Change your words to change your mind

Some days you need to hear encouraging words to get you back on track or re-frame a challenging moment. As classroom teachers we spend most days as a solitary adult and some of the most important conversations we might have are with ourselves. Our self-talk on challenging days can be our worst enemy:

“If only I had said…”
“I should have done …”
“I am a crappy teacher, because… ”
“I am so frustrated with….”
“That student is being so rude to ME.”
“I totally messed up!!”

Or our self-talk can be a tool we rely on like a trusty teaching strategy or structure. For me purposeful self-talk has stopped me from making a mountain out of a mole hill (most times), prevented engagement in non-productive conflict and reminded me to be empathetic instead of judgmental.

What words do you use to navigate life’s inevitable hurdles?
Do you have favorite sayings or catch phrases you use again and again?

Some of mine are:

1. You are enough

It’s Sunday night, you’ve just had a great weekend with family and friends. You consider your mental list of things you hoped to accomplish for school Monday morning. You begin to feel disappointed with yourself: you should have done _____ .  AS a result tomorrow is going to be awful! You begin to lose perspective and react with plans to get up super early. In those moments remind yourself…you are enough.
Your enthusiasm, your love of the job, your empathy, and the hard work you have already invested are enough.

 2. Your mistakes are the stepping-stones for your learning journey

You are asked to present to the staff. You hate presenting in front of people but decide to take the opportunity and challenge yourself. The presentation day comes and you are ready. In fact you are over ready. The presentation goes great but you make one small mistake, unnoticed by all. You mentally “beat yourself up” over it and begin to re-frame the presentation as a failure.
Those mistakes, no matter how big or small, are the paving stones of your learning leading you forward.
Step on them boldly and proudly: you are a learner!

3. This too will pass

The bad day, the bad mood, the bad moment, even the bad week or month. It will pass, it will, look ahead and beyond.
Look out to the farthest horizon…it will pass.

4. Everyone has their bag of rocks

You are having the worst day, the worst luck, and the worst of everything. Remember to consider what are the challenges facing your students and your colleagues? Each has their own unique bag of rocks they carry. Instead of counting your rocks, consider which can you help them lose, which can you carry for them, and which can you pulverize into fine sand?
We each have our bag of rocks.

5. This is not about you

You are at the photocopier. A colleague comes along and starts in at you for not replacing the toner, fixing the jam or some other problem you did not cause.
Just know in that moment this is not about you. Look beyond you and into them.
This is not about you.

6. This does measure your efficacy 

The messy desk, the unwashed glassware (a science teacher’s nemesis), or the piece of equipment you did not put away… yet…again.
These do not measure your ability as a teacher, your connection with students. Don’t use them as such. Go back to #1.

7. You catch more bees with honey

When you start to get down on your students and begin to have a series of blaming thoughts: my students are lazy, my students don’t care etc. Remember you will always catch more bees with honey. Getting angry or frustrated with your students won’t fix the problem.
Inviting them in with a new positive frame might.
Bees like honey.

8.  You are bigger than this

In those moments when your ego comes out ready to fight, when you see your anger or frustration rising.
See the feeling and let it move through you.
You are bigger than this. You are.

9. This day is over. A new one begins tomorrow

As each day closes out, find “bubble bath” time to reflect on what went well and the challenge. Close the chapter on the day and look forward to starting the next day fresh.
The next day is new and ready for you to start again and anew.

10. Next time…

When you did paper mâché with the kids and the glue went everywhere; when a water fight broke out with the new spray bottles (and yes this did happen, next time I won’t say: Don’t use those spray bottles to spray each other!”); when you photocopy the test but leave out the last page; when the perfectly crafted explanation made no sense.
Think next time.
Next time...
you will know how to deal with this, next time you will be ready, next time you will change the tricky part of the activity.



When you lose your way…

There are times, there will be times, or maybe there have been times already…when you lose your way.

You may stumble and fall. Briefly. And be able to pick yourself right back up again.

There may be other times, when, seemingly out of the blue. You crack. The veneer you hold in place opens and you, raw sewage comes spewing out.

Today. I lost my way. I fell down and was not able to pick myself up.
I have been struggling with the transition to my new job. Trying to immerse myself with wholehearted commitment and unbridled abandon. I have been trying to find a pace to fall into. And to a certain extent this has worked.


I am having a hard letting go. Letting go and walking away. I know it is all very tangled up; the most tangled and entangled balls of wool, you probably would throw them away and start fresh. It would be easier. What is of my own making? What is simply my ego in need of validation? What is fear of not being needed? What is just normal transitional angst?  What is self perpetuated? I don’t know and I can’t really tell anymore. I just know today it all came pouring out, a deluge of grief for what I have left.


