It's that time of year again--the transition between the old and the new, when people get the bizarre idea that somehow this year is going to be different, that somehow they're going to be so full of pep and vigor in the first month of the new year that they're going to change their lives through the sheer force of will power.
And to that, I say, BAH, HUMBUG!
Yes, I am a Scrooge when it comes to new year’s resolutions.
New year’s resolutions are a scam that we perpetrate against ourselves. We begin the new year with fervent optimism, and then as the realities of life settle in, our resolve crumbles. Then, we think, I’ll try again next year. Next year will be different. There will be more time next year.
Well, this fantasy next year is never going to happen. We've built it up too much in our minds, invested it with too much importance, imbedded it with the sparkle of a magical amulet. And when you make something that grandiose, it’s bound to fail.
So in the place of this forever unattainable “new year’s resolution,” I propose something much more humble. Instead of putting off this new you until January 1, I say do it today. Don't wait; after all, a new year’s resolution is just a euphemism for procrastination. If you're wanting to make a big change in your life--or even a little one--start out small. Trying to lose 20 pounds? Go for a five minute walk. Eat a salad with crackers and cheese for lunch. Want to write the great American novel? Sit down and write 250 words. Need to find a new job that doesn't bore you to tears? Look on monster.com. Email someone in the field and ask how he or she got started. But don't wait until January. Don't put it off. Do it today. Do it right now. Tell yourself it’s just practice for the real thing, or play whatever mind games you have to in order to get yourself going.
And then when you fail--which you are bound to do--are you going to walk away from the "new you"? Are you going to put it off until next year's resolutions? No! If you fall off the wagon once or twice, it doesn't mean you're a failure. It just means you've hit a bump in the road. Jump back on that horse (okay, I see that my metaphors or not very consistent...but hopefully you get my gist). Try again and again and again. Don't give up--you know, all those phrases that Nike summed into their three word slogan, "Just do it."
And don't forget--Carpe the diem! Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today.
Okay, I'll get off my soapbox. Happy new year, peoples!
Have you ever seen that tv show about people who hoard the oddest, most random things? Their houses are so full, you can't even see the floor. Boxes and piles of junk are stacked all over the place. Trash is accumulating and slowing being turned into coal under mountains of garbage, kittens are being fossilized in the briefest nooks and crannies, and crumbs are attracting complete civilizations of insects. And you look at those places, and you wonder to yourself, where would you even start cleaning?
Life is like that, really. Stacks and stacks of boxes to be unpacked, sorted, sweated over. Trash to be picked up and thrown out. Order to be made out of chaos. The truth is that if you want to have a happy house, a clean, well-ordered house, the home-sweet-home of your most fervent dreams, then you're going to have to put your back into it, you're going to have to burden yourself with the task, drip salt water and scowls over it, put time into it again and again and again...until finally, somehow you've reached that shiny, happy place you've pinned your star onto. Yes, dreams take hard work.
That's the thing that people don't seem to get. Yes, they might say, I'm really into this, I'm willing to pour my life into accomplishing my dreams. Their eyes are on fire because this time, this time, will be different, this time they're going to turn their wishes into reality. But then, things start getting a little bumpy, there's a pothole in the road to their destiny, so they give up. Oh well, if it's hard, they complain, then I guess it's not worth doing. So they sigh and shrug their shoulders, go eat potato chips and watch reality shows on tv.
What these people don't seem to realize is that the things that are the hardest are usually the ones most worth doing. I remember reading a Dear Abby letter one time in which an older woman was lamenting her age. She wanted to go back to college, but she thought to herself, Imagine how old I will be when I graduate. In turn, Abby replied, "Well, how old will you be if you don't go to college?"
That's how goals are. Imagine how much time, energy, frustration, and mind-breaking work goes into achieving a goal. It's such a pain...so much crap, really. But where will you be if you don't achieve your goal? Well, you'll be nowhere. I mean, you can sit on the couch for five hours watching tv or you can work toward your goal for five hours. Afterward, you're either five hours closer to your goal or you've created a five-hour dent in your couch. Which is worth more to you?
