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Changing the View

Look out your classroom window. What do you see? Sky and trees? An athletic field? Homes in your community?

We all pay attention to what we see through our windows. But it’s not so much the window that determines the view, it’s the frame: its size, shape, and location determine the space we look through and, therefore, everything we see through it. 

What we see inside our classrooms is also determined by frames. We construct these frames ourselves out of the thoughts, feelings, and past experiences through which we interpret the present and think about the future.

New View, New You

The second half of the school year feels different than the first. The weather’s usually worse; the kids are less excited; some energy is missing. And this is the third year in a row that our vision of what school is supposed to look like has been at least partially masked by the haze of pandemic uncertainty. If this is the frame you’re looking through, you’re certainly not alone. But you may benefit immensely by looking through something new.

 In this article, we’ll look at three frames, any one of which will improve the satisfaction you take in your work. But you don’t have to look through only one. Using all three will shift the perspectives of you and your students so that everyone sees the best of what’s happening as you move forward together toward the end of the year.

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Look for What’s There, Not for What’s Missing

We all know that the pessimist sees the glass half empty and the optimist sees it half full. But both see only half a glass. Optimism is powerful; half a glass isn’t. Most of us want to feel more than halfway filled up. We can do that by looking through a frame of abundance rather than scarcity.

It wasn’t too long ago that we taught in empty rooms while our kids sat at home alone in front of computers. For a long time, we’ve been kept apart. But now we’re back together. The reassuring feeling of classroom community has returned. This is something to notice, to appreciate, even to celebrate.

Are you and your students working well together? Not all the time certainly. But sometimes you are. Sometimes there are moments that seem almost magical. These are the times when teaching is an extraordinary experience worth taking note of, reflecting on, and repeating.

It’s in our nature to heighten our awareness when things aren’t right. It’s easy to know who’s talking or who’s not paying attention. But what do we see when things are going well?

The way to get better at seeing what’s working is to take a few moments, at the end of a lesson or a classroom period, and ask your students, “What did we do well?” Make a list. Keep it posted in front of the room. Add new things as you observe them.

Use this list to engage your students in their own processes of self-management and in the choices they make as they interact with you and with others. Make a special effort to sustain a focus on the best parts of social and emotional learning. This is where you and your students will find the greatest satisfaction in the moment-to-moment quality of your experience together.

Are there still some things missing from your normal routines? Perhaps. Is your classroom climate exactly the way you want it? Maybe not. Yet! But you’ll move closer to your ideals if you’re constantly looking for the good things that are there instead of the things that are missing.

Look for Progress, Not for Performance

Since the mid-1980s, when our nation began its emphasis on higher standards and harder tests, teachers and students alike have been looking intensely through the frame of academic performance.

Looking through the frame of performance is vital. However, during times of sustained hardship, this frame encourages us to focus on everything that hasn’t been accomplished yet and how little time we have left to accomplish it. This can be uncomfortable and discouraging.

By contrast, when we look at the learning lives of our students through the frame of progress, our focus shifts from deficits and deadlines to process and potential.

Talk with your kids about what they know now that they didn’t know when the year began. Share with them what you’ve observed about their accomplishments and the kinds of effort they’ve put forth to achieve them, especially if these things can’t easily be captured in a grade book. Once again, write these things down and post them in front of the room.

Especially valuable is the process component. Keeping kids focused on how they’ve learned what they’ve learned is the secret to improving self-image and optimizing success for everyone—including you!

Looking at what kids have learned and how they’ve learned it helps everyone discover all-important patterns of success. Understanding these patterns improves your practice and shows kids how to learn more in less time. Seeing the connections between effort and results increases everyone’s enthusiasm.

Repeating patterns of success, and developing new ones, are the keys to accelerating learning. We already know that many of our kids are behind. Showing them how to learn more in less time is the best thing we can do.

Emphasizing where kids aren’t doesn’t help them learn faster. It doesn’t make you feel better. Nor does it tell you how to accelerate their growth. Thinking of how far kids have come, however, and what has helped them most to get there, tells you and your students what has worked well and how to make things work even better.

Look for Opportunity, Not for Challenge

Over the last three school years, teaching has been one challenge after another. Kids and parents have been challenged, too.

When we look at life through the frame of challenge, especially for a long time, we can’t help but feel fatigued—physically, emotionally, intellectually.

So is the frame of challenge the best way to look at where we’ve been and where we are now? If we keep focusing on challenges will we begin to feel lighter, happier, more inspired? Probably not.

In times of sustained challenge, a healthier frame of mind is the frame of opportunity.

For example, teachers have had the opportunity to teach remotely. For many, remote teaching has been more exhausting and less satisfying than in-person teaching. But in spite of this, millions of teachers have learned how to do it. Many now do it very well.

Through the frame of challenge, this period of time has been a long, hard slog for teachers. Through the frame of opportunity, this has been a period of unprecedented teamwork, mutual support, and incredible progress. Through the frame of opportunity, this has been an extraordinary time, a time in which teachers have done extraordinary work.

Kids have had the opportunity to learn remotely. They may not have mastered as much curriculum as we would like. But clearly, they have developed new knowledge and new skills they never had before. And it seems obvious now, in retrospect, that what kids have learned about remote learning will serve them well in a technology-driven, globally-connected future. Every kid who has navigated this opportunity has done extraordinary work, too.

Trading the frame of challenge for the frame of opportunity is one of the best trades we can make in education. Education is all about learning. And challenges create the best learning opportunities because they provide a natural sense of urgency and clear goals that focus our effort on the most important things we need to learn.

As you move through the second half of the year, look at the challenges that remain for you and your students as opportunities for valuable learning. Help your students develop the habit of seeing these kinds of opportunities, too. They have many years of learning challenges ahead of them, in school and out. Mastering the art of looking through the frame of opportunity when challenges arise is one of the most valuable things they can learn from you.

There’s Always a New View

Reframing is a well-known psychological skill. It has been studied scientifically for at least 50 years and has been shown to be effective at improving quality of life.

Reframing is more than a matter of instantly swapping one way of thinking for another. It takes time and practice. But it’s definitely learnable. And we tend to learn it best from people we respect and admire. People like our favorite teachers.

Traditionally, however, reframing is not something we teach our students explicitly. Except in one area: social and emotional learning.

Through our teaching of SEL, we offer kids healthy frames for looking at life. There are frames for how we see ourselves, frames for how we look at others, frames for improving our actions and interactions in the world.

Much of what we teach to kids doesn’t afford us the same opportunity to learn. Reframing does. The more we use it for ourselves, the more readily our kids pick it up, too.

Positive perspectives of life and of the world are essential to our well-being and success. The science of reframing tells us that there’s always a way to change the view to find more power in the present and more enthusiasm for the future.

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Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.