On Finding Balance and Avoiding Burnout

I recently received a message from a fellow school counselor who was part of my Master of Education School Counseling cohort.  She sent a message to our entire graduating cohort to check and see how we were all feeling and faring as school counselors.

At only 7 years in, I expected people to be talking about finally feeling established, making change (albeit slow), or realizing how much this career offered them personally and professionally.  What I read was the complete opposite — people are exhausted, people are frustrated, people are losing hope.  Some had already stopped with school counseling and moved into private counseling practice.  Some had decided to move back into the teaching classroom or go for an administrative certificate hoping it would be “easier.”  Some talked about declining funding, positions being on the chopping block, or being over dealing with combative parents.  From my cohort’s response it did not seem that any one individual was experiencing true joy in their counseling role.

I shut down the email chain and felt so deflated.  Why? I struggled to relate to my friends comments, complaints, or concerns.  Their words were not mirroring my experiences.

I love being a school counselor.

I enjoy going to work every day.

I find joy in my position, my role, and my interactions.

More importantly, I was deeply saddened by the fact that a group of powerful, caring, compassionate school counselors could be feeling so bad and so tired that they were considering giving up the trade.  

I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what is different for me? What I kept coming back to was a  few established beliefs, norms, or practices that have helped me stay focused, achieve work-life balance, and maintain the joy of counseling.

In the hopes of maybe sparking a new practice for fellow school counselors who might be tired and questioning their choice to counsel — here are my tips and advice to staying bright and energized and not burning out.

  1. I leave work at work.  At the end of the day when I pack up and go home, my work is done for the night.  I get to school early and am happy to stay late(ish) to finish what I need to do.  I work hard all day to not waste time. Once I leave campus, though, I am done.  No work emails.  No work phone calls.  No real planning.  My phone is not hooked up to my work email so that I am not tempted to check and reply.  Granted, there are the occasional extenuating circumstances but these are few and far between.  Once I leave the physical space I try to …
  2. … Make time for me.  This ties into number 1.  Once I am done with work, I am focused on “me” time.  I workout.  I reconnect with my husband.  I read for pleasure. I meditate.  I connect with family.  I cook and consume healthy meals.  I try to not let work thoughts seep into this time which allows me to honor who I am with and what I am doing.  I don’t feel selfish.  I feel balanced and refreshed. More importantly, I feel renewed to counsel the next day.
  3. I recognize my limits.  I am one individual.  I have a huge caseload.  I realize that I am not a magician and that I am unable to make things better for every human.  I do what I can and celebrate the small victories.  I am honest with people about my time and my limits.  With this I don’t feel like I am letting people down or failing them.  I let go of false expectations of being a super-woman and just do what I can in a meaningful way.
  4. I surround myself by marigolds.  While it is important to vent, it is also important to stay positive.  The negative weighs on me and makes me feel gross. So, I choose to not put myself in that environment.  Rather, I celebrate with those who are like minded and find the joy.
  5. I do not search for extra.  I think it is a personality trait of many counselors to want to know everything going on in a school.  NOT ME.  I have always said as a counselor I hear a lot of things every day.  If I don’t have to hear/know more that is great with me.  In other words — I do not need to know the “gossip.”  If someone chooses to not share with me I am okay with that.  I don’t feel like I am missing out.  If a student goes to another adult and is supported and doing well, beautiful.  I don’t need to insert myself in just to feel like I have the inside scoop. I carry enough and am not hurt by not knowing something that really I do not need to know in the first place.
  6. I take joy in my daily interactions.  I love working with students.  There is something good in everyday.  I recognize it.  I notice it.  I celebrate it.  When you experience joy it really is hard to feel weighed down or burnt out.
  7. I try to not personalize things. Like a duck, I let things roll off my back.  When students, parents, or teachers are hurtful I acknowledge they are not attacking me. There is something that is hurting them and I just happen to be on the receiving end of that misdirected anger/sadness/frustration.  It’s not me.  It is bigger than me.  I can support but I will not absorb.
  8. I refuse to be stagnant. I am always developing and trying new things. I think burnout occurs when we are stagnant.  So I take risks, develop new learning opportunities for students and staff, grow as a professional, learn from those around me, create, innovate, and then reflect.  It keeps me on my toes and keeps me focused on how things could be (and how I can get them there).
  9. I seek feedback.  I ask parents, students, and staff to help me grow as a professional. I want to hear what I could do different to support students and develop authentic learning opportunities for students.  By asking and putting myself out there, I have found that people are willing to offer areas for growth and development.  In this way I am constantly aware of how I am doing and how to improve.  I feel noticed and like what I do really matters.  I also get the occasional recognition of something I have done well which is always a confidence booster in itself.
  10. I live by the South African Proverb: “How do you eat an elephant?  Bite by bite.”  I recognize I am a small cog in a large machine.  I do what I can, when I can, with meaning and intention behind it.  Bite by bite I do believe that I — as a school counselor — makes a difference.

