4 teaching mistakes that drained my energy | The Cornerstone for Teachers
I am always looking for ways to save energy. I shared in my book Unshakeable that energy is one of our most precious resources because unlike time, energy does not naturally replenish itself. We have to be intentional about how we use our energy. If we don’t pay attention to the things that drain it and do less of those things and pay attention to things that are energy-giving and do more of those things, we’ll find ourselves feeling depleted all the time.
Today I’m going to share with you four habits and practices that drained my energy as a teacher for years, and I’ll share the solutions I uncovered that completely transformed the way I approached my work.
1) I. Talked. Nonstop.
I ran my mouth so much as a rookie teacher that I lost my voice every fall for the first five years I was in the classroom. I’d explain, re-explain, explain again in different words, and then recap with yet another explanation. The only time I’d stop talking was to give the evil eye and deadly silence to students who dared to steal my thunder by saying something themselves.
In retrospect, I think I felt like my talking was the glue that held the classroom together and without my constant narration of everything happening, the momentum of student learning would somehow wane. I couldn’t just give a direction and let students follow it; I had to praise the students who were on task, redirect the ones who were off, and fill every moment of a transition with my voice so that students wouldn’t fill it with their own talking.
If we had a class discussion, I’d feel the need to repeat and affirm everything the kids said to make sure everyone else heard it and was learning from it, instead of just letting students’ words stand on their own. It was as if I thought kids couldn’t learn from one another unless I was there to repeat it back more loudly and word things with a larger vocabulary and greater precision.
It was all just too much: too much talking, too much information for kids, and too much effort on my part that left the kids with no role to play other than quiet passivity. With all the energy I expended prattling on and on, I would have probably collapsed in a heap by 3 pm every day if I hadn’t been 22 years old and had a 22-year old’s energy level. I’m amazed that my kids internalized anything I taught, considering how much filtering out they had to do while listening, and how few opportunities they had to ever discuss or process their learning.
Solution: Sit with the discomfort of the silence and give kids the opportunity to talk more.
I’m not sure if I would have ever changed in this area if I hadn’t ended every day utterly exhausted and with a sore throat. I wasn’t sure what to do differently at first, but I started experimenting.
I spent less time standing at the front of the classroom, for example. It’s easy to get in an instructional rut when you stand at the same place near the board all day long. So I’d occasionally sit on the side of the classroom or in an absent student’s desk and say, “I need someone to go up and demonstrate ___ for us.” It was so nice to SIT and SAY NOTHING that I then tried staying there, sitting among the class once the student was done demonstrating and ask follow-up questions from other students instead of commenting on the students’ demo myself (“What do you all think? Is that an effective method — how do you know? Does anyone use a different strategy?”).
I also forced myself to get comfortable with think time and pushed against the feeling that I would lose students’ attention if I didn’t jump in with follow-up questions because I knew providing wait time can actually increase the length and quality of their responses.
Additionally, I looked for ways to turn my summaries and narrations into questions that would prompt students to think. Instead of saying to a group, “Nice work over here, I like the strategy you used for ___”, I’d ask the kids to reflect on their own work: “Tell me how your group has chosen to solve ___.” Instead of telling a kid, “Take a look at #3, that answer is incorrect,” I’d say, “Would you tell me how you got the answer for #3?”
Slowly over time, I began guiding more instead of directing, and facilitating instead of instructing.
When I started discovering active learning techniques, it felt like the heavens had opened up and the angels were singing. Finally, I had a different approach to teaching that would keep students engaged and make sure they were learning without doing all the work myself. And they were actually learning more than when I was in charge! I could walk quietly around the classroom as students talked to one another, listening in on conversations instead of lecturing.
If I hadn’t changed the way I taught and shifted my perception of the teacher’s role in the classroom so that it was no longer necessary for me to talk constantly, I would have almost certainly burned myself out.
2) I didn’t make time to really enjoy my students.
As an introvert and serious person by nature, my definition of “having fun” just isn’t the same as many other people’s. I had a very hard time being fully present with kids and enjoying them because I was simultaneously focused on trying to manage the classroom, keep the noise level down, and make sure the whole show was running smoothly.
During center time, a child would be telling me about something incredible she’d learned, her face all lit up with delight as she’s looking at up at me, and I wasn’t really focused on her. I’d smile and nod, while looking out of the corner of my eye to make sure that all the kids in the rest of the centers were on-task.
Interestingly, I thought this was the right thing to do. I’d learned in college about with-it-ness, the ability of a teacher to be aware of everything that’s going on in the classroom and I thought that was somehow more important than actually connecting with the kids.
When a student was experiencing a lightbulb moment, I couldn’t fully take in the joy of having all that hard work pay off because I was annoyed that on the other side of the room, one of the kids was flicking pencil shavings at another child. I felt like I couldn’t fully enjoy my students unless everyone was on task and the classroom was running smoothly. And so I was constantly slipping in and out of this state of presence, and one child misbehaving had the power to throw me off.
Solution: Be present and actively look for small moments to enjoy the kids more.
My thinking changed on the last day of school during my fourth year of teaching. The kids were playing Four Corners and begged me to play with them. Normally I felt like I couldn’t possibly join in, as I needed to make sure no one was cheating or running and everyone was following the rules appropriately. But since it was the last day of school, I figured, what the heck, and I joined in.
I had so much fun that I remember that game to this day and it changed the way I taught forever. Giving up control was a long, slow process for me, but I never forgot how it felt to learn and play WITH my students and the memory of that fueled my motivation to improve and became my goal moving forward. I’d always known this was a weakness of mine, but it wasn’t until that day that I really saw the power of being fully present and enjoying my students.
Another incident that made a big impression on me was several years later when I was attending the winter concert for our school at night. I sat next to one of my students and his family. It happened to be a kid who was super sweet, but incredibly unfocused in class — the type of child I devoted a lot of time and energy to nagging. I would tell him all day long, “Focus, get to work, pay attention.”
That night at the concert, he couldn’t see the stage well and climbed up on his uncle’s lap to watch. I was stunned to see him sitting on a family member’s lap, giggling and pointing and looking every single bit like the eight-year-old he was. The learning standards and classroom expectations might have been incredibly demanding and grown up, but he was still a child….sweet, happy, fun-loving, and young. Once I saw him in that light, it changed my interactions with him and softened my attitude toward my students.
I realized that even though I had a LOT on my plate as a teacher, I didn’t need to weigh my students down with that burden of responsibility all the time. I had to practice being in the present moment and actively looking for those opportunities to enjoy and appreciate my kids for who they were as individuals. This became easier and easier over time until it actually became my second nature. It was an intentional shift that I made with practice.