The Don't Sweat Guide for Teachers

Cutting Through the Clutter so that Every Day Counts


By Richard Carlson

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Foreword by Richard Carlson, Ph.D.

Homework, report cards, and attendance. Teachers can get so bogged down by paperwork that often they forget why they teach. Published near the end of the school year, this guide is the perfect gift for teachers to remind them how they can change students’ lives.



Be Who You Are

What do you say when someone asks, "What do you do?" Strictly speaking, the accurate answer to what you do is, "I teach." But more often, you probably respond with, "I am a teacher." You identify your being with your professional activity. This is understandable.

In the classroom, as well, you identify yourself as "teacher." After all, you have a very well-defined role to play in the lives of your students. You are the authority, both in terms of who knows the subject matter and who is in charge.

In reality, though, despite the common ground shared by the thousands of teachers active in the educational field at any one time, "teacher" should not define you. You bring a unique blend of traits to the activity of teaching. There is not another teacher exactly like you, with your combination of background, personal and professional experience, temperament, personality, and relationships. When you walk into your classroom, you are much more than "teacher." You are you.

If you teach in an abstract or by-the-book way, while eliminating what is unique about your style and personality, you will suffer all kinds of needless frustration and conflict. You will also rob your students of some of the richest experiences that they are likely to have under your tutelage. It is when you invest your subject matter with what makes you unique that you bring the material alive for the people that you teach. It is when you let them see how you have personally understood and interacted with your material that they begin to understand the process of learning. And it's when you allow your true self to teach, in all its changing and growing ways, that you and your students have the opportunity to learn together.

Consider your own history with the teachers from whom you have learned. Which ones do you remember best? Who enriched your experience the most or had the greatest positive impact? Ask yourself this question: Was it what they did or who they were that made them so important to you as their student?


Be the Authority

There was a time when teachers universally dressed in formal clothing, arranged their classrooms in rank and file, and conducted their classes as virtual dictatorships, however benign. The teachers ruled—at least in the classroom—usually with the full and unqualified backing of administrators and parents. The students either submitted or faced the prospect of discipline.

For better and worse, times have changed. Many schools have abandoned dress codes for students and teachers alike. Knowledge of past abuses and the fear of lawsuits have led many schools to forbid many of the punishments for rule-breaking that used to be standard. A media-soaked culture that glorifies rebellious and insubordinate behavior has led to a much greater tolerance of verbal disrespect among students and teachers. And traditional classrooms have given way, in many instances, to learning centers, unconventional seating arrangements, and "open classrooms."

Some of these changes reflect a productive rejection of rigidity in education. They recognize that students have many different learning styles and speeds, and learn best when they participate actively in and out of the classroom. Other changes, however, have blurred the boundaries between teacher and student, and adult and child.

There are some boundaries that actually promote an atmosphere conducive to learning. They encourage respect between teacher and student, as well as student and student. Some boundaries help establish a teacher as both the person in charge and the person with expertise. Students can expect a teacher to be the person that they can look to for accurate information and feedback, as well as for a safe and stimulating learning environment.

More than ever before, it is up to you, the teacher, to set the boundaries and exemplify the behavior that demonstrates your authority and expectations in the classroom. Your students come from a variety of backgrounds and bring with them many different ideas and value systems. You need to tell them what's what when they're in your classroom. Establish your authority at the outset, and demonstrate your authority over time. Your students will respond accordingly with respect and attention.


Be Consistent

Nothing is more disconcerting to a student than a teacher who keeps changing "the rules." When a teacher fails to communicate expectations clearly or follow through with promises or consequences, the student's ability to succeed is compromised.

You can serve your students' best interests by first deciding for yourself what you expect of them and yourself. Many schools have standard ways of helping their teachers set academic goals and spell out basic parameters for student behavior. But what an institution mandates in general and how a teacher accomplishes it with his or her specific students are two different things. You need to decide and keep track of the particular expectations that you will communicate to your students.

Depending on the complexity of your teaching situation, you may find that sheer memory is not sufficient for either you or your students. Putting in writing what you expect, what penalties will be applied when students do not comply, and what rewards will be given when they do is a great way to lay solid ground under your teaching.

Once you've established expectations, it's extremely important that you follow through. Presumably, by thinking out what you expect ahead of time, you have established a fair and helpful set of guidelines. Holding your students to the standards that you've created is a big part of their learning process. Remember, though, that this isn't applicable only to your students. If you promise to grade papers by the end of each week, for example, make sure that you do it. You will build your students' trust and model the consistency of performance that you want to see your students achieve.

It happens, of course, that we sometimes create unrealistic expectations that lead to failure and frustration for our students or ourselves. If you discover that you're asking too much of your students, it's okay to make changes. You can communicate these changes in a way that is as instructive to your students as the material they are learning.