So, here is to my friends and fellow counselors refocusing and refreshing and reigniting their joy.  Here is to an amazing group of thinkers, educators, and believers who I know do amazing work for students.  Here is to not giving up hope and not hanging up the towel. Here is to school counselors — around the world — with careers that are long, satisfying, healthy, and meaningful.  Be well.

For the days you feel like quitting

For the days you want to throw in the towel.  

For the days where you can’t seem to find your counseling/teaching rhythm and nothing seems to be going right.  

For the days where the lessons seem off, your behavior management is not quite hitting the mark, and you begin to doubt yourself as a counselor (teacher, coach,  coordinator, administrator …):

  1. Remember, this is about YOU not “these kids.”  Who is the only person you are in control of?  That’s right … YOU.  Therefore, instead of pointing the finger and blaming a group of 8 (11,13,16) year olds, look inwards.  The students might have been a factor but they are not the whole equation.  Instead, look at your actions and choices and change the parts of your day that you have the power to change.  Reflect. Don’t blame.
  2. Step back and ask yourself, “Is this the norm?”  Chances are the answer will be “no.”  Chances are that you are a strong educator and 99% of the time you have great days where you feel productive, proud, and like you connected with students and helped them make sense of their learning.  Chances are, days like this are the exception. Today might have been that 1% kind of day.  Acknowledge that it sucked but remind yourself that this is not your normal.
  3. Reflect on the times you feel like you are an educational-rockstar.  What did this look like?  What was happening?  What conversations were you having? What were you doing to support learning?  How were you growing as a professional? How were you pushing yourself and your students at the same time?  Ask yourself my magic counseling question, “What was different.”  Most likely when you reflect on the great times you will recognize what made today a little tougher, more challenging, or frustrating — like mentioned above — are not typical.
  4. Practice self-forgiveness.  Let’s be honest — maybe it was you.  Maybe your lesson was not engaging.  Maybe students were bored.  Maybe you were off your game. Beating yourself up over whatever you might have done to contribute to your off day can never change the day you had.  Instead, you can forgive yourself for whatever it is you felt you might have done “wrong” this day and then move forward.  Give yourself grace — like you would for students who might have been off their game.img_3097
  5. Find your marigold and share your honest feelings.   Tell them why your day sucked and how you are feeling at this point in time.  Share your thoughts of feeling unworthy as an educator.  Vent in a safe space without judgement.  Then, let it go.  Start focusing on what you can do to make the next day better instead of ruminating on how bad you may feel now.
  6. Push your “reset” button.  You give one to students, don’t you?  Imagine a student is “off” for the class, period, or day and you are feeling frustrated with their choices. The next day when they walk into class you give them a fresh start. They are not their behaviors or choices from the day before, right!?!  So, do the same for you. Walk in knowing that you a have a fresh start for the day ahead. Maybe you need to change some lessons, strategies, techniques, or conversations to fully reset but once again, wouldn’t you do the same for students to help them reach academic or behavioral success?
  7. Plan a lesson that you can guarantee will feel successful.  For at least one lesson, facilitate a lesson where you will teach from your heart and reaffirm your belief that you belong as an educator.  When a student is on a new academic or behavior success plan, educators set that student up to experience success right away so that they see how it feels to be successful and so that their self-efficacy increases.  By teaching a lesson you know will be engaging and meaningful for both you and students, you are like that student on the plan.  You will experience immediate success, feel confident and hopefully believe that you are a strong educator.
  8. If needed, ask for help and support.  As educators, we teach (and expect) students to advocate for themselves.  If a student needs additional support we encourage them to ask an adult they trust.  We teach this skill because we recognize that every learner (and every human) needs different things to feel successful.  This same sentiment is true for educators, as well.  You might need some support or help in figuring out what areas you need to tweak, develop, or grow in.  You might be feeling like you are having more off days than good.  Ask for help.  Go to someone you trust and who you could be vulnerable with.  Ask for assistance, mentoring, coaching, or support just like you would want a student to do.

