The Power of Positive Thinking (Work Edition)

Montessorians approach children in a unique way. We believe in positive discipline, encouragement instead of praise, and utilizing power collaboratively instead of imposing our will upon the children we work with. Though it may sound normal, it is actually one of the most counter-intuitive pieces of learning Montessori – for most people, it requires unlearning a lifetime of socialization about how we should deal with children.

The basics of the approach look something like this:

  • Provide limits, structure, and routines
  • Give love unconditionally and avoid rewards and punishments
  • Model appropriate behavior (especially social etiquette)
  • Limit intermediate devices (like cell phones) when interacting with children*
  • Minimize time spent with poorly regulated influences (i.e. television)*
  • Offer encouragement instead of praise
  • Find ways to share power with a child instead of wielding power over the child
    (*Not applicable within the Montessori classroom)

Observing these guidelines goes a long way in creating a peaceful classroom and building student-teacher relationships and this approach is one of the things that draws me to Montessori. In short, we aim to treat children like people instead of children, a distinction that aims to respect their humanity and development and is often missed elsewhere.

In practice, this makes our classrooms incredibly positive places. There are any number of guidelines that children must follow, but any failure to do so is met with kind words and a gentle reminder. For example, if a child fails to push in their chair after leaving it, we simply say, “Oh, I think you forgot to push in your chair.” in a calm, kind voice. The most typical response is some sort of gasp and smile as the realization that they did indeed forget washes over them followed by quick replacement of the chair under the table. While we try to avoid praise (things like: good job, I am so proud of you, you are the best ________), encouragement abounds. We acknowledge hard work, focus, concentration, teamwork, and other positive behaviors with observation (i.e. our classroom looks neater now that you helped put things away).

These tactics teach children that it’s okay to make mistakes and to fail. Plus, they go a long way in showing them positive ways to deal with other people. Instead of assuming the worst of a friend who has done something wrong, the children have hours of examples of adults assuming the best to pull from. Perhaps most importantly, this approach helps children to develop internal motivation and a sense of responsibility to the community at large. By observing the impact of their action (positive or negative) instead of framing their work in relation to ourselves (i.e. “I like…”) they learn to work for their own fulfillment rather than merely to please someone else.

I have known this approach to be wonderful for children for a couple of decades, but I never considered what a difference it would make in my  day. Instead of coming home feeling drained and negative about all the little things that had gone wrong (even on generally good days), last week, I had a hard time coming up with anything negative to say at all. For the first time in a long time, I left work feeling good about myself, my work, and the students in my care multiple days in a row. I know the novelty of this work will likely wear off, but it seems almost impossible to leave feeling miserable when you’ve spent the entire day looking for the good in and assuming the best of others.

**Views expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily shared by Millhopper Montessori School.

Room for (Mis)Behavior

My year as a traditional teacher was extremely challenging. Yes, we had a particularly challenging mix of students, but more than that, I was often derailed by the need to give up so much of what I believed to be right or wrong when it came to interacting with their challenging behavior in that environment.

On my wild days of being the substitute and the only adult in the classroom, I would often try many of the behavior redirection techniques that felt more congruent with my beliefs. Nine times out of ten, I met failure. I could see my students were not prepared to handle the freedom I offered them; did not know how to make the choices I presented them with; and certainly were not ready to abandon their regular behaviors simply because I tried to approach them in a different way. But beyond the explanation of a strong reaction to unexpected freedom, it was hard for me to nail down why my attempts were not working.

The last week of my Montessori teacher training course was a class called Cultivating Cooperative Classrooms. The class explored many of the behaviors my third-graders spent all year practicing and taught us many ways to deal with them. As you might be able to guess, several were entirely contrary to what I saw day-to-day in the traditional environment. But I also saw that many of the things that I tried with my kids were along the lines of what Montessori classrooms do. So the question burned even brighter: why didn’t they work for me?

My conclusion, after 225 hours of instruction on how to be a Montessori teacher, is that it must be the environment. Montessori teachers are able to meet their students needs and challenges in humanistic ways because the environment they operate in allows them to. When a power struggle ensues, a teacher can simply walk away. When children are begging for attention, they interrupt only the teacher and one or two other students, not the whole class. When a child is lashing out or feeling inadequate, there is space for both the child and the teacher to adjust, collect themselves, and try again. The traditional classroom, dictated by a teacher’s need to churn through curriculum and a schedule chock full of places to be allows for none of these things.

Setting up the classroom in such a way eliminates a huge amount of misbehavior before it even happens, and, when it does happen, teachers are able to interact with each child and treat them like the small human that they are. They can problem solve with patience, compassion, and humanity, all of which are often  unavailable to teachers bound by a traditional environment.

Follow the Child

I have been enamored with Montessori education since the moment I learned there was anything else out there. I’ve been defensive about it, passionate about sharing it, and inspired by the possibilities I saw within it. But when asked the all too common question,

What is Montessori?

I found myself fumbling to find a succinct answer. Many components of the philosophy would jump to mind, but rebuttals to each of their value followed just as quickly. Without having seen a Montessori classroom it is tremendously difficult to understand, so the real answer I gave would involve a minimum of a three-hour observation.

Naturally, I know most people are simply not willing or able to commit to such an act, particularly not the random friend who really only asked as a courtesy. So I would fumble around grasping for tangibles that usually ended up explaining more what Montessori is not: traditional education. As I finished up my Montessori Teacher Education course, I’ve finally discovered an answer.

Montessori is an educational philosophy in which teachers follow the child to help them develop as a whole person.

We let children teach themselves through interaction with a carefully prepared environment that allows them to work at their own pace. The Montessori materials are a huge part of this, but using the materials facilitates the child’s learning more than the teacher does. The child selects which material they wish to work with (that they’ve been introduced to) based on their needs and desires, and the teacher observes to identify what the child needs next: a more challenging lesson, more time with this one, or a re-presentation to clarify the object of the material.

To me, following the child makes complete sense as an educational model, but I can see how others may not agree. I’ve asked several of the instructors from my program for their thoughts on whether Montessori works for every child. Their response? Almost every child, the whole model is to follow them, so how could it not work for them. But, this is quickly followed by an important caveat: It definitely isn’t for every parent though. The Montessori methods ask us to forget about years of norms that dictate how we raise children, which is not small task. But, for those who are willing to try it, the risk can be highly rewarding.

One Child at a Time

In my Montessori philosophy class this week, we got a piece of paper titled “The Unfolding Montessori Teacher” which outlines ways we could continue to grow and give back to the Montessori community over the course of our Montessori career. It was presented as a guide, not a choose your own adventure, and the last item is:

Takes a global responsibility: Helping Achieve World Peace

While this is a beyond lofty goal, it is the most succinct way I have of knowing that I have found my people. Dr. Montessori felt very strongly that education serves as a peace-builder, and that tradition continues in many of her namesake schools. But how? The Montessori answer is simple – One child at a time.

Everything about the Montessori style of education is based on following the child, serving their developmental needs, and doing so in the name of creating a good human, not just a good student. While this spans their academics, meaning everything they do is personal to them, it also stretches into their personal development, which is very much a part of the curriculum.

Children as young as two-and-a-half are actively taught grace, courtesy, manners, and conflict resolution. From the very beginning, students are taught about kindness and respect. Arguments over playground toys are met with an adult mediated session where each affected party gets to share their side. The goal is collective peace, and a transference of resolution skills, not mutual tolerance. Further, an enduring respect for life is cultivated throughout the Montessori experience, from caring for classroom plants and animals, to a universal no kill attitude – even roaches and mosquitos are humanely caught and returned to their outdoor home.

Being in Orlando made Montessori’s call for peace education all the more timely and painfully important. Montessorians, and educators collectively, must continue to show children ways toward peace that they can carry with them and spread to others throughout their lives, one child at a time.

We’re Going to Hogwarts!

Months ago, our class began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone together. Harry Potter is something my teacher and I share a passion for, and we both thought it would be a good way to help our not always kind children think more deeply about what it means to be a good person.

I can’t say that we changed any behaviors, but we did manage to inspire almost the entire class to become HP fans. Despite initial skepticism (like moans of “I hate Harry Potter”) some were enthralled by the time the snake’s glass disappeared. Others took longer, but almost all of them have become invested in the story. Several have already made it through Chamber of Secrets! They also managed, over the course of the year, to earn a full jar of marbles, given for a variety of reasons, but mostly for good behavior. We learned on the first day of school that as a reward for earning all of these marbles, they would get a “marble party” as determined by the teacher.

So what did we decide to do? Throw them a Harry Potter party, of course!

The party would be in the last full week of school and img_6656provided us an opportunity to go all out. We made them img_6659Hogwarts letters, complete with individualized desk locations, and presented them as though owls had dropped them off. We spent an hour block of writing time having them write back to Professor McGonagall with their responses. Most were thrilled, some merely smiled, but some (unexpectedly) shared fear. We had several kids who didn’t want to leave their families to attend, regardless of their magical abilities. It hadn’t occurred to us that any of our children would consider this as anything but imaginative play, but we swallowed any doubt and kept selling it.

We had a local actress (the teacher’s mother) dress up and visit the class playing ZuZu Trewlaney (Professor Trewlaney’s equally sighted sister), who identifies which muggle born children will have magical capabilities for Dumbledore. She did a phenomenal job, explaining to the children that they would be attending an orientation (Hogwarts has never had so many muggle borns from one place invited to attend, after all!) the next afternoon.

After countless questions about “when are we going to Hogwarts?” and “is this our marble party?” leading my teacher and I to seriously question whether we were messing with their minds a little too much, the party arrived.

Students entered the classroom via a fabricated Platform 9 3/4, rushing through a faux brick wall. They were sorted via cupcake (I colored frosting img_6683inside to indicate which house they would be in), though we got a witches hat from our music teacher to fully simulate the experience. Our kiddos got to try Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, don Harry Potter glasses, andimg_6666 wave plastic (or pretzel) wands. Before we could watch “a documentary about castle life” (the first Harry Potter movie), each child got a personalized Chocolate Frog.

This was my favorite project that we took on, though it ended up taking an excessive amount of time. Each child had their own picture on a img_6649chocolate frog card and the box was personalized to explain what had made img_6650them worthy of
such a wizard honor. We created fictional lives for each of them, from being a famous quidditch Chaser, or volunteering at a Unicorn Sanctuary, to becoming the Minister of Magic via groundbreaking work with Muggle Relations. We tried to personalize each story based on the students interests and what we thought they would most enjoy and it was a really fun reflection tool at the end of the year. 

Our students had a wonderful time feeling like witches and wizards and it was fulfilling to be able to bring them that joy. They were invested in the story and their imaginations, and we invested in their interests. While we could have made this adventure much more academic, the effort we gave and the immersion that came out of it is a good model for how kids could be learning at school every day, not just for an end of the year party.

Patience Please

Can I crawl under my desk? Can I storm out and tell the office staff that I don’t want to be the substitute teacher any more? Can I just break down and scream? Or can I calmly explain to my students that their behavior makes me question whether I can be a teacher?

I rapidly assessed each of these options as I considered how to respond to five students shouting at me for attention. Though my consciousness desperately sought a solution, none of these seemed like they would end well. So I pressed on as though nothing had happened, trying my best to hide my inner trauma.

Quitting is rarely an option that comes to mind when I’m frustrated, but it was high on my list as I battled through another solo-teaching day. I finally understood so many of the articles about the first year of teaching. It is hard. With teacher salaries so low, I’m surprised anyone stays past their first challenging group of students.

Initially, I tried to pin my struggle on tiredness from a long week without enough sleep. Certainly this was a factor, but there was something deeper that I imagine only teachers and parents can truly empathize with. It is exhausting to constantly put others needs before your own, particularly when their needs sound a lot more like wants — and you just want to eat the only food you’re going to see for eight hours. It is nearly impossible to care for the hundredth time about one person’s interpretation of a comment that may or may not have been intended to hurt their feelings. It is emotionally draining to repeatedly ask students to implement basic manners, and rather than correct their behavior they argue or negotiate with you instead. Add each student asking you questions that doubt whether you know what you’re doing or if you have their best interest at heart, and it’s surprising that few teachers ever throw things in their classrooms. Nowhere have I seen the limits of patience more tested than as a teacher.

And yet at the end of the day, even the really terrible ones, as we sigh and go home, we say, “they are good kids, they really are,” and we return the next morning. We see those children, all of them, as humans with the capacity for good. But there is no curriculum for guiding them to achieve their potential and to deal with their unique challenges, leaving teachers to simply do their best they can, grasping for any patience they can find.

What Makes a Good Day?

When I read “What do I expect from my children’s elementary school? Certainly not this“, I was immediately struck by one thing: it does not describe the school I work at. This was especially true this week, my first week back after Winter Break, when teachers seemed reenergized and eager to pull out some of their best material to share with their charges. Despite my frustrations with my school and the overarching system, this mom’s reflections helped me to identify some of the best things that my current school is doing.

For my elementary-school-aged children, I care more about whether or not they love going to school than their academic progress.I am clever enough to know that if they are enjoying themselves at school, they will learn.

I cannot more appreciate this particular sentiment. Of all the reflections from this piece, this is the one I wish my school had more of. I imagine many of my students’ parents would espouse a similar view, but when pressed (and even through their interactions with their children) most of them are highly concerned with academics. We have students who were not allowed to watch TV for months over AR points. One was threatened with Christmas being cancelled for the same reason. Multiple parents have grasped casual moments with the teacher to ask, “where does my third grader rank in this class?” Some parents do homework for their kids or apply generous pressure regarding grades. And of all the third grade classes at my school, we have the least involved parents. If more parents were talking to the school about how to make their child’s day phenomenal, I think they might be surprised by how their academic progress soared.

Just because students may have to sit in an office for eight hours a day when they are adults, doesn’t mean that they should have to start practicing it now as children. It is like saying to a 10-year-old, “One day you’re going to pay taxes, so I’m going to keep 50 percent of your birthday money from Grandma because I want you to get used to it.”

I absolutely love this analogy and my school has plusses and minuses in this department. On the downside, the elementary day is exceptionally long — two full hours longer than the public schools in town. And we expect students to spend an awful lot of time sitting in chairs, standing in line, or just generally suppressing play during that extended time. On the upside, all of our students go to PE four times a week. We have recess two, sometimes three, times a day. It is common practice to not only extend recess, but to offer additional playtime if the students need it. Our school recognizes that a good lap around the playground is more effective than a mark on a behavior chart could ever be.

Elementary school should be about exploration and exposure to vast amounts of very well-written books. Writing should be an opportunity to capture observations and imagination in a tangible form. Elementary education should include learning about history through storytelling, art and music. It should be about dancing and singing and playing while developing social skills, communication skills and interpersonal awareness…Elementary school science should be about questions and wonders, experiments and all things messy.

This week in reading class, we started Charlotte’s Web. I promptly re-read the classic and was impressed by its language, depth, and simple ability to engage. The kids love it, and all want baby pigs of their own; most importantly, it’s a stretch book for many of their skill levels and they are learning from it.

In library class, every student was given the outline of a book, spine included, and told to design a cover of a book they would write. They got to create, design, decorate, and shelve their own “stories,” empowering future authors in a half-hour.

In Spanish class, we spent half of the class watching videos and dancing to learn prepositions. Students got to walk like an Egyptian, waddle like a penguin, and swim their way through vocabulary. Before the break, the students learned about Los Tres Reyes Magos and how the holidays are celebrated in many Spanish speaking countries — in Spanish!

Our science project of the week? Dissecting owl pellets. Students spent a full hour working in small teams to discover what their owl ate and identify the tiny bones they found. A bit gross? Sure. A touch messy? Certainly. Engaging? As good as it gets. The kids were set loose with instructions and the tools they needed to learn, and they succeeded. While they were absorbed in this project, social strife between teammates dissolved instantly, students built structures to make sure everyone would have equal opportunity with the tools, teams worked together to not only find the bones, but to identify them and share their discoveries. They even forgot it was lunch time!

Music class kicked off our drama unit. What will they do? But of course, Pirates! The Musical! The entire third grade spent three hours of their week singing, dancing, and auditioning for a production that they will put on in March. Every grade does this, committing hours upon hours for two-plus months so that the kiddos can perform. And after seeing them engage with it this week, I could not be more inspired by the power of the arts to teach and engage.

Perhaps our success is proven by the fact that most of our students would say, “I had a good day” when they leave. Despite day-to-day frustrations and imperfect lessons, our students are happy overall and enjoying school.

Books, Books, Books

In third grade, when you are not following rules, learning multiplication, or navigating social situations, your primary responsibility is to read. At our school, as at many around the country, we use the Accelerated Reader (AR) program to encourage kids to read and read for comprehension. Many a night, our students’ homework consists solely of reading for AR points.

ReadingWhile I see the benefits of encouraging kids to read (and rewarding them for doing so), I have always had some qualms with AR. It’s onerous and turns a leisure activity into graded assignment (in kid speak, code for “not fun”). Our class has a few students who approach AR the way I did, as a byproduct of the reading they would be doing anyway; each of them far surpassed this quarter’s quota of 12 points for weeks ago. The other students use that bar more as a ceiling than a floor, and that is where I see the most flaws. Some of our kids reconsider picking up a new book after getting their 12 points, acknowledging that they should save those points for the next quarter so they aren’t “wasted”. But the worst (for me) are those who find the AR requirement so daunting that they struggle to pick up a book at all. Some of them have realized that they struggle with comprehension on the test at the end, so they won’t choose anything worth more than half a point (think Berenstain Bear books).

The point struggle has also trained them to be incredibly wary of new books. I am an avid reader and have a hard time putting a book down once I’ve picked it up, regardless of whether I actually like it. I found the first 100 pages of The Casual Vacancy relatively painful and kept setting it down for months at a time. Nevertheless, I finished it eventually even if it took me 18 months. My students, likely realizing that their test scores are lower on books they didn’t absolutely love, won’t pick up anything they aren’t sure they will like. During library class, I fantasize about having the time to systematically read every book on the shelves so that I could have a good recommendation for every student who jolts me out of my daydream, asking for a book that is “funny, action-packed, short, on my AR level, and worth a bunch of points.”

Though I find their unwillingness to try new books fills me with despair, I revel in the changes tBookshat I see in a student who finds a book they enjoy. I managed to find a skateboarding adventure book (sadly the only one of its kind) for one of my most particular boys. For weeks, he avoided reading at all, preferring to draw silly faces or search for Waldo. Recognizing the need to complete his AR points, he bemoaned to me that the library had nooooo good books. Naturally, I countered his assertion and promised him we would look for something together. Since checking out this book, I find him regularly reading during free time in class. At the library yesterday he found a new book and excitedly came to tell me about his discovery. Today, he spent a full five minutes of his free time telling me about the story. While I have no delusions that I have shifted his true love from football and lacrosse, it fills me with great joy to know that I played some small role in helping him enjoy a book.

Classroom vs. Court

If you follow my blog, you know that a few months ago I accepted a new job as a teaching assistant of a 3rd grade class. Knowing that my free time would drastically increase, I invited a friend to co-coach a girls volleyball team at a local non-profit. We settled on coaching a 3rd-4th grade team, “The Cheetahs”, feeling confident that our volleyball skills would be sufficient for the beginners. Of course, this means that I spend a lot of my time with kids in and around the 3rd grade, and though it can be challenging, I’ve really enjoyed seeing them in different environments.

For most of our nine girls, volleyball is pretty new. Some of them had played for a season or two, others had barely touched a volleyball before they arrived at our first practice. None of them know much about how the game is played beyond the basic concepts of serving and returning. From a “this is brand new to me” perspective, it’s very similar to how my students at school spent their week in math – trying to master right-to-left subtraction. Despite being very different types of problems, the kids handled them in many of the same ways. Some, who the skills came to easily, are eager and excited for each opportunity to practice and improve. Others take a little longer, struggling with holding the ball still as they underhand serve, or forgetting that you have to add what you borrowed to the original number before subtracting. And the last group are those that get the most frustrated, threatening to give up or bemoaning their lack of ability. While we still have some in this group (both in class and in volleyball) it is lovely to see their “ah-ha” moments when the pieces start to come together.

Perhaps the biggest difference for me between coaching and teaching is that some volleyball concepts can’t be explained in words. In subtraction, as with most academic concepts, there is always a reason for what you’re doing and how you do it (you borrowed a hundred, so you add ten tens; you didn’t have enough to take away so you had to trade for some more, etc.). But in volleyball, sometimes whatever you tried just doesn’t work. It’s not that the girls don’t understand the concept, or what they should be doing — it’s that they haven’t had enough repetitions to have mastered that particular body movement. As an educator, I regularly find myself at a loss when trying to explain how they could improve on specific volleyball skills, and I’m coming to accept that maybe I can’t.

Just like at school, our volleyball team is full of girls at completely different levels. Some of the disparity comes from age, some from experience, but we have girls ranging from incredibly consistent in both serving and passing, to girls who still swing and miss when trying to get the ball. Just like in our classroom, it is frustratingly difficult to meet all of their needs at once. It’s much easier at volleyball, where one-on-one interactions can be tailored to each girl’s level, but helping them become a cohesive unit is extremely tricky. Moreover, I’m getting a taste of what lead teachers must deal with every day, with parents’ desires to contribute (or not), their hopes (and demands) that their child get certain attention, and so on.

Observing kids of this age in these different settings has shown me a lot about what it means to be eight. My co-coach and I had visions in our heads of kids eager to listen, work hard, and become star volleyball players. Instead, just like at school, most of the kids just want to hang out with their friends. They are happy and silly and have a hard time focusing, even the ones who desperately begged their parents to let them play. Fortunately, we don’t have to spend nearly as much time trying to get them to be quiet or mandating that they listen to every word we say. Practices tend to be organized chaos, where we try to capitalize on their energy and lack of focus to get them as many touches on the ball as possible. As it turns out, the chaos is serving as a nice break from the regimented school day.

While I don’t know that we are coaching prodigies, the girls have been winning their games and seem to have fun doing it, so for now: Go Cheetahs!

Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Riding Horses

At eleven years old, my middle school guidance counselor asked me to draw the place in the world where I was happiest. I drew a barn. A tack room to be specific.

This morning I walked into a different barn, sweaty, covered in paint, simply looking for a respite from Florida’s July sun. I crossed the threshold and memories poured into my mind, triggered by the overwhelming smell of horse, alfalfa, and saddle soap. A huge smile spread across my face, and I found myself longing for leather under my fingers. Though it has been several years since I’ve ridden a horse not trained to robotically follow a trail, not a day goes by that I don’t benefit from growing up with them.

I had the chance to ponder these memories as co-workers and I painted new fence boards at a local horse rescue as part of a staff service project this morning, and I’ve decided that I have horses to thank for an awful lot. And while I often credit my Montessori education for my successes, I think I have horses to thank as well.

Responsibility

Horses require an enormous amount of care. They need to be fed, watered, doctored, exercised, and loved whether you feel like it or not. To be honest, I had it easy; my trainer did most of that work for me on a daily basis (the feeding and watering at least). And I learned a lot about responsibility from watching her care for 30+ horses day-in and day-out, even if it didn’t sink in to my young brain as fast as she might have liked. But even with my minimal responsibilities, I came to understand what it meant to care for another life, and the importance of doing everything that you say you will do.

I learned this best after a terrifying incident which left my horse’s right hind leg in shreds. And I mean shreds; had I been considering a career as a vet, I would have ooh-ed and aah-ed over the incredible display of tissue layers, all the way down to the bone. As it was, I had to put on my big girl pants, swallow any squeamish tendencies, and clean and change the bandage twice a day. Plus, there was no riding, which, for a horse-obsessed 13 year-old girl, made the situation even more dramatic. (Note: My father also showed me the epitome of responsibility during this time, taking over the morning bandage change while I was in school despite having no ties to horses beyond his daughter’s infatuation.)

Hard Work

Barn work is hard work.

Hay is heavy. Poop is heavier. Spending twice as much time caring for your horse as you do riding is draining. Getting your life together to meet Pony Club standards is exhausting.

More than anyone else in the world, my trainer taught me the tenets of hard work.

  • Everything goes faster when you work hard and do it right.
  • There are always going to be things that you don’t want to do, but avoiding them doesn’t make them go away.
  • You can do almost anything if you’re willing. Sometimes this means asking for help and taking direction. Other times it means that you go for it and see what happens. Either way, you give it your best.

Valuing Feedback and Reflection

“Close your hip!”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard any three words repeated more times throughout my life. My trainer was trying to help me follow my horse better over fences, and I desperately wanted her guidance because I nearly fell off over every jump. I wanted as much feedback as possible, so I listened to my trainer, poured over comments on my Dressage test forms, and watched home movies of my rides incessantly. I wanted to improve.

But I also learned that sometimes improvement takes time. I wouldn’t figure out how to close my hip until I started riding in college, 5 years after she started telling me this after every jump. But once I figured it out, it all made sense. And while I hope that it doesn’t take me so long to process every piece of feedback, I do think it’s incredibly important to give time, space, and perspective for some lessons to sink in.

Passion

When you care about one thing enough, nothing else really matters. I wanted to be an accomplished equestrian, in and out of the saddle. I wanted it more than anything else, so I worked hard, did more than was asked, took responsibility, and loved every bit of it. Passion helped me deal with isolation at school, family tragedies, and a sense of not having enough to succeed. And though my passion for horses has dimmed, it gives me confidence and comfort in my passion for education.

Money Matters…

…to an extent. Horses are expensive. Riding horses in competitions may be among the most expensive hobbies. Horses, at least when it comes to competing them, tend to attract a rather affluent crowd, making it all the more apparent when you don’t have as much. But, just as researchers have found that our ability to buy happiness tops out at $75,000, I think the ability to buy success in the horse world reaches a limit. Experiencing this, and appreciating how much joy can come from a (relatively) meager investment, has been critical to how I approach life. I loved riding horses, and I worked hard to make the most of it despite not having the advantages of some of my peers.

How to Let Go

There’s a reason that I’m not riding horses competitively today, and it boils down to losing the passion. It stopped being the most important thing to me. But to this day, deciding to quit was the hardest choice I ever made. On reflection, I mostly stopped viewing it as quitting — I will always love horses and riding, and quitting implies that I didn’t give it my all. On the contrary, I gave it everything I had and finally had to admit that it wasn’t enough. I was working so hard to be happy that I wouldn’t have had enough energy to be happy if the emotion had come over me.

Society is hard on quitters, but horses taught me that sometimes you have to let go. When you’ve given something every ounce of effort you have and it’s still not fulfilling you, it’s time to move on. Even when it feels like it’s going to tear you apart or that the tears will never stop flowing. It won’t and they will, with time.

Love

Above all else, riding horses taught me how to love; to love another being more than yourself, to value connection on a deep and real level. When I got the news about my horse passing away, years after returning ownership to my trainer, I had a very real and very public breakdown. I emailed professors about my family emergency and skipped my classes that day. And I do not regret it or let it embarrass me for a second. That horse was the best friend I could have asked for growing up. She’s not the only horse who taught me to love, just the one I loved hardest, and I will carry their lessons with me for the rest of my life.