, innately, the job entails at least some level of “never good enough.” If our students deserve the world, how could we ever be enough? It’s an admirable belief system, and an incredible motivator for the lifelong learner/educator. And yet, far from healthy.

What Can We Do?

You want to be the best teacher. In theory, this will make you “happy,” no? This will satisfy your need to serve. This will give justice to what our students’ generation deserves. But how can we quantify this? We meticulously map student progress.… How can we fairly and honestly map our own progress? How can we ever feel like we’re doing the good work we set out to do all those years ago when we decided to take up the honor or teaching? Believe it or not, it starts with the small stuff.

1. Keep a Sunshine Journal

In a study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Boston College psychologist, Elizabeth Kensinger and colleagues explain hownegative events [are] remembered in greater detail than positive ones.” And this actually makes a lot of sense, evolutionarily, no? According to Kensinger, “It is logical that attention would be focused on potentially threatening information.”

Unfortunately, this means that for every ten smiles in your classroom, every ten “aha” moments, every ten skills finally mastered, you will only remember the one student that bombed your post-test. The student who won’t connect. The student who doesn’t show up.

You can change this. Keep a personal journal for diligent recording of the “good days” and moments of virtue in the classroom. Each entry doesn’t have to be an essay—just noted for posterity. According to a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, writing about intensely positive experiences can lead to “better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center”—and even less overall illness. And writing improves memory. So, if you’re consciously recording the joys of your work, you’re much more likely to reflect upon your work joyously. And if we’re to believe our memories are, indeed, biased toward our failures rather than our successes, such a journal would only serve as a more realistic portrait of the work we do.

2. Social Media for Grads

This suggestion is pretty controversial for schools and districts that have strict policies against it. By no means are we suggesting you should go against your community’s recommendations. Engaging in social media can be a risky business for teachers, so understand the full implications of that risk. Having said that, keeping a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media account to stay in contact with recent grads can be a wonderful thing. Set up a separate “teacher” account that is completely separate from any personal accounts you might have already. And ne’er the two shall meet. Having former students as “friends” in this context has allowed me to see them grow, struggle, and overcome. Watching students apply for jobs and schools, starting families of their own, and continuing to encourage and support them a decade, two decades, past their graduation date can be extremely rewarding. Yes, that ninth grader did everything they could to distract your World History course. But now he’s a dad. He’s an active member of the community. He’s a hard-working employee. And you helped. Even just a little bit. Maturity does occur. We just don’t always get to see it. Social media can help us witness that growth. Be careful, though. Think about your 20’s. Think about college. When you choose to connect in this way, you’re going to see things you wish you hadn’t. Personally, I’ve found it to be worth it. If your school has very specific restrictions against such interaction—or you have personal reservations—think about the potential of creating a school-sanctioned official “alumni” page.

3. Staff Celebrations

We spend the entire year celebrating the achievements of our incredible students. Why? Because they deserve it. Because they have worked hard, overcome obstacles, and succeeded. We wouldn’t hesitate to recognize a student’s generosity, ownership, or curiosity. Why wouldn’t we extend that courtesy to our peers? After all, schools are communities. And staff are a part of that community. They, too, deserve to be recognized. Encouraged. Consider starting your school, department, or data team meetings with “celebrations.” It’s a great way to take a moment to be mindfully positive and uplifting about our work. Instead of ruminating about what we still need to do, should be doing, should have done, take a moment to recognize and really own what we have achieved. Were last week’s presentations particularly impressive? Did a lesson go better than expected? Did you somehow manage to get Craig to lift his head off the table and engage for the first time all month? Phenomenal. Own that. Share that. You’d be surprised by how quickly it’ll change the tone of the meeting. Teachers need to feel like they’re not alone in their struggle. That they’re not in competition with each other. That they are all working together, on the same team, toward a goal and a dream. Staff celebrations can encourage solidarity in that noble mission.

4. Find Your Workplace Equilibrium

On the note of solidarity generating a sense of community well-being and celebration of success, there is also the very compelling opportunity to use that community to vent about the challenges and frustrations of the job. This is the infamous “new teacher tip” of avoiding the teacher lounge. It’s not to say all venting is a bad thing. To know one is not alone in the trials and tribulations of our work with students can be the saving grace to an otherwise disastrous week. Having a peer who understands, someone to lean on and be honest with in times of turmoil—this is an absolute necessity in any field. The key here…is to find balance. Your celebrations should at very least match your grievances.

This is no easy task! The spiral of negative commiserating tantalizes even the veteran educators. And that’s okay. It’s a difficult job. Any field dealing directly with human beings is subject to unexpected variability and overwhelming emotional drains. It makes sense that we’d dwell on such a prominent aspect of the work we do. But there’s a line between healthy community and the undertow of burnout in this respect. Notice when you are taking on someone else’s emotional state. Be mindful of who you are choosing to associate with in the building—mix it up! Surrounding yourself with encouragement will do wonders for your own workplace satisfaction (especially when you recognize that you’d much rather be stewing with the pity party). Never leave the day without identifying (and sharing) one success. Recognizing and owning your very-human tendency toward negativity, and mindfully working to respect and balance it, will give you a much more honest and accurate outlook on the great work you do.

 

Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher and teacher trainer in Connecticut.

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