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This is part ten of my willpower project tracking my progress through Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct. Jump back to part one if you want to start at the beginning. This post will be focused on my reflections for Chapter Nine. Chapter Ten is a wrap-up, and I will include that material in my final post.

On Reframing “I won’t”:
I really like the material in Chapter Nine. It’s extremely accessible and immediately applicable. Understanding the limits of “I won’t” power has made a noticeable impact on how I process issues of self restraint, even in just a few days. Also, unlike some of the other chapters, the experiments were very straightforward in terms of implementation and did not require specialized conditions.

Unintentionally, this week became a great microcosm for practicing McGonigal’s alternatives to attempting to suppress impulsive thoughts. For the last couple of days I’ve had mild, but noticeable, cravings for chocolate, particularly in the evening while watching TV. Instead of forcefully blocking out all traces of chocolate from my mind (or at least attempting to) I opted to leverage experiment 2 and accept the craving without acting on it. I noticed my desire for chocolate, thought about the taste, texture, and smell associated with eating chocolate. I then thought about my health-related goals and attempted to balance my desire for health with my desire for chocolate. Lastly, I honored that while I wanted to eat chocolate, I would choose not to act on that impulse. So far the process has worked and thoughts of chocolate do not dominate my life. It’s not forbidden, I’m simply making an alternate choice. This has been supported by some recommitment as well. We have no chocolate in the house so I would have to run out to buy some. With the combined higher cost and improved self-awareness, the chocolate becomes less desirable.

Beyond food related challenges, material from chapter nine has helped me retain focus for my job hunting. Every time I thought had thoughts of “I shouldn’t” or “I won’t” do certain actions that hinder my job search, I worked to reimagine those thoughts from the context of “I will.” In particular when preparing for a phone interview I had the initial thought of “I won’t rush through my ideas,” and I turned it around into a challenge of “I will pause and explain myself clearly.” Through the interview it was much easier to focus on the behaviors I wanted, and I think this helped me put those desired behaviors into action.

I think that through practice I will become aware of more opportunities where I can switch the focus of a willpower challenge. I am convinced that there are multiple opportunities that I’m missing each day. As with all things, my awareness of these opportunities should increase as the practice becomes integrated into my life.

The concept of surfing the urge, or being present and aware through feelings of craving, reminded me very strongly of the Bene Gesserit litany against fear from Dune, in particular the second half: “I will face my fear / I will let it pass over me and through me. / And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing / Only I will remain.” It would be easy to replace each instance of the word “fear” with impulse or temptation or craving, and very closely approximate McGonigal’s entire thesis.

I can just see myself repeating:
I will not eat sugar.
Sugar is the mind killer. (waistline killer?)
Sugar is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face the sugar
I will let it pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the sugar has gone there will be nothing
Only I will remain.

We’ll see how it works.

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This is part 8 of my willpower project. If you’re just getting on board now, you may be interested in jumping back to part one to get the full picture. The story so far is that willpower is a conflict between your impulsive self and your planning self. You can grow your willpower so that more of your choices align with long term goals, thus making your life better.

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I won’t lie to y’all. This chapter is the first time I’ve been deeply skeptical of McGonigal’s work. Her premise is that willpower, and other behaviors, are contagious meaning that we can transfer behaviors from ourselves to others, and we can “catch” behaviors from other people. Willpower included.

My brain rejected this pretty quickly, and even her first study (which cites that the best predictor of an Air Force Academy cadet’s fitness was the least fit cadet in his squad) had me highly incredulous. I mean seriously, how does one out of shape dude in a squad of Air Force Cadets cause the whole lot of them to lose fitness? Thank you Kelly McGonigal for consistently cited academic research! Throughout the chapter McGonigal won me over through her diligence in citing research to support all of her claims. (Take note writers. Evidence helps you convince people. Claims alone are insufficient.) My rational brain took the time to  listen to evidence and win over my quick emotional rejection of the material. McGonigal also cites later in the chapter that this is a commonly rejected portion of her course because people hold strongly to the idea that through rugged individualism we can block out social pressures. The data does not bear that out. We’re incredibly susceptible to social influence, and it is often the only thing that works to change behavior.