Remember, we all have days when we question our value, skill-set, and expertise. Those days when it feels like all signs are pointing to “career change” are sometimes the best points of reflection and opportunities for self-awareness. Instead of quitting think about how you can turn the next day around. Treat yourself with kindness and be well.

My “Zing” of Education

On my morning commute, my husband and I recently listened to a podcast from 21stCL Radio.  It featured Glenn Chickering — one of the founders and Upper School Principal at the Green School in Bali.  In the podcast Glenn begins talking about art and passion and how this relates to learning and education.  He shares that at Green School they ask students, “What is it that you focus on and are so into that the rest doesn’t matter” (Chickering, 2016).

Upon hearing this, I literally began to cry.

Tears.  Actual tears.  

Not sad tears, mind you.  Inspired tears.  Tears that reminded me to reflect.  Tears that reminded me that in the messiness of transitioning — to a new school, a new job, a new approach to counseling — I have not taken time to reflect and remember what it is that drives me in education.  I have been so lost in figuring out new systems and how I fit in them that I forgot to reclaim my passion and remember what drives me to education.  What is my focus?  What parts of my career can I get so lost in that “the rest doesn’t matter?”  

Instantly in my mind I asked myself, “In education, what makes me buzz?  What makes me zing?”

The rest of the commute was my husband and I sharing back and forth about reclaiming our zing — connecting with the parts of education where we often become so focused that the rest of the world falls away.  Or, as we call it in our house, the parts we can “geek out” on for hours and feel energized afterwards instead of exhausted.

And, when I arrived to work, I quickly jotted down my list of “Things that make me zing.”

Zing 1: Innovating and creating.  Looking at current ways things are done, taught, scheduled, planned, facilitated and always asking, “How could we make that better?” “How can we make things more student-centered?”  “How do we shift the educational paradigm and leave antiquated systems behind?”  “How can I, as an individual, innovate to make school a more meaningful, relevant, and modern system for all stakeholders?” The possibilities are endless, if we only let ourselves go down the path.  I am happiest on that path …

Zing 2: Facilitating student learning opportunities that allow students to do the heavy lifting and make their own meaning.  No worksheets.  No Pinterest.  No TPT.  No standing at the front of the class talking at.  Inquiry.  Visible Thinking.  Simulations.  Play and movement.  Mindfulness.  Being in nature.  These are more authentic learning opportunities for any learner.  I never get tired thinking of ways to help students unpack their own experiences for authentic learning.  It drives me.

Zing 3: Building  authentic relationships with students.  Getting to know each student and develop a unique relationship with her/him is why I love education and counseling.  Being able to play together, inquire together, learn together, and take risks together never gets old.  Sharing who I am and taking time to learn who the student is creates a lasting rapport.  I meet each child where he/she is at knowing that they will do the same for me.  The more challenging it is to build a relationship, the more I enjoy it.  It becomes like a puzzle to figure out exactly is what drives that individual and how to build mutual trust.  When the relationship breakthrough comes there is no better feeling.

Zing 4: Professional learning.  Designing it.  Facilitating it.  Doing it.  As a lifelong learner, to be able to get lost in learning opportunities is pure joy.  Being in a community of adult learners who are open and willing to learn new ways of doing or thinking is amazing.  Being in a community of learners who then takes their learning and puts it into action — even better.  I love nothing more than reading, sharing, and dialoguing about an educational text, idea, or philosophy.  My poor co-workers probably dread it when I start a sentence with, “I just read an article where…”  For me, though, it never gets old.

