Q: I’ve been a teacher for nine years and used to love my job, but the last two years have been a grind, and this year has gotten off to a miserable start. My principal doesn’t know how to show appreciation or give praise to anyone; the demands keep increasing; more parents seem to think the squeaky wheel gets the grease and go straight over my head, my colleagues are complaining more, etc. I could list more stuff, but I recognize I probably can’t repair much, especially since the negativity is the end result of major systemic problems. Basically, I just want to be happy despite all the BS. Otherwise it’s going to be a long year. I’m not interested in leaving teaching, and even if I decide to apply to other schools, I have to make it to June. Besides, teaching is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I was that little kid who always “played school” and graded my siblings’ pretend homework. I’ve heard all the trite sayings about happiness being an inside job, but I can’t seem to do the whole “mind over matter” thing. Got any tips for me?
A: You’re halfway there. You’re self-aware, recognize that the negativity isn’t serving you, and want to choose happiness. Many people get so bogged down in complaining or fixating on deficits that they forget there’s a healthier alternative.
This isn’t about accepting the status quo, it’s about recognizing what’s in your control. As you’ve acknowledged, you’re not going to fix the systemic problems. You also can’t change anyone else’s behavior, whether it’s a principal who withholds praise, a parent who agitates when they don’t get their way, or a colleague who complains incessantly. The good news is that you can change your own behavior.
Let’s start with your desire for more external validation. It’s counterintuitive, but you will feel better if you give away the very thing you most crave. Find ways to recognize your colleagues’ good work, whether you leave a note in their mailbox or pass along a compliment. Along the same lines, engage in a meaningful service project outside of work. The more you focus on others, the less you’ll fixate on what you lack. Studies show that making a positive difference in the world is even more protective than maintaining an attitude of gratitude. Self-care is equally important. No one manages stress or unhappiness well if they’re depleted. Make sure you’re making time for sleep, good nutrition, time with friends and loved ones, and relaxation.
And while you can’t change your colleagues, you can be intentional about your interactions with them. Surround yourself with positive, optimistic people who view problems as situational or temporary, not as proof that everything is irreparably awful. Distance yourself from the people who put you in a complaining mind-set. Negative people will wear you down and make it harder to challenge your own doom and gloom thinking. Plus, research shows that emotional contagion is real and unhappiness can spread through a social network. There’s no need to “catch” someone else’s bad mood.
Be mindful about your self-talk, too. Challenge yourself to come up with three positives for every negative. Take note of when you use all-or-nothing words like “always” or “never.” For instance, the principal might not praise you as often as you’d like, but perhaps he or she occasionally offers positive feedback or will offer a compliment with a little prompting. Be proactive. I know one teacher who is upfront with her administrator. She will say, “I know I need more positive reinforcement than others, but that’s what motivates me and that’s how I’m wired. Would it be OK if I check in periodically to see if I’m on the right track?” Asking for what you need is empowering and will boost your resilience, so think about the steps you can take to improve your circumstances, then let go of the rest.
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