Ten 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. I love my students and I don't blame them. In a different environment, with a different system, the ones struggling would be doing well.

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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John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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25 comments:

  1. Thank you for being transparent, John! I've often said that if my second year of teaching had been my first, I never would have set foot in a classroom again. There were a lot of group dynamics and high-needs students that year who just wore me out. You are right - if you hang in there, it gets better

    I love your point that we are working with broken people in a broken world. Amen and we all need to remember that more often.

    I'm so glad you took time to share your struggles. Your words will encourage others in the same boat. I'll end with a hearty "Hang in there!" and take those words along with me today, too. Blessings to you!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words. The year is getting better. The last week (or week and a half, I suppose) have been easier. I'm hoping we're moving in the right direction.

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  2. Forwarding this to a friend. And to myself, two years ago.

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  3. As always, great post! On #3, I'd add to invite students to help redefine success.

    I have a class that has been dragging their feet and resisting (what seems like) everything we do. For our final unit of the semester, I sat them down in front of a white board and asked them to tell me what the final project should be, what the benchmarks and deadlines should look like and how I should grade them. In the two weeks since, they've been on-task and producing far better products than I would have gotten with the final project I had in mind.

    By owning that what I have been doing hasn't been working for them and explaining that it was time for me to listen to my students about their needs, we have experienced a welcome shift. It is coming a little late for a complete turnaround but this 1 semester class is at least now on its way to finishing on a high note!

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    1. I love the idea of letting students help redefine success. That needs to be part of the solution.

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  4. I wish I could have had this perspective last year. Last year was so very hard for me. I would have recognized all but #10 last year, and now #10 is recognizable too. You're right, it will end. That doesn't mean we won't have hard years again, so I'm saving this.

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    1. Somehow seeing this as a reality helps me in the tough times. The year is finite.

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  5. John, I enjoy your blog so much and I enjoyed this blog post in particular (esp. point #6 - so well said!). I shared this over at Google+ - https://plus.google.com/u/0/111474406259561102151/posts/Q4CAK6Riit6 - hoping to spread the word about this post and about your blog in general. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences so forthrightly. Much appreciated!

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  6. I'm in exactly the same place, John. I was so excited about my new adventure this year...and it's been hard. I've been learning some of the same things (just not as clearly as you state here). But I've been missing #7 - and now I can change that. Thanks for this post. I'm thinking I'll have a similar post soon.

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    1. Your'e a great teacher, Scott. I think both of us are adjusting to a difference in the age group.

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  7. John, this is a wonderful post. I particularly love not blaming anyone. It would be to simple to blame the kids, or even easier, the parents. Truth is, our job is HARD. Even when we're having an 'easier' year, it's hard. Teaching is not for the faint hearted or weak. I see kids who are abused, distraught, and lost. And they're five. It can be sad. I do my best to be a beacon of light and bring some laughter, smiles, and joy into their lives. Just remember, even on your worst day, you are a ROCK STAR to many of these children. I always try to remind myself what a critical role we play in the lives of our students. Just today, I was invited to the adoption hearing of one of my kids. Chin up. :)

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    1. Thanks for the kind words. What a cool invitation, by the way. You are a rockstar, too.

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  8. I've told you privately that I've been there too and I have lately been feeling the same way (although for different reasons). This post is refreshing and I am with the chorus that wants to be as encouraging as possible.

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    1. I enjoyed our private conversation, too, Tom. Someday we'll hang out in person. Maybe have a pint or two.

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  9. Thank you so much for the post.

    Reading the comments, I have to add a little "me too" of my own. I started at a new school this year. It is a very challenging place and some days I just shake my head. Not to say that it has all been bad, I have had some major successes, but wow, do I ever have to work for them. Many of my kids can't read and it makes it really tough.

    I think in the end though, it is for the better. I remember reading recently an entrepreneur who mentioned that it was necessary to go out and seek experiences that toughen you up. For when it gets easy again, it gets really, really easy. I have to agree with that. This position this year has exposed all of my weaknesses and is making me super tough.

    There is so much to learn still. One other lesson that I am trying to bring into my teaching is to be relaxed in all situations. It is so difficult! But as a performing artist, being relaxed on stage is the most important aspect of any show. It has taken me years to be able to relax, I mean really relax on stage. So, now, I am doing my best to bring that to the classroom. As soon as I feel the anger welling, I just mutter to myself: "relax, relax". It is not worth it. Now that I write that down, it has just occurred to me that I really have grown personally and professionally a lot this year already.

    Thank you again for the post. Back at it tomorrow and I needed a little inspiration. Much appreciated.

    With respect.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words. I think this is a year that is refining my teaching. It's a toughening up time. Ultimately, I'll be able to embrace that.

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  10. Thank you so much for the post.

    Reading the comments, I have to add a little "me too" of my own. I started at a new school this year. It is a very challenging place and some days I just shake my head. Not to say that it has all been bad, I have had some major successes, but wow, do I ever have to work for them. Many of my kids can't read and it makes it really tough.

    I think in the end though, it is for the better. I remember reading recently an entrepreneur who mentioned that it was necessary to go out and seek experiences that toughen you up. For when it gets easy again, it gets really, really easy. I have to agree with that. This position this year has exposed all of my weaknesses and is making me super tough.

    There is so much to learn still. One other lesson that I am trying to bring into my teaching is to be relaxed in all situations. It is so difficult! But as a performing artist, being relaxed on stage is the most important aspect of any show. It has taken me years to be able to relax, I mean really relax on stage. So, now, I am doing my best to bring that to the classroom. As soon as I feel the anger welling, I just mutter to myself: "relax, relax". It is not worth it. Now that I write that down, it has just occurred to me that I really have grown personally and professionally a lot this year already.

    Thank you again for the post. Back at it tomorrow and I needed a little inspiration. Much appreciated.

    With respect.

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  11. John, I could so empathize with this. I've had a really rough year too. For me that means it started in January and is ending, thankfully, this week. It's been the hardest of my career for a multitude of reasons, many which I can't yet share.

    What you've said reminds me of what one of my favorite teachers EVAR once said: "You can learn even from the worst teacher." He was right. And, you can learn from even the worst year.

    Hope things get better for you soon.

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    1. So true! I need to remember that it's a learning experience.

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  12. Thank you, thank, thank you for your honesty!

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  13. Thanks for posting this. I, too, am having a challenging year. Several of my colleagues are, too. I've reflected myself to death, so this list largely matches what's in my head. It's just nice to know I'm not alone and that others are trying to remain positive, too. Cheers!

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  14. I enjoy reading your blog. My year last year was very challenging so I decided that I would make this year a better one no matter what. I jumped into writing a blog in an effort to keep a positive attitude no matter what. http://teacherswithattitude.blogspot.com/

    Some days it works and some days it doesn't. It's nice to read about others challenges, successes, and ideas.
    Thanks!

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