Decluttering Your Mind

Michelle Olah 8 minutes


The 2019-2020 school year is in the books. It was unprecedented to be sure! It’s time to let go of 2019-2020 and take some time to relax and practice self-care, before starting to think about and plan for next school year. Unfortunately, right now there are still more questions than answers about what the 2020-2021 school year might look like. One thing is for sure, no matter what our classrooms and schools look like next fall, there are going to be challenges that all teachers will have to address, such as curriculum planning.

With virtually every student in the United States receiving non-traditional emergency instruction for the last quarter of the year, teachers may likely have to revisit their proficiency expectations, their established curriculum and pacing, and their instructional choices. Teachers have been emailing asking us questions such as “How am I going to 'cover' what students didn’t learn last year?” “Should I teach what they didn’t learn last year or move to the new content?” “Are students going to be ready to move to the next level of their language class?”

In some cases, where language learning was for enrichment only, teachers are asking if students going to remember anything after almost 6 months off from in-person classroom language learning. In this two-part blog post, Michelle Olah and Jennifer Carson are going to address some of these questions by asking teachers to look at curriculum planning through the lens of “decluttering.” In part 1, Michelle is going to look at how you can “declutter” your mind before you attempt to declutter your curriculum. In part 2, Jennifer is going to look at how to use this challenge to take a critical look at curriculum and instruction in order to get to the essential content that is at the core of teaching for proficiency.

Part 1: Declutter your mind

Summer is a time to take a much-needed break in order to come back next fall ready to start a new year rejuvenated for your students. However, when I talk to teachers who have finished the school year, I still hear an overwhelming amount of fear, stress, uncertainty, and worry in their voices. But self-care this summer is essential because next year promises to be challenging as well. You need to be ready to meet the needs of your students when school starts again in the fall and you will not be able to do that if you don’t take care of yourself first. Let’s look at how to “declutter” your mind so that you can foster resilience, face challenges head-on, and make deliberate choices in how to go forward next year.

Declutter your negative thoughts

The first thing to consider decluttering your negative thoughts. Do you find your head filled with one or two single thoughts or strings of thoughts that keep repeating over and over? “This last quarter was terrible. Next year is going to be worse. I can’t do virtual instruction again. Students aren’t going to be ready. I hated teaching virtually. I was terrible at it.” This process of continuously thinking about the same thoughts, often sad or negative ones, is call rumination. It is essentially your brain getting stuck, like a skipping record, unable to go forward. According to the American Psychological Association, some reasons for rumination include:

· Belief that by ruminating, you’ll gain insight into your life or a problem

· Having a history of emotional or physical trauma

· Facing ongoing stressors that can’t be controlled

Any of those sound familiar? But why do we get stuck in those negative thought cycles? The quick answer is that it’s not you, it’s your brain! The way our brains process memory plays a role in rumination. Memories are formed by the brain connecting experiences related to each other and creating neural networks. When people enter that negative phase and start ruminating on it, the brain lights up, activates the neural network, and remembers all the other times it felt that way. That one negative thought, based on a recent experience, becomes many negative thoughts on many experiences.

How can you stop ruminating and perpetuating the feelings of inadequacy or anxiety that interfere with problem solving?

One thing you can do is get out of the negative neural network! When you notice that you are starting down that negative neural path, stop and activate the neural network of times when everything worked out OK. What went well in the last three months? What did you enjoy about the experience of working from home? Even if the negative outweighed the positive, by focusing on the positive, your brain will start recalling other times when things worked out. You can “jog” yourself out of those negative thoughts by having positive memory triggers nearby or talking to friends or family about positive experiences that have happened in the last few months. In order to make deliberate and effective instructional decisions, you must declutter those negative thoughts.

The Einstellung Effect – Is your past holding you back?

Our brains often play tricks on us. It’s not easy to be objective and see through our biases. Our preconceived ideas make it difficult to see things clearly and to effectively solve the problems that confront us. When previous beliefs and experiences affect the way we interpret new events, it is call cognitive bias.

