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Sweat The Small Stuff To Find Your Teaching Zen

Posted by on in Classroom Management
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I have a story for you today. It's about what happened in my 6th period Chemistry class today.

6th period is the very last of the day at our school, which is ideal for teaching abstract chemistry concepts. Especially today, because the temps hit 80s and all my shorts-and-T-shirt-clad students really wanted to be there.

What could be better on a warm sunny Monday when you are well rested, because the weekend afforded you the opportunity to catch up on all that sleep you missed the week before?

Not much. Physics maybe. Or Calc. Yep, definitely Calc. Teens are so sensible.

It happens to be my largest hour - all 36 seats filled with teenagers. Except today (and at least a few other days I can remember) two of those seats were empty…

Emma and Lexi, who are good friends, were still standing up and talking after the bell rang! If this was the medieval times or the 70’s they could probably be whipped for it. But the year being 2016, I needed an alternative approach…  

I have no idea why I did what I did. It is something I’ve never done before. No plan, just complete and utter spontaneity.

I just walked up to them, big smile on my face. I did not think of it then, but I know now that I was happy to see them. I said: Hi Emma! I want to take this opportunity to invite you to your seat. And I showed her the blue seat of her desk. I looked at Alexis and showing her the desk she usually sits at said: Look how blue and pretty yours is.

I was not being sarcastic. Yes, it was said half-jokingly to keep the mood light, but I was being sincere. I think it caught the two girls, and the rest of my class by surprise. In defense, Emma started saying that the bell just rang and they were about to sit down. I asked if she thought I was going to yell at them. She said she thought I might. I would not, but still…

All the time we were talking Emma, Alexis, and I were smiling. And then, something I didn’t expect happened. As I was walking away from where the two girls sit, I started noticing other students smiling too. I cannot tell how many as it was a split second realization I’m only processing now, but more than usual - definitely more than ever during 6th hour chemistry. And I’m sure there were a few more smiling on the inside. And then I realized:


I have overreacted in situations exactly like the one I just described in the past, exerting authority to gain compliance. I remember myself (and cringe as I do) not quite yelling, but raising my voice to the level of strict stiffness, giving a mini lecture on the expectations, and reiterating what the syllabus says. And, while the “strict and stiff” approach worked in those moments, it always left me uneasy. Uneasy, because it was unnatural for me to do. And, it unnecessarily involved other students, which in turn probably led to some checking out.

Oh well… We live. We learn. We can choose to grow.

The strict teacher approach just added unnecessary stress to my life. It drained energy I could have used to influence my students in more positive, profound, and permanent ways.

The time of the preacher teacher is over. I just took a while to catch on. But I’m leveling up.

Giving up control may be one of the hardest and easiest things for a teacher to do. Hardest, because it seems risky and scary to do as the visions of all hell breaking loose abound. But it’s really easy when you realize that control is just an illusion…  

We cannot control others. We might be able to get someone’s body to comply. However, the mind, heart, and soul roam free. This is how they were always meant to be. Free to choose. Free to see the world as they please. Free to engage or dissociate, acknowledge or invalidate, and accept or repudiate.  

Choice is key. It allows the shift from the compliance-based classroom to the collaborative one. And, I’m not talking students working in groups here. What I’m getting at has to do with teachers and students willingly, excitedly, and passionately working together. Mind, body, heart, and soul.

I am not 100% there yet. I don’t know how long it will take. But I’m leveling up.

I now understand why being myself and unconditionally embracing the imperfect, scattered, awkward, but real person that I am is so important. It brings about a lightness that allows moments in which I see the world through a new lens. It’s a lens that does not magnify the imperfections and transgressions of my students, but rather helps me focus on who they are and embrace them as they are: perfectly human.

But the lens has to be cleaned and refocused from time to time. I realize that being aware, slowing down, and responding with insight and thoughtfulness takes constant practice. Decisions often have to be made in the split-second flashes of life. We tend to rush from one thing to the next leaving little room for insight. We get tired. We are affected by strong emotions. The evolution programmed the human brain for survival. Instinctively, we watch our back taking our attention off what’s real and really important.

We are human. But we can level up.

I do not know how often these moments come, but they have increased in frequency after I started reflecting through writing, paying greater attention to the nuances of life, and “sweating” the small stuff. Such a moment of clarity affected how I interacted with two students earlier today. And, it in turn affected many others who witnessed the exchange. I am 100% convinced of this. I know, because I set myself up to succeed this morning. And it worked!

But, the only reason that I am able to realize it now is because I am writing this. Funny thing is, I sat down to write a different post tonight, but I just kept struggling with the beginning! I suppose I was reflecting on the two articles I’ve read today related to it and somehow stumbled upon the memory of that 6th period moment. The plan was to make an infographic, but my mind had to catalogue this first. Why? You tell me. I’m glad it happened though, delay and all.

So I came to the realization that sometimes paying attention means reflecting on what has happened earlier in the day - observing things we haven’t spent much time processing as they happen or finding them hidden in our unconscious and giving them a second look.

This is how we level up - learn a lot about ourselves, others, and the universe.

So… Pay attention. Sweat the small stuff sometimes to find your Zen. Surprise with kindness. And smile. Always smile.

PS. This morning, I told my principal I want my room to look like Starbucks.

Me: I want my room to look like Starbucks next year.

Her: Who’s gonna pay for that?

I smiled.

For the record: My room’s gonna look like Starbucks next year. That’s a promise.

PS2. If you want to donate a slightly used couch or something to the cause don’t be shy :)

Thanks for reading! Check me out on BAm! Sign Up for my Newsletter on the science of learning, teaching and learning strategies, and finding inspiration in the little things. And, you can always count on me to encourage others to ask questions, look for answers, and gulp (not sip) life. 
You Have The Power. Use It Often.

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I founded Focus 2 Achieve to provide innovative classroom tools that empower teachers and help students achieve more success. In my first life, I am a husband, a father, and a teacher. In my second life, I spend time discovering what "really works" aka "best practices" in education, problem-solving, and creating products for teachers and students. I recently wrote a book titled "Crush School: Every Student's Guide To Killing It In The Classroom." It is a book designed for Students that uses brain research and brain based learning strategies to help student become better learners. The book can be used by Teachers to help students learn more effectively, and Parents to help their children become more aware of how they learn. 


I have a BS in Earth and Environmental Sciences and an MA in Teaching. I teach high school Chemistry and Principles of Engineering and my professional interests focus on discovering and learning how the human mind learns and acquires lasting knowledge and skills, so that I can help my (and other) students learn more effectively and achieve greater academic success.


I am also a fan of the Jedi order (and use DA FORCE frequently), ninjas (both masked and unmasked), and the superhero in all of us. Oh, and I am on a Quest to Change the World, because I can. I believe we all can.

  • Jon Harper /  @Jonharper70bd
    Jon Harper / @Jonharper70bd Friday, 27 May 2016

    Oskar, I love how in tune you are with your thinking. Your posts always involve so much reflection on your part and that is why they resonate with so many of us. Thank you for your honesty.

  • Oskar Cymerman | @focus2achieve
    Oskar Cymerman | @focus2achieve Sunday, 29 May 2016

    Thanks Jon. This is how we all can supercharge our growth as professionals - by reflecting, sharing our reflections, and taking action to improve our respective crafts. "My Bad" is a great vehicle for encouraging that in others as well. I am glad you decided to start this podcast and enjoy it a lot!

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