How to Stay Motivated and Focused When it Feels Hard
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The past few weeks, we’ve been talking about fun and exciting ways to bring in the New Year with your students. We talked about super fun and simple ways to love up your kiddos on Christmas Day, we talked about super cool learning experiments and writing projects you can do along with them, and last week, we even talked about how you can create vision boards with your students.
But what if you just aren’t feeling it?
What if you’re listening to all of this but inside you’re thinking – okay, all that sounds great, but right now, I feel like I’m barely staying above water. I’m just so overwhelmed with doing all of the things that I can’t even begin to think about special projects or going above and beyond or anything else.
What if I’m having a hard enough time just staying motivated enough to keep getting up and going to work each day?
Well, today we are going to talk about 3 very simple and practical things you can do to get relief right away and find your way forward to actually enjoy teaching again. So, take a breath and put on your walking shoes, or grab a coffee or your favorite beverage, and let’s settle in and chat about how you can stay motivated and focused, even when it feels really hard.
Commit to staying in the game.
What you might not know about me is that I started this blog and podcast less than a year ago, and I’ve worked at least 50 hours every week to get it off the ground.
In fact, there was a period of time in the summer where I worked every single day for 90 days straight - that’s right – not even one day off – so I could release my READY for School Academy in time for you to have it last summer. I have been working so hard that sometimes I don’t even know what month it is, let alone what day of the week it is.
The thing is, when I started to ask other business owners when I would start to see some momentum, when I might be able to really see this business move forward, I kept being told that it would take 3 to 5 years.
I nearly died.
When I realized that it would take me not one or even two, but possibly five years of more than full-time work to really establish my business, my first thought was that this was a whole lot of work that I didn’t know I wanted to do.
However, when I realized that putting in that amount of work time, even when it's hard, really could make an incredible difference for new teachers, everything changed. Suddenly I wasn't waiting for things to move forward... instead, I made the commitment to just do what I could today, and to commit to playing the long game.
So the first step, as simple as it sounds, really is to just commit to not quitting.
And here’s where the magic happens… once I decided that I was all in, that I was NOT going to quit, no matter how hard it was and how long it took, literally the next day, I got an idea that I’m working on right now for you that could change everything for new teachers.
Seriously – it’s such a crazy awesome idea and I can’t wait to tell you about it once I get things really moving on it – and it never would have come to me if I hadn’t first made the decision to just go for it and to not give up, no matter what.
There's an incredible quote by Goethe that I kept in front of me throughout my entire PhD and reminded myself of every single time things felt unbearable, and it's this:
"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." - Goethe
Because here’s the thing: Until you’ve truly committed to being a teacher – and once you’ve removed the possibility of quitting – it’s off the table, you are no longer going to consider that, period, you find ways forward that you wouldn’t have seen before. Goethe knew what he was talking about - that's when the magic happens.
Be bold. Stay with it, even thought it's hard.
Just because something is hard is not a reason to quit. It just means that you’ve been presented with another opportunity to grow.
We ask our students to do this all of the time, right? When something is hard, is our advice to them to just give up? NO! Our advice to them is to keep trying until they figure it out, until they solve the problem, and to keep working on it until it feels easier.
Learning to read is a real challenge for a lot of our students, but what kind of a disservice would we be doing them if we said, “Yeah, you’re right, it’s hard – there’s no point in continuing to try to learn to read. Why don’t you just give up and do something else instead?”
Somehow it feels different when it’s our career, and when these first few years feel really, really hard. But, here’s the truth:
You’ve already invested four years of your life into this career – and the reality is that teaching is no different than many other things in life that feel really hard in the beginning.
It’s hard. So what?
It gets easier, I promise. I know, because I stuck it out. I got over the hill. I figured it out, I worked and experimented and tried and failed and tried something else until I got my classroom running as smooth as butter, and I can promise you this:
There are amazing rewards waiting for you throughout your teaching future, like diamonds hidden in quiet moments.
You just never know when a child is going to come back to you, wrap you up in a giant bear hug, and tell you that you changed their life because you didn't give up on them. Like Mackenzie, who I taught in 2nd grade nearly 20 years ago, who came back and said this when she found out I had started a podcast:
All because I didn't give up in teaching. Nothing you do in any other profession compares to knowing that you are truly making a difference. That you are changing a life. That what you do matters.
This is no different than anything else that's new.
This teaching thing is still very new to you. It’s supposed to be hard.
However, just like learning to drive a car, at the beginning it’s really hard because there are SO many things you need to focus on and to learn how to do.
Do you remember what it was like to learn to drive a car?
At first, you can’t even handle having a conversation with someone because you are trying to remember to look in your rear view mirror, check your speed, and use your blinker when you turn.
But eventually, you can do all of those things without even thinking about it AND you can eventually not only have a conversation while you’re driving, but you can even process new information while you’re doing it. You can listen to a podcast, you can have a phone conversation, you can even listen to a book. Amazing. :-)
My point is that the longer you drive, the easier it gets.
Teaching is no different.
Right now, you are consumed by how much effort and constant juggling of attention it takes to remember to do all the things. Heck, in the first ten minutes of every day, you are expected to make more decisions than most people have to in an entire morning.
