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Mindset Makeover - Lighten Your Load

November is here, so get ready for short days and chilly nights. At least, that’s one way of looking at it. November could also mean crunchy leaves, pumpkin spice lattes and Thanksgiving feasts. Everything comes down to mindset. We don’t want to engage in toxic positivity, which is pretending that all is fantastic when there are real problems out there to manage. On the other hand, we also don’t want to descend into gloom. Where can we find middle ground? People have the power to shift the way they look at the world around them so that experiences have more balance, less negativity, and richer rewards. In teaching, the tendency to skew toward a deficit mindset (particularly in a crazy year like this one) is downright natural, but if we can give the thoughts that do not serve us a makeover, we will be better equipped to make it through this year. We have all grappled with common pitfalls; here are some suggestions for how to reset our thinking.

Mindset Makeover #1: Slowing Down, Not Drowning           

Last week was vile. I had a to-do list the size of Australia at work, one of my kids was struggling in school more than usual, and I couldn’t find a way to physically be in two places at once, which was called for on more than one day. Before I completely lost my mind, I forced myself to remember that it is a gift to be needed. Someday, the phone will stop ringing, and I will miss the time when I had too much to do. With that, I decided to step back, slow down and stop playing whack-a-mole. My brain might have been telling me that I was overwhelmed with urgent tasks, but there was no way everything I had to do could possibly happen. So, I began organizing everything into two categories: things I had to do right away, and items that could wait a day or two. Once I took a deep breath and reset my definition of what qualified as an emergency, the week became a little less unmanageable. The biggest difference was that in pacing myself, slowing down and changing my outlook from a place of helplessness and panic to one of intention, nothing seemed as dire anymore. Life was, once again, doable.

Mindset Makeover #2: Getting to Work, Not Having to Work           

Every morning at an absurdly early hour, I work out before anyone else is up to disturb me. It is my own personal way of getting the day going: I start my body before my mind. However, there are times that I wake up and I feel a sense of dread at what I am about to put my muscles through. When that happens, I reframe my thinking, going back to a time when I had an injury and couldn’t work out. Back then, I realized that being able to exercise is a privilege. In the same vein, I objectively realize how lucky I am to have a job that is secure, that has fulfilled me for so many years, and that still has the power to surprise and inspire me. On the days when it can be hard to face everything that is coming, try tapping into the “Why” to reframe any unproductive point of view. Maybe today is hard. Maybe this month has been a beast. And maybe the past several months (or longer, thanks to the pandemic) have been relentless. If we’re still here, though, that means there must be a reason beyond simply earning a paycheck. Think about what we get to do each day: we work with kids who have only just begun to show us who they will become. We redesign lessons that become better with each attempt we make. We realize that what happens on any given day does not dictate what happens the next. If we can just keep our focus on the big picture of why we teach, we will see it as a choice we continue to make, and not an unavoidable burden.

Mindset Makeover #3: Three Good Things, Not One Bad Thing           

One of my children came home last week in full dejection mode. A math test had yielded less than wonderful results, and the look on her face made it clear that she found this to be unforgivable. We sat down to talk. “What are three good things that happened today?” I asked. She shared her top three: making a great play in a ball game that gave her team the win, reading a great chapter in English class, and learning to knit at lunchtime when an older student took the time to teach her. “That sounds like such a great day,” I said. “Why are you so focused on the one thing that didn’t go as well?” She didn’t have an answer ready for me, and the truth is, most of us do the same thing. Even if 20 great things happen, we will fixate on the one thing that did not, and that will ruin our day. However, we have the power to change that mindset. If we have a cringeworthy moment, pausing to identify three positive things to counterbalance that one will make everything better, simply because the mental energy that it takes to focus on the positive provides us with a lighter perspective. With challenges that remain consistent for longer periods, the process of flipping our thought process is more significant. If we have a bad boss, a difficult class, or a freezing cold classroom, it is important to identify equally longer-term factors that we are grateful to have, like a supportive work friend or a pretty view we enjoy on the way home. At first, it can be hard to find a balance, but being persistent and forcing ourselves to act with gratitude makes a world of difference.

Mindset Makeover #4: Simple Solutions, Not Complex Angst           

When I have a splitting headache, I don’t automatically start finding complicated reasons for it, like (heaven forbid) a brain tumor. Instead, I look to the more obvious solution: it’s yet another migraine. Almost always, the simplest solution is the right one. Teaching is complex, but that does not mean our perspective about it has to be. For example, if a lesson isn’t working out, we might overanalyze what happened, blaming ourselves for not foreseeing the outcome. But what if we are making everything harder than it needs to be? Lessons don’t work out for so many reasons, but the most productive thing we can do is look at what we were trying to achieve, see if there is a way to make it a little bit clearer, and change one thing that might have been problematic instead of reworking everything. There is no need to invent 50 wheels if we can get by with just a couple. Simple is better than complex, especially when it comes to retaining a healthy mindset.

The phrase “lighten up” may not be the best thing to say to teachers, but we also believe in a growth mindset. Giving our outlook a makeover begins with us. It is not easy to change how we see the world, but nobody else will do it for us. We are about a quarter of the way into the school year, and many of our colleagues have started a grim countdown to summer. That is not a way to live, unless we want our outlook to be as gray as the November sky. Instead, staying centered on balancing our mindset is a far more functional and sustaining way to be successful. Because, in the end, we are not here to mark time as it passes; we are here to make a difference.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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