Focus on the Process

Yoga has become a huge part of my life in the past several months, and yesterday a yoga practitioner posed the following question on Facebook:

Why do you do yoga?

At first I started doing yoga for stress relief. Lately it has become so much more to me. I feel much more relaxed and balanced after I practice, and doing yoga is a way for me to reconnect with myself. I have talked a lot about how teachers give so much of themselves away, and yoga has become a way for me to check in with myself and really sense how I am feeling and how I am doing. I have begun adding in some meditation as a way to really focus myself and connect with myself on a deeper level. Meditation has been hard for me to do; I hear stories about how some people meditate for thirty minutes or even an hour and I can’t even imagine doing it for that long. But this morning while I was meditating a thought struck me: if I become uncomfortable or unfocused spending just five minutes being present with myself, how will I be when I have to be present for someone else? We are with ourselves all of the time, and it would make sense that our own selves should be who we are the most comfortable with, but I have found that it takes a lot for me to be comfortable with focusing on connecting with myself for even five minutes. That last sentence is a mouthful, but that is really what it is all about. Comfort, focus, and connection. With myself. And supposedly, what you get in is what you get out. Supposedly, when I connect more with myself I am supposed to better be able to connect with others. Which makes sense. I will see in others what I focus on in myself.

Which led to my other big epiphany for the day: it is all a process. I know what it is like to want everything now, now, now. I am one of the worst when it comes to that. I want it all fixed now. I want my business to grow now. I want to know whether I have the promotion now. I want to fix everything in my classroom and have it be perfect now. I am a now person. But that, at its core, is focusing on the product. The end result. It takes a process to get there. It takes a process to fix the classroom like I want it, just as writing this book is a process. Doing yoga is a process all on its own. I can’t do all of the poses that I want to be able to do, but I am in the process of getting there. I am in the process of being comfortable enough with myself that I can spend larger amounts of time focusing on connecting with myself. I am in the process of getting that promotion. Life is a process, and it is time to slow down and enjoy the process rather than waiting and stressing about the end product. It will come, but it will never be the end. There will always be something else to want now right behind it. Life itself is one big forest, but the process are those trees that make it up.

Reconnecting With Yourself

Teachers have a knack for putting the needs of others before their own. Children cry out for attention, and very young children have constant needs for teachers to meet. Teachers must also meet the needs of the program that they work for. Demands on teachers are constant, and it is all too easy for teachers to focus on the needs of the others around them to the detriment of themselves.

I struggle every day with keeping a feeling of authenticity in my classroom. Being an authentic teacher can mean many different things to different teachers, but to me being authentic means teaching from the heart, from the wellspring of passion that lives inside you and comes out in the classroom. Teachers do what they do because they are passionate about teaching, but a lot of teachers have lost touch with the passion that they had when they first started teaching. Meeting the demands of everyone around them at the expense of their own needs can quickly push teaches towards burnout. Some teachers find themselves stuck in a rut when it comes to their teaching, preventing the same information year after year until the material feels old and uninspired. Some teachers just feel so drained from the energy that it takes to meet the demands of others that they have nothing left to create new and inspiring material for the class. These feelings directly affect the relationships with the children that they teach.

Are your classroom relationships run down because of a general lack of magic and fire throughout the day? How do you get that fire back and re-ignite the passion and joy that you have for teaching?

The key is to take a step back and reconnect with yourself and with the passion that had you excited to teach . You have to reconnect with the passionate, purposeful teacher that you were and rediscover the reasons why you wanted to teach in the first place. Take a moment and write down any thoughts that you have about the reasons why you started teaching.

Now that you have reconnected with that part of yourself that wanted to be a teacher, it is time to reconnect with that part of yourself that truly loves to teach. You need to define what makes teaching meaningful to you and what part of teaching you enjoy the most. Write down your thoughts and really connect with that part of yourself that is passionate about teaching.

Next you need to think back and remember some of the activities and projects that really got you excited. Some projects that excite you may even be those that you have seen but feel like you can’t accomplish. What kind of projects get you excited? Be specific, and use lots of descriptive words to define the projects.