Zing 5: Giving students back their voice.  Students are knowledgeable, caring, conscientious individuals who, I believe, carry what they need within them.  They might need support, strategies, or practice in making sense of their needs, ideas, beliefs, and behaviors but they can do it.  I do not believe that students need adults who tell, direct, demand, or belittle students.  I believe students need adults who question, respect, guide, support, provide meaningful feedback, and listen.  That is why I try, at every opportunity, to turn the choices, decisions, and conversation back to the students.  Because the more we have to unpack our own thinking and actions, the more we understand who we are now and who we want to become.

As I thought about my zing list and the parts of education where I get so lost that I forget I am working, I cannot help but feel inspired.  I am inspired to reflect on my list daily as I move through a new job and figure out who I am in a new educational system.  As long as I am able to practice my passions daily and apply them in my new post, I know that I will be okay.  The rest won’t matter.

What would be on your “zing” list?

What parts of education can you get so lost in that the rest doesn’t matter?

How do you make time to get lost in your passions?

Boll, Michael (Producer). (2016, October 3). 2stCLRadio [Audio Podcast].  Retrieved from http://21clradio.com

 

A Transition Plan for the Counselor

As a school counselor, I am used to transition.  In a comprehensive counseling program, transitions are an integral piece of student support.  I help students transition from one grade level to the next, one division to the next, or in and out of schools.  I am also used to supporting staff in transition as people come and go, move divisions, change positions, retire, or accept another job at another school in another country.  Transitions are normal, healthy, and in my wheel-house.  I know what to do, how to process, plan, and support .. when it is someone else’s transition.

Personally, I am going through a major transition in about every capacity of my life. In the past 4 months I have said goodbye to friends and students, packed up my life, moved halfway around the world, started a new job, in a new country, with new coworkers, programming, students, staff, and more.  About every major transition you can possibly experience, I just did in the span of a few months. And guess what? … I have felt lost and floundering.  I have been struggling with my own transition and making sense of who I am in time and place.

So, I did what I do for others — I sat down and drew up a transition plan.  Except this time the person who I was supporting and developing a plan for was myself. Here are the elements of my transition success plan and what I did to be kind to myself and make sense of what I was going through.

  1. I identified my support group.  I clearly outlined who could help me in my transition.  Who would understand the various pieces of what I was experiencing and be able to support me through those aspects?  Who would be gentle enough with my emotions but also provide tough love and alternate perspectives to my thinking? Who was already not overwhelmed with their own life so that they were open and willing to let me lean on them when needed?  Who could support me personally? Who professionally?  I quickly realized it was not fair to my husband to be my sole support as he was in the same stage of transition. Rather, I reached out to a few family members, some old friends, and some new staff who were in the transition boat right along beside me.  Each were able to help me in a specific way that was not overwhelming to them or me.
  2. I clearly defined what support looked like to me. As I discuss in this post, I clarified specifically what support looks like for me so that my needs were met in a manner that felt meaningful for me.  I spoke what I needed and was willing to ask for help. Sometimes my support had everything to do with school.  Sometimes it had nothing to do with school.  I was just clear in what I needed at my transition at that moment to set myself up for success instead of disappointment.
  3. I found my slice of “normal.”  To ease transitions, I am a firm believer in establishing routines and settling in.  This meant I identified what I needed both personally and professionally to feel like I could conquer the day in a manner that felt true to who I am.  Coffee maker in the kitchen.  Planner filled out and updated daily.  A comfortable couch to curl up on at night.  A gym membership to maintain my workout (aka sanity) schedule.  A really good pencil sharpener and a set of pencils.  Knowing where to access the daily schedule.  Knowing what standards guide the counseling department at my new school.  Once I had those pieces of “normal” figured out, I felt more settled and like life was not so different after all.
  4. I allowed my emotions to be.  I named my feelings.  I acknowledged what might have made me feel that way.  I sat in the emotion for a while and honored it.  Then, I did something to move through it instead of letting it swallow me up.  I did not apologize for pure glee.  I did not apologize for pure sadness.  I recognized there was a reason that emotion surfaced and then I moved through it.
  5. I created “triage lists.”  I created three different sets of lists: What needs to be done/known/understood now?  What needs to be done/known/understood soon?  What needs to be done/known/understood in the future.” This helped me break life into manageable pieces.  It also helped me understand that there were things to focus on now and gave me the grace to push some things to the back burner.  Instant grace. Instant clarity.  Instant focus.
  6. I embraced the new and I stopped comparing.  I realized I was packing a pretty hefty “back home” or “at my last school” suitcase.  That was not fair to my new situation to compare or score one item against another.  It also did not allow me to fully embrace the new and engage in the change process.  I realized that as long as I was constantly comparing I was not fully embracing.  Transition means reflecting on what was while also looking forward to what will be.  So, I stored that suitcase away in a closet and opened myself up to being vulnerable, unsure, unsteady, and ready to tackle the new.

