As human beings, we are creatures of judgment, and that judgment is often grounded in our own expectations. This is true both personally and professionally. We make assumptions about ourselves, about our relationships, and regarding how external situations should occur.
Data show that when we hold unrealistic expectations, we project them onto the people in our lives and reduce our ability to tolerate and adapt to what is happening. This continually sets us up for disappointment and conflict. It is through these expectations and/or judgments that we lose acceptance which then leads to anger, frustration, anxiety and loss of control. The brain, when experiencing these challenging emotions, can feel threatened. This means that on top of the experience, we also activate the brain to go into sympathetic - a reactive state that is there for survival but not there for responsive and critical thinking.
As teachers, this process is so relevant to everything you experience everyday. Things are coming at you quickly, all day long. You have little time to think which means it can be difficult to adapt. This high level of stress is then aggravated when we ascribe unfair expectations to a person or situation.
Think for a moment about a time that you had an expectation either personally or professionally? Maybe you were at work and you had a lesson that you thought would be amazing and it did not work out as expected. Or, it could have been a conversation you had with a student, peer, supervisor, or family member that did not go the way you expected it to. When one of these experiences did not live up to your expectations, we often judge it ascribing a negative meaning to the experience leading to responding in a reactive mode.
This is so important for us because as educators, our reactions, or at times, overreactions, can make or break the foundation of trust that we strive for when building relationships with our students. And when our judgment is attached to our students, it puts them in a defensive position and inhibits them from stepping outside safety zones which is a must for student growth.
Mindfulness (purposely paying attention), allows us to recognize when we are creating judgments and empowers us to step back and remove those judgements, freely flowing into the experience with openness and acceptance. That great lesson you created? The one that as you are teaching it slowly dive bombs out of the sky with a trail of smoke...that’s OK.
As you are building up your survival guide to teaching, we want to encourage you to lose the internal judgment, process it, reflect and identify how you can change it. It’s not good, it’s not bad….it is what you choose to make it.
One of the greatest gifts we can give our students is the ability to accept and not judge our circumstances but rather authentically and courageously face the experience. Data indicate that students who have teachers who are willing to accept lessons that do not go perfectly, laugh about days that are not always smooth, and authentically express vulnerability (saying to themselves or even their students, “wow, this lesson isn’t going well, let me see if I can re-shift”), have students who feel safe to do the same.
If we fill ourselves with judgment, anxiety or frustration - that is what we give. If we fill ourselves with acceptance, compassion and kindness - that is what we give. Developing the heart of teacher means remaining mindful about modeling intention and care, and accepting our own imperfections, and those of our students.
It was April 20, 2011, and I was sitting in a classroom, observing a student teacher explain Transcendentalism to eleventh graders, when I noticed an uncomfortable feeling in my breast. This uncomfortable feeling eventually turned out to be Stage 2, Breast Cancer, thus beginning my journey to acceptance. The journey begins with a bilateral mastectomy in which reconstruction would soon follow, except midway through I wake to faces of concern to hear my father say “you are going to have to take the long road home”.
This extended journey meant 6-8 rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. Persistent questions surrounded the whole adventure: How could this happen? Could the cancer come back? What did I do to deserve this? My answer to the spoken and unspoken questions decidedly being “I just have to get through this, stay focused and fight”. This was how I spent my summer vacation, knowing that when I returned to teaching in the fall, I would begin chemotherapy treatments and go bald.
The 2012 school year would look a little different, as I would begin with hair and end it bald. I struggled with the unknown effects of the journey ahead. Determined, I remained focused on beating cancer and not letting it change who I was.
On the first day of class, I introduced myself and the adventure ahead of me. Developing a plan of honesty and open conversation with my students as well as an environment of mutual support and laughter, my semester begins. In reflection, a change in me had started to take place, normally I would begin the semester with a stern face, rules, and behavior expectations, but this unknown journey had me feeling a bit vulnerable and seeking acceptance rather than respect due to my authority as an adult.
Prideful, I wanted to make sure my hair remained in place until the yearbook picture was taken, this task completed, my daughter and I decided to head to our favorite Italian restaurant to celebrate this small accomplishment. As luck would have it monsoon weather brought strong winds as I walked across the parking lot to enter the restaurant. As I watched clumps of hair leaving as the wind blew, I asked my daughter what I should do, her response “hold on to your bangs”. In this moment, I could have reacted with sobs, rather I acknowledge the feelings toward losing what I thought to be precious and decided to respond with laughter, not allowing cancer to control my reactions or my life. Focusing on the present gave me strength needed to move through treatment and recovery at times with a bit of humor.
Through this journey to nonjudgmental acceptance, I found that focusing on the present relieved the stress that resides in experiences of depression, anxiety or frustration within the seemingly long journey to wellness. I also realized how this focus on the present brought gratitude for the small things most often missed, such as the soft breath of my dog sleeping on my chest in his attempt to comfort me.
I also noticed my teaching persona becoming more compassionate and observant of the needs of the students within my classroom. Acknowledging feelings of stress that may reside in my body and working to alleviate them by taking a moment to reset and breath or being willing to change the direction of a lesson to respond to the needs of the students within the classroom. This journey also modeled to my students the need for non judgment and acceptance as they too went through their personal learning paths for we can either be defined by, or redefine who we are in times of stress and hardship.
Lori Lovitt, M.Ed., MLFTC
Clinical Assistant Professor
Secondary Teacher Prep
Arizona State University
Our bodies are always telling us what is going on, it is just the mind that is not always listening. To become more nonjudgmental and accepting, we need to tune the mind to the body and really pay attention to the emotions we are feeling and the physiological sensations they produce.
When we are angry, or frustrated, lean into that ...what does it feel like and then objectively step back and identify the expectation you had that elicited it.
There is a great Native American story that shares the Tale of Two Wolves in regards to the emotions we cultivate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzKryaN44ss.
Watch this clip this week and think about how to become more in tune with your emotions and recognize now expectations drive our feelings and then, our reactions in the classroom.