The Perfect Patch

When I graduated from Slippery Rock University 25 years ago, I was eager to meet the challenges and enjoy the rewards I knew would come my way as an educator. I’ve not been disappointed.

Over those two decades, I have learned much from my fellow educators that has helped shape me personally and professionally. I’ve learned to be a better teacher and education leader. I’ve learned to set the right priorities. Most important, I’ve gained perspective.

Given the often-tumultuous nature of education, it is easy to become overwhelmed by all that goes on around us on a daily basis—some positive and some negative. Perspective allows us to maintain a balance, to remember that the grass is not always greener on the other side, and that in times of crisis, “this, too, shall pass.”

Yes, it is easy to focus on the green grass in our neighbor’s yard: a supportive administration, active parents, high-achieving students, a better view from the classroom window. However, focusing on the apparent good fortune of others can make us blind to the positive aspects of our own situation. We become convinced that we need to change aspects of our lives so we, too, can enjoy greener grass on our side of the fence.

But when we look at our neighbor’s yard—our colleagues’ lives—what we are really seeing is patches of green. We may be missing the fact that those patches could be surrounded by dirt or weeds. It’s easy to look at someone else and see all of the wonderful things he has; it’s harder to distinguish the things that person may want to change.

The Eyes of a Child

We all can find at least one aspect of our job that we would like to change. It could be salary, class schedule, teaching assignment, or after-school responsibilities. That’s where perspective comes in. When we start obsessing about the negative parts of our jobs, we need to step back and survey the scene. We might realize that we are actually standing on the most perfect patch of all.

By having a healthy perspective about our jobs, we can make a more positive impact on student learning. I believe we can find many more pleasurable moments in life than negative ones even though we all have to deal with the death of loved ones, loss of a job, and financial crises. These realities sometimes make it hard for us to come to work ready to meet the daily challenges in the life of a middle grades educator.

One way I have dealt with life’s challenges is by simply looking into the eyes of a child when I come to school. Not knowing what that child had to deal with prior to coming to school that morning helps provide the proper perspective for me to overcome whatever obstacles I will face.

Mike Janatovich, a seventh grade science teacher, has an infectious smile. I would challenge anybody to find Mike in a bad mood, depressed, or unhappy with his lot in life. Yes, he may argue for a different teaching assignment or wish he had more support from parents, but if he is not completely satisfied with all aspects of his career, you would never know it. He has a bright perspective that keeps him focused on his most important job: educating his students.

Pursuit of Happiness

When people are happy doing what they are doing, they do it better. There may not be much research supporting that statement, but I would debate that point with anyone who might question it.

Malcolm Gladwell, noted author and columnist for The New Yorker, published a collection of essays, What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures. One of those essays, “The Pitchman,” is an inspirational story about Ron Popeil, the self-made billionaire and president of Ronco, producer of such household items as Veg-o-Matic, Dial-o-Matic, and Pocket Fisherman.

Gladwell explains that there were many times in the beginning of Popeil’s career when he may have looked at other patches of grass that he considered greener than his own. If he had opted to leave what he loved to pursue other opportunities, he would never have been as successful as he was. Even through difficult times, he was not thrown off course by the brighter shades of green he saw other people standing on. He had perspective.

I am beginning this school year with a new perspective. This year my daughter, Cailey, will be a student at Cuyahoga Heights Middle School. My being her father and her principal may provide some interesting challenges for us both. While our relationship is great, I know we will both feel some pressure. I know that the pressure may cause me to think about the negatives of having my child as a student in my building. But, I will remind myself to focus on the positives.

Not long ago, as I was contemplating the surprises that we will have in store for us this year, I was reminded of a book Cailey read recently: Confetti Girl. In the book, the author wrote about cascarones. Popular in Mexico, cascarones are hollowed-out chicken eggs, filled with confetti.

As Cailey and I talked about the book, I realized that each school year is a cascarone—filled with surprises. The colorful pieces of confetti are like the many different students we deal with throughout the year. Each takes a unique path, full of twists and turns.

Being in the same school building will allow us to share the unique experience of middle school. While both of us might, at times, believe that the grass could be greener if Cailey were at a different school, we will have a shared experience that we will be able to reflect on for years to come. That’s how I am going to approach this year—that will be my positive perspective.

As we evaluate our lot in life, perspective will ultimately lead us to accomplish our goals. At the times when we are most challenged to find positives in our careers, we must remember to first look down and evaluate what we do have instead of focusing on what we don’t have. By doing this one simple thing, we will have a much greater chance of keeping perspective and ultimately being happier with the patch of green we are standing on.

As Wayne Dyer so aptly says, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, August 2010

Tom Burton is principal at Cuyahoga Heights Middle School in Ohio. E-mail: