It’s mid-February . . . which means it’s that time of year when I want to jam a spoon in my eye and quit teaching. I won’t, of course, because I love my job and my eye. But I’m drained, run-down, irritable, bloated (that last one has nothing to do with teaching, but it still adds to the dilemma). It is in these moments that I pray for blizzards and sub-zero temperatures just to get a day off. Really, I pray that these blizzards hit our state capital so they take a break from passing silly educational laws.
It’s in this slump of the school year that I feel the least inspired. I’ve habituated routines and habits that are getting me through each day, but not joyfully. I could blame it on seasonal affectiveness disorder, but blame is like playing Candy Crush: It gives me something to do but it doesn’t help me in life.
Here’s the real issue: I keep waiting for other things and other people to change before I allow myself to change. I tell myself things like, “When my students start coming to class in better moods, then I’ll be in a better mood” or “Once we get through this whole testing season, I’ll get back to focusing on the things worth teaching.” But, after eight years in this gig, when is the “testing season” ever over? When are my pubescent, under-rested, over-tested teenagers ever going to conspire together to have a “smiley” day?
Inspiration is not conditional. Inspiration emerges when we work to get inspired—when we show up day after day with effort and initiative. We notice what we look for and when we work to create change, change is created.
I’m reminded of this after re-reading Stephen King’s timeless On Writing. In it, there is a brief but powerful description about inspiration:
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair . . . It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.”
I want to be inspired to not just survive this late-winter slump but to thrive in this critical time of year. And, if I want to be inspired, I have to be active, not passive. I have to do the work. In order to do so, I commit to:
1. Stop the excuses.
I’m done blaming my state legislatures for the quality of instruction in my room. I can not blame my students’ parents. I cannot blame my students themselves. Is the newest slew of laws making my job harder and the education in my school less authentic? Yes. Am I frustrated at some parents who enable apathy and disrespect in their kids? Yes. Do I want to scream at my students to wake up and take their education more seriously? Yep. But, none of these realities should allow me to give a mediocre performance, nor should they compromise my values. Blaming is an excuse and excuses erode innovation.
The antibiotic for my excuses is a pill called, “Internal Locus of Control.” I cannot control what laws and decisions are made. I cannot control the parenting of my students. I cannot control how little my students sleep nor how their culture perceives education. But I can control how I show up as a teacher. In short, I can’t control the context beyond my classroom, but I can control what happens when students cross my threshold. What makes us truly human is our autonomy—our ability to make choices. And, although I cannot always choose the context in which I teach, I can choose what I do with that context.
Most of all, I do not allow my students to make excuses for the choices they make. Why would I allow that in myself?
2. Step out of my comfort zone
Inspiration denotes that some change must occur; no rational person thinks, “I want to be inspired to keep doing the same thing.” So, if I am going to furnish an apartment for my muse, my interior design must include conscious change. Whether it is changing how I construct a lesson, how I manage my classroom, or how I call on students, I must do the work first so my muse knows how to find me.
The question then is not, if I should change. It is how best to change. And, the answer to that question really involves four simple steps.
Step 1: Learn Something New
There are close to 4 million teachers in the United States alone. Dozens of them reside in my own building. And, every single one of them does something great that I don’t do yet. Part of our “expecting inspiration to hit us” can best be seen in the habit of “locking ourselves in our classrooms.” It’s silly to expect my colleagues to find me and tell me what great things they are doing. I must find them.
We also live in the age of information. Think: There are more resources on great teaching today than there have ever been in our history. Whether it’s websites like WeAreTeachers, books, or videos, I can at least commit to learning about and trying one new thing this month.
Step 2: Try New Thing
That’s all. Just try it. No matter what.
Step 3: Get Feedback on Said New Thing
An ego is a muse repellant. Our ego is what keeps us from asking for help from our colleagues, our bosses, and our students. As I wrote last week, student feedback has been an essential push out of my comfort zone for the better. If I want inspiration, I need to ask for feedback rather than wait to be pushed. Sure, I’m a reflective practitioner. But, if my own brain were all I needed, I wouldn’t be seeking inspiration, right?
Step 4: Repeat
3. Innovate like an ant
I often have these grand visions of the sweeping changes I will make as a teacher. I construct thirty different conditions—new technologies, new seating charts, new props, new books, new Expo markers—that must combine in perfect harmony to change the world. And then I get overwhelmed, eat an entire Hot-N-Ready pizza, and sulk in front of my Netflix queue, depressed and more bloated than when I started. I’ve realized how often I overcomplicate innovation by focusing on massive adjustments. It doesn’t have to be that difficult.
It’s time I approach inspiration like a colony of ants—moving one grain of sand every day, over and over and over. In practice this looks like choosing to innovate just one thing, and living this change with integrity until I see its effect fully. Sure, my state and district are expecting ninety-two different changes every week. And of course, these requirements will get some of my energy. But, I decide which innovations demand my attention most; I will choose which one, simple thing gets the highest calibre of my effort, letting everything else come as it may. If I’m forced to juggle, I might as well keep a few balls in the air with zest rarther than drop all ninety-two.
I’m done waiting for my muse to just show up while I sit, sulk, and eat pizza. I’m ready to work for it. You in?
Chase Mielke is a learning junky who happens to have a love affair with teaching. A book-addict by night and a teacher and instructional coach by day, he fantasizes about old libraries and fresh Expo Markers. His obsessions with psychology, well-being, and cognition often live on his blog, affectiveliving.wordpress.com.