Finally, think back to the days when you couldn’t wait to get out if the bed and teach. What was it that had you so excited and eager to be in the classroom back in those days?

Hopefully the answers that you have given to these questions have built up a spark, a reconnecting with that passion to teach that is inside you. In later posts we are going to build on this spark and use it to build a foundation for passionate, authentic teaching. Whenever I begin to feel burnt out or stressed about my teaching, I always return to this exercise because it is truly inspiring to reconnect with that passionate part of myself and remember what it is about teaching that I am so passionate about.

Feeling Fall

Today I spent the day reflecting on “concentrating on the forest and forgetting the trees.” This phrase really spoke to me and I spent a lot of time trying to be present and with the children as they played.

Lately I have been spending a lot of time enjoying the beautiful fall colors around; driving has become a lot more difficult because the trees are so beautiful! When we went out to the playground today all I noticed was the leaves all over the ground! It was so beautiful, and it took me back to the days when I was a kid and we made huge leaf piles to jump in! Sometimes jumping in leaves was not the greatest idea in my yard, though, because our primary leaf tree was a black walnut tree. Have you ever jumped on walnuts? They don’t feel too good. This time I wasn’t going to be doing the jumping, though. I grabbed a rake tool that we had on the playground and began moving leaves into a big pile for the children to jump in. They were so happy about this new activity! They were throwing leaves up in the air and helping me gather more leaves into the huge pile. These kids are only three, though, so their attention span is not very long when it comes to piling up leaves without jumping in them. There was a LOT more jumping than there was piling.

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This is what it is all about. These moments are the trees. It didn’t take much for this moment to happen – just a little work from me, a rake, and the wonderful season of fall. And of course, all of the energy from the children that was used for all of that jumping and playing! More moments like this happen all the time. It just takes being present in the moment with the children, listening to them, and figuring out how to turn each moment into a magical one like this. Are all of the moments magical? No, they aren’t. Children have their moments, as do we. But if we really listen to the children we can find the magical moments that happen every day.

Later in the day a crowd of children were sitting in the art center playing with foam letters. They were peeling the paper off of the backs of the letters so that they could stick them on paper. One child had a hole punch and was working with it. I hadn’t seen the children working with the punch before and I was watching him. After a while I remembered that my director had let me borrow a flower punch and I hadn’t given it back to her yet. I got it down for the children and they took turns experimenting with the flower punch. It was another magical moment as I showed the children the flowers that they had made. They all wanted to take flowers home to their families. This activity can be expanded with other punch shapes, and the magic can continue.

These are the trees, and this is what it is all about.

Rediscovering My Passion

One thing that I’ve learned from years of teaching is, when stress and burn out hit it is time to slow down. In some cases it is time to stop. Like now. Now would be the time for me to stop and take a good hard look at what I’m doing. What am I doing? I switched jobs because the stress was killing me. Now I am in a low-stress teaching job, one that has been much more enjoyable than where I came from. I have been trying to write a book, but I’m not getting much enjoyment out of that right now. Am I doing what I want to be doing?

The answer is no. I am not doing what I want to be doing. I want to be connecting more. I want to get back to my passions of creativity and curiosity. I enjoyed blogging and writing about creativity and reading and studying about it also. The stuff that I have been blogging about has been great and it is important in the classroom, but everything that I have been blogging about is applicable to the one goal that I have always had in the classroom: to inspire creativity in my students. The problem that I have had is that I have overlooked this goal and focused on the nuts and bolts. I am not a nuts and bolts kind of person, and the approach that I decided to take on these blog posts has been driving me crazy. It is time for me to take a step back, stop, and tie all of this back to my main love, creativity. I love watching students be creative. I love encouraging them to find creative solutions to problems and to be innovative. I love providing them with materials and watching what they do with them in their own creative ways. I love talking to them about a new topic and finding out all of the creative things that they think about the topic, and then going out and learning more about the topic with them. I love it, and it is time for me to recognize that this is where my passion is. It is time for me to take that into consideration no matter what I am writing or doing. No matter what I write, it has to be me, and there is nothing more me than my ultimate passion.