If you're not willing to do the tough work to reach your dreams, you're not going to reach your dreams.
If you don't like the way I wrote it, or if you think that I'm an idiot-nobody who is not worth listening to, then read how the 20th century uber-genius Albert Einstein said it instead: "Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work."
Yeah, I know it's a drag, and while luck does play some role in fame and fortune, hard work is what separates winners and losers. It's that simple.
So how do you keep at it when something gets hard?
First, make sure you actually know what you really want. If it's something that is really important to you, then it should be worth the hard work...even if nobody ever sees all the time and crap that went into it. So think about it. Do you really want to be a pro-football player? I mean, really? Do you really want to do the work involved to get to that level? Or do you really want to be a doctor? I mean, if you're not putting effort into your science classes, then face reality, compadre--you ain't never going to be a doctor.
So, the first step is just making sure that whatever you're dreaming of is something you really, really want.
For example, I once toyed with the idea of learning to play the fiddle. I thought it would be superCool to be able to play "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" on a fiddle. I could imagine myself at festivals and family get togethers breaking out my fiddle and waxing hard on a country jig. The problem is that I wasn't really dedicated, and I knew I wasn't. I knew it would take hours of practice to learn how to play the fiddle, and I had other goals that were more important to me (like making a living and honing my writing skills). So in the end, I knew it was just a fantasy and that I would never follow through with it.
______________________________________ Don't focus on that far-off goal and how hard it's going to be to get there. Focus on the tiny milestones in the middle.
Also, be realistic. You know, I'd love to be a tall, willowy, sexy bombshell on the cover of fashion magazines, but at 5'3" and 130 pounds, that ain't happening. Likewise, if you've got legs that go on for a miles and no coordination, the chances of your becoming a gymnast are pretty close to zilch. Try looking yourself straight in the eye and seeing if you really have it in you. If you're crap at logic and computers, you're not going to be a hacker, and if you have no sense of rhyme or rhythm, you're not going to be a rapper either.
So after you've asked yourself these questions, if you're still stoked about whatever that awesome goal is that you've been dreaming of, then right on! Just remember, as the proverb by Lao Tzu says, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." So don't focus on that far-off goal and how hard it's going to be to get there. Focus on the tiny milestones in the middle.
Take me, for instance. I really really want to be a published writer, and it's a goal I've nurtured since I was a wee lass in junior high (something you probably know as "middle school"). But it's taken years of reading and writing to even get to the point I am at now, and in that time, I had to work to earn a living and do all the in-between things that are needed to live an okay human life in these modern United States-ian times.
And to finally get a novel written, I couldn't look at the word count and say, "Oh my Chrysanthemum! I have to write 70,000 words to get a YA novel under my belt! That'll never happen." You know, because if I look at the huge amount of work it's going to take, then I'll never even get started. Instead, I've myself a daily goal of about 100 words. That's not only reachable, that's easy peasy, companero.
So remember to think about the end goal sort of abstractly, and focus on the small goals in between instead.
Finally, here are a couple of other tips. Set yourself some deadlines for accomplishing your mini-goals, set manageable goals (i.e. 100 words at a a time instead of 70,000), and reward yourself for your work. I have to grade papers all the time, which is not fun in spite of what you may have thought when you were in 5th grade. So I break down the workload over several days and give myself rewards every few minutes or hours. I'm not talking big rewards--I don't splurge on diamonds or Ferraris every time (just some of the time). I'm talking about rewards like getting up and going to the bathroom or grabbing a glass of water. Chocolate is also a great reward (or whatever kind of food you think of as a treat). In fact, chocolate is a great carrot on the end of the stick no matter what your goal is--even losing weight.
Now you have the information you need to get started. And here's the thing--YOU CAN DO IT! It takes hard work, but you've got enough grease in your elbow to get it done, I guarantee it.
