Thursday, December 19, 2013

Gratitude - Opportunities for happiness in teaching

What keeps me happy when general morale in the workplace might be low, or when I have a particularly difficult class, or an onerous project to complete? What makes me walk strongly and confidently when I am in doubt or fear, or when I am just plain exhausted? You might be thinking the answer is the kids - that it is the kids that keep me going. Or maybe it is the challenge - the promise of always growing professionally in a challenging workplace environment. Of course, most, if not all of what I do is for the kids. Another priority is always growing professionally for this is what allows me to provide quality experiences for the kids. However I find problems are presented when I rely on people, places or things to provide happiness or contentment with what I do. A student might refuse to complete work in my class, a colleague might tell me something I don't want to hear, or I might be looked over for a promotion.

For me, gratitude is where it is at. I am most content in my workplace, no matter what is happening around me, when I am practising gratitude. Gratitude is so important to my teaching practice and always has been. When I feel exhausted, frustrated, angry, tired, or overworked, a sense of gratitude helps me no end. When I am feeling gratitude for my job, for the students I teach, for my colleagues who inspire me, and for my life generally, I am less likely to take my frustrations out on my students or colleagues, I am more able to manage my emotions in a healthy way, I am less likely to gossip and carry on in a negative manner, and I am more able to be a productive and positive participant of my school and the wider community.

However, I also know that a sense of gratitude does not always (ever?) come naturally. I need to continue to foster a sense of gratitude for what I do, and for what my life has given me. This takes a conscious decision. Like love, gratitude is not just a feeling but an action. Or a number of actions. Gratitude comes when I act in a way which says that 'I am grateful for my life/job/family', etc. even if I am not really feeling it. How do I continue to foster a sense of gratitude? I actually have to consciously and continually remind myself that I have been blessed with a job that is not only rewarding but has been utterly life-changing for me. I never wanted to be a teacher. I never thought I could  be a teacher. I happened to be guided into this profession by some amazing mentors, and I have been given a career that I love. Every day I remind myself of the amazing experiences I have had in my teaching career, and how far I have come since the early days of university where I could barely speak from nerves, let alone get up in front of a class and teach. In fact, my first ever 'teaching experience' was in front of my university peers, where I gave a five minute presentation on the artist Joseph Cornell and the Structural Frame. I was so nervous and so fearful of failing that I rote-learned my presentation word for word the night before. The next day I repeated each and every word as I had learnt it. I am a different person now, and I no longer have the same intensity of fear or anxiety. Although I may feel fear when starting a new project or dealing with a difficult class, it is nothing compared to those early days.

What else do I do? If gratitude is an action, it must be fostered in opportunity. It is hard to always feel grateful, and even harder to act gratefully when the feeling is not there, however gratitude can be fostered in everyday opportunities. When an opportunity presents itself, I try to take pride in all that I do, and I try to do everything to the best of my ability. I keep my classroom a tidy, colourful, fun and safe place for learning. I participate in my school community whenever I can in a positive way, and I try to give back to my school and broader community. Helping others gives my life meaning, and I need to give back especially when I am feeling sullen, selfish, or full of ego. Giving back might mean assisting a colleague, helping a prac student, saying yes to being interviewed by a pre-service teacher as part of an assignment, contributing to staff development days, and being involved in sub-committees or working groups. It might also just be making a cup of tea for a colleague or helping out with a playground duty without expectations of them 'owing me one'. These actions make my life very full and rewarding. There are still the bad days or awkward moments, however, a sense of gratitude helps minimise these moments that may affect myself or others in a negative or manner. I am by nature a selfish person, so when opportunities present themselves to go against what shortcomings I have I try to take them, even if I don't want too.

In saying all this, there are times where I stretch myself a little thin, but this just means stepping back a bit, practising gratitude in my classroom and trying not to take on anything new for a few weeks. This has taken practise and I am often out of balance, however, this is all part of the fun of growing professionally.

This week my first ever Year 12 class received their HSC results. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have taught them. I am grateful for the rewarding experiences that came from mentoring students with their bodies of works. I am so proud of their results. Their results did not show others that I am an awesome teacher, their results showed me that they worked to the best of their ability and enjoyed what they did. For that I am grateful.

There is one journal article that continues to inspire, motivate and help me in my teaching. I have kept the article on file for a few years, have recommended it to others, and I re-read it when I need just that extra little bit of support with my teaching. I recommend it to you...

The article I refer to is Practising Gratitude to Enhance Teaching and Learning  by Dr Kerry Howells, Faculty of Education, University of Tasmania.You can find this article at in an issue of Education Connect: Occasional Papers in about Social and Emotional Wellbeing, issue 8. Topics in this issue include: Gender and wellbeing, gratitude in education, teacher education and professional development.

This TED talk also talks about gratitude as a means to happiness as opposed to relying on happiness to feel grateful: David Steindl-Rast: Want to be happy? Be grateful.

If you have anything you want to share on gratitude, I would love to hear about it.

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