Last week I got inspired to write this post when I realized that the traits that make people mentally strong in general, could be applied to teachers specifically. Let's face it, teaching is challenging. We have to be "on" every day, multiple times. We are often asked to do the seemingly impossible, frequently without assistance, and even though we teach in buildings full of other teachers, much of the time we have no idea what other teachers are or are not doing. There are times when I have found myself feeling lonely as a teacher because even though I am surrounded by people, I don't know who to turn to when I have questions or doubts about what is happening in my classroom. I don't want to impose on other teachers who I know are really busy themselves but I could really use their advice. That is what this blog is all about; connecting with other teachers and sharing our challenges and ideas.
If you missed part one of this series, you can find it by clicking on this image.
5. They Don't Worry About Pleasing Everyone
This is one I have to remind myself of all the time. I always want everyone to be happy all of the time but as John Lydgate said, "You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time." and you will drive yourself crazy trying.
Part of our jobs as teachers is to evaluate students. This is great when students are meeting our expectations but it can be incredibly difficult when they aren't. I am not a huge fan of using grades to motivate students for a variety of reasons, but I do have to hold my students to standards and students need to be aware of when they are not producing the work they need to produce in order to achieve the skills they need. This means pointing out where students need to work harder. Not all students are going to appreciate it and some students will even get angry. I remember having one student yell at me after I broke the news to him that he had failed the class. He was out of line for sure, but nevertheless I felt bad and went over everything I could have done differently in my head. Ultimately, he had not done his homework and had exceeded the maximum number of absences for the course though and my job was not to make him happy. At that point, my job was to hold him accountable.
6. They Don't Fear Taking Calculated Risks
Doing things a different way can be scary. I know there are times when I have an idea that I think might work in class but I am not sure. Investing time and energy into something that may crash and burn seems like a risk when I am so busy with other things anyway. In her book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do, Amy Morin recommends analyzing the costs of taking a risk by asking the following questions:
What are the potential costs?
Usually the costs of doing something a different way are time spent learning how to do it, how much time something will take in the classroom and how much time it will take to familiarize students with it, and material costs if technology, books or anything else needs to be purchased.
What are the potential benefits?
Will whatever you are considering potentially help students learn better? Will it increase or decrease your work load in the long run? Will it increase student motivation?
How will this help me achieve my goal?
Is your goal one for how much and how well your students will learn?
Is your goal something for yourself? Are you thinking of documenting what you are doing with the aim of publishing a paper or doing a presentation?
What are the alternatives?
Make a list of all the different things that you could do and look at them critically. Which one would be the best option for you right now?
What is the best possible outcome from taking this risk?
How will it change your life? How will it change your students' lives?
What is the worst thing that could happen and how can I reduce the risk it will occur?
Is the worst thing that could happen that the students don't get it and you have wasted class time?
Will you lose control of the class?
Will students potentially drop out of the course?
Will the administration get upset and you might lose your job?
How bad would it be if the worst thing actually happened?
If you lost your job for example, would you be able to find another one? Would you have to relocate?
How much will this decision matter in 5 years?
Will taking this risk still affect you or your students in the long run?
7. They Don't Dwell on the Past
There are a couple ways is see teachers (myself included) dwell on the past. First, they romanticize how wonderful, hard-working and respectful students used to be back in the day. I know I have been guilty of romanticizing the past and my own behavior as a student sometimes. It is easy to say things like “This generation is just lazy! When I was a student I did hours of homework every night and never complained about it. I was totally respectful to the teacher at all times.” Well, that is not true, I did complain, I didn’t always do hours of homework, and I am sure that I was disrespectful at times.” Whatever the case may be, the world today is a much different place now than it was when I was a student. Sure, I used to go to the library and spend hours researching by looking for books in the card catalog rather than a few minutes with a search engine, but that is just because the internet didn’t exist. While I do see value in researching with actual books instead of always using Google, that doesn’t mean there is not value in the way things are done now. As I see it, one of the things I bring to my classes is that I am a bridge between the way things were done when I was a student, and the way things are done now. I have the experience of having done things differently, and I can help students see that there are many ways to do things; they all have different advantages and disadvantages.