If you need more inspiration and tips for those moments when the going gets tough, try these:
How to Get Going When the Going Gets Tough--Donna M. White, LMHC, CACP, offers tips for getting your head back in the game when things get tough.
7 Ways to Keep Your Dream Alive When the Going Gets Tough--As the title suggests, Sean Kim gives seven ways to frame your thoughts when things don't seem to be going your way.
6 Ways to Keep Yourself Motivated When the Going Gets Tough--Are you noticing a theme in these titles yet? Colleen Kettenhofen offers six strategies for keeping yourself in the race, a couple of which I mentioned in my post above.
When the Going Gets Tough--Christianity is full of biblical scripture to keep you at it when things get tough, and Joe Stowell tells you about it in this article.
If these four articles aren't enough, try googling phrases like "how to persevere," "what to do when the going gets tough," and "how to overcome adversity." Also, try clicking on the purple word "Motivation" in the right-hand menu on this page; here's a post I'm particularly fond of. Or leave me a comment and I'll try to light a firecracker under your posterior (figuratively speaking, of course).
As always, if you think this post is worthwhile, please share it by clicking the Facebook and/or Twitter buttons below.
Here's a confession I am embarrassed to admit: I am a terrible teacher. Yes, I admit it. I am one of those teachers students hate to have, one of those ineffective teachers who deserves to be fired.
At least, that's how I started out, at the age of 25 when I was tossed to the wolves and told to turn these classes of 9th and 10th graders into Spanish speakers.
I knew nothing about teaching. I didn't get an education degree, unlike all my college friends who did. Instead, my degree was in English, not English education. I didn't want to be a teacher. I wanted to be a college professor or a writer. I wanted to do something prestigious and important. But when I lost my enthusiasm for the world of academia, I reverted to something I thought I could do. Hey, I said to myself, I have a minor in Spanish and speak it fairly well. I'll become a Spanish teacher.
And so I did. Well, at the very least, I stood in front of a classroom and pretended to be a teacher. But I didn't know anything about getting students to participate, about getting them to behave, about allowing them opportunities to learn. I had no confidence in myself as a teacher, and I was clueless.
I was also a failure.
In the many years that have passed since I began the experiment of teaching, I have learned A LOT. I have tried repeatedly to diagnose my problem. Why was I such a terrible teacher? What did I do wrong? That's why I've been reading so many books about education lately.
My most recent is Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) by Elizabeth Green. Her premise is exactly what the title implies. What does it mean to be a good teacher, and can that knowledge be transmitted? The first question is difficult, but the second is easy to answer. Yes! Teachers can learn to be better teachers!
And that hearkens back to a conundrum in America--the belief that teaching is an innate ability. You either got it or you don't. That's how I saw teaching and how I was taught to see teaching. You see it in movies all the time. A teacher starts out in a bad school with students who are not only uninterested but downright hostile, and somehow, through sheer force of personality, she turns that ragtag bunch of losers into scholars. That is the American narrative of teaching, and it is what a lot of people buy into. But not only is it wrong; it is dangerous to our kids and our teachers. It tells teachers that no matter how hard they try, they can't improve and that if they don't do well at first, they might as well give up. It is the same problem we have with education in general. Either you get math, or you don't. Either you're a good writer, or you're not. There's no way to fix it.
But in truth, yes, you can "fix" it.
People have to learn how to be teachers just like they have to learn to be any other profession. They have to learn the tricks. We see teaching as an individual endeavor. The teacher goes into her classroom and shuts the door, and she's on her own to swim or sink. That was my experience. I had a mentor assigned to me, but did I get any mentoring? Um, no. Sure, teachers have "professional development" opportunities, but a lot of that is virtually worthless. Many school districts treat professional development as a box to mark off on a checklist, not as a true learning opportunities for teachers.
Now that I'm not directly in the teaching field*, I am spending more time learning how to teach. Ironic, isn't it? And most of that learning is coming from podcasts and books.
Green has lots of good ideas about teaching, but they are not her own. She doesn't pretend to have any sort of innate knowledge about teaching. She's actually not a teacher at all; she's a reporter. So she went to the experts to find out about teaching.