One of these cognitive biases is called the Einstellung effect. Einstellung is a German word that translates to setting, mindset, or attitude. While we already talked about how negative past experiences can “clutter” our minds; the Einstellung effect presents a different problem, that of blocking innovation and new ideas. In order to conserve mental energy, the brain tends to go straight to the quickest way to solve the problem based on past experiences and attitudes. The problem is, the quickest, easiest solution may not be the best solution. As humans, we tend to do things how we have always done them. We don’t consider other solutions because we think we already know the answer.

The Einstellung effect occurs where preexisting knowledge impedes our ability to consider other, maybe better, solutions! How might this have manifested in education during this current coronavirus crisis? With emergency remote instruction, it may have manifested with the question, “How do I teach online like I did in the classroom?” Many of us went to the default mode of what we did in the past. We took what was successful in one situation (the classroom) and assumed it would work in the new context (online). I think most teachers will agree that virtual instruction is not the same as in-person instruction. It presents new challenges (and rewards!) and requires new approaches. Before we can look at the next school year and begin to tackle the new challenges it brings with innovative ideas, we need to get past our past experiences and the limitations of our current mindset.

How can we overcome the Einstellung effect in order to get great solutions, not just good ones? Just like with negative rumination, we need to break our brain out of its default pattern. The good news is that now that you know this is a natural tendency, all you need to do is be aware of it! Ask yourself, is this really the best way to approach this or is this my past experiences and mindset limiting me from finding a better approach? Another way that we can break out of our thinking rut is to collaborate with others! By exploring an idea or concept individually first, and then coming together with others to discuss and see other points of view and solutions, we can open our eyes to different possibilities and creative solutions.

And now for some good news!

The good news is that just like negative thoughts and cognitive biases can slow down creativity and problem-solving ability, and impact mood negatively, positive thoughts can increase mental productivity and problem solving, enhance creativity, and improve our mental and physical health! According to the Mayo Clinic, we can learn to turn negative thinking into positive thinking with a simple process. But even though the process is simple, it’s not easy. It takes time and practice to retrain our brains! Here is how you can start:

  • Identify areas to change. In what aspects of your professional life do you want to be more positive or innovative? Is it your relationship with your students? Your colleagues? Your administrators? Is it your school environment? Your teaching practices? Your curriculum?
  • Check yourself. Be aware of your thoughts. The first step in changing them is identifying when those negative or limiting thoughts start to creep in.
  • Surround yourself with positive people. Negative people may increase your stress level and may get you on that negative thoughts train! Choose to be around people who support, encourage, and tackle problems with positivity.
  • Practice positive self-talk. You will still have negative thoughts and get stuck in ruts based on past experiences! They aren’t going to go away completely. Negative thoughts and using past experiences are how our brains try to keep us safe. But when those thoughts come into your mind, evaluate them rationally, respond with affirmations of what is good about you, and focus on what you are thankful for. Believe that you can find a better way; you just have to look!

It’s a challenging time. Challenging times require that you be the best version of you for yourself and for your students. The challenges that are coming to your classroom post-coronavirus are going to need you at your best! And to be your best, you may need to let go of some of the mindsets and habits that are holding you back. By decluttering your mind this summer and taking the time to take care of yourself, you will be in a better mindset to handle the challenges to come!


Michelle Olah

Michelle Olah

Michelle Olah was inspired to be a language educator by her own experience taking Spanish 1 as a student in Minnesota. Upon seeing a photograph of the painting "Las Meninas", Michelle convinced her family to go to Spain to see it in person, and came home a lifelong devotee of Spanish language and culture.

Michelle applies that same passion to her work as an Instructional Strategist for Wayside Publishing, where she blends current research and tech tools with personal experiences gleaned from over seventeen years of experience working with students and teachers in Florida. Michelle's past experience includes virtual instruction, which has lended itself well to coaching educators new to the virtual classroom environment.
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