My Yoga Journey

About a year ago I was in school, working full time in a stressful environment, and trying to keep my house in order. To say that I was completely stressed out was an understatement. I was stressed out, burnt out, and working hard just to keep my head above water. I needed some way to decompress.

When school ended for the semester I began to explore options for stress relief. I’ve tried to do yoga on and off throughout the years, but I’ve been intimidated by the skinny people doing poses designed for the mega-flexible. I wasn’t sure if I could get past that enough to try to do much yoga, but I was willing to give it a shot. I invested in a beginner’s yoga DVD and began my journey. I was glad I did. It didn’t take me long to realize that yoga is about letting go of where you want to be and accepting where you are, no matter where that is. So I learned that flexibility doesn’t matter so much as tuning in to myself.

That has been my big take-away from yoga: tuning in to myself. Yoga is about so much more than the poses. It is about connecting with yourself, whether it is the good parts or the bad, and accepting all of those pieces of yourself. Sure, there are parts of ourselves that we would all like to work on, and yoga doesn’t tell us that we can’t work on those pieces. It does tell me that I am okay despite those pieces, and it helps me focus on working on what needs to be worked on.

I needed that lesson because I was giving so much of myself away. I gave pieces of myself away in my job and in my school work. I gave pieces of myself away to my family and my small business. I kept giving pieces of myself away every day, and I did not stop to reconnect with that part of myself that needs to feel loved and accepted, that part of me that is so passionate about what I do and why I do it. Yoga is an important part of my life now because it helps me reconnect.

Writing this post became important to me a few weeks ago because I realized that, even though I was doing yoga to reconnect with myself, I wasn’t truly reconnecting with my passion to teach. My passion for teaching has been driving me for many years, and through the burnout and the stress I have lost my connection to that. Add to that the stress and uncertainty of changing jobs, and through changing jobs the loss of certainty of the direction of the company. I love my company and I love teaching, and I don’t want to lose those things simply because I haven’t slowed down enough to reconnect with that passion inside of me. It is time for me to reconnect, to slow down. All of my previous recent posts have been written in hopes of publishing a book. I believe in every word that I have published here, but in some ways I feel like I am concentrating on the forest and forgetting about the trees. The trees – the children and the relationships that we go back to day after day. The love and the curiosity and the creativity that is let loose every day in the classroom. Those are my passion, and while everything I am writing here is important, it is also important to not forget about these aspects of the classroom.

I have been struggling with writing about taking care of ourselves first, because as teachers we give so much of ourselves away. I have been trying to write about how to get that passion back once you hit burn-out, because that is what I am trying to do right now. Looking at the forest hasn’t helped. It is time to look at the trees.

Moving and Stretching for Stress Management

Moving helps increase blood flow to all areas of the body, including the brain. According to the Mayo Clinic, movement increases the production of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that help you feel good. These neurotransmitters can counteract the ones that the brain releases during the fight or flight response and put you back in the driver’s’ seat. Sometimes lowering the stress in the classroom can be as simple as taking the children outside to let them run and play for a while. However, in some child care centers or schools the day can be quite scheduled. Sometimes the weather may not allow for the children to be outside. There are many reasons why children may not be able to go outside. In those situations it may be worth it to try one of these methods instead:

  • Yoga – A lot of people are intimidated by yoga because they have seen pictures of skinny, flexible people bending themselves into impossible poses. Those poses and that stereotype are not the essence of yoga. Yoga is about accepting what you can’t do and focusing on what you can do, no matter who you are. Yoga pairs breathing and movement in such a way that you can’t help but relax. There are several resources available for doing yoga with children, including sets of cards that have pictures of different poses on them (these are the ones I use). You can use the cards as a large group activity, or children can practice with them independently.
  • Simple stretches – Developing a series of simple of stretches can help your class relax and increase blood flow. Touching your toes or doing a windmill are just a couple of examples of effective stretches. Doing exercises that cross the body can also help stimulate both sides of the brain, as well.

Remember, just like breathing exercises, moving and stretching should be performed throughout the day to fight stress build-up. And moving should be fun! Fun releases stress, too, so don’t take yourself too seriously during these exercises! Kids are only kids one time, so give them good memories of stress management and don’t make the process add more stress to the situation.


Breathing Techniques for Stress Management

In my last post I discussed why breathing is a wonderful tool to use for stress management. In this post I am going to highlight some breathing techniques that have worked wonderfully with the children in my classrooms. They have been so engaging that the children usually voluntarily perform the techniques on their own when they become stressed. Some of these techniques are adapted from Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey.

  • S.T.A.R. Breathing – S.T.A.R. stands for Smile, Take a deep breath, And Relax. The technique involves raising your arms up to the sky when you are breathing in and lowering them to your sides as you are breathing out. Pairing the movement to the breathing helps get blood flowing to the brain, as well.
  • Balloon Breathing – This breathing technique is bound to be a classroom favorite. The technique: interlace your fingers on top of your head. As you breathe in, raise your arms like you are inflating a balloon. As you exhale, purse your lips to make a ‘pfffft’ sound, similar to the sound a balloon makes when you let the air out.
  • Smell a Flower, Blow the Petals – Students should imagine that their finger is a flower and pretend to smell it as they inhale. Then, as they exhale, they should pretend that they are blowing the petals of the flower away.
  • Smell a Cookie, Blow the Soup – This technique is similar to ‘Smell a Flower, Blow the Petals’ except that students are pretending to smell a cookie and blow soup instead.

There are a couple of key things to remember when it comes to using breathing for stress management:

  • Encourage children to breathe slowly and be mindful of completely filling their lungs with air. One thing that I have learned to do is ask students to put one hand on their belly so that they can feel their stomach rise and fall with their breath. This will help them think about what happens as they breathe.
  • Sometimes children will try to perform the breathing exercises very quickly. While this is just as fun to do as the breathing techniques described above, there is very little stress management benefit from breathing quickly because the lungs do not fill all the way. One way to get children to slow down is to highlight the contrast to them: “Wow, you were breathing very fast! Now let’s see how slowly we can breathe.”

In my next post I will highlight some stress management techniques that emphasize movement.


Using Breathing to Relieve Stress

Breathing is the simplest and easiest stress management tool to use, but using breathing for stress management requires more than the type of breathing that we normally do throughout the day. When we become stressed our breathing becomes shallow. Some people even involuntarily hold their breath when they are under stress. The American Institute of Stress states that “abdominal breathing for 20-30 minutes each day will reduce anxiety and reduce stress. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a sense of calmness.” While we don’t have time to stop everything and practice deep breathing for 20 to 30 minutes every time we run into a stressful situation, stopping long enough to take a couple of deep breaths is enough to move us away from the trunk of the car and toward the driver’s seat.

Because stress tends to build up over time, teachers should stop and breathe throughout the day. Because of this continual build-up of stress, some teachers find it helpful to conduct breathing exercises with the entire class at different periods throughout the day. Breathing before entering into particularly stressful periods of the day or difficult transition times, such as the period around lunch and nap time, can help ease the class through these transitions and create a more pleasant atmosphere for the children and the teachers.

Children are more likely to use breathing techniques that are fun and stimulating. In my next post I will highlight some breathing techniques that have been a big hit in my classroom.

Talking About Stress Management

In my last post I discussed the fight-or-flight response and what happens in your brain and body during the response. These responses are pretty universal, whether you are talking about teachers, children, or the guy next door. Sometimes, no matter who you are, anger and frustration can cause you to slip out of the driver’s seat when it comes to your actions or reactions and end up in the trunk of the car, where you have no control. Te key to staying in the driver’s seat is to utilize stress management tools. These tools are easy to use and can even be taught to children so that they can use them during their own stressful moments. The key to learning how to use stress management tools effectively is to practice using them during calm moments, especially when teaching them to children. Since we have little or no logic or reasoning skills when we are in a fight-or-flight response, trying to teach a child how to manage their stress while they are in the middle of a meltdown will probably produce nothing but more screaming.

In the next few posts I will be discussing several different stress management techniques that I have found useful in the classroom. These techniques range from ones that are incredibly simple to ones that are full of fun and connection.