31 October 2012

Giving the Best

One of the biggest frustrations, by far, of being a teacher is watching the students be so satisfied with mediocrity that they pretty much never put forth any extra effort in their work.  No matter how much cajole, encourage, or motivate, and even with the threat of lower grades hanging over their heads, the majority of our students simply do the minimum amount of work that they have to do to get by, and they're unwilling to put forth the extra effort necessary to excel at what they do.  For them, the minimum is good enough, and they simply don't take any pride in the work that they do.

Of course, I'm not talking about all the students.  There still are many who take a great deal of pride in the results of their work, and in the work itself.  There are quite a few who excel regularly, and who make a point of pushing harder and challenging themselves in order to improve their skills and knowledge.

I don't think this is necessarily a sign of the times.  It's not a phenomenon limited to "these days."  I do believe, though, that the percentage of students who settle for mediocrity has raised, while the share who strive to excel has lowered.  This may not be happening at schools where the majority of students are planning on going to prestigious colleges, but from what I've seen in our public schools, there isn't a lot of emphasis being placed on excelling these days--it's a question of getting by.

And I have to think of myself and my life when I consider this reality.  In how many things do I actually strive to excel, rather than just get by.  Actually, in how many things should I or can I strive to excel?  If I try to excel at everything that I do, how much time would I have for anything at all? Some things just don't call us to excel--when I make the bed in the morning, it doesn't have to be perfect, and when I dust or clean or vaccuum, who really cares if I miss a spot or two?

But what about washing dishes?  Can I be careless in that, when the health of everyone in my household is potentially at stake?  If I change the oil in my car, can I be careless?  I can if I want to risk the entire engine seizing up, and having to replace it.  When I write a letter to a friend, who cares if I misspell a word?  Well, I do--and I'm constantly looking up words, even if I'm pretty sure I know how to spell it already.

I read a "news" blog yesterday that had several severe grammatical errors in it.  It was embarrassing for the author, but the comments section floored me.  When a couple of people pointed out the errors and commented that a journalist shouldn't make such mistakes, other people slammed those people, calling them awful names and saying that it's none of their business whether there were mistakes there or not.  These people were not only okay with very low-quality work, but they were willing to insult others to defend another person's right to do his or her work at an extremely low level of quality.

The question I ask myself is whether I want to be one who is known for a high level of quality, or for a low level.  I do make mistakes on the website from time to time, but they're due to typos that I've missed in the proofreading (it's very difficult to proofread one's own material).  And the agonizing question that I ask myself is "How can I get my students to care about the quality of the work that they do?"  If I'm not able to do so, they're dooming themselves to a future full of mediocrity, for it they're unwilling to strive for excellence, then who is going to want them in their companies doing work for them, unless that work requires no real skills at all?

24 October 2012

What I'm going to do today

It's really early in the morning right now, and I've been up just over an hour.  When I wake up, I start doing work on the website and the daily meditations and the daily quotations, usually.  I don't really see it as work, though--it's more like a hobby, one that's fun to work on and quite fulfilling overall.  At this point in the morning, I still haven't thought about what I'm going to be doing with the day that stretches out before me, since I've been focused on doing the work before me.

But eventually, I have to shift my focus from that work to the day ahead; otherwise, the transition into that day is going to be quite ineffective and often very frustrating.  And when I think of what I'm going to be doing with this particular day, I have to consider what I can contribute to it, what kinds of positive marks I can leave on it, for otherwise, what's the point?

As a teacher, I have many opportunities to contribute in positive ways.  I can encourage others--students and teachers alike, as teachers need encouragement more often than students do sometimes.  I also have the chance to build obstacles for students to overcome, since sometimes our most important lessons come from having to overcome adversity and difficulties.  I do have to be careful in doing so, for the wrong obstacle for the wrong student could lead to pretty negative effects.

So today I'm going to encourage, I'm going to spread kind words, and I'm going to look for ways to challenge my students.  But what else can I do that can be helpful?

One thing that I often neglect, but which has a power that is very real, is prayer.  I can pray for others.  It doesn't matter my religion or creed or individual beliefs--a prayer to the Creator, whatever we perceive him or her to be, can give a huge boost to someone else, even if they're never aware of our particular prayers.  We all are interconnected, and the positive thoughts that I send out to others are not simply lost in some sort of nether world--they do reach their mark in some way.  Prayer also helps me to stay centered and to remember that I'm not in this alone, no matter how isolated I may seem.

So today, I'm also going to pray, be it during a quiet alone time or as a quick positive thought sent out for the sake of someone else.

I'm also going to take care of myself.  I'm going to rest when I need to, and I'm going to eat well--not too much, but enough.  And I'm going to enjoy it.  I'm going to find time to be by myself when things are getting overwhelming, just to get a grip on things that may be getting frustrating.  That time can rejuvenate me and help me to do my work better, whereas if I don't take it, I'm going to continue to function below my abilities because of the frustration.

There are many more things I can do today.  I could list them all, but I don't want to be writing all morning.  This is a good start, and at least I have my mind focused on how I'm going to be productive in positive ways on this new day in my life--and with my mind focused in that way, it's going to be much easier to actually make these things happen!

16 October 2012

Today--A Collection of Moments

It's a new day today, isn't it?  Ahead of us stretch out many, many moments, all of which will provide us with opportunities to do positive, helpful things--all of which provide us with the chance to contribute to the positive side of this world.  It doesn't take much--a kind word here, a bit of encouragement there, picking up a piece of litter, helping that person in line at the supermarker with fifty cents when they come up short.  There are tons of things that we can do today to make the day brighter and more fulfilling, but we do have to decide to do something with all those moments.

Of course, we're not required to do anything positive at all.  We're not required to contribute to the positive in this world if we don't want to.  If we're feeling cranky or down or betrayed, it may be easier to simply do nothing, or even to contribute to the negative energy of the world by calling names, insulting, feeling anger and resentment, or simply sulking.

But isn't there enough negative energy in the world?  Aren't enough moments defined by negativity?  Do we really need to throw more of that out there?

Personally, I hope that I'm aware of each moment as it comes, and that I keep my heart and eyes and mind open to ways that I can contribute in positive ways to this day.  The fact is that the world can use more and more positive energy to balance out all the negative that's out there, and when I picture a scale holding both kinds of energy, I also see myself contributing to the positive side of the scale.  After all, when we have so many moments to work with, we sure can throw a lot of good out there, can't we?

We only need to decide to do so, and then act on that decision.  Over and over, moment after moment.  All the small contributions most certainly will add up!

11 October 2012

When Things Change

Dealing with change is one of the most difficult things that any of us face, it seems.  So often when we see someone acting rude or obnoxious or depressed or detached, we find out later that something has changed in their lives--the status of a relationship or job, living situations, money situations--and the way that they're acting is simply a reflection of the ways in which they're dealing with (or not dealing with) those changes.

In my life, I grew up dealing with huge changes constantly.  As a child in a military family, I experienced many major moves, often from coast to coast, to places where I never had lived before and where I knew nobody at all.  Because of these experiences, major change doesn't affect me much at all--in fact, I tend to thrive on it.  I also spent seven years in the military myself, which further developed my abilities to deal with change.  That doesn't mean that I'm completely unaffected by change, of course, but I do have a pretty practical perspective when it comes to dealing with change in my life.  There are a few things that I've learned that help me deal with any changes that come up, and these things help to keep me sane and help me to move effectively with the change.

First of all, it's very easy for me to accept change.  Whereas I used to want to keep things the same for safety's sake (a strategy that never worked), I now look at the change in my life and think, "Okay, that's the way it is--what do I do about it?"  I can either be the person who moves with the change and incorporates it quickly into my life, or I can be the person who complains about how much better things were in a futile attempt to get things back to the old way.  There are times, of course, when someone's proposing changes that are just plain stupid, and then it's time to argue; if the changes already have become policy, though, and argument is moot, then there really is no point in clinging to the past.

Another thing that I do is try to build my expertise in the new areas as quickly as I can.  I don't like working if I'm not familiar with what I'm working with or on, so it does me good to know as much as I can about the "new" ways.  When I do this I can also help others to adjust and to learn and to grow themselves.  I also become immune to the people who complain and who try to make others afraid of the changes to  try to get them "on their side" against the changes.  This strategy really does nothing that's productive, so it's one that's best avoided, and best confronted when it arises.  Just because I'm not comfortable with a change doesn't mean that I have the right to try to make others uncomfortable with it, also.

When it comes to changes in relationships, including loss of relationships, I keep in mind that we all have different paths in life, and that a friend's path may begin to diverge from mine--and that's okay.  Why should I try to hold a friend in place instead of allowing that friend to move on in life and explore new territory?  A true friend will be back, someday, and will always be in my heart.  Letting go of the way things were is perhaps  the most important aspect of dealing with change.