Whatever you hope or expect, be clear about it with your students. Hold yourself to the same standards of fulfillment that you expect from them. Keep it simple and straightforward, and you'll do everyone a big favor.


Establish Boundaries

What's okay in the classroom and what's not? That's a question you need to ask yourself and communicate to your students if you're going to successfully create an atmosphere of mutual respect, trust, and safety. Often, a student's success in the classroom depends on knowing and understanding the boundaries. Your failure to set and enforce boundaries can be a direct path to your students' failure to learn and grow under your guidance.

The line between okay and not okay can be a fine one. You can explain and demonstrate the boundaries you set for your students. For example, you may want to make open discussion a part of your teaching. It can be an effective way of challenging students to think and respond to controversial ideas or opposing viewpoints. But unless you set down basic guidelines for courtesy and respect, you may very quickly find that your class discussion gets out of control. The simplest rules—let someone finish speaking before you begin; avoid personal attacks on the views and comments of others; let four other students speak before you speak a second time; and so on—not only keep your group discussion under control, but also elevate the conversation to civilized discourse and teach some valuable life skills.

You may like to promote an atmosphere of camaraderie and fun among your students, but even the most innocent fun can sometimes hurt feelings. Some humor is fine. Teasing is not. Laughter is good medicine. Laughing at someone or their mistakes is not. You can distinguish between good fun and hurtful joking with kindness and patience—but you cannot tolerate the latter. Establishing such a boundary means that every one of your students can enjoy a place of respect and appreciation in your classroom.

Depending on the age and background of your students, you may also need to set basic boundaries that have to do with physical contact, language, or personal property. Never be afraid to act as lawmaker in your own classroom. You have the right and the responsibility to tell them what will fly within that setting. In doing so, you may be responsible for teaching your students some of their most important lessons.


Be Aware of Learning Styles

People learn in many different ways. Some are primarily visual in the way that they take in information. Others are more auditory or kinesthetic. Some people learn best from trial and error. Others learn by rote. Virtually all students learn best when they are actively involved in the material that they are being taught, but no one method successfully brings this about for all students.

Getting to know your students is crucial to understanding their individual learning styles. When you teach a class, you're dealing with the dynamic of the whole group, as well as attempting to relate to individuals. You need to watch students carefully for what gets them excited, in terms of subject matter and teaching method. You need to take note of when they struggle or fail. Over time, you'll begin to discern learning patterns in each of your students that can allow you to enhance their learning experience.

Obviously, the only way that you can pick up on the different learning styles of your students is to vary your way of presenting your material. Some people will respond to hands-on projects or out-of-class research. Some will soak up a straight lecture like dry sponges. Others will be at their best when they're given a chance to dramatize what they are learning. Whatever their styles, your students will be stimulated by variety. So will you.

It's tempting to stick with what you're used to. It often seems easier and safer to do the same old thing, rather than venture into new teaching methods or develop alternative lesson plans. But ease and safety will backfire, for both you and your students, because they inevitably lead to boredom and staleness—and teacher burnout. Work with variety to identify what turns your students on to learning, and then build that knowledge into the way that you teach. You'll not only be a more effective teacher, you'll have a lot more fun.


Seek Expert Advice

In large part, teachers are expected to handle the challenges and trials of the classroom on their own. In addition to the academic demands of your job, classroom management and discipline fall primarily to you. So does relating to the administration that you answer to and the families of the children that you teach. You are also responsible for creating a positive learning environment. Your training probably prepared you for some of these responsibilities better than for others. The question is, what do you do when you run into a problem for which you don't have adequate experience?

Any number of factors can tempt us to carry burdens alone that would be better shared. One of the surest signs of your competence and professionalism will be your ability to judge when a challenge requires expertise or authority that you simply do not possess. It is a crucial part of your work as a teacher to understand the point at which you need to seek expert help and advice.

There may be occasions when it takes time to judge. In such cases, it is probably wise to confide in someone official while you assess the situation. Not only does this give you another person's judgment on the matter. It also puts someone else in the know, should a crisis of some kind develop.

Certainly, when you find yourself faced with emotional instability or dangerous behaviors in either your students or their families, your best course of action is to refer the situation to appropriate leaders in the school system, and if necessary, to external authorities. Your privileged relationship with a student may mean that you are one of the first to identify a problem, but it's not up to you to fix it.

Your students' challenges related to learning and social interaction fall within your purview. But here, too, you don't have to carry the burden alone. Make sure that you know what help and services are available through the school system. Apprise yourself of special programs offered throughout the school year. Take advantage of specialists in your school and town. At its best, education is a community activity. You don't need to be a solo performer, and you will find greater joy and satisfaction in your work when you let "the team" work with you.


