Teaching is a challenging endeavor. With all the demands on a teacher’s time and energy, it is easy to lose the enthusiasm that brought us into the classroom. The situation is not getting any easier with new requirements added to our load, including standardized testing and dealing with changing curriculums.
My first year teaching, I entered the classroom with idealistic dreams. I went through extra training in pedagogy that tempered those lofty goals and gave me many tools I was anxious to use. I taught 7th grade science in an inner-city school and saw 120 students a day. Sadly, within a few weeks of dealing with a multitude of challenges, I quickly slipped into survival mode and questioned my decision to become a teacher. But, small and sometimes tremendous miracles did happen that kept me moving forward and opened me up to the true rewards of teaching.
The Courage to Teach
Of all the things I have done in my life, getting through my first year of teaching was by far my most challenging undertaking. Early that year, another new teacher saw that I was struggling and generously gave me a book she had been reading that really helped her, Parker Palmer’s book, The Courage to Teach.
Immediately, Parker’s ideas about how important it is for teachers to renew their heart, mind, and spirit made a tremendous impact on me. I realized that through all the stress of teaching, I was not spending any time reflecting, connecting with other teachers, or taking time to replenish my spirit. One of my neglected practices was developing gratitude by making a list of things I was thankful for. This was recommended to me by a friend, and I always felt the benefits when I actually did it.
When I wrote my gratitude list, I built an optimistic attitude through all the challenges of that first year. A fellow teacher commented that even though my first year was tough and she saw me struggle, I kept the most positive attitude she had ever seen. That constructive outlook did help me, but I didn’t see how it could apply with the students yet.
With some of the ideas from Parker Palmer’s book and practicing my attitude of gratitude in the classroom, I would occasionally reach those transcendent moments where I did authentically connect with the students and felt the magic materialize. Here is one of the moments:
An Angel Sings for Me
One day, I came across one of my students, Angel, sitting in the hallway with some sheet music. I asked, “Are you a musician?” She said, “No, but I love to sing and I am learning a new song.” I asked her if she would sing for me, but Angel said, “No, Mr. Griffith, I am too shy.” As I walked away I said, “Someday, when you are ready, you will sing for me.”
Then, a month later, Angel saw me in the hallway and said, “Mr. Griffith, I am ready today.” I tried to think about what she meant. Through the tornado of activity that first month, I forgot about that previous interaction. But she brought out the sheet music, and I suddenly remembered it all. I realized that she had been working for a month on the song and getting her courage up just for this day. I asked her if she would perform for the class, but she said, “No, I will sing just for you.”
That day, when the students all exited the classroom, she closed her eyes, and a voice came out of her that fit her name. It truly seemed like an angel had entered the classroom as she sang. I closed my eyes and enjoyed listening to her share her musical talent.
As I listened, I also realized the power to inspire we have as teachers and that when we challenge our students, they will often respond positively. In addition, she inspired me to bring my guitar into the classroom and share music with my students, integrating it into the lessons I would teach. While she grew in her courage through this interaction, I grew in my ability to connect with my students by seeing that there are many ways to reach students outside the traditional paradigms.
However, many nights, I would still wake up at 3 AM, haunted by all the things going wrong with my teaching. This is when I would remember the book, The Courage to Teach, about nourishing my spirit and I would think of a few things I was grateful for in the classroom, like connecting with Angel.
This kept me going through those darkest hours when quitting teaching starting sounding appealing. But I persevered and I am so grateful I did. If I would have quit, I would have robbed myself of some of the most transformative experiences of my life and the opportunity to connect with others, like helping to start a thriving community of teachers at our school that still meets weekly and continues to help us all grow as educators and human beings.
A Teaching Community is Created
One day, my partner teacher looked at me and said that our discussions about gratitude and growing spiritually had such a powerful and positive impact on both of us; we should share it with the school. Thus began our little group of teachers that developed into a community of educators that meets each Wednesday before school to support each other in the classroom and renew our spirits.
For that first meeting, we all brought home-made baked goodies and I brewed up the fresh coffee. We let the group take shape authentically, as people volunteered to bring books, quotes, and the practices that enabled them to connect with their students and stay strong through the long school year. Our supportive spiritual community was created without any real effort, it came into being.
Each Wednesday, at 7 AM, we would talk about things going on in our classrooms and lives that we needed help with. We would also celebrate the victories with students. Sometimes we would conduct book studies. One time, I even brought my guitar and sang an inspirational song with the choir teacher.
Members would often bring encouraging quotes, from favorite authors, the Bible, or other spiritual wisdom. Copies of the quotes were always made so we could put it by our computer monitors, reminding us through the week that we are not alone in the classroom but are connected to our fellow educators, even though it may not feel that way sometimes.
At that time, I was not aware of the Touchstones from the Center for Courage & Renewal. As I review them now, I see that they naturally came about in the group. It is definitely a sacred space where people can share their stories and be vulnerable. The “Circle of Trust” developed organically as people were willing to share openly and at a depth that established a profound level of connection.
Accordingly, this level of connection provided a feeling of acceptance, empathy, healing, and compassion that translated to our teaching practices as well as our personal lives. One of our group members lost her father suddenly and some of us were able to share similar experiences and help her process her grief. This probably would not have happened without the group.
On the days when we still meet, I find my school day goes smoother as I more easily connect with students, parents, and colleagues. The little frustrations don’t bother me as much and I feel the deep gratitude that allows the joy of teaching to shine through.
Not surprisingly, the students notice these changes and inquire curiously. I tell them about our group and the power of taking part in a vibrant community of educators. One simple idea I share from a colleague is, “When I share a problem with a group I trust, it is cut in half and when I share a victory, it is doubled.”
Still Teaching with Courage and Gratitude
Now, 11 years later, I continue to use the power of gratitude and The Courage to Teach as I pass it on to students and colleagues, especially new teachers. In our classroom, we continue to reap the benefits of practicing gratitude, as we write gratitude lists, gratitude letters, and initiate student-led, altruistic projects that take our “attitude of gratitude” into action.
In a recent interview that Parker Palmer gave on the radio show, On Being, Parker asked a compelling questions, “What do I need to do right now, to water the roots of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful?” I still ask myself that question and when I truly reflect, the answers always come, guiding and inspiring me.
As I write about my first year of teaching and contemplate what we all can do to “water our roots of inner wisdom,” I am reminded of that sad statistic, that 50 percent of all new teachers leave the profession in the first 3-5 years. I know that some of those teachers would persevere if they could read The Courage to Teach and practice some of the principles put forth by the Center for Courage and Renewal, like being grateful for the opportunity to be an educator and truly make a difference in this world.
OWEN M. GRIFFITH is a teacher, writer, educational consultant, and blogger residing with his wife and son in North Georgia. He earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership and his work has appeared on Huffington Post and Edutopia. He is also author of the newly published book, Gratitude: A Way of Teaching (March 2016).
Grounded in scientific research, Gratitude: A Way of Teaching delves into numerous integral aspects of gratitude as it relates to education. Featuring success stories and step-by-step instructions to successfully implement gratitude in schools, educators will also be shown how to combat materialism and entitlement with gratitude and altruism, and how to help teenagers utilize gratitude successfully. Finally, educators will be inspired to stay energized with gratitude throughout the school year. You can buy the book here on Amazon.