So I have this plant growing in my front yard. For the majority of the year it is largely unremarkable. It so very rarely produces anything of value in my life, yet it consumes water and takes up space in my yard that could be used for something much more rewarding and useful. To add insult to injury, this scrubby looking bush is covered all over with little thorns full of poison that are poised to puncture and penetrate my flesh with a painful prick. Why do I even put up with the insolence and pointlessness of this greenery?
For a few months out of the year this lovely plant produces the most beautiful pink blooms. The entirety of the bush is covered with an explosion of color; what’s more, it is the first thing I see when I open the front door on my way to the car before heading off to work. What a joy it is to have the privilege of such a pretty sight to start off my day! The fact that it only blooms a few months out of the year means that I really appreciate this aesthetic gift when it is present. Who cares about thorns when they are a slight inconvenience eclipsed a much larger source of pleasure?
How often do we have the choice between optimism and pessimism in all aspects of life? I know that I experience the choice on a daily basis, but I don’t always make the right one. All too often I see the thorns in spite of the roses.
As a father I have experienced several years of sleep deprivation, very little private time to quietly reflect and muse, and much less flexibility to travel or go on adventures. At the same time my life is so much more full of love and joy because of my two little boys. When I get home from work, I hear the oldest one say, “Mommy, mommy! Da-eeee’s home!” right before he slams into me with a giant hug and relays the day’s highlights. When I first see the youngest one, he lights up, smiles, and says, “Da da.” This always relieves stress and makes me more cheerful.
My oldest son and I have an amazing bedtime ritual. He gets a bath, hides from me somewhere in the living room, “surprises” me, gets dressed, brushes teeth, goes outside to see the moon and pick up a weed/root for Mommy, hugs Mommy goodnight, and then the action-packed part begins. We pick out our four books to read, I give him a raspberry on his tummy, I give him a pancake (I lay flat over his chest as he exhales abruptly), we play THE game (I cover him with his blankets and then we try to scare each other), we bear hug each other, and then we pray. Of course what follows is a litany of threats about not getting out of bed, not throwing his basketball, and not fake crying about losing one of his 20 balls he sleeps with.
Would I trade these precious moments for more sleep and freedom? Heck no! These are my lil’ mates. They add a depth and richness to life that would have been inexplicable to my pre-parent, younger self.
The same principle goes for teaching. I have recently taken a massive risk with my teaching style. Since Spring Break, I have been using personalized learning via a digital platform. As with any time that you experiment and take risks, I have experienced some failures. To make matters worse, many of my students have protested the new form of learning because they either liked the old way more or they don’t quite understand the ends and outs of the new system. This is partially my fault for jumping into a new style and philosophy of teaching with a few months left in the school year and because I am still understanding the methods myself. If all I did was focus on the negativity, the clear response would be to go back to the old way of teaching. One of my mentors continually says that he would rather do the right thing wrongly than do the wrong thing better and better. I know that what I am doing is the right thing, but it is tough to carry on when others doubt me and the results are less than expected.
The crazy thing is that there are a tons of success stories. I had a student who has struggled in history all year long come up to me and say that they have actually learned something and enjoyed history for the first time as a result of personalized learning. Many other students have been challenged for the first time because they have to own their education and actually learn instead of just being good at school. Those two things are different. This is something new that I have learned as well. These students had to be in control of their pacing, the sources where they acquired their learning, and how they learn. I have opened up all of this to them so that they can have more say and more responsibility in their learning. Some have leaped for joy at the prospect of learning the way that they learn best. This is like getting a tailored suit instead of a generic sized suit off the rack. The main point here is that there is an immense amount of things to be grateful for and excited about with personalized learning, but sometimes I let the failures control my thoughts.
What I have been doing for the last several months to avoid negativity is practicing optimism and gratitude through the Five Minute Journal. I have not purchased the hard copy version or the app, but I have used the basic template to journal every day. In the morning I write down three specific things that I am thankful for. Many times I cannot stop at three because there are so many things to be thankful for as a Christian, an American citizen, a husband of an amazing wife, a father of two healthy boys, and a teacher at the best school in America. Next, I write down at least three things that would make today great. I try my best to avoid to-do list items, and instead I try to focus on big picture goals and experiences. Finally, I write down a few words of affirmation. These might be about how my identity is in Christ, not simply my role as a father, husband, and teacher. These might also be focused on a self pep talk. For example, “I am a capable and thoughtful teacher.”, “Personalized learning is worth the risk.”, or “The difficult parent meeting today will go well because I have the child’s best interest in mind.” Words of affirmation help me to prepare for the challenges of the day by having the right mindset. The final two pieces come at the end of the day. I write down a few things that made today great and at least one thing that could have gone better. The Five Minute Journal has really helped me to practice gratitude and optimism.
The choice is ours. We can either look at our circumstances in life and see the thorns, or we can see the roses. They are both there either way. We might as well enjoy the roses.
Here are some verses that also help me with optimism and gratitude.
“This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” -Psalm 118:24 (KJV)
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” -John 14:27 (NIV)
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” -Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV)