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  • Mallory Foster

Tools for Staying Joyful, Peaceful, and Present in Teaching and Parenthood

Teaching, helping other teachers fine-tune their teaching, leading Tinkergarten, and teaching yoga, mixed in with raising a little one of our own has helped me continuously reflect upon how I relate to others, the foundation of teaching, parenthood, marriage...everything. It makes sense that so much of Piaget's work is grounded in his parenthood experiences - we are our children's first teachers, and therefore, if we want to understand learners, spending some time with our earliest learners is awe-inspiring and humbling. Every day with a small human, a classroom full of teens, or just with a significant other is different. If I could go back in time to when I began student teaching (and perhaps even earlier), here are some of the words I'd share with myself and I hope they'll be helpful tools in your toolbox in whatever context you work with other people:


Don't ask people to do things you need them to do, tell them. Brene Brown terms this as "Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind" - at first read that seemed harsh to me. I want my spouse to know what I want for dinner. I want my kiddo to make a safe choice and not climb on the table. There are times though, when a need is a need is a need and if we simply say that we save everyone from grief and guesswork. This also though requires us to get really honest about what we need versus want. Most days, I want HG to stop spilling glasses of tea on the floor. It is slightly wasteful, but she's clearly doing some important experiment or she wouldn't dump the dang tea 18282992 times in a row. Other days though, when my patience well is dried up, it's a need, and that's okay. I respected her need to dump most days, now it's her turn. So, we put the tea away and find something else to do, ad I make sure to work in water play later in the day, in the bath, outside, or over a towel. In the classroom, it was nice if students sat in chairs, but bodies are made for moving. I learned that most of the time, sitting in a chair was a want. Students can learn just as well sitting on a yoga mat in the front of the room or standing leaning against a wall at the back. Sitting became a need when students were disrupting other students. Yet, I had to learn to stop saying, "Can you sit down please?" and instead just say, firmly and respectfully, "Sit down". If I ask, I am insinuating that there is a choice. If there isn't, I'm not being fair to the kiddo who thought they had a choice when I get upset. With a spouse, this might sound like, "Please change the litter box today" or "When can you help me plan meals before nap time?". The need is clear, yet where possible, flexibility is still offered.

#monthinmoments emoji faces to help us get comfortable with big feelings - this can help slow our knee jerk reaction of saying "It's okay"

Respond in kind to a feeling. I first had this "aha!" moment when reading an excerpt from The Lost Art of Listening by Nichols in a counseling class. When we cheerfully say, "It's okay! It's okay!" to a crying baby, we are really communicating, "Your sadness doesn't matter, just cheer up". Instead, if we can slow down and say, "You're sad about something. Let me figure out what" in a quieter, curious, almost melancholy voice, we are modeling that all feelings matter but that we can find productive ways to cope with any feeling. When a student stomps around angry about an interaction, try, "You seem mad, let's step outside". Try saying the "You seem mad" imagining you're stomping your foot at the end, then "let's step outside" more calmly. With a spouse or peer saying, "I feel anxious" or "I'm having a bad week" instead of saying "You'll be okay" try "Do you know what's bothering you?". Humans are social creatures. We crave connection. When there is a huge disparity between our output and someone else's response, we feel unheard and that can feel isolating and hurtful. To babies, it can teach them over time to bottle up feelings, which isn't sustainable in the long run. In talking about this with Will (the hubs), the pointed out that sometimes this lets HG exaggerate a feeling or stay in her upset state longer. So, now, if she's crying over something that is small (and I still hardly feel confident deciding what is small), I'll say "You're upset, can we shake it off" - so I'm honoring the feeling and empowering HG to let it go. The fall hurt, but she can get right up and move on. She wanted the sip of my coffee, but she has her water and cool books to read so we can move on. Here's a cool TED Talk by Julian Treasure on ways to practice listening. It is easy to respond with sympathy, aim for empathy. Slow down, step in to the feeling, see how it can be let go or reacted to.


If you've said someone's name 20 times, it's time to leave them alone or come up with a different strategy. In my work with new teachers, I'd hear teachers say the same kid's name over and over asking them to stop doing something to the point that if I was that kid, I'd have lost it. Often, part of this problem could have been solved by not asking the student to do what needed to be done, but other times, a student just needed to be left alone. Not every kiddo comes to us ready to learn every day. As a parent, we will not be on the same page every day and in every moment with our child. If we find we are repeatedly getting after someone about the same thing or different things in a small time period, they likely just need space (and so do we). Now, don't get me wrong, using names in the classroom is crucial. It helps learners feel known and respected, related to us and our classroom community. But saying, "Sam, what do you think about Marcus's thought?" versus, "Marcus, SIT DOWN", "Marcus, why are you up again?", "Marcus, sit down" are VERY different. One shows that the relationship between the teacher and student and the student and other students is centered around learning. The other shows that the relationship between the teacher and student is centered around obedience. We are raising and educating children to be productive members of a democratic society. Democracy doesn't work when people only know how to sit down and shut their mouths.

With younger kids, if we are asking them to change what they are doing repeatedly, we are also breaking their concentration completely from their task at hand, so while their task at hand might be rather undesirable in the moment, when we talk, it is perceived as an interruption to them, which helped me become more empathetic to HG's subsequent meltdowns. I talk about HG climbing on tables a lot, she's a master at it. We've moved chairs out of our kitchen and she can be on the table in 3 seconds flat. Instead of telling her over and over to get down, I take her down and move her to something she can climb on, another toy that uses gross motor skills, or we put on shoes and head out to climb on the playground. I say, "3,2,1, fly" as I pick her up and say, "Dancing on the table is not okay, lets climb where it is safer". I minimize the words until she's safe and we're both content with the situation. There's a great article, "Knowing When to Talk isn't Child's Play" on Tinkergarten's blog that gives more tips.

I planned some fun pulley play for me and HG, she found it offensive that her bucket was tied to the equipment, so we let go of that idea real fast :).

Let go of what you've imagined to embrace what is. This is modification of a quote from Joseph Campbell that my university supervisor shared with me when I was student teaching. It changed my life. As a classroom teacher, this helped me define my purpose as a science teacher. While I wanted each student to leave my class as an environmental steward who felt they could pursue a career in science, I realized that my bottom line was that I wanted every student to leave knowing how to ask questions fearlessly, which is the root of science learning and discovery. In Tinkergarten, this has looked like worm attacks (throwing string at each other) when, according to our plans we "should" be pecking (hammering) like woodpeckers, orange peels for bird feeders becoming pirate ships, and so many amazing, creative iterations of play I could not have imagined. At home, this means that some nights, I snuggle on the floor with HG all night when she can't sleep or that I get half way through painting a peg person and she wakes up from a nap early and we go play. This has helped me be more flexible as a teacher, spouse, yoga instructor, etc. What is in front of us is awesome in some way if we can slow down, step in, and find it.


I'm curious! What are your favorite tools in your toolbox for parenting, teaching, etc that you repeat to yourself or others again and again? Share in the comments or using #watchwonderbloom. And, share a #dailywin inspired by the interview with Ali Williams!


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