So what’s this all about then? It’s about social impact. Many of our behaviors are heavily impacted by our social environment and willpower is among those behaviors. This is what I was experiencing back in Chapter 3. When asked to track willpower levels throughout the day, I noticed that location and those around me played an important role in my ability to make willpower-based decisions. Different locations and different people had positive and negative impacts, but I couldn’t really name it beyond that. McGonigal would say that their behaviors are contagious. I think it’s the term contagious that initially set me off so much. It’s a nice flashy buzzword, but being influenced to do something because of those around you it’s not really the same to me as catching a cold because someone sneezed. (The video is bizarrely beautiful and disgusting at the same time. I love science.)

The experiments for this topic are extremely relevant even if I’m not a fan of McGonigal’s word choice. All three of the experiments this time are highly similar as each one applying visualization. Depending on the context it’s either visualization of a goal and its potential hurdles, a powerful role model, and those who might be proud when we succeed. Each one of these tries to intentionally leverage social influence in a positive way. None of these visualizations are particularly complex, and their purpose is clearly explained. What’s more interesting is how McGonigal presents mindfulness with respect to social influences.

I’m very curious about who influences me, and how much. McGonigal claims (with evidence) that there are two important factors that influence how … influenced we are by someone else: the extent to which their behaviors align with our goals, and how connected we are with that person. This means that I should be highly influenced by people I care deeply about who also exhibit behaviors that align with my goals. When my wife exercises, this should positively impact me. When someone unknown to me smokes, this shouldn’t really impact me. I’m highly interested to see how much I can track the impact that others have on my willpower, and who has a high impact.

And another two weeks have passed without a post. It turns out moving keeps one pretty busy, but we’ve sold the house, moved into the apartment, and schedules can be reestablished. The willpower project is back on track.

I’ve tried to remain mindful of my willpower-based decisions throughout the moving process, however it became quite difficult as getting boxes packed and moved dominated my active willpower reserves, leaving little for healthy eating choices or exercise, let alone finding time to write. (Eating was particularly impacted as we were in kitchen limbo for a while with cooking supplies packed and no food in the house, causing me to eat out all meals except breakfast for about a week.) With those concerns in mind, I’m pretty happy with how I made out through the process. I was able to draw on willpower reserves to make sure that boxes got packed, and then subsequently unpacked.

In addition to being mindful of my willpower decisions, I made my choices easier by leveraging the idea of reducing variability. I did this by intentionally limiting my options for lunch. I allowed myself to get either a salad from Whole Foods or chicken and stir-fried veggies from Uwajimaya (a local Asian grocery). Other possibilities were simply out of the question. I combined this with the idea of the green willpower fill-up (see chapter 2) because I can walk from my office to Uwajimaya in a reasonable amount of time and I took advantage of this when the weather was cooperative. This definitely helped me stay on track with my long term health goals, despite the stress of moving.

In my professional life I was able to use McGonigal’s process for countering cycles of self-guilt. April and May are a stressful time in public education, particularly with teachers on non-continuing contracts as this is the time of year when they hear whether or not they will be retained. When things are looking unclear for my teachers many of them hyper-analyze their decisions and deeply internalize any failures, quickly progressing into a cycle of self-guilt and possible avoidance. McGonigal’s process outlined in chapter 6 allows me to help teachers see that they are not alone in their struggles and there are concrete actions they can take to increase the likelihood of being retained. This helps teachers take an active role in their retention and avoid feelings of helplessness.

Chapter 7: Putting the Future on Sale

In Chapter 7 McGonigal explores issues of instant gratification and how delaying gratification can be used as a technique to make more choices in line with long term goals. In simplest terms, our impulsive selves put a very high premium on immediacy and when rewards are delayed we perceive them as being less valuable. The terms is known as delay discounting and McGonigal explains it in economic terms, saying that in a particular study people “deprived themselves of what they really wanted for the fleeting satisfaction of a quick fix.” (p. 158) In order to combat this tendency McGOnigal outlines four experiments:

  1. Wait 10 Minutes
  2. Lower Your Discount Rate
  3. Precommit
  4. Meet Your Future Self

Wait 10 minutes is simply that. See a temptation? Wait 10 minutes and see if you still want it. If you do, knock yourself out. If not, don’t pick it.

Lowering the discount rate is somewhat more complex and it is predicated on the idea that we are better at internally justifying the first reward we thinking about. This means that if you think about the immediate reward first you tend to think about the choice as losing the immediate reward. “I’ll lose the hour watching TV if I look for jobs.” We can lower the discount rate by switching the order of thinking by replacing the previous statement by saying “is it worth trading an opportunity to apply for my dream job for one hour of video games?” By switching the focus of our self-talk we can remind ourselves of our long term goal and take advantage of our brain’s method of internal justification.

McGonigal uses the historical example of Hernàn Cortès burning his ships to illustrate the most extreme example of precommitment. It’s taking action that sabotages the impulsive self. In this case, by burning is ships, Cortès prevented the temptation of heading home before he’d achieved success. We don’t all have to burn our ships. There are more subtle ways to precommit to our long term goals. If you’re struggling with shopping, leave the credit card at home and take a specific amount of cash. If you’re trying to eat healthier, pack your lunch the night before so that it’s easier to grab it in the morning. If you’re trying to change your clothing choices, lay out the clothes the night before so that you don’t have to choose when you’re in a rush. All of these options are based in motivating oneself toward future goals by increasing the cost of choosing against the goals. In the first scenario, if you really want to use that credit card while you’re shopping you will have to head home and then back to the store, at which point you have significantly delayed the reward.

Meeting your future self is intended to help concretize the future, something that McGonigal keeps coming back to. This was extensively covered in her talk that I attended, and I’ve been using this technique regularly with my teachers by having them write letters from their future selves or by vividly imagining a future transformative movement. These techniques have been incredibly helpful and I’ve seen my teachers build significant motivation toward improving their practice.

I read this chapter about a week ago and I’ve been thinking about these ideas a lot. The small amount of willpower it takes to delay gratification by five to ten minutes is extremely powerful in helping me to making the choices that align with my long term goals. It doesn’t take much to reduce the discount rate and de-prioritize instant gratification. This chapter is a perfect example of how very small adjustments can make a big difference in a person’s life.

It’s been a heck of a week. Each day that I slipped past my self-imposed Monday deadline for these posts I found it a little bit easier to keep slipping the date. I told myself that I’d do it a little bit later, the next morning, then the next afternoon, and here we are at Thursday and I’m just sitting down to write. (Then revisions on Saturday and finally posting the following Monday.) However, in the spirit of self-compassion, I’m not going to beat myself up about slipping the date. I had an extraordinarily busy weekend that’s spilled into an extraordinarily busy week. As such I’ve had to prioritize other immediate needs over my desire to write. “I need” trumps “I want.” This variability in life was made as a rational decision, knowing that it would impact other aspects of my life. I am mindful of how these choices impacted my time for writing and I am moving forward without beating myself up about being late with the post.

Last Week:
The chapter on moral licensing impacted me significantly and as a result I’ve been extremely aware of my impulse to trade “good” behaviors for “bad” behaviors. This came up in the idea of working hard and earning a reward as a result. As an example, last Saturday I spread roughly for cubic yards of crushed rock and then felt like I had a license to make uncharacteristically poor food choices in the form of eating a lot of chocolate. I knew that I was making the choice in the moment, and justified it through my hard work spreading the gravel. I’ve had more success in viewing decisions or actions as neither good nor bad. They are just decisions and they are either aligned with my long term goals, or they are not aligned. This helps me to make consistent decisions and prevents me from slipping into the idea of a moral bank account. When I make decisions I gain no credit towards vice, nor do I create some kind of moral debt when I indulge.
I also watched a lot of other people engage in moral licensing. Particularly with food. Comments like “I had a salad yesterday” or “I’m going to the gym later today” were surprisingly common once I started to look for them. While drafting this post, in fact, I watched half a dozen people morally license a pastry purchase at a coffee shop leveraging both past and future “good” behavior to justify the indulgence.

The second experiment, reducing variability in life, has been more difficult to maintain since I’ve have extremely uncommon events that are all occurring in rapid succession including selling our house, travel, and a wedding. I was not particularly effective at reducing diet variability, maintaining exercise, or my writing through the last week and a half. I was, however, able to be mindful of my choices and the degree to which they aligned with long term goals. I ate ice cream and tortillas mindfully and with full awareness of the impact. I hope to be able to reduce variability in the upcoming week as things settle down a bit.

Chapter 5: Mistaking wanting for Happiness
This chapter is all about dopamine. Before reading, I was under the impression that dopamine was released when we achieve a reward and promoted a sense of happiness for achieving our goal. In this chapter, McGonigal resituates dopamine as the chemical that helps us work toward a goal. In this case, when we want something, dopamine is released in anticipation of reward, sending a signal that we’ll be really happy once we attain the goal we’re working on. Essentially, dopamine spikes in anticipation of a goal thus motivating the hard work it takes to achieve said goal, then it backs off once the reward is achieved.

McGonigal’s explanation made me think of dopamine as something of a gateway chemical, in that it can lead to other temptations. The spike of dopamine encourages us to follow impulse as opposed to reason in pursuit of new experiences. When we are presented with new experiences, new tastes, new ideas, our dopamine engages heavily in anticipation of a novel experience, promising our system that we will experience future pleasure. When those new experience don’t live up to our expectations we seek out additional new experiences in a attempt to fulfill dopamine’s promise that we’ll experience something great. This is easily manipulated by advertising that promises the new version of a product you already enjoy.

When focused, dopamine is extremely positive. It is an essential motivator that helps us pursue goals and attain rewards. The challenge is that sometimes false rewards masquerade as meaningful. We regularly experience an overabundance of dopamine-triggering stimuli such as the smell of baked goods, sexually stimulating imagery, and that incredible sounds that alerts you of a new text or email. Each one contains that promise of some wonderful experience and so our brains pump dopamine, encouraging us to act on those impulses. The promise of immediate reward easily circumvents our rational ability to plan our actions and we find ourselves making impulsive choices before we’ve even thought about the consequences. I identify with this most with the experience of eating large quantities of food before I’ve even realized that I’m eating. Salty snacks are particularly dangerous for me as I can easily polish off an entire bag of chips or popcorn without even realizing that I’m eating.

The willpower experiments for the week leverage both the beneficial and dangerous sides of dopamine. The first is to actively dopaminize an “I will” challenge by creating a strong image of the desired outcome. If you’re scared of flying, actively visualize the benefits of getting on the plane and your body will give you some dopamine, promising good feelings. The second experiment is to mindfully indulge and observe the extent to which the actual reward experience aligns with expectation. In particular the concept is to see if you need as much of a reward to get the desired feeling. Is it one piece of chocolate, or ten? One beer, or six? The hypothesis is that by being mindful, and fully experiencing the feeling of indulgence, we reach satiety much sooner than if we indulge without thinking. Additionally, mindful indulgence helps us understand if we’ve correctly aligned our rewards with our desires. Did you really want that doughnut, or would a small piece of chocolate have taken care of the feeling? We can only know this by being mindful.

For myself, the mindful indulgence will likely come in the idea of taking a break. Taking a moment to put work aside and watch TV, play some video games, or read a couple comics is a strong indulgent behavior for me and I’ve definitely found myself becoming mindful and realizing that my short break turned into two hours of video games unexpectedly. Hopefully by being mindful of the experience I can enjoy taking a few minutes of a break, thus spending less time in break mode.

This is part four of my series on Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct. If you’re interested in starting from the beginning, head back to part one.

Last Week:
The previous chapter was all about fatigue and for a reason that I can’t quite determine, it feels like a complete blur. The experiments for the week were to eat in ways that moderate blood sugar levels (low glycemic), to monitor the ups and downs of willpower, and to set a specific willpower challenge. I was consistent on the first two experiments, but the willpower challenge was a pretty big flop.

My regular diet is something of a paleo approximation. I generally don’t eat grains, beans, or dairy, but I’m not 100% rigid. I’ll eat rice about once per week, and I’ll eat some dessert and have a drink or two every so often. In general, however, my diet is full of meat and vegetables and it’s a diet that is effective as moderating blood sugar levels. Because of this I did not make any significant changes to my diet. Despite the lack of significant change, I was able to observe that when I got particularly hungry my willpower was noticeably lower. In particular, I found myself driving to lunch after a long morning, and it was extremely difficult to contain my frustration with other drivers or red lights, when I am typically pretty calm. My day hadn’t been particularly difficult up to that point so it stands to reason that the lower willpower was linked to a lack of food and dropping blood sugar. I also noticed that when I make a choice to indulge in food it easily snowballs into many indulgences, but I think this is more of an example of the “What the Hell Effect” Coming in Chapter 6.

When it came to monitoring my willpower levels throughout the week I chose an ad hoc approach as opposed to writing down every willpower swing up or down. The first thing I noticed is that on mornings when I meditated to start my day I had a substantial increase in willpower throughout the morning. This made the whole day easier as I didn’t have to fight all morning, and it left me with a greater reserve of willpower right before lunch and into the afternoon, when my willpower was typically at its lowest. Additionally I found an enormous boost to my willpower in the hours directly after exercise, as long as the workout did not completely exhaust me. Throughout the week I had strong training workouts, and came home feeling refreshed, whereas on Saturday I competed in Crossfit Open workout 14.3 and I was well and truly fatigued for the remainder of the day.

In addition to specific times of day, or after certain activities, I noticed that physical location, and the presence of others impacted my willpower and my ability to make choices aligned with my long-term goals. Calm public places, coffee shops for instance, gave me a boost to my willpower, while being at home made me more inclined to act impulsively. I hypothesize that this is due to an increased presence of temptation at home. The presence of a television is particularly distracting to me, and it’s even hard for me to carry a one on one conversation when a TV is playing at a restaurant. The presence of others that are actively engaged in similar activities definitely helped my willpower as I am able to feed off their positive energy. During the open workout the presence of many other people helped me complete substantially more lifts than if I had completed the workout on my own. Additionally the presence of other people in the act of writing encourages me to stay focused on my own writing. When others are engaged in impulsive behavior I feel their actions pull at my willpower and each second of focused work in their presence becomes a willpower challenge.

My willpower challenge to maintain improved spine position while sitting was a complete flop. There were so many other things that were on my mind that I just didn’t keep track of my posture. Every now and then I caught myself, but I was much more mindful of monitoring my willpower levels throughout the day and this fell to the side.

Chapter 4: License to Sin: Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad

In this chapter McGonigal introduces the reader to the concept of moral licensing. In short this is when people use their good behavior in order to grant themselves permission for bad behavior. The entire chapter made me think about papal indulgences, when one could buy forgiveness for sins from the church, even before sinning. It’s probably the history nerd in me, but I was shocked that McGonigal did not make the connection explicit.

The entire issue of moral licensing hinges on the idea that our willpower decisions are moral decisions. This immediately connected with me and I saw myself in many of the examples. The concept is also predicated on the idea that we see ourselves as somehow flawed in our impulsive state and that we want to be “good enough” as opposed to morally impeccable. Essentially, by using self-control (good) I get the reward of returning to my natural, impulsive state (bad). The concept plays out as follows: My long term goal is to be more healthy, therefore I engage my willpower and hit the gym. (I don’t want to do this, but it’s good for me, so this self-control makes me a good person. I earn some good points.) Because I earned enough good points, I can now spend them on something indulgent. This could be linked to my challenge (I get to eat some junk food), but does not need to be (I buy myself a present). The most classic example that by forcing myself to eat my vegetables I earn the right to indulge in dessert. I trade a good action for a bad action.

There are many problems with this, as McGonigal illustrates extensively throughout the chapter, but the one that really hit home for me was the distinction that these choices are made using emotion as a way of knowing, as opposed to reason. The distinction does not reduce the validity of the decision (she does not dismiss emotion,) but it properly situates the decision as an emotional, or impulsive decision that occurs in the midbrain, as opposed to a willpower based decision that takes place in the prefrontal cortex. Choices made through moral licensing act against our long-term goals and actively hinder us from becoming the self we want to be. These choices act most directly against our “I want” power. Knowledge of this distinction allows use to take control and the easiest way to take control is to revoke our moral license.

The most effective way to revoke one’s moral license is not to engage in guilt or shaming for impulsive decisions, but to simply remove the morality of willpower choices. My choice to eat or not eat a sugary treat does not make me a good or bad person. It is simply a conflict of willpower and impulse, of short-term and long-term priorities. When we remove the morality we do not gain virtue by making choices that align with our long-term goals, and therefore we’ve earned no indulgences. (I am also predicting that McGonigal will use moral licensing later on in the book as leverage for self-compassion.) Our emotions are activated as a way of knowing because we assign a value to our actions. Revoking the moral license and making my choices devoid of any sense of moral worth is the first experiment for the week.

The second experiment is to view actions as habitual, or leading to habit. In other words, to reduce the variability of each day. The rationale behind this is that if we see our actions as something that we engage in every day we are more likely to make choices that align with our long-term goals. If the choice is between saving money every day, or buying a pair of shoes every day, I am much more likely to save my money than if I can self-justify that I’ll buy the shoes “just this one time.” By viewing our choices as commitment to choosing that action habitually we remove the “cognitive crutch that tomorrow will be different.” This second experiment has made an immediate impact on me. Even on the first day, when choosing to pack or buy a lunch, I thought that I would rather be a person who brings a lunch each day, than a person who buys a lunch each day, and as such I made the choice to bring some unappealing (yet perfectly edible) leftovers because the choice aligns more closely with my long-term health goals.

With these experiments in mind, I am choosing to write because I want to be the kind of person who writes habitually. This is aligned to my long-term goals. At the same time, however, I gain no moral currency by do the writing, therefore I have no license to choose actions that work against my long-term goals.

There are times when teachers see immediate results of their work.  Times when a student has that elusive lightbulb moment, or when the student implements a taught skill without prompting.  These immediate validations of a teacher’s effort are infrequent at best, and often quite rare.  Teaching is a long term process in which positive impact is regularly delayed until years after when the student and teacher have lost contact.  Teachers rarely have the chance to understand how their work impacts students in the long term.  I recently received an email from a former student that highlighted just how rare it is to hear from a student after they leave my class.  The way she describes her life, and the impact of my class, was extremely unexpected. The excerpt from her email below has been edited for length and to remove most personal identifiers.

She says:

Hey Mr. McCormick! I just wanted to say thank you so much for what you taught me over the years as my AVID teacher. … the things I learned in your class, YES even/especially AP World have really made an impact on me. Since leaving about midway through sophomore year, I went through the worst of the worst, and became a version of me that I never thought I’d ever become. … I went through the pain of mental, physical, and emotional abuse at that time. As expected, I was in the worst health anybody could imagine.
 
I decided to leave Washington and move back into my grandparent’s house…. I’ve been here for about 2 months [after about a year of being out of school – GM] and I’m already back in school. I’m going to college and I’m in the medical assisting program, I’m the youngest in my class by many years, but everyone looks to me for help! My note taking skills have been recognized by my instructor and classmates, and I have AVID to thank. I really do look back at all the mistakes I’ve made and thank God everyday that education was always something that I took interest in, even if I lost myself for a while. My family is very proud of me and supports me 100% of the way, I hope to one day become a [physician’s assistant] after a couple of years working as an [medical assistant], and my graduation date is set for May, 2014. Wish me luck!   Again, thank you so much for putting up with my nonsense those few years! I love my entire AVID class and I wish them the very best at their last year as [High School] students.

When she left my school in the middle of her junior year, I was incredibly concerned for Carmen.  She had been exhibiting unusual behavior and her grades were declining rapidly from an already inconsistent position.  When she left school I felt like a failure.  I hadn’t reached her.  I was unable to get things turned around to help Carmen get back to the student she’d been in earlier years.  Over time I stopped thinking about her.

When I received this letter from her I was forced to take stock of my self perception.  In a certain way it creates a level of paradox.  Most of the time education is an extremely gradual process by which students build on past experiences and integrate new knowledge and skill, thus creating an ever-developing persona.  At the same time, however, there exists the potential to create extremely powerful catalytic moments that initiate radical change and have lifelong impact.

I would like to think that I helped teach Carmen the grit and individual determination that helped her build back from setbacks that could have completely derailed her life.  While we worked on these kinds of non-cognitive skills in class, she already came to my class equipped in many ways.  Carmen’s determination and perseverance are products of a gradual building process in her life.

With Carmen I did not create an appropriate catalytic moment that caused her to take stock of her life.  That moment had to come from beyond the classroom, and took her down an extremely difficult path.  I was able to set something of a time bomb in her head though.  Education acted as a beacon for Carmen.  No matter her declining grades, her difficulties, or her questionable choices, Carmen always maintained an unwavering faith in the power of self-improvement through education.  I do not know if this was a conscious belief while she was in my class, however, she clearly has that belief now and she can link lessons from my class to her ability to realize her academic goals.  As her teacher I was able to support this through my own unwavering belief in her ability to grow and improve.  Education provides her with hope that change will come.  Combined with her willingness to put in hard work Carmen is seeing her belief become reality.  She recently sent me a picture of her quarter grades and the proof is undeniable:

CarmenGrade

Carmen’s story reminds me that all success is not instant.  Most success is not immediate.  We do not all take the same path, nor do we need to.  Carmen helps maintain my faith in the transformative power of education.  She is the American Dream: a child born of immigrant parents who, through hard work and determination, will create for herself a better future.