As I wrote and worked through my transition plan I realized that just like every other individual in transition, having some tangible actions to focus on helped make the unmanageable seem doable.  The scary become less overwhelming.  I seemed to move through the chaos quicker and found my semblance of normal.  The plan helped me clarify my goals and gave me a sense of purpose while still honoring the change, emotions, and fear that goes hand-in-hand with transitioning.  Most importantly, I reflected on how essential a solid, individualized, student-centered transition plan is to support students through change.  I more fully see the benefit of a comprehensive plan that meets student needs as they move into the next unknown.

What are some ways you support student transition?  How have you supported yourself in a major transition?  What would you include in your transition plan?

What Makes School Counselors Special?

In honor of National School Counseling week, a list of traits, qualities, and attributes that I believe make school counselors a unique, critical, integral, and valued part of a school community.

  1. They are specialized educators who have a deep passion and knowledge about school counseling.  School counselors are educators who have a master of education in school counseling.  They have passed board certification and are members of a professional school counseling organization (ASCA and ISCA shout out).  School counselors made the choice to become a school counselor because they believe in the value and impact of counseling in the academic setting.  They did not just “get” the job because they were “nice” or “smiled a lot” (though both of those do tend to be true statements).
  2. They appreciate silence.  Counselors are great at allowing space for silence.  Long.Awkward.Painful.Silence.  We know that silence allows time for reflection, thoughts to be formulated, and for honest response that might not be shared if silence is not allowed.  We can sit in silence and appreciate it for all that might be happening in that space and time.  We don’t feel out of place with it but actually relish the power that silence has.
  3. They are a perfect balance between being empathetic and pragmatic.  Counselors are not bleeding hearts.  It is a common misperception that we are overly-emotional, highly-sensitive individuals who can solely focus on feelings and emotions.  Not exactly true.  We might have a highly developed sense of empathy but we also have the ability to put emotion aside to focus at the issue at hand.  We set aside emotion to support a student and focus on solutions.  We use logic and reasoning to support a student, staff, or parent in crisis without becoming the crisis.  While we understand empathy, we realize that being too empathetic hinders a counselor from doing her/his job.
  4. They are experts at unpacking.  School counselors help unpack thoughts, ideas, problems.  They help unpack questions, concerns, and conflicts.  They help unpack anger, sadness, and frustration.  They unpack all day everyday to help people think about their thinking and make sense of what direction to head next.
  5. They are highly skilled at time management, triage, and organization.  Like I have mentioned before, a school counselor’s time is not her/his own.  Being able to assess a situation and prioritize tasks is a regular part of a school counselor’s job. While there might be a general idea of what a day will hold, being able to adapt to support students is what the role is all about.  Finding times and ways to flex your schedule and work-load is not a point of stress for counselors — just a norm.  Rescheduling a meeting, canceling a group session, and putting guidance planning on hold — all with a smile on your face — is easily done if it means supporting students.
  6. They feel comfortable on the iceberg.  School counselors have a very unique role where still many people do not understand what they “do.”  Typically they have a team of one other person or maybe they even are the sole counselor in the school.  Due to confidentiality, they do not share much about what happened during their day.  They are not teachers but not administration.  School counselors are floating around on their lonely little iceberg and you know what — it’s okay.  It’s okay because passion drives them and keeps them centered on the big picture of knowing that students are supported and achieving academic success because of their unique place and role.  Yes, it might be a little lonely or frustrating at times to not quite “fit in” with any one school group, but overall — the ice is nice.
  7. They have perfected the face. The face that says “I do not judge.”  The face that says, “I am open and willing to listen.”  The face that holds back bias, frustration, anger, pain, fear, joy, excitement, sadness, etc., from whomever is sitting across from you, sharing with you, confiding with you.  It’s not that we don’t show emotion.  It’s that we have learned that showing our feelings can halt the process.  So, we sit in neutrality and show that on our face.
  8. They trust the process.  School counselors know that we are just one little piece of a big puzzle for many of our students.  We do not expect revolutionary change.  We do not expect miracles.  We trust that there is value in the work we do and that we are positively impacting the students and school community even if we never see major or direct results.
  9. They know they are bigger than the word guidance.  Guidance is an outdated, antiquated term that refers to getting people into post-secondary education.  School counseling is a comprehensive program where trained, certified individuals support all school stakeholders in the academic, social-emotional, career, and global (internationally) domains.  We are not antiquated.  We are current.  We are the future.

 

The list could go on an on.  Maybe I am biased but I still believe that school counselors are vital pieces of the school community web.

Why do you appreciate your school counselor?  

What is a skill they possess that makes them a key stakeholder at your school?   

To Educators: We See You

Inspired by Edna Sackson’s latest blog post To Teachers Everywhere and tailored to the wonderful educators at our school specifically.

In case you think it goes unnoticed…

To the educator who gives up part of their weekend to support their students’ action. We see you.

To the educator who stands at the door to greet each and every student, each and every day. We see you.

To the educator who goes out for extra duties, often just to play with students. We see you.

To the educator who has a PYP binder full of notes, highlights and post-its. We see you.

To the educator supports student learners with an array of interventions, techniques, modifications, and strategies within the classroom.  We see you.

To to the educator who gives up part of their morning prep to offer extra support to their students. We see you.

To the educator who is often here until 6:00 pm each night. We see you.

To the educator who comes in every Saturday. We see you.

To the educator who has “taught” other staff about giving and sharing.  We see you.

To the educator who gets behind in their own work because they are busy supporting their new team members. We see you.

To the educator who nurtures students and supports their emotional learning.  We see you.

To the educator who takes time to provide meaningful feedback on a daily basis to the parents of a struggling student.  We see you.

To the educator who throws away their lesson plan to follow a student-led inquiry. We see you.

To the educator who is dealing with parents who may not yet understand how we teach in the PYP, yet perseveres and stays true to what they believe is best for students. We see you.

To the educator who is sitting at their computer not booking trips or checking facebook – but instead reading blogs and posting on Twitter. We see you.

To the educator who apologizes to their students when they make a mistake. We see you.

To the educator who gives up their break to help a student, even though you haven’t eaten or gone to the bathroom in hours. We see you.

To the educator who looks at each student holistically and supports her/his social-emotional and behavioral development alongside the academic.  We see you.

To the educator who stops at every classroom after school to check in with coworkers and make sure they are getting the support they need.  We see you.

To the educator who gives time, self, money, resources to students, parents, coworkers, and administration from the good of the heart — never seeking praise.  We see you.

To the educator who refuses to label or make generalizations about groups of students.  We see you.

To the educator who uses humor with students and is never afraid to break the tension with a joke.  We see you.

To the educator who is dealing with challenging situations in personal life but never lets it impact student learning and professional responsibilities.  We see you.

To the educator who has been teaching for many years, but gave up old practices and adopted new ones. We see you.

To the educator who refuses to embarrass or humiliate students.  We see you.

To the educator who gives up time with family and children to support school-wide initiatives and programs.  We see you.

To the educator who spends precious prep time promoting health and creating new athletic opportunities for students.  We see you.