Know Your Limits

Professional limits have to do with your specific training, credentials, and experience. You've been officially equipped and certified in ways that define what your work can and should include. You have personal limits as well, however, and you are the only one who knows what these may be. They grow out of personal circumstances, energy level, past experiences, and other factors that are uniquely yours. No one will be able to tell you when you've reached these limits. It's up to you to recognize them and communicate clearly what they are when you are asked to violate them.

How can you identify reasonable limits for yourself? There are two ways to approach a personal assessment of your limits: one positive, and the other negative. On the positive side—that is, when you operate within your personal limits—work can be satisfying and energizing. Even when you are challenged, you feel confident of rising to the challenge in a timely, effective manner. You enjoy what you're doing more often than not. Your well of resources is deep enough to answer the demands of your duties and the needs of your students. You look forward to a new day.

By contrast, when you overstep your own limits, instead of being energized and encouraged by your work, you are drained by the demands of your job. You may find yourself short-tempered and unable to cope with everything calmly. You may experience feelings of anxiety or inadequacy, even in regard to responsibilities for which you have been trained and otherwise successfully handled. You may dread the beginning of your work week or the coming of a new day.

Be aware of your own stress signals, whatever they may be. Don't wait to run out of gas. As soon as you start showing signs of being stretched, take the time to reflect on what may be pushing you too far. Then take action to address the causes. If you're putting added strain on yourself with your personal choices, identify those choices and make appropriate changes. If the strain has come through decisions made by others, go to the ones responsible and talk it out.

Learning what your limits are will keep you and your students happier in the classroom. You cheat yourself and them when you let yourself be dragged into the overload zone.


Take a Break

All formal teaching situations have breathers built into them. Whether they come in the form of personal days, holidays, sabbaticals, or leaves of absence, they are part of the package for good reason. Teaching demands the most of your abilities and energies. It requires ongoing training and up-to-date curriculum. Most of all, it depends on your good health and vitality. The breaks that punctuate a teaching schedule are intended to promote all of this.

A teacher's needs change throughout his or her career. What keeps you at the top of the game calls for more than one solution. Maybe your limitations in regard to technology are frustrating you. Perhaps you're physically exhausted. Your home life may be suffering from work-induced neglect. You may be feeling "stale" and disinterested in your subject matter.

You'll do yourself the biggest favor of your teaching life by approaching any potential time off with an awareness of your current needs. Sign up for an education-oriented computer course. Take a real vacation, leaving teaching completely behind for a bit, and regain some perspective. Take a week to give home your undivided attention. Sign up for a seminar that freshens your approach or adds to your knowledge. Or take yourself on an extended field trip that focuses on the subject that you teach. If you can afford it, you may even want to take a season off to regroup and rebuild your own intellectual interests.

The point is this: You are in a profession that recognizes more than most the need for "time out." Yet many teachers don't take advantage of the breaks available to them. As a result, they lose their enthusiasm and energy for what they are doing. When opportunities arise, make a point of using them. Take the time to plan ahead, and revitalize your teaching and your life.


Share Your Interests

You know that there's a lot more to your students than what they study and produce in school. Other activities and interests add dimension to their personalities. The same is true of you—but do your students know that?

The extracurricular parts of your life make you well-rounded. They give you individuality and character. They also give you potential common ground and fresh learning hooks with your students. The books that you read, food that you eat, trips that you take, or games that you play can give your students positive ways to relate to you and your shared time in the classroom. However, you have to make yourself available in these ways in order for that to happen.

The way that you do this can be as simple as making it a point to mention your own preferences or activities at appropriate times in your classroom conversation. When you ask your students to share something about themselves or what they've done as part of a project or discussion, you can share, as well. If one of your students raises a subject that you have personal experience or interest in, you can communicate that. If someone brings up a subject that you've always wanted to know more about or be involved in, you can let them know that you'd like to hear more from them on the subject.

In addition, you may discover ways to use your own interests and experiences as an enriching part of your teaching. If you have a hobby or collection, you may want to incorporate it into a special unit or section of your classroom activity. If you've traveled to a destination that relates to your students or your subject matter, you can share your experience through photos, videos, and mementos. Your willingness to share in such a way may model for otherwise reticent students how to be more open in class.


On Sale
Oct 9, 2012
Page Count
208 pages
Hachette Books

Richard Carlson

About the Author

During his life, Richard Carlson, Ph.D, was considered one of the foremost experts in happiness and stress reduction in the United States and around the world and was a frequent featured guest on many national television and radio programs. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff continued to be a publishing phenomenon with over twenty titles in the brand franchise, two of which were co-authored and authored with his beloved wife, Kris. He died of a pulmonary embolism in December 2006, at the age of forty-five.

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