Friday, December 6, 2013

The Importance of Gratitude, During the Holidays and Year Round.

I've been a teacher for many years. Part of this time was spent as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia. Years later, I am married, living in New Jersey, and creating teaching and writing materials for teacherspayteachers.

While I was in the Peace Corps...and anyone who spends their time in service I am sure can understand...that realizations assault you at all turns. Even the realizations you have at the beginning are questioned towards the end as you grow into a new person. It is true: the more you give to others, the more you receive in return. You often receive more than the people you help.

Throughout the many years of teaching, in New Jersey, as a tutor, adjunct professor, or high school teacher, and in Ethiopia at the high school level (grammar and English), I feel truly humbled.  It is an honor to teach and to be of service. I know. This is something people say all the time. "It's been an honor." You wonder, "What does that mean? That is just so disingenuous!"

But it IS an honor to help others. It is wonderful to be powerful, a mover-and-shaker, and an entrepreneur in the great and exciting world. But it is a gift to be able to help others, if only because you receive such a depth of satisfaction. It is humbling to know people in a more intimate way, to be allowed to help them, and to feel the reward knowing you had some small measure of agency in helping them grow or improve. THAT is why it is humbling and an honor. That is why to say "It's been an honor" is honest and not a lie.

To be a nurse, a teacher, anyone who helps others, and yes, a person who creates and makes things and puts them new into the world can feel this kind of gratitude about life and the work they do...

How do you keep feeling this way, when your students don't do their homework, the other teachers are really keen on entering your classroom to complain, the parents keep insisting their child did SO much better last year, implying it just might be your fault, or the upper management is not being nearly as supportive as you'd like?

The key to keeping a sense of gratitude is keeping above the daily grind, the annoyances, the pesky irritants.  Focus on why you ARE a teacher, what you love, and what you have and are grateful for.
Know why you are a teacher and be grateful for that, for your students, for all of the things you are, and can do and can change in the world and in your class. If you focus more on what you are thankful for, you will be happier and more productive. Also, you will concern yourself less with those things that annoy you and cannot be changed. Superintendents may come and go. Do you want to be grateful for the new books, the student who finally came out of her shell, and the angry student who did her homework every day this week, or do you want to feel shortchanged because the Superintendent changed the rule and now everyone has to go to school? Remember that you have chosen this job. If this is the case, you are free to "un-choose" it. Would you really do that? If not, then your time would be better spent HAPPY and grateful for what you DO have, and spent thinking about what you can do to make it even better.

To focus on what one DOES have, instead of what one WISHES to have, what one WANTS, what one does not have or worse yet, what others have, is a recipe for disaster. The idea of being grateful, in oneself, for what one has, to God, or for one's family or situation, very much seems saccharine and corny and also THEMED for the Thanksgiving and Christmas rush, conveniently sandwiched in between pumpkins  in October, and the need to join your local gym in January. Nothing could be more off or slant.

The happiest people are those that take time. Time to breathe and to realize "I am here, alive, and breathing. And right now all is exactly as it should be." Though this is for writers, teachers, designers, creators of all stripes, EVERYONE should know that all you have is enough. If you have a person to love, if you have food on the table, if you are warm enough at night, and if you can find some joy in the work that you do and the things that you create, be grateful for it, and practice focusing on those things that you DO have. The world will notice! You will notice, your family, customers, students will notice. And if gratitude is something you only do for a day, when then shame on the advertising executives.

PLEASE, don't misunderstand. I fall off the wagon all the time. Being grateful takes practice. My husband drives me crazy. I drive down the highway and someone veers over into my lane. While I usually feel bad because I just know through this Italian intuition of mine that it has to be an old person who can't drive very well, on this particular day I am incensed and frustrated and yell out in my car "Oh Yeah? Sure, why don't you just drive wherever you feel like it?"

Then I'm in Shop Rite, notorious for having small aisles (is this just near me?) and of course I'm in a rush and people love planting their cart in the center of the aisle to just stand and stare. This doesn't even make me upset. It's the maneuvering of the cart around them; there are always boxes of food not yet put away. Then another shopper shows up, and looks as me as if I'm in the way.

And yet, I too try to feel grateful. In the end, character is what you do when no one in looking. No one may truly know if you practice being grateful for others year-round. But inside, you will know. You will feel lighter and happier. The carts and cars, the people by the water cooler or coffee station may simply not bother you as much. There is a freedom in that. And we return to the beginning, in doing something for others, we will get much more in return. Freedom, happiness, peace of mind? I'll take that everyday and twice on Sunday!

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