Stories like hers are why I remain committed to improving our education system at all levels.  The work is slow, and change is incremental, but change is possible and objectively small victories are worthy of celebration because they are subjectively deeply meaningful.  In the greater picture, one student turning a GED, abuse, and addiction into a degree and work in the medical profession is relatively minor.  In the story of Carmen’s family she will be the first to complete any higher education and she will act as an example to her younger siblings and cousins, dramatically impacting their lives.  In her most recent email, Carmen told me that she wants to become a paramedic so that she can save lives and said “thank you for caring I don’t really have anybody who does.”  The impacts of education are rarely immediately visible, but that does not diminish their value.  Maintaining commitment to the educational process requires perseverance, belief, and an appreciation of delayed gratification.

It’s mid-October and the reality of the school year has set in.  The leaves are turning, the weather is getting colder and wetter, and darkness is creeping up around the edges of the day.  School is reestablishing itself as a consistent pattern in students’ lives.  This is when cracks begin to show.  Don’t fear the reset.

Teachers begin the year with the best of intentions: “This is the year that I’ll be planned out a week in advance.”  “This year, I’ll get it will all come together and run smoothly.”  These intentions are even more extreme with new teachers.  The optimistic, excited idealism, while helpful in August preparations, can quickly become battered, and worn by mid-October.  The young teacher easily falls into a repetitive funk, realizing the routines and procedures they established in September are insufficient.  It is a quick step into a swamp of cynicism leading to the laments of Cubs fans the world over: “maybe next year will be better.”

You are not a victim of Cubs’ management.  This is your classroom and you have the autonomy to take matters into your own hands.  Reset the classroom expectations.  Right now.

“Right now?  How do I make the time? I’ve got all this content to cover.”

There is a assumed need to justify time spend on non-curricular topics. We are expected to teach routines at the beginning of the year and there is a perception that once taught, they shouldn’t be revisited.  After all, if it was done correctly, the students should know the expectations.  Right?

It can feel like a step backward to revisit proper bathroom procedure six weeks after you thought you had it established, but we need to remember that anything new takes practice and repetition in order to become habitual. As adults, how often do we need to be reminded to go to the gym or eat healthy before it becomes a normal part of our lives?  Students need time and repetition as well.

Teaching routines, procedures, and expectations is not a deviation from curriculum.  Classroom procedures work in the service of curriculum and help the classroom function more smoothly, allowing for maximum effective use of limited time.  If these routines and procedures break down midway through the year they need to be repaired.  You are not losing time by revisiting routines.  Quite the opposite.

If it is broken: fix it.  A routine that’s slipped from consistent to inconsistent is no longer a routine, and it needs to be reestablished.  Perhaps the routine needs to be modified so that it cam be maintained more easily.  The purpose of a routine for quickly turning in papers is to increase efficiency, and thereby gain more instructional time.  Less time collecting papers equals more time teaching.  If the routine is no longer a time-saver, it needs to be re-taught and the best time to start is right now.  The same goes for any expectations around behavior, respect, quality of work, or using the bathroom.

Starting right away is the best option. You simply go the shortest amount of time with the ineffective routine.  Beyond this, however, beginning to correct issues immediately serves as strong, lifelong, modeling for students.  It is powerful for young people to see an adult take immediate action.  They see that the teacher has high expectations, and the willingness to course-correct.  Having the vulnerability to admit a mistake, and take the actions necessary to fix that mistake is a powerful show of awareness, confidence, and strength.  All virtues we would hope to instill and develop in our students.

It comes down to the central concept of teaching: if you want something done right, you need to teach the right way to do it.  If your students are not performing how you want them to, you need to keep teaching them until they get it right. Regardless of the topic, it takes accountability, persistence, and a willingness to go back and fix issues.  PIck your area for change and start right now.