2021: Brace Yourself

Do you ever stop to think about how you ended up where you are now? What drew you to teaching as a career? For me, the main draw to teaching is relationships. I’m a firm believer that significant learning is far more likely to occur with significant relationships, and I like to think this comes across in my practice through the connections I often have with students. 

I think this is why hearing that we will have to teach online again starting in January devastated me so much. (I know devastated sounds dramatic, but 2020 was a tough year for our little school by the lake and that’s honestly the best word I can use to describe my initial reaction.) Online teaching in the spring was fine, but I found myself longing for that authentic interaction with students that is hard to foster in an online setting. Sitting at my kitchen table talking to a screen of students with their videos off was draining - my jokes feel far less funny when I’m the only one laughing at them! So being back in person with these kids in September really made me appreciate what I do and how great it is to be able to watch them grow, learn, and just be kids.

Then the news came - starting next week, I have 4 weeks to teach a grade 12 physics course, now with at least one of those weeks online. I’ve been trying to remain positive about this situation, dreaming up all the exciting learning opportunities that might come with having the same group of students all day. But there’s always this creeping thought that I can’t deny - this is going to be hard. How am I going to cover all the essentials of the curriculum in such a compressed time period? How will I ensure lasting and meaningful learning? How am I going to build relationships and a sense of community in our class in just 4 weeks/online? How am I going to make this class awesome? As the thoughts of these challenges creep into my mind, I often find myself questioning my negativity. “Remember gratitude Mon. Gratitude. Look on the bright side.”

Heck, I like to think I spend a lot of time practicing gratitude and positivity - so why am I still feeling so unprepared and overwhelmed about the term ahead?!

A book I’ve been reading over the break, How Bad Do You Want It? has helped to bring me some clarity about my "negativity". It talks a lot about the mental strength of endurance athletes - which might seem totally irrelevant to teaching...but stay with me.

The book quotes a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that says, “people often choose to expect the worst of an upcoming experience in hopes of creating a more favorable contrast between their expectations and reality.” It goes on to say, “in the context of endurance competition, this favourable contrast can enhance performance. The more discomfort an athlete expects, the more she can tolerate, and the more discomfort she can tolerate, the faster she can go….Bracing yourself- always expecting your next race to be your hardest yet- is a mature and effective way to prepare mentally for competition.”

I think this applies to more than just endurance sports. I’ve realized that acknowledging the challenges that I’m going to face isn’t necessarily being negative. It’s a coping mechanism, and one that I think is actually relatively effective for me personally. While I’m by no means a superstar athlete, I enjoy the personal challenges of swimming, biking and running and competing in triathlons for fun. In 2019 I signed up for my first triathlon - an Ironman 70.3 - and told myself I’d train lots for it and be in the best shape of my life. As I think is often the case, I trained far less than I had planned, and suddenly it was the day before race day ….and I remember thinking “This is going to hurt.” But accepting that I would be challenged and uncomfortable helped me cope. I knew it would be hard, but I also knew that I can do hard things.

After taking some time to write down all the challenges I expect for this upcoming term, I feel far more liberated to proactively plan on how to overcome these challenges. I feel optimistic. I feel okay. I feel like I can do this. I like to remind myself that I've rarely encountered a challenge that didn't result in some sort of growth. I’m not going to try and sugar coat it and pretend it won’t be hard - but I can do hard things. We all can.

It’s okay to not be sunshine and rainbows all the time. It’s okay to acknowledge that sometimes, you’re dealt a bad hand. We can be grateful and realistic at the same time. Let’s face it, this school year probably feels like more of a marathon than a sprint for a lot of us - and marathons aren’t easy. So while I remain optimistic about the future, and thankful for all the good in my life, I’m bracing myself for the semester ahead. 

5 thoughts on “2021: Brace Yourself

  1. Holly Jepson-Fekete

    Monica there is so much in this post that resonated with me, the idea of a favorable contrasts definitely helps to explain why my mindset, and I really like the idea of writing down possible challenges to then plan for them and feel prepared vs getting lost in a sea of 'what if's'.

    I really liked you line "but I can do hard things" - this is something I tell students all the time, I remind them to go back to the basics, what do we know, what information can we pull together here etc... and I need to be better at reminding myself of this too!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this Monica! I can relate to so much of your thoughts around bracing yourself for online teaching and missing authentic in person relationships and connections. Now you got me interested in a new book too! I like the idea of accepting this time for what it is and acknowledging its challenges, and yet still choosing to propel forward.

  3. @mrand, thanks for your reflections on the upcoming teaching cycle! I love your perspective here "We can be grateful and realistic at the same time." Glad that you aren't losing sight of the things that are going well too. You are going to rock this semester, just like you're going to rock your spring marathon 😉

  4. Allison Campbell-Rogers

    Great post Monica! You're absolutely right - acknowledging challenges does not equate to a negative mindset; it means you are preparing yourself for all possible scenarios and working to be / do the best you can given the circumstances that arise. In short, it would seem to me that it means you care enough to think through the possibilities and be ready to put your best self forward. Look forward to seeing you Saturday, hope the physics semester is off to a great start!

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