I’m sitting in a small cabin in the woods, at a camp called “Walden West.” We're at "Outdoor Science School" and for the first time in a few months find myself with an opportune time to sit down and blog.
Why the long absence? With the end of my credential classes, I also lost my prime, reserved, blog-time. What has filled it? I wish I could say “intense lesson building, constant home visits, and furious grant writing,” but I’ll be honest: I’ve filled it with a personal life, something I certainly did not have for the year prior. I’m happy to say, however, that I think the human reality has been BETTER for my teaching then the TFA-ideal answer.
Which brings me to the real subject of this entry, my prime realization of the last few months: affect and attitude are everything.
“Naturally,” you think, “If the students’ aren’t ready to learn…”
No no. Not their attitude. Mine.
We are having a great year this year. Most of that comes from a great combination of kids, some of it from a good start, but the small part of it I can still control stems from my consciousness of the fact that there is no more powerful preparation for my lessons each day than coming in excited to teach.
Last year, I spent many hours planning and more hours prepping for each day. I was perpetually tired, easily frustrated and generally unhappy. What a waste. No beautiful overhead, no clever mnemonic gimmick, no deep content mastery was going to turn me into a “good teacher.” This year I spend much less time planning and prepping, but come in most days each week enthusiastic and energized. I also have a great source of joy in my life, one that is completely independent of school. This gives me enough distance from the ups-and-downs of my classroom to recover quickly after a bad hour or day, something I struggled with greatly last year. Finally, my own satisfaction with my life makes me more willing to share it with the students. It makes me more able to take and make jokes on a level that brings us to a happy affective level that is necessary for learning. Stiff professionalism, which I tried last year, might work in middle or high schools, but my fifth graders respond far better to a fun-loving openness that allows me to sincerely convey my enthusiasm and expectations.
This concept can be practiced on a more momentary basis as well. I picked up an understanding at a workshop that most teachers (myself still included) engage in the awful practice of trying to dispense discipline and knowledge from the same spot and often in the same breath. I think we all understand that angry and disengaged students cannot learn, but I think few of us stop to recognize that even happy and engaged students cannot learn from upset and frustrated teachers!
When I find myself angrily redirecting students or expressing frustration (real or manufactured) at the general class’ focus, I try to insert a mental break before resuming instruction. This can come in the form of forcing myself to compliment (and thus focus on) the students who ARE learning and ARE doing what I want, telling a joke or humorous story connected to the misbehavior, or saying, “We all need a break” and engaging in one of the two or three minute games I have picked up. Some times I will walk to a different corner of the room to make the discipline moment physically distinct. These breaks are as much to improve my mental situation as the kids’, as much to restore my enthusiasm as their attention.
Reality Disclaimer: Being conscious of affect and attitude is my primary focus in my practice this year, it is the element of my teaching I'm trying most to improve. Yet even still, my implementation of these ideas is far from perfect. I feel comfortable writing about this with some air of success, however, because I have found that even inconsistent implementation yields consistent results. I can’t bring myself to school sporting a great attitude everyday (or even close) nor can I always implement the breaks in instruction I know we need to rebuild our affect, but I’ve come to see that when I do, it really works.
Try it. Work less and play more, improve your practice and prove me right!
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