To the educator who refuses to believe that early learners are not capable of deep, critical thinking.  We see you.

To the educator who has spent countless hours building a classroom community built around mutual respect, caring, and compassion.  We see you.

To the educator who may be quiet during sharing times at meetings, but has amazing learning happening in their classroom. We see you.

To the educator who takes risks and tries new things they may have never dreamed of doing in their classroom. We see you.

To the educator who went a different direction from the rest of their team because they felt it was better for students. We see you.

To the educator who dreads dust days and unexpected holidays because it takes away from learning time. We see you.

To the educator who let their students redesign their classroom and their schedule part way through the year. We see you.

To the educator who is never satisfied with her/himself as a teacher and spends endless hours trying to improve. We see you.

To the educator, who takes the time to tie a shoe, pick up a book, carry a bag. We see you.

To the educator who maintains and practices confidentiality with students and coworkers.  We see you.

To the educator who lives, breathes, practices, and promotes inquiry with student and adult learners.  We see you.

To the educator who refuses to countdown to holidays because they believe in the power of each instructional day. We see you.

We may not always take the time to say it, but we see you and appreciate all the amazing things you do for the students at our school.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Making Good Humans & Globally Minded Counselor

Practicing Gratitude: A Reflective Experiment

I recently read an article about the power of gratitude.  Gratitude is a concept that often gets overlooked or applied only at a surface level.  

We say thank you.  

We send an “obligatory” thank you note.  

We feel grateful when a friend/partner/coworker does something for us.

While nice, this is not true gratitude.

True gratitude is much deeper than a thank you.  In fact, according to research, gratitude is not simply an emotion but a true state of mind that must be developed and practiced on a daily basis.  Cultivating gratitude has, as Robert Emmons points out, physical, psychological, and social benefits from stronger immune systems, to experiencing more joy and pleasure, to being more forgiving and feeling less lonely.  Gratitude also helps us tune in to what is good in life and naming and recognizing where that goodness comes from — which is often from outside factors, not from things we do or control.The best part about gratitude is that “you can choose at any time to tune in” as Robin Stern and Robert Emmons write.  

As it has been a more challenging than typical year for me (personally and professionally) for the past week I decided to choose to tune in to gratitude.  I chose to go deeper than feeling thankful to actually becoming more thankful in words, actions, and deeds.

Here are my reflections on gratitude after my past week long experiment:

  1. It’s easy to focus on one or two negative events and in doing so you let hundreds of positive ones pass you by Someone stood me up for a meeting, I lost my scarf, or a frustrated parent snaps at me.  While dwelling and ruminating on these things, however, I forgot to notice a student waving and calling my name, a hot cup of coffee on a cold dessert winter day, a loving text message from a friend just “checking in,” the awesome new program a co-worker introduced to support students, etc.
  2. Children are natural at expressing gratitude in authentic, tuned in ways.  Students dancing at lunch because their family packed their favorite snack, delighting in finding a ladybug on a tree and marvelling at its colors, being so happy when I stop to visit with them for three minutes that they leave me with a huge hug and smile.  If these are not natural expressions of gratitude, then what is?
  3. Gratitude does not need to be mutual.  It’s okay if I am grateful and notice something that those around me don’t notice or recognize.  If it is meaningful to me, then that is all that matters.
  4. Practicing gratitude helps you stay grounded in the present.  Celebrating what is going on in my life, relationships, and with those around me keeps me centered on the now — and appreciating what is happening at this moment — instead of always wondering what is to come.
  5. Practicing gratitude is not easy.  I have to be aware, conscious, and tuned into the “now.”  I have to be aware of my interactions, focus on the motivations of my actions, and learn to let go when other people miss opportunities for gratitude.  Practicing gratitude is a skill I need to develop and hone.

After one week, I am excited to keep cultivating gratitude and making it a focus in my life.  I am also excited to look for ways to help students develop gratitude and express it to those around them.  I am hopeful that while developing my own practice of gratitude then I can support staff, teachers, parents, and administration develop their own gratitude and in turn, become more physically, psychologically, and socially healthy.