Luckily. I work with good people. Really, really good people, who you can crack in front off and they open up their arms.

When you lose your way, there is only one way to get found again.

And this is the hardest step.

You have to admit your lost.

Perfectionism, grades, and hollowing out.


Photo shared on Flickr by Roni Rosen

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.
                                                                                                                                                    Anna Quindlen

Over the years as a senior science teacher, I have noticed a trend among high achieving girls* (read note below on why only girls) that I call “hollowing out”.

Hollowing out is when the student shows up in the physical sense but “they are not there”; their soul, spirit, joie de vivre has disappeared and shut down. I have observed hollowing out in seniors who were previously dynamic, outgoing, and high functioning. I have no data to support this, only anecdotal conversations I’ve had with students and their parents over the years about this change in attitude, energy and grades.

A quote from a student struggling to hang in during her grad year after a successful high school career, has stuck with me:

“I am just so tired Ms. Durley, so tired of making everyone else happy, I just can’t do it anymore.”

Not only does the comment break my heart but it captures the emotional cost of being a high flyer and the burn out or “hollowing out” that can result. More haunting than her words, is the memory of the vacant and disconnected look that replaced the once curious twinkling bright eyes from years past.

This alone might make for a good write, but this year my observations moved from moderately concerned teacher to highly concerned parent, as I watched my 16-year-old daughter begin to hollow out.

I did not realize (or admit) what I was watching, until I read Scott McLeod’s post, My Son is a Maker, which hit me like a ton of bricks right in the gut. Part of the reason I avoided examining my feelings is I teach at the same school as my daughter and I felt conflicted. After months of reflection, I understand this issue is not school specific but rather a symptom of the system as a whole. I now feel comfortable discussing it openly; I do not specifically blame our school or staff and accept that I am part of the problem too (more conflict).

Down the proverbial garden path my mind has wandered over several months. Watchful for clues, of my daughter, of the children I work with. I began to wonder if other aspects of school culture are related to perfectionism.


Brené Brown describes perfectionists as: “raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people pleasing, appearance, sports)”. This description makes me think of our school environments, especially in senior years when 90% of what we do with our students is focused on their grades (quizzes, tests, GPA, college/university entrance, scholarships, honour roll, career choices etc.).

Senior years in high school academics are like the training grounds of thoroughbreds for the Kentucky Derby: how you get there does not matter as long as you bring home a ribbon. The drive to hyper-prepare students pointedly for post-secondary education comes at a cost I am not sure we have yet honestly accessed.

As Marc Prensky points out: It’s not that we did education wrong in the past; it’s that our past education no longer works in today’s context. What we did in the past is no longer working.

We can do better.

We need to do better.

We need to do so NOW.

As Brené Brown makes clear: “perfectionism hampers success. In fact it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis”. The irony is in our drive make our children “successful” we drive them away from it. Studies such as Women do better on math tests when they fake their names suggest that girls who feel they will be judged are negatively impacted.

Are challenges we face in our schools consequences of this perfectionist culture found in both schools and society at large?

Such as:

1. Fear of sharing and openness – To share is to be vulnerable. To share is to open oneself up to potential criticism. The risk is great. To share risks that the world will potentially know that: I am not perfect and therefore not lovable.  Brown states: “Belonging is in our DNA, most likely connected to our most primitive survival instinct. Given how difficult it is to cultivate self-acceptance in our perfectionist society and how our need for belonging is hardwired, it’s no wonder that we spend our lives trying to fit in and gain approval.”

Simon Sinek explains it as “Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant that exist across all peoples, in all cultures…When we feel like we belong we feel connected and we feel safe.  As humans we crave the feeling and we seek it out.”

2. Lack of a unified consistent identityDr Alec Couros talks about the importance of a unified online identity. I wonder where and how do children develop a unified identity? Can they decide who they should be if they feel they first must know who WE want them to be?

What happens to identity when they expend a large portion of their energy trying to anticipate what identity will help them fit in, help them be perfect, help them be lovable? I see many young females you are hyper socialized; they are nice (as compared to kind), aware of their image and scripted in public.

3. Product over process: When results matter more than learning it does not matter HOW you get the “right” answer, it just matters that you get it. Academic integrity goes out the window, cheating, and copying are quickly justified.

4. External rewards over internal ones: Only what others see matter: report cards, honour roll, awards, student of the year.

