Today I want to talk about something I keep seeing crop up in my early childhood educator circles. I often see posts online from teachers who are clashing with their colleagues due to them having different opinions on how things should be in their classrooms. They ask for advice on how to help the children when the other adult does x, y or z, that they don’t agree with. They ask for advice on how to talk to the other person about what they believe in, without upsetting them or causing more disruptions. They talk about how stressed out this other person is making them and how they can’t take it much longer. Anybody notice a pattern here? This educator is asking for help outside of themselves. They often want solutions to the problems without considering what THEY can do for themselves – which ironically is the thing that does end up having an impact on everything else. This can be a hard lesson to look at – I know this, because I teach myself it every day in my self-coaching! But no fear, no shame, no judgement here – I’m here to hold your hand and gently guide you through this process. Still with me? Great! Let’s go!
You can improve your experience at work in the classroom (and at home when you spend hours and hours considering all the different things you can do tomorrow to improve the temperature in your classroom – I see you! Been there, done that, got the whole wardrobe!!!) when you engage in self-awareness as a way of managing stress. The stress you experience in the classroom is enhanced when you believe things are not in your control. There are circumstances that exist in classrooms all around the world that are out of our control – for example; class sizes, who works with you, your work hours, which children you have with you, what curriculum you follow. When you believe that these circumstances are out of your control and there’s nothing you can do about them and they are the reason why everything is terrible…how will things ever change? How will you ever feel even slightly better? Can you see how stuck you can feel if you think this is all true and there is no room for change?
The key to unlocking this is understanding that YOU always have the control within yourself as to how you show up each day. You can change what you think about things that are out of your control and ease your stress and overwhelm with each thought – without ever changing the problem! You can always choose new thoughts and when you realise this, it can empower you to make new choices about how you interact with the people that you work with as well as what you choose to think about yourself. You can take ownership of the things you do, knowing that they align with your values and you can be proud of yourself for choosing how to show up.
When you think something is unfair, does that help you change the situation? When you believe something is happening to you, does that empower you to create new actions? How does any of this serve you in who you want to be and how you want to show up in the world? When we believe that external factors are more important than our efforts, we are more likely to believe that we have less chance to succeed. This is the trap we fall into in the classroom. We get stuck and wrapped up in what others are doing (or not doing!), then we forget how much power and control we have over our own decisions and feelings. We get sucked into our mental chatter and start believing our own thoughts that we cannot do anything and nothing will ever get better.
It’s exhausting and these thoughts can end up having physical effects on our bodies – we get fatigued, we have breakouts, we don’t eat in a way that nourishes our bodies and we act out in ways that don’t align with our true higher selves. That’s when I see educators become stressed, overwhelmed and burned out. They are turning up each day fighting against what they believe in, and when you do that you will lose every time. Nobody is expecting you to be super chill all the time (sorry Leslie Knope!), but everyone should expect EVERYONE to not be super stressed all the time. That is not okay.
Self-awareness is crucial in being able to see yourself clearly – what you think, what you feel and how you act. It requires you to see yourself objectively, through reflection and investigation. It can sometimes be painful to do, but ultimately if you work your way through the uncomfortable feelings you can get to the other side in one piece. Self-awareness is not a black and white issue, it is more of a spectrum (dare I say, a rainbow?! Ha!). Sometimes we are super self-aware and other times we are not. Some people are more self-aware than others. Some days we walk around thinking thoughts, feeling feelings and taking action without being aware of why we are doing anything. Other days we are extremely aware of all of these things and sometimes that causes us to change course, sometimes we continue on the same path. My point is, don’t label yourself as someone who is self-aware or not – and especially don’t label others as being self-aware or not, that doesn’t help anyone. Being self-aware about what you believe should be happening in your classroom and what the actual reality is are two interconnected things. When you break down what is happening and what you want to happen, you can start to see where your thoughts can change and how that impacts your feelings – this is what drives you to take action and create actual change (for yourself, for your co-workers and for the children in your classroom).
In this blog post I shared just two ways to increase your self-awareness, but here are three questions you can ask yourself to help you manage your mind in the classroom:
1. What am I feeling right now? Assessing your emotions, naming and labelling them as you feel them gives you a chance to observe your body’s physical reactions to situations. You can give yourself some distance by becoming aware of what you are feeling and being an observer. You can say to yourself, “I am feeling angry” rather than “I am angry”. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s everything!
2. What am I thinking right now? Take a second to step back and observe yourself – work out what thoughts you are having when you encounter a circumstance that feels stressful or overwhelming. The children or other adults are not the problem – something you are thinking about them (or indeed about yourself e.g. I can’t handle this) is what is causing you additional suffering. Working out this thought will help you to explore what results you are creating from it.
3. What can I think instead? This particular question is a good one to do a deep-dive on at a later time when you are not in a period of conflict, but even just being aware of the idea of what you CAN do to help can shift the balance from ‘everything that is happening is awful’ to ‘here’s one step I can take to make a difference right now’. This question is particularly useful when you are stressed in the classroom as it can instantly create a feeling of calm – but only if you believe the new thought.
Self-awareness precedes self-management. You can’t manage your emotions as well if you don’t know why they are there in the first place. I know that these three questions and the thought work and positive psychology tools I teach will help you because I have been there myself. I have worked in classrooms where I felt completely out of control, like nothing I was doing was helping and I was convinced it was all my coworker’s fault that everything was going wrong. And guess what? It didn’t help me one bit to think like that. And nothing changed until my thoughts did. Of course, the number one thing you can think when you are stressed is “I am safe”. This thought will work as a quick go-to if you don’t feel like you have enough time to dig into the three questions above. Trusting that you are safe and can make it through the current stressful situation will give your body a message to relax – and who doesn’t want more of that?
“Just because no one else can heal or do your inner work for you doesn’t mean you can, should, or need to do it alone.”
– Lisa Olivera
If you find yourself thinking stressful thoughts or experiencing stress regularly in your classroom or place of work, there is nothing wrong with you. It is totally human and normal for you to do this. There is also nothing wrong with advocating for yourself in terms of asking for changes in the workplace – if the circumstances are able to be changed e.g. an extra pair of hands can be in the room during a particularly stressful time or perhaps a co-teacher can switch with another who has more experience dealing with challenging behaviour, then OF COURSE this will be super helpful. What I want to highlight is that even if things can’t be changed, you can always do the work to change your thoughts instead. It can be really hard work to let yourself be vulnerable and let yourself be aware of what you are really thinking – but from my experience it is the most rewarding. This is challenging work – we may never discover all the things that emotionally trigger us, we may never be able to create positive relationships with other staff or even the children. But we have the ability to consciously make decisions to work on ourselves in order to increase our own self-awareness, lower our stress levels and boost our happiness. When this happens, our job satisfaction will of course increase too! When you are willing to take risks, try new strategies and look at your past experiences with the perspective of learning something rather than being ashamed, embarrassed or a failure then educators can change the weather in their classrooms – which will positively affect everyone there!