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Learning at its Best

10 Ways to Deal with a Hard Year

I am having a difficult year. It’s hard for me to admit that, because I don’t want to be “that teacher” who complains about the kids and who blames the administration and who acts as if the universe owes him a unicorn and a mountain of peppermint fudge. I worry that in admitting just how hard it is, it will come across as blaming the students.

However, for a variety of reasons, it has been hard. I yelled at my class a few times this week. I got impatient with them often. Part of it has to do with my weaknesses and part of it has to do with the make-up of the group. Part of it has to do with the system and the restraints I have to deal with. My students would thrive if I had the permission to teach differently (as it is, I’m already breaking rules and raising eyebrows) I love my students and I don’t blame them.

But it’s been challenging. Add to this, I’m failing at the paperwork side of the job. I’m struggling to create six different lessons a day and to provide meaningful feedback on student work.

It’s been a hard year.

I’m not looking for advice or sympathy or any of that. I’m just putting it out there. It’s been hard. Really hard. Harder than my previous eight years of teaching. I will make through the year, but I will do so with a limp. I have had a few hard years before and here are ten things I’ve found to be true:

  1. Don’t let shame define you: Hard years often have a way of humbling good teachers. In a hard year, a teacher will probably snap at someone or use sarcasm or yell at a class. Add to this a lack of outward results and it can feel humiliating. Often, other teachers will offer advice rather than affirmation. It helps to remember that they are coming from the right place. They want to be useful. They want to help. In the mean time, find someone trustworthy who will remind you of your strengths and your identity.
  2. Expect it to be hard: The educational community is full of advice to stay positive and keep going and remember that you matter. Sometimes it can feel like walking through the aisle of a Hallmark store. Optimism only takes you so far. In a really hard year, I’ve found that it’s best to be realistic and expect it to be hard. This doesn’t mean it won’t get better. It doesn’t mean you quit trying to improve. Fatalism sucks worse than optimism. However, I’ve never known anyone who was able to positively think their way out of really hard circumstances.
  3. Redefine success: In hard years, it’s important to remember that you can control your actions, but not the results of the actions. It helps to define success as faithfulness rather than results.
  4. Assess the pros and the cons: There is a trap in either ignoring the negatives and hoping they go away or in focussing only on the negatives and missing the beauty that happens around you.
  5. Find a place to be vulnerable: Find someone who will listen to you talk about what’s really going on and how you feel about it. This isn’t venting. Venting is about bombastic blaming. Vulnerability is admitting that there is pain and anger as a result of circumstances. Vulnerability is saying, “It’s actually really, really hard right now.”
  6. Blame the circumstance and not the people: It helps to remember that you work with broken people in a broken world. The fact that we manage to do as well as we do is actually pretty amazing. When I can focus on the circumstances and realize that the people are just as broken as me, I am more likely to find some real solutions that might work.
  7. Create an autonomous space: Go paint a picture or write a novel or crochet a blanket. Go garden. Go glue macaroni onto something and spray paint it gold. Go find a space away from school, where you have total autonomy to excel in some creative act.
  8. Take care of yourself: I know this is cliche, but it’s true. Part of why I’m making it right now is that I’m drinking lots of water and I’m working out three to five times a week.
  9. It’s a chance to learn: Hard years are often great chances to learn something new. However, the learning opportunities have little to do with classroom management books or great advice from seasoned veterans. However, in the end, a hard year often gives a teacher a more nuanced perspective, a more humble approach and a more realistic mindset.
  10. It will end: It may be the end of the school year and it may be in a few weeks. However, this doesn’t go on indefinitely. Simply knowing that it gets better allows me to plough through the hard days.
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About John T. Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “10 Ways to Deal with a Hard Year

  1. John, thanks for sharing this. Your advice is great. So many forces and ingredients go into making up a successful class, and some of those are out of your control. Keep your compassion along with your passion always in the forefront, and some of the lesser worries will melt away. Good luck and keep us posted about how things turn out.

    Jaime

    Posted by jaimerwood | December 9, 2012, 4:56 pm
  2. John, You are so wise, and I thank you for this–for the kindness it expresses towards yourself, and the assurance that whatever is *(^$ will eventually come to an end. It is a part of having great years. I’m with you on this, good years and bad.

    Kirsten

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 9, 2012, 5:05 pm
  3. John, as we were talking the other day I really think #3 is the key. Adjust your expectations and focus on the students looking for small victories. I am not having a bad year, but students are also not where I expected them to be at this point either. I am a perfectionists and sometimes I expect every kid to love learning and be motivated at all times. The hardest part for me is seeing destructive things in their home lives lead them to make poor choices and their inability to see long term consequences.

    I think there have been times where I think I just about have this teaching thing figured out (after years of struggling) but once again I keep going back to the relationships and people part of education and realize that I never will.

    Posted by Michael Kaecheleke | December 9, 2012, 5:47 pm
  4. I think you offer sound advice for every year, John; deep time, humanity, art, discovery – they are on your side.

    I remember my hardest years – they were back to back and they only began when I started trying to do what I thought was right for my kids instead of for me.

    How long do you think it’s necessary to blame?

    In solidarity,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 11, 2012, 9:49 am

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