This week's "question-of-the-week" is:
What do you do when you're having a bad day in the classroom? How do you get over feelings of frustration?
Who among us doesn't have a bad day now-and-then?
This post is final post in a three-part series responding to this question. Part One included responses from Roxanna Elden, Allen Mendler and Julia Thompson. Part Two featured contributions from Terry Thompson, Renee Moore and Cindi Rigsbee.
Today, in addition to sharing many comments from readers, educators Amy Benjamin and Dina Strasser post their thoughts.
Response From Amy Benjamin
I've always been a teacher of one sort or another, so I really can't say where teaching ranks in terms of job frustration. I can think of jobs that are a lot more physically stressful, dirty, and dangerous. I can think of jobs that pay a lot less, pay a lot more, command a lot more respect, command a lot less. I can think of jobs with a lot less job security, not too many with more. But I do know this: teachers have bad days.
A teacher's bad day--mine, anyway--is not caused by a fluctuating stock market, a dip in sales, a delinquent supplier, or a fickle customer. My bad days were caused by my own reactions, reactions to the difference between my expectations and what I perceived as reality. It is said that stress equals the distance between what you have control over and what you are held responsible for. Using that definition, teaching is a stressful job. Certainly, teachers and administrators are held accountable for conditions that are not our in control. We don't control the home or community environments of our communities. We don't control their or their parents' attitudes about education; we don't control the physical conditions in our schools and classrooms. Yet we are expected to control their test scores on a given day. We are expected to be unruffled by the most ruffling of situations at all times, in all weather.
My bad days came from feeling disrespected, plain and simple. Teaching is an act of hospitality. You are offering something, and it hurts to be rejected. I had bad days from feeling disrespected by some of the students in my class, for sure, but also by noisy students in the hallway, lawnmowers and garbage trucks making a racket outside, administrators, unreasonable parents, the union, a dog barking in a neighboring state.
But I know that my career had a turning point, a point at which my bad days became fewer and less intense. I remember the turning point vividly. I had been teaching for about twelve years and had a small child at home. I needed to leave the stress of work at work when I was at home, and deny the yearning to be home with my toddler when I was at work. I had to be strong, and here's the two-step process that got me through those years and many more:
First, I decided that I would try one thing, one small thing, that might make things a little better in my most difficult class. It may have been being more vigilant about preventing students from gathering around the door in the closing minutes of class (a habit that has always annoyed me). It may have been changing someone's seat. It may have been using a timer to keep students on task. It may have been instituting a "curse jar" in which students had to pay a fine--to be used to purchase tissues for the persistently drippy and needy--for certain words I didn't care to hear. ("I don't care that you didn't say it to me. If I hear it, you pay.") It may have been keeping a log of the offenses of the most noisome of students. They'd know I was writing something, but that they couldn't see it, and couldn't prove that I was writing about them drove them nuts. Some innovations worked better, for longer, than others, but thinking of solutions and trying them out became its own reward. I became less of a complainer and more of a classroom anthropologist.
Second, and this was the real corner-turner, I began keeping a journal at the end of the day on only the learning and progress that I had seen in any student, however small. The results were immediate, cumulative, and lasting. Because I would take a few minutes at the end of the day to reflect on only the positive moments, I'd go home feeling productive and grateful, rather than fretful and frustrated. My list grew. Along with it, a positive attitude that fed on itself, as positive attitudes will do.
Try it. Discipline yourself to forget, just at list-making time, every affront, every disappointment that a typical day as a teacher presents you with. Try just making a list of every single moment of learning and progress that you witness in your classroom. You will start having a lot more good days in the bank to draw from when those bad days strike.
Response From Dina Strasser
Dina Strasser is a 7th grade ELA teacher and 13 year veteran of the public schools. She is currently working as a curriculum designer for Expeditionary Learning.
What a great question--and especially pertinent now, when the atmosphere of education in this country can be so scary and uncertain.
Ironically, I've found that the best things I can do to help me move on from a frustrating day at school are not school-related. Instead, it's been essential for me to try to stop the nasty self-talk tapes that start playing in my head when things aren't going well. You know how it goes. "I've done nothing but bend over backwards for these kids and they still won't follow directions. A real teacher would have had them in hand by now. And if I had planned correctly it wouldn't even be a problem. I'm awful at this." etc., etc., etc. Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, calls this "throwing gasoline on the storyline."
I've done a little Buddhist reading and training and highly recommend its approach to dealing sensitively and kindly with your own self. If this isn't your cup of tea, though, I would recommend the work of Brene Brown and Kristin Neff. Both these wonderful women have websites, books and other materials available which provide very simple, effective techniques for increasing your self-compassion, which is neither pity nor selfishness. In fact, for folks in the service professions such as teaching, I would argue that self-compassion is the quickest and strongest way to recharge your own emotional batteries and become truly available, consistently, to your students.
Responses From Readers
Like most teachers I had many bad days in my early years of teaching. But then I learned something important: don't concentrate on the lesson you planned to teach, but on the students. If you are determined to stick to you lesson plan, and it doesn't seem to be working--for whatever reason--you will become frustrated and, very likely, show that frustration in your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. You may very well end up blaming the students and punishing them. Unless they are completely cowed by your authority or a lot more mature than you are, they will react negatively, and that day's class session goes down the drain.
Over all, what I'm trying to say is that no lesson is perfect; so don't blame yourself or the kids. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, again." Slow down, take a break, change your approach, or re-teach the lesson tomorrow. And do it all with a smile!
Humor has certainly saved the day many times. When tension mounts, it dissipates it. I'll use my acting skills and become a new persona by changing my voice or speaking through a puppet. The puppet may become the fussy inspector of the messy room, while I assure Mr. Puppet that the students are normally neat and orderly. I work with second graders, so it's easy to make them laugh and feel that tomorrow will be better. Then I go home, drink wine and play Candy Crush Saga.
Whenever I'm having a bad day at school, I do one of two things-and if it's really a bad day, I do both. First, I keep a file of thank you letters from parents and students. On bad days, I take a couple of minutes to re-read these. Needless to say, it's uplifting and motivating. My second strategy: I look over my class roster, find a student who has made great strides recently, and call his/her parents. Of course, the parents and the student are pleased to receive such a positive phone call and I'm inspired, reminded of the positive impact I can have and energized to tackle whatever is thrown at me.
I try not to think if them as "bad" days. Bad days elicit that fixed mindset that nothing can be done about them but wallow in them. In more of a growth mindset, I think of them as challenging days because I learn something every time I have one - either about myself as an educator, about students or about learning.
Many readers sent comments through Twitter. I've collected them using Storify:
Thanks to Amy and Dina, and to many readers, for their contributions!
Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.
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Look for the next "question-of-the-week" in a few days...