This is a guest blog post by friend and colleague Dr. Rhonda Bonnstetter who is a Professor of Education for Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota. Dr. Bonnstetter is serving in her 13th year as a Professor of Education at SMSU. Dr. Bonnstetter enjoys spending time with her children and 15 grandchildren, supervising student teachers, and working with in-service teachers to improve their pedagogical practice. You can follow her on Twitter at @jrbonnst.
The title is meant to mimic a book of short essays called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” written by American minister and author Robert Fulghum (1986). If you have not read his work, I highly recommend it; Fulghum discusses how many of the struggles we face as adults could be improved if we applied lessons we learned as children, such as sharing, cleaning up after ourselves, being kind to one another, etc.
We all face challenges, both in our home lives and our teaching lives, and I’m certainly no different. My world changed dramatically last year when I lost my husband of almost 40 years quite suddenly to a heart attack.
That has forced to me change how I look at things, including rather mundane Minnesota tasks like moving snow. As is often the case, my husband had taken care of the majority of the ‘moving snow’ tasks over the years. Now this task is still there, but needs a different approach. I am fortunate that my son lives nearby, and has been willing to take this on for me, but on a Sunday morning in January, he and his wife were gone on a short vacation to Mexico, and I had been blessed with about 2 inches of fresh, white snow overnight. The snow should be moved so that it doesn’t get packed down by walking or driving on it, creating icy patches that take ‘forever’ to thaw. But, this looked like a big project. I decided to take it on with my trusty shovel, since I had made a New Year’s resolution to get more exercise (at least 5,000 steps/day, with a goal of reaching 10,000 steps). I’ve found that I have a hard time exercising just because it’s good for me; I am much more likely to stick with it if I am actually doing/accomplishing something, rather than just spending time on my treadmill. So, the shovel it is! Along the way to a clean driveway, I had plenty of time to ponder. Here are seven things I realized I have learned along the way, and they tie into teaching perfectly…
1.) Big jobs can seem daunting at the start. I have a BIG yard to clean out, and it looked a bit overwhelming at first. I decided to break it up in to chunks, and to tackle each chunk at a time. That made the task more do-able. The same is true for big projects at work, such as curriculum mapping, or taking on the latest teaching initiative in your district. Our students often have the same problem – a project that we assign can seem insurmountable. We can help them to learn how to break that project into smaller chunks, and tackle one at a time, rather than do it for them as teachers. They won’t learn how to apply this strategy if we always do it for them!
2.) Take a few minutes to see how the pros do it. I was pushing snow and pushing snow, but some would fall off the edges of the shovel, and I would have to go back to clean it up. That wasn’t too efficient and was taking extra time. Soon I saw a county snowplow come by, pushing snow off the road. I noticed that his blade was at an angle – not just to move the snow to the edge, but it also helped to keep the snow from rolling of the inside and piling up on the road. Once I tried using that technique, I was spending less time going back for clean-up. The same is true in teaching; take a look at the research on a topic. How have the pros attacked this problem or one similar to it? Education journals can be a wealth of knowledge, and can save us a great deal of time as teachers – we do not have to reinvent the wheel! We can use the wisdom of others to help us deal with the teaching problems that we face.
3.) Bring along a friend. Tackling big problems alone is exhausting! I let my puppy out while I was shoveling the snow, and his favorite activity is to have me throw his ‘ball on a rope’ so that he can retrieve it. He LOVES bounding through new snow, so the combination of chasing his ball and tromping through the fresh snowfall made his day! Watching his joy and being part of it helped to make my day better as well. The same is true in teaching – you probably have friends or colleagues who are dealing with similar problems. Choose to tackle them together, as part of a PLC in your school or just as friends. Attend a conference together, or take a graduate class together. We make each other stronger and better when we work together!
4.) Take a break from time to time. About half way into my snow-moving project, my hands were getting cold and my fingers were starting to ache. I could have given up and just left it to go inside where it was warm, but I decided to try taking a break. After a few minutes of rest, I was ready to step back out and keep working on it. Teaching and dealing with students, parents, administrators, and more can be exhausting at times; in order to be our best, we all need to take a break from time to time. One of the biggest challenges many teachers face is finding a balance between work and home life. Some teachers I’ve worked with make it a point to never take school work home with them – literally and figuratively. They stay at school until 4:30-5:00 each evening to grade papers and create lesson plans, so that when they leave, they are fully prepared for the next day and they don’t need to bring anything home. Others find ways to build in time at home to work on these teaching tasks. The important thing is to not get so wrapped up in making a living that they forget to also make a life for themselves outside of school. Take a ‘me’ day from time to time, or schedule time in each day to be with family and friends. Your mental health will be better, and you will be a better teacher when you take time to recharge your own batteries.
5.) Use your talents to do what you can, then let the sun (and the Son) do the rest. Once I had the majority of the snow moved off the yard, the power of the sun started melting the little wisps that were left, leaving a clean, dry surface. I have long been a believer that this is also true in life; we are each given a variety of talents to use. We are expected to develop and use those talents as best we can, and then God will step in and take care of the rest. This probably comes from hearing the old adage, “God helps those who help themselves”. Principals expect this of their teachers as well; not every problem child can be sent to the principal’s office for that person to deal with. As a teacher you need to use all the talents you have to address the student issues in your classroom; once you have done all you can, then it’s time to call in a higher power whether that be the child’s parent/guardian, the principal, and/or your school’s psychologist.
6.) Sometimes ‘helping’ isn’t…. As I was moving the snow, several people drove by, and a few even waved. No one stopped to help – and I was glad that they didn’t, especially once I was done. I felt a big sense of accomplishment in taking on this project and completing it on my own. I had met my goal of at least 5,000 steps already by noon! Sometimes as teachers and parents, we want to protect or help our children, so we swoop in to ‘help’ them to tackle problems, sometimes even if they haven’t asked for help! This does a disservice to our students/children, as we take away that feeling of pride and accomplishment in solving the problem for themselves. In the end, that is the opposite of helping them – it can actually keep them from developing the sense of confidence and self-efficacy to deal with problems on their own. This is where the constructivist model of teaching comes in; facilitate learning, don’t feed it to students piece by piece. Help them to learn to take charge of their own learning, and they will become lifelong learners who can ‘move the snow’ that comes their way, whether it be mountains or molehills!
7.) Don’t forget to have fun! If you stop enjoying what you do, it’s time to re-think what you are doing. Do you need more challenge? Do you need a new location? A great job in a toxic atmosphere can be draining, and a lousy job with great co-workers can be a wonderful experience! Maybe you need to move to a new grade level, or a new district. Maybe it’s time to think about moving into administration or adding a new license to give you some new challenges. Life is short – love what you do and do what you love!
Fulghum, R. (1986). All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten. New York: Villard Books. ISBN 978-0-394-57102-7