She starts with the Japanese. And as I have seen discussed in other books, in Asia, skills are seen as something that are learned, not innate (unlike in America, which I described above). And great teachers learn to teach by COPYING EACH OTHER. Yes, that's right. They copy one another's lesson plans, down to each little detail. And they have time to learn from each other. It's built right into their schools and, indeed, into their culture.
In the U.S. teaching is a private ordeal. My experience was that I was "observed" once or twice a year by someone who was no expert in my field, usually the principal, and then given a grade. But in Japan, it is not unusual for teachers to have spectators in their classrooms studying their methods and learning from them. It's called lesson study, and I think it's a great idea.
Some American teachers would balk at the idea of replicating someone else's lesson plan. They would want to be "original," to have "autonomy," to be "independent." To them, I say, "pshaw!" If I had had someone walk me through the steps of exactly how to teach conjugating verbs in Spanish, I would have bought that person a beer...or a Coca Cola...or a sparkling water, whatever she preferred.
Green devotes the first third or so of her book to a discussion of the teaching of math in Japan and how we do it wrong in the U.S. The odd thing is that the Japanese teachers she interviews say that they learned these methods from American educators, specifically from the work of John Dewey and George Polya. These ideas went to Japan, but Americans failed to adopt the same principles.
The specific method Japanese teachers use to teach math is inductive reasoning. They don't start by telling the students the big idea. Instead, they give the students a problem and let them theorize how they can solve it. The students throw out ideas, and the teacher cultivates the ideas that ultimately move the students toward the correct mathematic principle.
In the U.S., on the other hand, teachers teach the principle, and then students practice it over and over again. They don't really get why the principle is so; they just know this is what you have to do to solve the equation.
That was definitely my experience in math classes. I learned the steps I needed to take to solve a problem, but I didn't really understand what any of it meant. It didn't seem to have any real meaning.
The American way of teaching math is through deductive reasoning, which Green calls the "I, We, You" approach. Here is how she describes it:
"After checking homework, teachers announced the day's topic, demonstrating a new procedure . . . (I). Then they led the class in trying out a sample problem together . . . (We). Finally, they let students work through similar problems on their own, usually by silently making their way through a worksheet. . . . (You)" (118-119).
Green uses the phrase "You, Y'all, We" to describe the Japanese inductive approach:
"They began not with an introduction, but a single problem that students spent ten or twenty minutes working through alone . . . (You). While the students worked, the teacher wove through the students' desks, studying what they came up with and taking notes to remember who had which idea. Sometimes the teacher then deployed the students to discuss the problem in small groups (Y'all). Next, the teacher brought them back to the whole group, asking students to present their different ideas for how to solve the problem on the chalkboard. . . . Finally, the teacher led a discussion, guiding students to a shared conclusion . . . (We)" (119).
In the end, the Japanese students have a firm understanding of the "why?" behind the mathematic principles. American students don't.
Green next tackles the issue of discipline, or as educators like to call it in their euphemistic way, "classroom management." She looks at charter schools and their zero tolerance policies, intended to tackle the small issues so that the big issues won't crop up.
Like the Japanese teachers, who turned teaching into an art form, complete with blueprints, Doug Lemov, a charter school entrepreneur, created a taxonomy of good teaching, which he shared with educators in his system and wrote a book about. Basically, he looked at the behaviors that successful teachers exhibited and broke them into categories. One of these behaviors is explained in a bit of detail in the text, and I think it could be useful.
I had trouble with kids being kids during class. Not paying attention, talking to their friends, talking over me, etc and etc. And I would call them out on it. Well, I was doing it all wrong.
As a teacher, whenever you call a student out in front of his or her peers, you are inviting a showdown. That kid can't comply with you because that would be losing face. So oftentimes the problem escalates because the kid won't back down. So, as a teacher, it's better to avoid the situation altogether.
