In preparing to write this edition of Notes from the Field, I was given the opportunity to reflect on my life and my career as I considered the joys and challenges I face. At first, I thought of my professional life where, like many other university faculty, I often find I don’t have enough time in a day to do all that I need to do. Better yet, I often find myself walking a certain tension between the things I have to do and the things I want to do, which are not always in alignment. Like most jobs, mine is not without elements that I would prefer not to do such as writing accreditation reports, responding to countless emails, or going to meetings that I’m not particularly interested in attending. I generally find myself thinking, “I wish I was working on what I’m passionate about,” but the reality is that I have to attend to those less desirable tasks to do my job well and be a constructive member of the university community. Unfortunately, I found myself doing more of the less desirable tasks than the ones I wanted to do such as working with students, researching, writing, and advocating for an improved K-12 educational system.

 

Then I found myself looking into my core, thinking about why I decided to pursue a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction. I had been a relatively successful teacher with a tenured job in a school where I loved the diverse population of students I worked with – and I mean diverse in every way (racially, ethnically, linguistically, socioeconomically, etc.). While I love what I am doing now as a teacher educator and scholar, I thought about why I decided to leave that all behind. For answers, I unexpectedly turned to the admissions essay I wrote when applying to the University of Denver C&I program almost 13 years ago. In it I wrote:

 

In obtaining a PhD from the University of Denver I fully intend to affect change. It is my deepest desire to improve student success and help advance all, but specifically urban environments, by working with individual schools, districts, and with state and national level policymakers. I intend to utilize qualitative and quantitative research to further the accomplishments of all schools across the United States. Concurrently, I seek to empower teachers by providing them with a voice in this endeavor, encouraging them to become a part of the conversation instead of being given solutions. It is also my ambition to affect change through teacher candidates by teaching at a university. In engaging myself in a myriad of pursuits, I wish for nothing less than changing the landscape of education in the United States.

 

I was struck by the ambition in my younger self and even further struck by the fact that I still feel that way 13 years later. In fact, making schools better for our kids, our teachers, our communities, and our country still gets me out of bed in the morning. We all need a sense of purpose in our lives. So many of us find it in our careers, which I believe is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in the sense that it drives me, gives me reason to work harder, and makes me feel as though what I do matters. I have found that the majority of educators are there because they want to do something that has impact, that will make the world a better place, even if in, at times, seemingly small ways.

 

However, there is a cost that can come with being so single-mindedly driven professionally. We can lose a sense of balance with other aspects of our lives. It can cause us to forget to call a good friend or to spend more time with our families, and maybe most concerningly, to take care of ourselves. To achieve a sense of inner peace and happiness, we must have a sense of balance in our lives that cannot be attained by working 15 hours per day, answering emails on our phones until we go to bed, or ceaselessly thinking about what we need to do at work tomorrow.

 

This new reality has had some startling effects. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one third of workers in the US have chronic work-related stress (2013). More specific to education, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and advocacy group Badass Teachers (BAT) surveyed of over 5,000 teachers finding that two-thirds of educators find their jobs stressful (2017). A 2014 National Education Association (NEA) poll found that nearly half of the teaching force was considering leaving the profession due to stressors outside of their immediate control. Further, we are currently facing the worst mental health crisis America has ever seen. The Centers for Disease Control report that suicide rates are at an all-time high while a recent report commissioned by Blue Cross Blue Shield found that depression rates are rising dramatically. What this data suggests is that we have to get serious about balance in our lives, but what does that look like?

 

A Student of Happiness

Without getting overly personal, about a year ago I came to the realization that I was incredibly stressed and deeply unhappy with how my life was going. Despite pursuing my professional purpose and experiencing some level of success, I just wasn’t happy. I was tired, anxious, and felt like I always had something hanging over my head that I had to do. Worse yet, I felt like I wasn’t really present with my wife and two kids, I had lost touch with several good friends, and I treated family obligations like a chore. I saw my life as a big “To Do” list and finally came to the conclusion that this was just not tenable or acceptable. After one particular moment of overwhelming anxiety and unhappiness, I decided to make finding balance a priority.

 

I dove into everything I could find on happiness, inner peace, mindfulness, and balance. I listened to audiobooks on the way to work, podcasts while I worked out, read articles at night, began following blogs on the subject, and even joined some social media communities related to these ideas. Currently, I’m even taking an online course on the science of happiness. I’ve become an avid meditator and can say after all of this, I feel completely different. I have become a student of happiness, seeking how to maintain my drive and passion for what I do professionally with a healthy, happy personal life. While I most certainly do not have it all figured out, I would like to share some of what I have learned here.

