I, no doubt, stupidly thought that teaching adorable children with special needs would be so gratifying that it would be easy! I will save you all the suspense, but after teaching students with disabilities for over 15 years, I quickly ended up catching a clue. Teaching was anything, but easy and the person making it the hardest was the one looking back at me in the mirror. Yes, I was the biggest contributing factor to my own stress.
I came to this conclusion when my teaching partner and I were developing lesson plans for a group of students who were identified with emotional disabilities. Our lesson centered around “thinking traps” based off the work of Phillip Kendall and Kristina Hedtke from Temple University, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxious Children. The overarching concept is identifying negative thought patterns we get stuck in when we are upset. When teaching thinking traps, we guide students to challenge and reframe their thinking to a more positive and productive train of thought that can be reinforced by strategies such as positive self-talk.
I got so used to looking for these traps in my students that I started seeing them EVERYWHERE! I started noticing them listening to people in line at the supermarket or in myself when I got frustrated with my husband for silly things. I was reminded that negativity is something everyone carries around with them in varying amounts, and when we forget to hone in on awareness, we fall asleep at the positivity wheel and crash into adult temper tantrum island.
Teachers’ humanity leaves them susceptible to falling into these thinking traps as well. Though sainthood is something in which we should all be considered, we have emotions that we sometimes struggle to manage. Some days we rock and some days our heads hurt from banging them on the whiteboard. So without further ado here are just a few teacher traps we can all work on watching out for, not just for the sake of our students, but for the sake of our sanity!
Mental Filter: Imagine a pool. It’s beautifully clean and glistening blue. However, there is that small trap that filters all the floating debris from the water. When you pull out this basket or filter you see nothing but old leaves and dead bugs. If you are too busy looking at this basket, you will forget to swim in the aquatic sanctuary beside you. This is what happens when we use our focus to see only the negative aspects of a situation or event. We see everything that went wrong and neglect to see what went right. Maybe you have a difficult class period or a student who is struggling and on your drive home your mind ruminates over their lack of success for the day and you fail to see what went right for the other students. Now instead of having a state of mind that would lend itself to creativity and problem solving for all kids, you use your energy to beat yourself up and count your failures. We must be careful because this trap can be highly contagious. Get around someone else with a negative mental filter and you could be sinking in the muck right beside them. If you can hang on to some positive people who are good listeners and great at reminding you to mention and focus on what went well. Journaling or notes of success are also great strategies for causing you to pause and smell the metaphorical roses.
Catastrophizing: This is one of my favorites, even though it took me a week to say without sounding like I was chewing on mud. This is when a little problem goes on steroids and now has transformed into the Incredible Hulk. Have you ever looked at your class test scores and felt like an anvil dropped on your head? All of a sudden, the world became unhinged because on this one day, on this one test, not all of your students met their expected growth. Sidenote: All problems look big, until a bigger problem comes along. We must get better at assessing the size of the problem and drawing our attention to things such as gratitude. This will help us to view our problems through the lens of opportunity for growth.
Blame: There is perhaps no better protection or armor of oneself then to cloak our thoughts with blame of others or conditions. For many years I would consult or work with teams to support struggling students. Teachers were so drained in both effort and spirit that often the only thing they felt left at their disposal was the battering ram of blame. Yes, blame is a cheap way to distance ourselves from a problem, but it also removes our stake in the solution. If we are so busy using our focus to blame things outside of our control (which unfortunately is most things; some may argue all things), the people around us, or even ourselves then we are missing the beauty of the challenge. I like to believe that I play a part in my students’ successes, which means I also have to own a piece of their failures. The beautiful part is that failure is just as important as success and by seeing, without blame, I can become strong enough to grow and try again. I have acquired a large tool box of tricks after 15 years in this gig. If I had this skill set when I first started, I would have had a much greater impact on my kiddos. However, I accept that opportunities of experience build on each other, and I needed to stumble to learn and so do our students. We do not need blame; we need compassion towards others and emphatically towards ourselves!
Teacher traps are magnets to negativity that perpetuate thoughts making us feel unable or ill-equipped to meet the challenges that we face everyday. It is not stress that destroys us; it is our thoughts that we often let run without notice that decay our well-being. Take small moments to breathe. Feel grateful for the opportunity we are afforded to help kids and families, as well as for the colleagues that pick us up when our strength waivers. The person in the mirror is often our greatest challenge. The good news is that all the answers for our contentment are within reach, as they are buried within us all.