How Far We’ve Come

Last school year, three weeks into serving as the interim at an elementary school, my mother-in-law, Ann, passed away after a long battle with metastic breast cancer. Today as I was planning for a professional development session, I was looking back at some notes on the same PD topic and embedded in my facilitator notes, I found that I had written about her passing, so I would remember to talk to the group about it.

My notes included gratitude for all of the people in my school community who showed their care through cards, flowers, kind emails and text messages. I also wrote about how important it was for me to go to work and spend time with kids at recess, at lunch duty, and bus duty. And mainly, how important it was for me to keep going. It’s amazing how people step up to care for you in your time of need if you let them. Even when they are new to your life. Looking back at what Mario and I have survived makes me feel strong. It makes me feel like we can overcome anything together.

This past year as been different kinds of hard for all of us. I’ve seen funny memes saying things like, “How can it be March? I am still processing last March.” Truth. We are still processing so much. And yet, in a weird way, this March feels a bit like the start of the new year to me. It’s an opportunity to look back at how much we’ve overcome, how much we’ve grown, and how much there is to be grateful for.

The research shows that our brains are more motivated by seeing how far we’ve come than how far we have to go. For example, those who may be setting health and wellness goals, instead of focusing on a far-reaching goal, it can be more motivating to see how far you’ve come with small habits. Perhaps you’ve committed to drinking 64 ounces of water a day or to getting seven hours of sleep a night, and you’ve created those new habits pretty consistently. Bravo! This is the kind of stuff our brain likes – the ability to look back and be proud.

And yet, often our focus in school is on big goal setting. I used to do goal setting with 7th grade language arts students around standardized test scores. I would show them their scores and subscores from the fall, and we would talk about something they would commit to working on consistently and then set a goal for a higher score in the spring. Shew. While well-intentioned, setting goals for test scores (especially tests that we and our students have little control over) feels a bit arbitruary to me.

Instead, I wonder what would happen if we celebrated with students? Celebrated all of the things they can do now that they couldn’t do or do as well at the beginning of the school year? In doing so, we would flood student minds with positive psychology. As Shawn Achor has said, “Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than it is at negative, neutral, or stressed.” By celebrating progress, we give students better access to their 31%. Now, this is a deeply personal excerise. Every child’s journey is going to be different, so I believe this is a very individual exercise to ensure that students don’t compare their progress to that of others. But wow, just imagine what this could do for students as we work to help them reach their fullest potential.

This is why I love seeing districts committed to things like digital writing portfolios. It’s a great way to notice where you started and how you’re doing with it. Seeing progress is motivating, and the human memory alone cannot be trusted. My blog has served as a journey tracker. I have gone back to look for content that I needed and in doing so, I’ve been able to notice how much writing continues to evolve. I’m not where I hope to be YET, but I am growing, and it feels good to grow through what we go through.

We know deep down how to do this. It’s natural for us. Think about how we celebrate when babies learn new things. In my case, I can remember celebrating the progress our three legged cat, Tripp, made after his leg was amputated. He started walking and then he started running and then he started climbing the stairs. It felt good to celebrate those wins.

So, we know this. Deep down we know. This is merely a little reminder. In this month of March, a month that can be triggering for many of us, perhaps we use this opportunity to celebrate how far we’ve come. Personally, I’ve gotten better at working remotely and at not knowing what is coming next. I’ve also gotten better at letting the small stuff roll off my back. This year has given me perspective. It has also helped me to slow down and notice. Notice my thoughts and feelings. And notice other people and their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives more deeply. I’ve learned how to enjoy life in the now moment. I’m even a…dare I say it…bird feeder watcher now. I think my sense of humor has grown too. I can laugh at myself more. It feels good not to take myself too seriously. I’ve also proven that I can keep committments to myself. I’ve written on this blog once a week since the month of September. I feel really good about that.

When you look at yourself and your lived experiences over the past year, what is on your list? How have you progressed, grown, changed? No progress is too small to celebrate. Forward is forward.

How might we help students see and celebrate how far they’ve come?

We’ve come a long way. Our students have come a long way too.

We should feel good about that. And if someone has supported our growth, we should tell them. Imagine how the world would change if we took the time to tell others about the positive impact that’ve had on our lives.

When we celebrate ourselves and others, we flood the world with the good stuff. And the world could use more good stuff right now.

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