Pushing Through Stuck
This post is written by Joanna Ho Bradshaw, Lead PD Designer for Learning Labs at Nearpod.
Photo Credit: Sharon Drummond
It happens every time.
It might happen after my first draft. Or, it might happen after several revisions. Inevitably, I reach a point where I get stuck. Banging-my-head-against-a-wall, pulling-my-hair-out stuck.
Let me backtrack for a second. I am the Lead PD Designer for Learning Labs at Nearpod. I work with leading experts in education, take their content, distill it into teachable chunks and design these chunks into collaborative learning experiences for teachers.
My session drafts never work out the first time. Sometimes not the first 10 times. Usually, I can’t figure out the problem or what to do about it right away. Hence the head-to-wall banging and violent hair removal.
When I get stuck I feel a deep frustration, like I’ve swallowed an angry cloud and it is storming from the inside out. I stew. I whine. I spread grumpiness like a disease. I lay despondently on the couch. I am generally unpleasant to be around.
I’ve learned that getting Stuck is inevitable, but it is not catastrophic.
Stuck is my creative oven.
I put a goopy pan of ingredients into the oven and they reconnect differently in the heat: they become something delicious. When I push through Stuck, my ideas connect in new ways and inspiration follows. My best work happens after Stuck.
These are four strategies that help me push from Stuck to inspiration:
Find Someone Willing To Tell You, “This sucks”
Find a co-worker, a friend, a leader, or a group that will be honest with you about your work. It should be someone whose opinion you trust, who understands you and your working goals. It must be someone who believes in you. It is this confidence that gives people license to tell you when your work sucks – they believe you are capable of making it, well…not suck. It is also this confidence that makes their feedback palatable; it is supportive and aspirational.
I am fortunate to work with a leader that I trust and respect. Over the years, we have developed both a close working relationship and a deep friendship. We have long past the point of polite critique or sandwiched feedback (positive comment + growth area + positive comment). When something I design sucks, she tells me straight up. When she asks for my feedback, I don’t sugarcoat either. We don’t have to. We know that this honest feedback is the only way we can create outstanding PD. It is the only way we will be able to change the landscape of teacher professional development.
Often, hearing some form of “this sucks” or “this could be better” is the beginning of Stuck. Cue angry storm clouds and kicking, screaming tantrums.
When this happens, embrace it and push through. Stuck is one way to get to inspiration.
Sometimes it is necessary to take your work – in my case, a PD session – and stick it in the darkest, dustiest closet you have. Put it somewhere you will not stumble across it by accident. Somewhere too challenging to pull it out, especially when you feel tempted to peek. Your brain and your creative juices need a break.
I know I’ve reached this stage when my brain turns off. I stare at my computer screen and there is no sign of life inside my head. I write and rewrite the same sentence and end up with nothing. My head is stuffed with heavy cotton balls.
You may need to step away for a few hours, a weekend, a few weeks, or even a month. In the meantime, start something new. I often hop between PD sessions – stepping away from one while re-engaging in another. This time away from your work rests your creative muscles, giving them strength to break through barriers that once seemed insurmountable.
Sometimes a little rest is all it takes to break through Stuck.
Give Your Brain Some Space
In this age of cellphones and social media, distraction is constantly at our fingertips. Wait in line and pull out a cell phone, drive a car and turn on a podcast, shower and play loud music.
But, waiting in line, driving in the car, and standing in the shower are all opportunities for inspiration if you make space. Let your brain be quiet and don’t mistake quiet for boredom.
When I resist the urge to pull out my cell phone, these small moments of quiet become idea hotbeds. When I don’t fill my brain with distraction, my brain gets creative.
I have learned to plant seeds related to upcoming or current work. I will re-read a session, skim content, or look over a future lesson just to get ideas into my brain. Then, when I’m not consciously thinking about them, the ideas germinate. Giving my brain space allows these ideas to grow.
So, turn off those cell phones. See what happens during random moments of stillness scattered throughout each day. You will be surprised how quickly you can get unStuck.
Grind It Out
Inspiration is 10 percent lightning bolts to the brain and 90 percent hard work. Sometimes, you just have to grind your way through Stuck. Sometimes you have to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite your sentences until they work. It is not fun. There is no glory in this part of the process.
You will know you need to keep grinding when the ideas are still leaking one drop at a time. You will know when it’s time to step away when the ideas completely stop. Learn the difference. If you step away when it’s time to grind it out, you are procrastinating.
This is the hardest part of getting unStuck: the sheer mind-bending willpower it takes to keep working until something budges and ideas flow again. Resist the urge to throw your work in the trash and start again – there was inspiration there when you started, and inspiration will come again.
Stuck means you are on the verge of a breakthrough.
Joanna Ho Bradshaw is the Lead PD Designer for Learning Labs at Nearpod. If you would like a tour of the Learning Labs collection please visit us here.
Joanna Ho Bradshaw is a former classroom teacher and administrator. She is a strong advocate of equity work and Restorative Practices in education. As the Dean of an urban high school, she transformed the school’s punitive discipline system into a restorative model, resulting in a two-thirds reduction in discipline incidents. She was awarded the San Mateo County Dorothy Boyajian Honored Teacher Award. She then designed a restorative, educational alternative to prison for young men in California. She holds a Master’s in Education from the Principal Leadership Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Bachelor’s in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.