Over the past three and a half years, my wife and I have had to deal with an astonishing amount of change, much of it moving in seemingly negative directions.  The effects of those changes continue to affect us every day.  That's okay, though, because we know that no matter what changes we go through, there are still elements of who we are that are unaffected by those changes, and it's up to us if we wake up each day miserable, or if we wake up able and willing to face a new and beautiful day on this planet.  Many people have remarked upon the paradox that change is the only constant in our lives, and our reactions to change are among the most important indicators we have of a happy and fulfilled life.

07 October 2012

"Taking" Time

Sometimes I get surprised at just how often I have to "take" time to do certain things.  I often get so caught up in things like work and preparing for work (I'm a teacher) that I start to feel guilty about taking time to do things like hike or run or even just sit around and drink a cup of coffee and read for a while.  But time for such things isn't something I should have to "take"--these things should be simply a natural part of my life the way I live it.  I shouldn't always have to be productive, or busy doing things for which I can quantify how much I've done.  Rather, I should be focused on things that will keep me sane, relaxed, and ready to face obstacles when they come up, instead of being so busy all the time that I get stressed out and I can't deal well with obstacles.

I do have to say, though, that I consider myself lucky--I recgnize the problem and I'm able to deal with it pretty well.  When I catch myself thinking, "No, I can't do that," I regularly stop myself where I'm at and reconsider my decision--and very often I end up putting down whatever I'm doing in order to take that walk or go for that run or even to sit on the couch with a cup of coffee and do nothing for half an hour or so.

I know too many people, though, who aren't able or willing to do that same thing.  Unfortunately, they end up being very stressed in their hectic lives, never realizing that their lives are hectic because of decisions that they make, not because that's the nature of life.  They don't allow themselves the simple pleasures of slowing down and enjoying themselves, for they feel that doing so would take away from their productivity, or that they'd miss something important while they were "wasting" their time.

What is your relationship with time like?  Sometimes I have to remind myself that there are 24 hours in a day, and not all of the waking hours need to be productive--heck, if I spend four hours doing non-productive things, then I still have 13 waking hours to accomplish things I need to accomplish.  The question then becomes, am I not able to take time for more enjoyable things because I'm not using my productive time well?  We all have a relationship with time, and for most of us it's a pretty complicated one.  Have you examined and evaluated yours yet?  When you do, make sure you consider the time that you should be "taking" for your emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.  Those may be the most important hours of your day, and if you're not taking them, then you're neglecting something quite essential.

03 October 2012

Difficult Days

We're all living through diffficult times right now.  For some of us they aren't that difficult personally, but for many of us they're the worst times we've ever lived through.  High unemployment, rising prices, lost homes, forced moves, high divorce rates, huge student loan debts--it seems impossible to get ahead and prepare for the future for many of us, and that can make it very difficult to be living our lives fully and completely.

For my wife and me, the economic downturn hit us very severely.  I was laid off, we were forced to foreclose on our home, and other severe economic and personal issues have arisen to make life very challenging.  We even ended up living four hours away from each other for seven months, which was a very difficult time in many ways.  And even though the layoff happened three years ago, we most certainly haven't yet recovered from it--a full "recovery" won't happen for a while, we know.

What that means to us, though, is mostly that money is very, very tight.  We still enjoy ourselves and our lives--we just don't have as many options available to us as to what we can do with our time.  We most definitely can't plan a trip to visit friends in Germany, and we can't plan to spend a week in the Bahamas.  But there are other things that we could do and that we can do, and we enjoy those things, too.  We just have to make choices based more on money now, and that's okay--that's what we have right here and right now, and while we definitely aren't going to roll over and give up, we also are going to make sure that we aren't being irresponsible during a time that can most accurately be called a recovery period for us.

These days are difficult for us, but not impossible.  These days hold challenges, but we do our best to rise up and meet the challenges for what they are.  Whether we enjoy our lives and what we're able to do is completely up to us, and we constantly make the decision to be content with what we have and to enjoy the opportunities available to us rather than bemoan the opportunities lost.  And we do our best to speed the recovery along by watching what we spend and where and how we spend it, though we haven't yet gone so far as to live a Spartan lifestyle--after all, Spartans we are not.

Difficult days must be accepted for what they are, and we must make decisions that allow us to live through those days in the best ways possible.  With the acceptance comes a practicality that otherwise wouldn't be a part of our lives, for when we accept the difficulties, we can deal with them on our terms instead of allowing them to blow us about as if we were a piece of paper outside on a windy day.  You're probably going through your own difficult days in your own ways, and I wish you all the best in doing so--hang in there and don't give up, and you will find that light at the end of the tunnel.  I wish you a bright, bright light and a quick journey to it!