Long ago, I wrote that one of the “Jedi mind tricks” for avoiding burnout is this: you are not your job. Or rather, the mind trick lies in training yourself to habitually remember that your job performance is not indicative of your value as an individual.
It helps to think here of two circles: one is your identity, and the other is your performance at work. What you want is for your identity and your work to look like a Venn diagram. You do want some connection between the circles because there’s a goodness in taking ownership of how things go at work, in engaging yourself in what you do. But you don’t want total overlap — as you can see in the figure, this creates a jumbled mess.
When your identity as a person is rooted in your performance at work, you’ll end up struggling with all kinds of things. When you succeed, you’ll get puffed up with pride and become insufferable. When you fail, you’ll be smashed to smithereens or you’ll pretend the failure didn’t happen or you’ll start closing your door more so no one else sees. And when a student misbehaves in the room, you’ll lack that precious constancy that Lynsay and I talk about in the Warmth module of the Classroom Management Course.
And here’s where we get to the point of today’s post. Yesterday I had the pleasure of starting to read UK teacher-writer Greg Ashman’s The Truth About Teaching: An Evidence-Informed Guide for New Teachers. In the chapter on classroom management, Greg gets into this idea of constancy. In a list of strategies for managing one’s room well, Greg advises that we “be assertive and stay calm” (p. 22).
“If you lose your temper, then not only are you modeling poor behavior, to some extent you are also giving students a gossip-worthy reward. Focusing on the facts, the observable behaviors, helps reduce the emotional heat.”
Okay, so now we all feel even worse for those times when we’ve lost our temper. Great. But Greg goes on.
“It is easier to stay calm if you… place some distance between yourself and your role… I used to imagine that ‘the teacher’ was a puppet under my control, [and that] I could experiment with what the teacher did and see how the students responded. This helps when students inevitably say hurtful things that they don’t really mean. They are reacting to ‘the teacher’ and not to you as an individual” (p. 23).
It’s this idea of ‘the teacher’ as a puppet that I really like. This is an image to help our minds and hearts with the challenging task of keeping our identity looking like a Venn diagram and not a smashed-up pie. As you prepare for that class that you’re having a hard time with, you can imagine that, come class time, you’re going to have the chance to deploy a lifelike puppet to do your bidding. You’ll have the puppet work to teach the students as best you can. But when things don’t go right for the puppet, picture yourself pondering what happened and working it out — like a puzzle, so to speak.
What Greg’s mind trick helps us do is manage what psychologists call our locus of identity. It helps us do what we want to do — to stoke the fires of teacher joy while also warding against the storms of emotion. You and I aren't meant to have our sense of self be dependent on something as elusive as our daily performance in the classroom.
Dr Jim Nichols says
Reminds me of Tim Keller book Counterfeit Gods, where our job becomes our “Idol”,our source of identity. Valuable insights for all teachers. Thank you. Will share.
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Yes, Jim — Keller’s teaching on idols was formative for me in the early part of my career!
Great reminders. Thanks so much for the wisdom.
Dave Stuart Jr. says
My pleasure, Meredith.
Jenny Johansen says
In my teens, I vowed and declared I would never become a teacher as many of my own high school teachers seemed to run their classes on the sheer energy of ego. “How dare you do that in MY class!” they would proclaim to us all…. It was painful as a student. It was like we just didn’t matter and it was all about them. Anyway – as it happens, I have now been a teacher for over 25 years. My core belief is still that teaching is about the students, their development, their wellbeing. I guess those “role models” of teachers whose job was their identity helped me develop my opposite, and I think more effective, beliefs about teaching and learning, Great article again Dave!
Dave Stuart Jr. says
That’s a wise belief to build a career on, Jenny. Thank you for writing.