5. Competition over collaboration: Work with others opens students up to the risk that the work will be less than perfect. From the student’s perspective when they work alone they control the work and it WILL be perfect.

As Johnny Bevacqua references in his post Collaboration AND Competition:

In societies where competition is encouraged, children associated competition with greater self-esteem. However, in societies where cooperation was encouraged, children tended to associate cooperation with greater self-esteem. In either case, it was not some inherent quality of the child, but rather the culture itself that most influenced self-esteem.

6. Increased absenteeism: As students hollow out, they increasingly game the system. They feel lack of control over the meaningless of what they are doing and so in reaction they try to take control by maximizing their energies and only attending when “it counts”.

7. Fear of connection: Connection requires honesty and with a perfectionist mindset the thought that the real me might never be liked, instead I will show you what I think you will like.


We could simply “flip” the above statements around, and say let’s work towards that! I have only just begun to collect clues in earnest and to make sense of the translation into actions and processes would look like in our schools.

Below are some starting points for further exploration using the stem provided by brilliant teacher Tom Barrett at #BLC13 in his Design Thinking sessions.

How might we:

1. Develop self-regulation and mindfulness.

2. Cultivate creativity: Let go of comparison, ranking and embrace uncertainty. Could we admit we don’t know what the future will hold but admit that what we are doing is not it?

3. Create white space for goal-less learning and ownership: This Joe Bower post hints at this.

4. Focus on questions instead of answers.

5. Process vs. end point: Give value to getting there, the effort and the skills used in the learning journey, that is continuous and ongoing.

6. Value understanding over knowledge: Move away from that which is Googlable.

7. Celebrate Openness.

I know I can’t turn this ship around for my daughter. But I am so up for helping to turn it around for yours, your sister, your cousin, your wife to be, your granddaughter, your girlfriend.

In closing, I offer this beautifully simple video by Ron Berger on feedback (make if kind, make it specific, and make it useful):

”  . . . and if you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror, look a little closer, stare a little longer, because there’s something inside you that made you keep trying despite everyone who told you to quit.”  

                                                                                                                                                       Shane Koyczan

Further resources:

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

No Tosh’s:  Design Thinking 

The Challenges and Realities of Inquiry Based Learning

*My observations pertain to girls not because I believe girls to be the only victims of perfectionism but primarily because as a mother of a girl I spend more time observing trends that relate to her development. Most students I have become close to over the years have stayed in touch with, got to know their families, are also mainly female.

Perfectionism + grade driven + the need to please = learning?

I sit at the front of the class. I come to class everyday ON TIME. I have highlighters, pens, pencils, eraser ready to go. I greet you with a cheerful “Hello!” every day. I smile and nod at you all class.

I like class best when you give notes, then I know exactly what you want me to know and how you want me to say things.

Just tell me exactly what you want, I will do my best to deliver. Just tell me, OK?

I get anxious when you ask me open-ended questions, I mean what exactly DO YOU want me to say?

Just tell me OK?

I have very good grades. In fact, I spend a lot of my time worrying about my grades. I get pretty anxious before tests, I always think I will fail.

I always double-check every mark that you gave me. I usually just want to know the mark, I don’t really want to go over the test. Who cares, as long as my average is high, right?

I get frustrated when you ask questions that you did not give us the exact answer to. That last test, you even had a question where that expected us to know that ice floats. You never even taught us that! I try hard to give exactly you what you want, but sometimes I am just not sure and that shuts me down.

I would never want to answer a question if I was not 100% certain that I had the exact correct answer.

I don’t really like school, it stresses me out a lot. But I have to get top grades.

I hate when we waste time in class to do labs or group work, I would much rather just do notes and worksheets. Just tell me what to know and I will know it. Some activities are just a complete waste of my time, I mean they are not even for marks? What’s the point?

School is actually pretty boring, but I am good at it. I can usually figure out exactly what a teacher wants to get a good mark.

I am just trying my best to keep my marks high. I hate when I make mistakes, I hate it. When I do, I obsess over it forever. I don’t give my opinion on a topic and I don’t really have one. Why would I? I just want to know what you think is the right answer, that way I can just study that stuff and get a good mark on the test.

Just tell me what you want me to say for the test and I will. Just tell me OK?

Sometimes I think you don’t like me. I ask you questions and you don’t always answer them right away. I just want to know exactly what to put down. I don’t want to start something just to find out I did it wrong, what a waste of time that would be. I would just rather wait for you to tell us. How can I do well if you don’t tell me exactly what you want?

Have you met me?