006: Avoid the Envy Trap

Over this past week I had to deal with an emotion that when engaged can limit progress, even halt it altogether.  Thy name is Envy.  As defined by Psychology Today, envy, as compared to jealousy, is a two-person situation where the person experiencing the emotion feels he is lacking something.  I argue that envy is one item on a small list that creates unnecessary stress in our lives as teachers.

… envy is one item on a small list that creates unnecessary stress in our lives as teachers.

We work in a profession, not unlike other high-stress, competitive professions, where we are working to improve performance in a specific area.  As teachers, this area is our students.  Due to the ideal of improving performance, there inherently is a metric we are aiming for, whether it is the district/council metric, our school metric, or our own.  Whenever achievement towards a metric is established, competition inevitably ensues.  Teachers want to have the best classroom, the best lessons, and overall the best results.  This is where the emotion of envy creeps in.  Am I doing as well as my colleagues?  What can I do better than them?

I believe these questions create a crack in the balance we seek, thus starting a tailspin towards burnout.  In this post I share a situation I encountered, and the steps I used to overcome the emotion of envy in order to focus on making an impact on my students.

Step 1 – Recognise Envy as JUST an Initial Reaction

The samurai who followed Buddhist philosophy understood a simple fact relating to emotions.  Emotions are just an initial reaction to stimuli.  I love the imagery used by Buddhists and the samurai to illustrate this: A negative, initial response to emotion is like an arrow being shot at you, but any subsequent stories you add to enhance the emotion are additional arrows you stick into yourself.  Basically, we all experience emotions, but it’s how we react to them that matters.

… we all experience emotions, but it’s how we react to them that matters.

Envy is a powerful emotion which we can create a larger-than-life story behind, so let’s stop making up the story.  Instead, just recognise the initial reaction without judgement, then let it go.

I have a colleague who is great at crafts.  Her room is AMAZING!  She has wonderful display boards, she sewed banners for the houses in our school, and she even made beanbag chairs for her classroom.  I on the other hand am not crafty, not even a bit.  I do not have a crafty bone in my body, and my classroom is far from amazing.  This week when she created banners for our school, I thought to myself, “How does she have the time to do this, and how can I keep up with this level of creativity?”  The first arrow of envy was shot.

However, after a brief moment, I stopped for 5 minutes, literally.  I put myself in my classroom during break time, shut off the lights, sat tall in my chair, and meditated on this feeling for just 5 minutes.  I acknowledged that the feeling was there, and then I let it go.  I didn’t let myself go into a story about how my colleague was better than me, how I’m underachieving, or what I need to do to be better.  I just let it go.  No additional arrows were shot.

Don’t get me wrong, this takes time to achieve.  Many times I fail at it.  However, we forget that just a few minutes, or even seconds, to break us from telling a story can save us hours upon hours of inattention to what is most important – teaching.

Step 2 – Seriously Consider Your Strengths

I mean it when I say to SERIOUSLY consider your strengths.  Fact is, we all have at least one thing that we’re good at.  How can we leverage that strength, or set of strengths in the classroom?  This is what you should be asking after letting go of the envy.  By letting go of the envy for a moment, you have created a mental space that needs to be filled immediately, so why not fill it with recognising what you are good at?

Back to my colleague, she made an amazing set of banners.  Check.  I felt the initial pain of envy.  Check.  I took 5 minutes to clear my mind of the emotion.  Check.  Once I was able to clear some head space, I immediately considered what I was good at.  Sure, my colleague is crafty, but I’m great at public speaking and engaging an audience.  This is how I get my students excited about learning.  I put on a bit of a show, packed with intentional learning.  Yes, I’m good at getting a room excited.

This is a time to brag on yourself, even if just in your head.  You are good at something, so recognise it, and go to Step 3.

Step 3 – Act on Your Strengths

To think about our strengths is a good thing as it begins to help put our heads in a forward-moving direction.  We’re not pouting about what our colleagues are doing that we’re not, rather we’re thinking about how we can impact our students.  Positive progression is the key, not just positive thinking.  Positive thinking does little to help you or those around you.  There must be action!  Once you’ve thought carefully about something you’re good at, and how you can apply it to the classroom, do it!

Positive progression is the key, not just positive thinking.  Positive thinking does little to help you or those around you.  There must be action!

Once I escaped the pity-party I could have fallen into, and once I recognised my strength, I immediately thought about how I could make it work within my next lesson.  Yes, I wanted to implement my strength in a powerful way in the next lesson!  Immediacy for me is key.

I thought carefully about how I was going to use my skills of entertainment in a purposeful way so that my students would learn what they needed to.  In the next 10 minutes of break, I reviewed the lesson plan and decided to have my students act out part of the lesson with me, and throughout I would ask questions that would require critical thinking.  Once the lesson was completed, the students were able to explain their understanding, and many of them said they enjoyed it.  One student asked if we could do a similar lesson in the future.

The purpose of this process is to give us a break in the mental fatigue that envy can cause, and it creates positive action to help steady our course of direction when teaching.  Positive quotes, memes, and speeches can only do so much, and ultimately those things do little to support our students.  Rather, consider your strengths, and act on them immediately.  Practised continuously over time will make this process almost automatic, thus creating a greater impact for you and your students long term.

Until next time!

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