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Buying Ponies: What Works and What Doesn't in the Tough and Tumble World of Teaching

Unless one has actually taught in a classroom, it's virtually impossible to appreciate the personal effort and investment required to teach well.
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Something happened to me on August 25, 2008 that completely changed the course of my professional development. That day was my first day as a real, live substitute teacher. Since I am a licensed psychologist, I understand that the quickest way to heal from a traumatic event is to talk about it. So, with that in mind, let's let the healing begin.

I was in my classroom at 7:00 a.m. that day, and I was fired up: I was going to make a difference! I was going to change kids' lives! I was going to raise test scores! That was all well and good until 7:30 a.m., at which point the kids arrived. It was absolute chaos, and I panicked -- everything I knew about classroom management went out the window, and the rest of the day was a master's workshop in how not to lead a class. Desperate to create order, I scrambled for a research-based intervention.

"Aha!" I thought, "This is it! A dry erase marker!"

I had a plan: I would write names on the board, and surely that would put the fear of God into these unruly third graders. As if. By lunchtime, I had written twenty eight names on the board (later that day, I realized there were only twenty three kids in the class).

I managed to make it through the day, and then I went home and was deep into in REM sleep by 7:00 p.m. I woke up the next morning with something of a psychological hangover and a vague recollection of promising to buy ponies for the four most chronically-misbehaving students in the class.

The whole reason I decided to substitute teach in the first place was to get a new perspective, to help me better understand the teaching experience. Usually, I am on a campus as "the expert," observing, interviewing, and collecting the data that will inform intervention recommendations for the tried-everything-and-nothing's-worked students. I wanted just a glimpse of what it is like to be on the receiving end of those recommendations. From the teacher's perspective, how feasible are my recommendations from inside the classroom? Am I that guy -- the highly-educated specialist who operates purely in theory, with no clue about how a real classroom functions? I realize that substitute teaching affords me only a limited capacity to generalize to the experience of a full-time classroom teacher, but I walked away from that day in awe of what classroom teachers do on a day-to-day basis; unless one has actually taught in a classroom, it's virtually impossible to appreciate the personal effort and investment required to teach well.

The experience piqued my curiosity. Do certain characteristics or practices emerge in teachers who teach well, and who teach well over the course of a career? As a psychologist and clergy, my intent was to explore the psychological and existential variables that might be relevant to the question, and that research became the basis for my book, The Power of a Teacher. Ultimately, I found two variables that characterized professionals who can overcome the slippery slope of burnout to excel over time in any field: they understand their calling, and they practice well-being.

Author and educator Parker Palmer has eloquently articulated the differences between a job (a basic agreement to exchange labor for money), a career (a job with advancement opportunities), and a calling (work you find intrinsically fulfilling that allows you to regularly experience what researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as "flow."). Professionals -- teachers -- who excel in their respective fields remain mindful of their calling; they have linked the mundane, day-to-day components of their occupation with their deepest value system. Stated differently, they are deeply invested in the why of their calling, and that is the most powerful fuel source an individual can tap for long-term engagement.

Another characteristic of professionals who excel over time in their respective fields without succumbing to burnout is that they practice well-being. The concept of well-being is fairly new to us Westerners. The Western model of medicine views the body as a machine, with parts to be fixed, replaced or removed after they have broken. The Eastern model of medicine, however, views the body as a garden, a life source that requires ongoing maintenance and nurturing. Both models are useful -- the Western model is particularly helpful in diagnosis and treatment, while the Eastern model promotes prevention. We can think of well-being as a spoked wheel, with each spoke representing a major area of life: occupational, emotional, financial, spiritual, and physical. Individuals who practice well-being are wise stewards in all areas. Their life wheel is round and robust, representing the best life they can possibly be living. When we practice well-being, we are much more resilient to work-related stress. In contrast, when we are not practicing well-being, we are not living our most power-filled life, rendering us much more vulnerable to work-related stress.

When my travel schedule slows in September, I'll start subbing a few days a month again. Regardless of which K-12 classroom I enter as a sub, I will enter with zero credibility; students will not be impressed with either of my doctorates, my Ivy League training, or where I post my blog. What they will care about as we interact throughout the day are the answers to these two questions: 1) Do you really care about me? 2) Can I make my own rules? The clarity and consistency with which I answer those two questions will determine whether I earn their respect and become a credible voice in their lives, or whether I become just a warm-bodied adult looking to get a paycheck. Effectively answering those two questions with a clear and consistent yes and no, respectively, will drain me and require me to be refilled; that is the daily cycle for any engaged classroom teacher.

As a classroom teacher, you are faced with a myriad of variables that directly impact your classroom and over which you have very limited control: decisions about standardized tests, curriculum, discipline plans, and parental involvement. If that lack of control does not leave you feeling powerless, overwhelmed and burned out at times, you are either a superhero or in just a bit of denial. Remember, though, that even though the headlines may be discouraging, you have power to write your own story by focusing on variables over which you do have control. The teacher intent on a lifetime journey on the road of education is wise to consistently invest meaningful quantities of the oil of his or her attention in the squeaky wheel that matters most: the wheel of personal well being.

My hope for you this school year is that you will teach with mindfulness of your calling. Be enlightened, be encouraged, and be well.