Here's how "expert" teachers do it. They don't name the kid who's acting up. They get more creative than that. For example, one teacher named in the book counts aloud the number of students who he needs to pay attention with statements like, "I need two more sets of eyes on the book." Another teacher used hand gestures:
"Two fingers to to her eyes--that meant 'track the speaker,' code for paying attention to the person talking, usually another student. The fly swat, applied to a raised hand, meant 'I'm not taking questions right now.' And the prayer sign reminded students to get into the attentive position that no-excuses schools called SLANT or STAR, a back-straight pose tied off with primly clasped hands" (183).
The teacher "had created the gestures . . . so that she could subtly correct students' misbehavior without interrupting the flow of her lesson. At the beginning of each year, she taught the three gestures explicitly. For the first few weeks, every time she used one, she would say its name too" (183).
In his taxonomy, Lemov describes another form of discipline as "positive group correction":
"By positive, Doug meant constructive--describing the desired behavior, rather than the problem. 'We're following along in our books,' a teacher could say, posing the statement like self-evident narration, even if it also contained a hint of aspiration" (185).
Lemov called level five in the discipline taxonomy "lightning-quick public correction." This is one of the few in which a particular child is named. Lemov describes it this way:
"'Andrew, I need you with me, just like Jeremy and Anne and David. Now we're looking sharp!" Doug modeled at the workshop. 'So I corrected Andrew publicly,' he explained, 'but I did a couple of things. One, I instantly diverted the gaze from him to someone else or something else, and, when possible, that something else is much more positive. So if I said, 'Andrew, I need you with me,' then you're all going to divert your gazes to Andrew, and we're in that situation where I have to win, it's all public, and then I can't afford to lose.' Instead, he let Andrew take the stage for half a second before quickly moving on to Jeremy, Anne, and David and the idea that 'we' (read: everyone, even Andrew) were now 'looking sharp'" (187).
The thing that impresses me about these levels of discipline is that the teacher is not focusing attention on any individual child. Thus, the child doesn't have to feel that he or she has to defend him/herself and save face.
Confession: I was terrible at discipline.
Toward the end of the book, Green finally gets to the subject area that is of interest to me--teaching English and writing. This is a briefer section, but it has some good information as well.
Green describes how good English (composition) teaching flips the formula for math teaching. While math teaching should be inductive; English teaching should be deductive:
"In math . . . the 'You, Ya'll, We' lesson popularized in Japan . . . made sense for structuring investigations of big ideas, like the meaning of fractions of negative numbers. In English, meanwhile, where students needed to learn specific reading and writing strategies . . . the 'I, We, You' pattern of modeling followed by guided practice was much more appropriate" (276).
She describes how an expert English teacher, Pam Grossman, gave her students "stock responses" in order to facilitate class discussions of texts. These are like sentence templates. For example, a student might say, "According to the text . . . I believe that means . . ." or "I agree with what . . . says, and I would like to add . . ."
Another teacher, Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, gave her students anticipation guides to prep them for the text they would be reading. She also asked them to write level one, two, and three questions about the text to facilitate classroom discussion.
One of the best things a teacher can do in a discipline like English, according to Green, is to model good discussion skills. One of these practices she calls "uptake":
"A teacher practiced uptake when she listened to a student's contribution and then repeated it in some way, by summarizing the idea . . . , elaborating on it, or pushing the student to do the same" (271).
In a couple of places Green also describes how teachers study their own thinking to determine how to teach a skill or idea to someone else. The teacher needs to break down information and processes into all its mini-steps and examine his/her thoughts about how a concept is done. What is the thinking behind a concept? What are all the steps a person must go through in order to work through a concept? Teachers then develop lessons to help students go through those steps.
So, will any of these make me a better teacher? Perhaps. Or I might never step foot in a classroom again. If I do, I will certainly be better prepared than I was 12 years ago (Jeez, has it been that long ago?). In the mean time, I will continue reading, listening, and learning.
*Footnote: Actually, I still teach, but it's an online class, so many of the skills I've learned about teaching do not apply.
Word and Book Lover.