 

Finding Balance

An APA report (2016) highlights research-based strategies for finding better balance in life which I have learned and applied in my own life:

 

  1. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is about being aware of our thoughts and in the present moment. This includes finding time to meditate at least 10 minutes every day. You could use a guided meditation app on your phone, borrow a guided meditation CD from the library, or play one on YouTube. Taking this time to pay attention to our thoughts and to just be has proven one of the few ways we can train our brains to be present, in the moment, where life really happens. By spending our time worrying about tomorrow, we squander today and, in the process, stress ourselves out.
  2. Make happiness a priority: It is so easy to get caught up on our day-to-day responsibilities or our endless “To Do” lists and to forget that we want to be happy. It’s important to note that being happy doesn’t mean that we are constantly laughing and smiling like some drunken hyena, it means that we feel peace, contentment, alive, and in the moment. Happiness is also not the fleeting moments of joy we feel when something outside of ourselves happens, a feeling that invariably passes. Happiness doesn’t just happen, it isn’t something we are born with, it’s something we work for. Making that a priority is critical to achieving it and being freed from the whims of good and bad things that happen to us, outside of our own control, that often determine our moods.
  3. Move: There is increasing empirical proof that the health of our mind and our body are connected. If you can exercise to the point of being out of breath three times per week for 30 minutes per session, you are doing what is optimal for your physical and mental health. If that’s too much, take a walk. Just moving has shown to reduce anxiety, improve depressive symptoms, and improve cognition.
  4. Remind Yourself of Your Professional Purpose: No one is advocating for placing no meaning in one’s work. After all, we want balance. Doing work that we find meaningful has shown to greatly improve our moods and gives us a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Journaling or simply writing down periodically why we do what we do is a great way to remind us of our bigger purpose beyond the loaded, unanswered inbox of emails we are dreading.
  5. Connect with People: Seeking support from and fostering relationships with others (professionally and personally) has been found to be critical to well-being. Those relationships can also serve to give us a sense of purpose while helping us reduce stress and experience enjoyment.
  6. Use Positive Psychology: Positive psychology might well have at its philosophical core the notion that as one thinks, so shall s/he be. Using mindfulness, we become aware of our thoughts and rather than trying to fool ourselves into thinking we’re happy about something when we are not, we seek out aspects that are positive. This approach, while certainly not easy to implement at first, has been found to boost resilience and a greater sense of well-being. In short, if we think about what makes us angry, we are going to be angry. If we think about things that make us happy, we are likely to be happy.
  7. Get Outside: Fellow DU C&I alum Christy McConnell might fall out of her chair when she reads this because I once said we should pour cement over grass, but being outdoors has proven to improve mood, cognition, attention, and a sense of well-being. I have personally felt the effects of this as I have embraced being in nature. I might not be a backwoods camper, but I love to take a walk in the park or sit by a beautiful pond; it does for me what the research says it will. I’m happier, more attentive to others, and healthier.
  8. Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself: Negative self-talk is a part of how our brains are wired so it’s important to be cognizant of that fact and to challenge negative self-talk. It’s important to take stock of all that you do that is good, recognizing that just being, is enough. Writing positives down periodically in a gratitude journal can be a great way to remind yourself that you are important, valued, and loved. This practice has shown to greatly improve mood, reduce stress, and foster a deeper sense of contentment.

 

Now Go Do it

Whether you are a graduate student, a DU alum, a faculty member, or you just happened to stumble across this article, you have a choice to make. You can put this article down and say, “Oh, that’s nice” or you can act. The ideas I’ve shared are not mine and to be honest, none of them were all that novel to me. I’ve heard it for years: “Happiness is a choice,” or “You’re as happy as you decide to be,” or some other such well-meaning witticism. However, if you really want to achieve your professional purpose, if you really want to feel a deep sense of contentment in your life (and why wouldn’t you?), you have to decide to act. Pick one strategy from that list and start there. Do it for a day, then maybe a couple days, then a week. Before you know it, it will become part of your daily life. You are retraining your brain to select a happier lifestyle where you can enjoy the day-to-day moments of your life and be far less stressed about the 122 emails you have to respond to. None of this is rocket science, but it’s up to you to act. Now go do it!

 

References

American Federation of Teachers and Badass Teachers (2017). 2017 educator quality of work life survey. Washington, DC.