Another way teachers dwell on the past is to hold on to a student's past performance. It is easy to label a student as hard-working, lazy, respectful, disrespectful, honest, dishonest and so on. Often these labels get passed on from one teacher to the next and we unconsciously treat students differently depending on what we “know” about the student. I like to start with a clean slate every semester and while it can be useful to find out something about incoming students in order to be prepared, I usually prefer not to. I like to give each student a chance to form their own relationship with me independent of what their relationships were with other teachers. If I start to struggle with certain behaviors over the course of the semester, it is a good idea seek out that student's previous teachers and ask them if they had had similar issues and if they had found successful ways to help that student. Having said that, there are defiantly some issues that teachers need to know about beforehand in order to better prepare. It is important to know if any of your students have learning disabilities for example, so appropriate accommodations can be made.
8. They Don't Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over
So many times I find myself thinking that students are not learning something as well as I would like them to. I want them to learn more vocabulary words and to be able to actually use them when they are speaking and writing. I want them to feel more comfortable taking risks while speaking and I would like for them to take more responsibility for their own learning. Yet, when it comes to actually changing the way I am doing things in the classroom, I am reluctant to change. It is easy to make the same mistake semester after semester, hoping that this time students will somehow do better with it. As a mentally strong teacher though, I must recognize that when my students regularly fail to achieve, it is actually me who is failing. In order to stop failing, I need to stop making the same mistake; I need to do things differently. I can’t expect different outcomes from the same actions. I may feel like I am doing the right thing but if my students are not successful, I am not.
Some things I have been working diligently on improving for the past several years are getting my students to retain the vocabulary they are learning for an entire semester and beyond, to be able to use it in a variety of contexts, and to help them to listen more effectively. In the beginning I was giving them vocabulary lists based on listenings they had done and just asking them to memorize them in order to take a quiz every couple of weeks. Students were not doing well on those quizzes and were rarely using the vocabulary in their writing or speaking. Next I tried asking students to choose their own words in order to increase their feelings of ownership for the vocabulary but I found they often choose very obscure words that were not really that useful to them. It was also very difficult to check if they were actually learning the words when every class was different. This year, after thinking long and hard, I went back to vocabulary lists that I choose based on how useful those words would be in a variety of contexts (I am teaching academic English). Instead of giving quizzes every couple of weeks, I am giving a quiz every single week and at the end of each quiz I have added reflection questions. Those questions focus on how students studied, what obstacles prevent them from studying and how they will overcome those obstacles. Every week the reflection questions are different and I ask them to discuss the quizzes with their friends. We are now in the fifth week and so far, students have been doing much better than in previous years both on the quizzes and in using the vocabulary. It is getting so easy for them we are actually discussing upping the number of vocabulary words. The key has been focusing on study habits and anticipating challenges that could derail those habits. I have also started a new system of vocabulary circles in which different students focus on different aspects of learning words and then they share their work with each other. I will describe this system in more detail in a future post. The point is, if you are not seeing the results you want in any part of what you are teaching, change things; don't keep doing things the way you have been.
To read more about how I changed the way I help my students listen better, check out 8 Concrete Ways you can Help your EFL Students Listen More Effectively.
Check back here next week for the final post on 13 Things Mentally Strong Teachers Don't Do (Part 3). If you missed the first post, you can find it here: 13 Things Mentally Strong Teachers Don't Do (part 1). For the next post, go to 13 Things Mentally Strong ESL Teachers Don't Do (Part 3)
Check out these posts for more ideas on teaching ESL.
Hi, I'm Kia.
I help ESL / EFL teachers create fun, effective courses that students love.