You need to remember to have your students’ morning work ready, take attendance, talk briefly to a parent about something when they drop their child off, check that you aren’t on recess supervision, collect Scholastic book orders, finalize Wednesday’s hot lunch order, and confirm with the teacher across the hall about book buddies after recess. And we haven’t even talked about your morning’s lessons yet!
I get it. And it may not feel this way right now, but please trust me, one day you will laugh about how hard you are finding those things, just like how hard it was for you to remember to use your blinker at a turn when you were first learning to drive.
Stay in this moment and focus on today.
Overwhelm usually comes when we are too busy projecting the feeling we are having in the current moment into the future.
What if you decided, instead of focusing on that kid who is driving you crazy and did something awful, what if you decided to focus on one thing that you did well and that is going well today?
The repeat feeling of how hard it feels right now, over and over again into an endless future is what gives birth to overwhelm and to a feeling of hopelessness.
But, it isn’t real.
There is absolutely no reason to believe that the feelings you are having today about how hard your job is are going to be repeated endlessly in the future.
All you know for sure is that right now, as you are listening to or reading this, you are feeling down because it’s feeling really hard, and it’s likely felt hard for awhile now.
But, what if your feeling of overwhelm and sadness is being recreated every day because you have, without even realizing it, decided that today is likely going to be just as hard as yesterday was and last week?
What if today, you made a different decision?
What if today, you decided that you were going to focus on the light instead of the dark?
What if today, you decided to NOT participate in that conversation in the teacher’s lounge where everybody gathers to spend ten minutes filling their bodies with donuts and sugar and their heads with complaints about kids?
What if you decided that today, you were going to make a different decision. What if instead of choosing – because it’s always a choice, even though it doesn’t feel like it sometimes – what if instead of choosing to go to that complaining party in the staff room, you decided instead to stay in your room, close the door, to take a few deep breaths, and in the quiet and peace of that magical space, you decided instead to think about 5 things you are grateful for today?
Don’t tune this out and stop reading because you think this is just some kind of self-help exercise that people tell you to do. 😊
Instead, I want you to think of how practical this is in terms of how it can impact how you’re feeling right now, in this very moment.
What if you could come up with five things that you can celebrate – no matter how small they are? Maybe you remembered to get your morning work ready before the kids even entered the classroom. Yay you!
What if your lesson in language arts had your kiddos laughing and engaged and enjoying learning? Another success for you.
What if you actually got up fifteen minutes earlier that morning and washed your hair instead of using dry shampoo for the third day in a row? Woo hoo! It matters.
The point is that we get to choose every day – every day really is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present. It’s a present – and we get to choose how we are going to treat this present.
The future doesn’t have to be a repeat of the horrible past few weeks or months that it may feel like. Today can mark the beginning of a new pattern if you’ll let it.
You just have to allow yourself the courage to let today be a little lighter. 💛
And it’s kind of funny how this works – because once you start seeing the light more than the dark – once you invite more light into your everyday moments and celebrate all of the good that you are doing (and I know you’re doing good – even though you’re super hard on yourself) once you start focusing just on this present moment of today and invite more good and light into this moment, your next moment can’t help but have a little more sunshine in it as well.
Allow your new pattern to be one of allowing more light and sunshine and hope and good into your life and into your teaching life.
Here’s where the really cool part comes in… and I want you to write to me and tell me about how this happens for you – it’s kind of crazy – I’ve realized that the more I focus on the good and the light and the positive instead of dwelling on the bad thing that just happened… things turn out really weirdly for the positive.
For example, one time when I did exactly what I’m suggesting you do – shift the energy and focus on the good and the light and the positive, even when something really bad had just happened with a student – after recess, that student came back and actually apologized to me for their behavior.
I couldn’t believe it. Now, I’m not saying that the two were directly tied together – but it was kind of weird how it happened.
But less specifically, just think about how differently you are going to carry yourself when you are feeling lighter and happier and choosing to focus on all of the good instead of the darkness.
Just think about how your students are going to respond when you are happy and vibrant and loving and light with them every day because you are choosing to know that you are so incredibly lucky to have the privilege to light their path and give them hope for their future.
That’s who you get to choose to be for them in every moment. You have the complete freedom to do that every single day for your incredibly lucky students, if you'll only allow yourself to choose lightness.
So that, my friends, is how you can stay motivated and focused when it feels hard.
Coming Up Next Week:
I hope you’ll tune in again next week because I am going to talk about why I left teaching. Many of you might be wondering – if I love teaching so much, and if I’m here telling you how to stay focused and motivated even when it feels hard, why am I not still in the classroom? I think you’re going to find the answer pretty amusing, and I’ll give you a hint – it wasn’t because it was hard. We’ll talk all about it next week, so I hope you’ll join me!
Until then, I hope you have a fabulous week, and remember - just because you're a beginning elementary teacher, there is no need for you to struggle like one.
P.S. Did you see this awesome new writing resource I just released inside my Teachers Pay Teachers store? Your students are going to love it! Check it out by clicking here or on the pic below :-)
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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