Our thoughts are truly powerful. They dictate what we do and how we feel. One of the most powerful lessons regarding positive thoughts that I could have learned through experience is summed up in this quote by Mary Engelbreit: “If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” Changing the way we think about something that we don’t like can be hard—but it is not impossible.
I was absolutely miserable teaching at a particular struggling high school in Queens. There was an incredible amount of pressure on the teachers from the administration to do what was needed to ensure that students passed. Despite how hard we worked, observation reports were always filled with things we did wrong and maybe about two things that seemed effective. Most of the time, it felt like we were being blamed for students who chose not to show up to class or for students who simply did not care. In addition to all of this, I had to deal with– on a consistent basis– students who ignored me, cursed me out or found other ways to disrespect me as a person of authority.
I complained to my sister, my therapist, my boyfriend (now husband) and I complained to and with other teachers. Each day, I arrived at work with a knot in my stomach. Just being there sucked all of the energy out of me; there was no drive left within me to do the things I once enjoyed outside of work. The dismal neutral colors of the walls mocked me into feeling that there was absolutely no way out of the building. My jealousy of the teachers there who thrived rendered me unable to ask them for help and advice. No, that environment was not ideal for me. Unfortunately, my resume only attracted two schools out of the many I sent it to, but neither one of them amounted to anything beyond an initial interview.
I don’t recall how it happened. Perhaps it was during one of my morning meditations or maybe I just luckily came upon the above quote by Mary Engelbreit. But one day, I decided to stop focusing on my troubles at work. Instead, I made the conscious decision to focus on what I liked about working at that school. I liked the fact that it was less than a 15 minute commute. I enjoyed interacting with the students who were pleasant and wanted to learn. I appreciated the friends that I had made in my fellow teachers. I still had to deal with the same difficulties as before; those issues did not go away. But slowly, gradually, those things ceased to irritate me.
And then what happened next was like a miracle. Later that very school year in 2017, the school’s administration decided to restructure its staff, mandating that if teachers wanted to remain at the school, they had to reapply for their positions. I saw this as a sign that I could finally move on from the school that had been my first home as a teacher. I decided to opt out of the reapplication process and became what is known as an ATR (Absent Teacher Reserve). That meant that if I had not found a position with another school before the start of the next school year, I would be placed in a school where I would be expected to perform the duties that school would need me to do.
The school I was placed in was heaven compared to what I had come from. The students were all respectful, the fellow teachers were kind, and the administration was diplomatic and friendly. I had never been prouder of a decision than I was at that time. By the end of that school year, the principal gave me a glowing review, though she admitted that she did not have enough in her budget to hire me. I still walked away feeling incredibly optimistic about my skills as a teacher.
Yet once again, I did not land a position at any school when the next school year started. As a result, I was placed in an all-girl middle and high school—a school I had applied to back in 2008 when I first became a teacher! Again, I experienced respectful students who wanted to learn, fellow teachers who were gracious to me and treated me as if I was a regular part of their staff, and an administration that seemed to see my worth from the beginning. The kids loved me as much as I loved them and it was such a pleasure to interact with them on a daily basis. I didn’t realize it could have been better than the first school in which I was placed!
I am proud to say that I am still teaching at this school. I told the students one day how lucky I felt that I was placed there. But was it really luck? Mary Engelbreit said “If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” I didn’t see a way out of my situation at my first school so I decided to change the way I thought about being at that school. Once I did that, I started having positive feelings about my students and about the situation as a whole. Those positive feelings, I believe, are what gave me courage to take that chance to move on when the opportunity made itself present. It was that chance that led me to my current school—filled with students who continuously remind me why I became a teacher in the first place. What a powerful lesson.
Cathy Jean-François worked in book publishing for six years before becoming a New York City public school English teacher. She’s written short stories and created a blog about her experiences as a single woman and a newlywed. Most recently, she’s been working on Cathy’s Cross: A Depressive’s Positive Perspective, which is a blog about her decision to remain positive amidst life’s challenges despite her daily battle with depression. She uses her experience with depression to create her main character’s inner conflict in her novel The Box. You can find Cathy every Saturday morning hosting a room on Clubhouse tackling the very important issue of mental health. When she is not working on lesson plans and grading assignments for her 7th grade and high school students, she is either writing a new blog post or spending time with her husband and their miniature schnauzer Roxie, where they live in Queens, NY.