 

American Psychological Association (2016). Research-based strategies for better balance. Monitor on Psychology, 47(7), 45.

 

American Psychological Association. (2013b). 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey. Retrieved from http://www.apaexcellence.org/assets/general/2013-work-and-wellbeing-survey-results.pdf

 

Blue Cross Blue Shield (2018). Major depression: The impact on overall health. Washington, DC.

About Our Guest Blogger

Bradley Conrad is an associate professor in the Education Department at Capital University. Dr. Conrad has published several articles in the areas of teacher dispositions, curriculum, the arts in education, and culturally responsive pedagogy. At Capital he teaches a variety of teacher education and graduate courses while mentoring students in their teaching and research. He received his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver in 2011. 

 

 

There was a school that I used to visit as an itinerant assistant language teacher in rural Japan.  It was a small elementary school, and each year the entering first grade class got smaller.  I loved my days there.  The students had an enthusiasm for learning that pervaded the school.  Even on days that I did not get to visit, I usually drove past on my way to other schools.  It set beside one of the main roads that ran through a series of valleys.  Between the road and the school was a field where the students could often be seen checking on the crops they were growing.  Nestled behind the school, away from the road, was a sports field and a pool that backed up against a heavily wooded hillside, and I have many memories of playing catch with the students and enjoying the pool on hot summer days.

Inside the school, everything was wooden, with sliding doors that led from a central gathering area into each of the classrooms.  Everyone ate lunch together in the central gathering area, and the students took great joy in serving the food and cleaning up the area at the end of lunch.  Tucked in a nook off of the central gathering area was a library with not so many books and a globe.

The school served a small farming community.  The community showed up for school events and the school showed up for community events.  I once ran a 2 kilometer race with the third grade class in a suit and dress shoes because I showed up not knowing it was race day.  A third grader gave me a rock he found on the road as a prize for my efforts.  That same third grader held my hand as he excitedly led me to the opening of a new shrine building that had just been completed in the village.  To celebrate, the folks who had completed the building stood upon its roof and threw mochi out to the waiting kids.  Mochi is a kind of crushed rice.  One of the mochi thrown that day hit a student in the nose, and he cried as the school nurse helped to stop his nosebleed.  We all returned happily to the school at the end of the ceremony, with one student in particular telling a story of adventure to everyone who would listen.  The story was about being hit in the nose by mochi.

One day during rice planting season, we took a field trip up into the wooded hills behind the school.  We walked back into a small rice field.  The farmer leading the field trip told the class that this field was different.  It was like the fields of the past.  It had never been connected to the modern irrigation system.  Then, the farmer showed us the medaka that were swimming in the water pooled around the nascent rice plants.  Medaka are small black fish that used to teem in the rice fields of yesteryear.  The medaka have largely disappeared from rice fields irrigated with modern methods.  Their absence doesn’t affect the rice harvest in any noticeable way.  At least not to the person buying rice at the store.  The modern methods are efficient and stable.

This past summer, I was in Japan staying at my wife’s family’s home.  We took our dog for a walk most days, and on some days we followed a narrow street that led down a hill and under the freeway, opening out onto a large flat valley of rice fields.  Narrow cement trenches carried water between the fields and ran along the side of the roads.  One day we were out in this expanse of rice when my older daughter suddenly pointed to the irrigation channel.  The water was crisp and clear and devoid of living things, except for one little medaka swimming against the current.  My daughter found it and she was delighted.  For that matter, I was delighted and so was my wife.  As for my younger daughter, she was asleep in the stroller and my dog’s interest was directed onwards continuing our walk.

On a different day, my family and I drove along the road that ran by the small elementary school where I first learned about medaka.  Its windows were boarded up, and I heard from a friend that the school had been consolidated into another school up the road.

 

Author’s Notes

I read often throughout the school year in search of what it means to be a teacher.  This year, I’ve been reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou, a playful book that leaves more to the imagination of its reader than it explains.  In his book, Martin Buber reflects on how we can make sense of our lives by stepping just far enough away to see through the entangled relationships in which we are held, but not so far away as to let those relationships become unrecoverable.

For me, the single medaka swimming in a concrete irrigation channel brings a sense to medaka in general that may not have come into being for me if medaka were commonplace.  In the boarded up windows of the school where I used to teach, it strikes me that I remember everything joyful so easily.  It is only now when driving to school in Denver with the anxiety of what seems to be a million competing demands on my attention that I realize that I felt the same way when I was a younger teacher teaching in Japan.  Somehow all this helps me take joy in my memory of my daughter’s discovery of the medaka, and this in turn lets me see past the relationships I am currently entangled within so I can appreciate them fully.

It seems like the time of year for that kind of reflection.  The meaning of most educational experiences comes into being through the relationships in which I’ve been held, and those same relationships can blind me to what that meaning might be until the experience is long committed to the past.  I believe one aspect, one important aspect, of education is to raise the importance of the relationships that hold us while those relationships are still in place.

About Our Guest Blogger

Robert Evans currently serves as the Senior Team Lead of Special Education at Farrell B. Howell.  He entered education 14 years ago as an outdoor educator, and has followed his interest in education through various roles.  One of his favorite educational roles was when he served as a school bus driver in Minnesota. This role allowed him a glimpse into how children learn from each other about what they consider truly important.

I recently published an article entitled “Teaching in Good Faith: Towards a Framework for Defining the Deep Supports that Grow and Retain First-Year Teachers.” The article drew from my dissertation research and examined the ways in which first year teachers taught and lived in harmony with their reasons for becoming educators. Little did I know how soon after publishing that article that I’d be called upon to live out its central message.

Great writers and speakers urge you to follow your heart regardless of the cost. In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer (2000) describes his journey to founding the Center for Courage and Renewal. On that path he followed byways and detours that led him, circuitously, to realizing his purpose.

Cheryl Strayed (2011) conjures the “fathomless bird of truth” who sings to you, and flutters violently if you step off your path. She says, “it is our work, our job, the most important gig of all: to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that only echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tells us on a visceral level what to do.”

I can think of countless others who encourage us to “follow our heart” and “fulfill our purpose.” I think I even saw these words on a tea bag recently.

However, these great, wise, compassionate poets (and well-meaning tea bags) seem to have one thing in common: they’re telling us to follow our hearts from the safe bank on the other side of a teeming river. They describe, in retrospect, the fear and courage it takes to “make a structure composed of our own moral code, “ and to live a life in harmony with their purpose and deepest desires. But the message is muffled somehow, wreathed in the certainty of a happy ending. We know it worked out for them. We can relax in the message, understanding that it took them somewhere alive and transcendent and fully their own.

I am writing to you from the first few steps into the river, the other bank all but invisible, and I can tell you it is a raw place of fear and courage. I think this, a message from the midst of transition, is an important perspective and one we rarely bring forth. This is the defatalized success story, poised in that moment of uncertainty where I’ve left the safe space of the known and look ahead to a yawning unknown, trusting fully to myself to find the right path.

What happened (is happening) is this: a change in leadership at my work caused my role to shift into something that looks, feels, and tastes anathema to my reasons for stepping into education. While listening to the new leadership outlining their vision and the part they need me to play in that vision, and I felt a tug at my insides. I dismissed it at first but it grew more insistent. My bird of truth was awake, agitated, and letting me know it.

My first thought was, “maybe I can just grind this out for another year while I find something else.” My next thought was, “maybe I can find something else sooner so I’ll have an excuse to leave.” This seemed reasonable, so I looked around at other institutions, other “safe” jobs that I could jump to, that I thought of as a, “just for now” option, a stepping stone to solid ground.

But I’m done with stepping stones, I realized. I don’t want another “sort of” fit. I am unwilling to compromise on this, the way I choose to be in the world. I would read job descriptions and think, “I could maybe do that. It’s got to be better than the role they have for me here.” But the whole time I knew that “better than what I have now” is a far, far cry from the joy, expansion, meaningful challenges, and aliveness that accompanies following my heart. I also knew that I knew that, and in knowing I couldn’t pretend otherwise. According to Jean-Paul Sartre (1966), someone acting in bad faith is either denying her true nature or deceiving herself about her true nature. If I stayed put or traded out for some tepid version of my intentions, I’d be doing both of those things he warns against.

So I leapt. In a wildly irresponsible or courageous (depending on your stance) move, I, with no backup plan, told the leadership that the impact I want to have on education is divergent from the role they’ve outlined for me. I would be resigning.

And so I write to you now from that first, headlong splash into the river. I’d like to tell you that I stand steadfast and resolute, striding with purpose and fearlessness in the direction of my dreams, but the truth is I spend some days caroming from crippling anxiety to heady exhilaration, from calm, serene stillness to feverish busyness. I didn’t jump in knowing I had the strength to get to the other side; I jumped in hoping I’d develop the strength as I went.

The move, however (perhaps because of its invitation to court fear), has been extremely generative. I want to share some of the textures and realizations that have surfaced so far for me:

 

An Act of Creation

I’ve found that, far from being an act of willfulness or destruction, the decision to leave my job has played out as an act of creation.

In defining that which is not right for me, I came hard up against the question, “what is right for me?” Where, in the words of Frederick Buechner (1973), is the place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet? In answering that question I have begun to build a vision for my life that responds, honestly, gently, and without judgment, to both my strengths and my limitations.  In so doing I’ve learned more about who I am at my core, which has been invaluable at guiding me in all other aspects of my life. Answering the question “what is right for me” is a lifelong process that cannot and should not be rushed. I know that whatever is next may be another step in the evolution of my identity, but with equal certainty I know there will be no final arrival.

This understanding has helped me cultivate more comfort with ambiguity and a delight in the process of becoming. I realize also, in a flash of paradox so confusing it can only be truth, that who I am now is as fully whole and unbroken as the me who will exist in ten years, and the me who existed ten years ago. I am not some unfinished product on my way toward completion, but a whole person in the process of deepening my own self-awareness and acceptance.

 

Barriers are Straw Men

I recently engaged in a meditation practice that, for two weeks, asked me to become aware of self-defeating thought patterns. These would sound like, “I could never do that because…” or, “I’ll never be ____ enough for…” I was shocked at the number of times per day that thoughts like this would pop up in my head. I was even more shocked to realize how these thoughts drove my daily existence until I was living by dictums of fear, constraint, and a perception of safety.

These defeating thoughts will work differently on every person, but for me, when weighed against a life of empowerment, fulfillment, and joy, they began falling like so many straw men. I worried about practical things- money, health insurance, retirement, if I was doing right by my cat. I even fretted about losing my phone plan (this last fuselage was, perhaps, the most desperate effort of my subconscious to gain back control of my brain). But, while recognizing the importance of these needs (phone plan notwithstanding) I trusted that if I stepped toward my purpose the logistics would be easier to work out than my ingrained thought patterns wanted me to believe. So far, they have been. Shockingly so.

 

Staying Still

I have not been idle, but I have also been fighting the urge to immerse myself in logistics, details, job applications, and following every possibility that makes itself known to me. I know that, in my fear, I am in danger of scrabbling around in “worst case scenario” logistics to the point where I lose sight of why I got myself into this glorious mess in the first place. I didn’t launch myself here to end up right back where I was, and I am coming to understand the importance of setting aside swaths of time to reflect, read, write, contemplate, process, and simply be.

In these quiet moments I’m discovering that the world will powerfully reflect my path if I let it. The threads I’ve followed that would have been disastrous petered out and never gained traction in my life. Instead of railing against this, I’ve counseled myself to relinquish attachment to any one thing and listen for what is surfacing. These are sometimes subtle, sometimes unrecognizable, and if I wasn’t sitting in stillness and openness I would miss their signs. I believe this practice of stillness will be important, not just for this transition but for the rest of my life. If I believe that I am always in the process of becoming, then these invitations will be continual and lifelong.

 

Making Art of Your Life

When working with teachers I ask, “are you creating a space that is fully unique? Are you doing that which only you could do?” This, I believe, is what elevates teaching to art.

Recently I’ve been asking myself these same questions. Each time I make a decision from the deepest part of me I can see myself reflected in the world. In learning to recognize my own unique voice I suddenly become more visible to myself beyond the world of right and wrong and the flimsy, constructed identities I’ve lived by.  In taking this leap toward fulfillment and purpose, I am allowing myself to emerge and slowly, through patience, love, stillness, and time, I am resolving into myself.

REFERENCES

Buechner, F. (1973). Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Palmer, P. (2000). Let your life speak: Listening for the voice of vocation. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Sartre, J. P. (1966). Being and nothingness (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Strayed, C. (2011). We are Here to Build the House. The Rumpus. Retrieved from https://therumpus.net/2011/01/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-62/

About Our Guest Blogger

Dr. Kate Newburgh is a writer and consultant with over a decade of experience in education. She began her career as a New York City Teaching Fellow in the Bronx, NY. Since then she’s held diverse roles in the field including Educational Researcher, Academic Affairs Director for a national non-profit, and Curriculum Specialist and Instructional Coach for Eagle County Schools, CO. She received her Ph.D in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver and works with schools and businesses to develop transformative practices and human-centered organizational cultures that foster renewal and growth. Learn more at www.deeppractices.com.


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