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To the Teacher Who is Struggling Right Now

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Maybe it’s your first year. Or your fifth year, or your fifteenth.

It could be that you’re trying out a new school, a new curriculum, or a new grade level. Maybe you had a choice — maybe you didn’t.

Maybe there was a schedule change, and now you don’t have that last period prep anymore.

Or that new student enrolled in your 7th period, and now it feels like the whole class dynamic is out of whack. Or maybe this year your 4th hour is so sleepy that sometimes you want to walk around with a stethoscope just to check everybody’s pulse.

Maybe there’s a personnel issue — a new principal or coach or chair, and you don’t see things the same way. Maybe a good colleague friend in your hallway changed roles, and now you’re struggling not to be annoyed at the new person in that classroom.

Or maybe none of that’s true, and you’re just feeling particularly sucked up by the whirlwind right now.

Here’s the thing: it’s normal. We all experience it — me too. The struggle is real, baby!

Being a teacher in the late fall can be tough. A friend of mine told me about one year when she went to see a therapist to help her process lots of bad feels late fall. Her counselor said, “Oh yeah. All y’all educators show up in the fall. Right around October, that’s when y’all start to roll in.”

In other words, you’re not weird or unfit for the work or anything like that if you’re struggling right now.

In education, the year is predictable. There’s this burst of optimism and energy and excitement in August. The first unit is often designed to be a high-interest win, for you and for kids. You’re teaching your classroom management plan, and you’re learning everyone’s names, and you have high, high hopes for all that you will accomplish together this year.

And then October sets in, and that next unit is a little more intense. Maybe the kids balk at the challenge. Maybe they say, “Our teacher last year taught it like this.” Kids start to test the limits of your patience — and you like them still, so you might let some problematic behaviors slide.

It starts to snowball. Feelings of powerlessness seep in. I can’t overcome the kids’ home lives, right? It’s normal for kids to act immature like this, right? Nothing I can do.

You become angrier and angrier with the kids by the day. All those strategies from the summer that were supposed to “work”… they don't.

And then the unit assessment comes, and it’s not pretty. There seem to be kids who aren’t… well, learning stuff. That was an important part of your job description, right?

So then the internal messaging kicks in, and it’s either, “All right, I’m a terrible teacher,” or, “All right, my kids are broken, and I can’t fix them.” From here, we’ve got to either quit the work or internally disengage from it.

Making the Shift from Powerless to Empowered

So here’s a different plan. When the tests go badly or the behavior is crazy or the working environment is toxic, let’s remind ourselves of a few important things.

Ours is hard work. Maybe one of the hardest. We make a lot (thousands?) of decisions every day, and we infrequently get quick feedback on whether those decisions are the right ones. This demands so many skills, at such a high level, that it’s no wonder we often find the work difficult. So when we start feeling like we’re drowning each fall, let’s not be shocked. It’s to be expected.

And pretty important, too. Show me a society that flourishes without educating its young in how to flourish in adult life. There isn’t one. Hunter-foraging societies, pastoral nomad societies, agricultural societies, industrialized societies in the twenty-first century… If you don’t teach the youngsters how to live and to be and to contribute — how to flourish long-term — then your society has about a generation to go before all that’s left of it is a mention in the history books. We’re carrying a baton that’s been passed down to us over millennia. It is awesome and noble and beautiful to be a teacher. Circumstances might make that hard to believe, but nighttime doesn’t disprove the sun.

When and if your kids say hurtful things to you, work at not taking it personally. It happens to me every year, including this one. Hurtful comments are more a reflection of what’s happening in the heart of the commenter than they are the heart of the one commented to. This is no easy truth to internalize when someone is insulting you, especially someone you’ve worked to help. But internalizing it is the path to wisdom. Its difficulty is the reason why every person that you meet is not wise.

You might need to work less. If it takes 70 hours a week to teach like you’re currently teaching, then you probably need to change how you’re teaching. “But Dave, I’ve got four preps, and they’re all new.” I understand that. So this means you’ve got to find ways to make those classes resemble one another. You’ve got to boil down the work that they require, thinking of lessons less like an artist thinks of making masterpieces and more like a coach thinks of making practices. Start with the constraint — set rules for yourself for when you will and won’t work. Figure out how to make work work from there. Trust me — it helps.

Take a day off each week. For real. Twenty-four hours away from teaching each week is one of the greatest gifts I give myself and my family. There’s even some science to back this up.

If you’re in the first five years of your career, give yourself lots of grace. Teaching is freaking hard. Most experts (e.g., Linda Darling-Hammond’s Empowered Educators, or Marc Tucker’s Top Performers blog at EdWeek) don’t think that the way we recruit, train, and retain teachers in the USA works very well. Just focus on becoming good at a few things — like six of them. This changed my career.

Remember, the fall isn’t just hard — it’s also huge with opportunity as one of the most academically rich times of the year. It’s the longest stretch of school without a break, which can be a great opportunity for skill building and content retention.

Again, in education, the year follows a beautifully predictable cycle. I really love this about teaching. When fall gives way to winter, you’ll have a short burst of intense learning between Thanksgiving and Christmas Break. Then when you return to your classroom after the new year, you’ll feel refreshed. The rest of the school year is like that: intense learning punctuated by a long break, then more intense learning and another long break. The spring sun radiates as if for the first time, and snow melts into clear puddles, and blades of grass push up through warm earth, and suddenly, before you know it, you’re waving the kids goodbye on that last bus of the school year.

To soothe you in this final stretch of fall, this Thursday, I’ll repost an updated version of one of my favorite past articles: Jedi Mind Tricks for Avoiding Burn Out. In it, I dive into the inner work I’ve found most useful in keeping me engaged with my heart and my mind in the classroom.

I see you, my colleague. We’re good, and we’re going to get better.

Keep after it. Happy fall. 🙂

2 Responses to To the Teacher Who is Struggling Right Now

  1. Joel K May November 16, 2018 at 11:56 am #

    Needed this. Thanks

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