Saturday, January 11, 2020

To A Teacher At The End Of A Discouraging Week

It just sucks. You spend the time and effort (and maybe money) to create a lesson that you hope will be engaging and provide your students an exciting, maybe even fun, break from routine. And it bombs. More than once. Not only do your students not appreciate it, but they bitch about it. Sure, these are students who generally bitch and moan about everything (that's partly why you went an extra mile for them), but this still feels like you stayed up late to bake someone a beautiful cake and they just took a bite, spit it out, and threw the rest back in your face.

It feels personal, but it also shoots straight to your core as a professional (because, let's face it, your personal and professional selves are pretty intertwined anyway). Maybe my pedagogical sense is not very strong, you think. Maybe I'm not very good at motivating or connecting with the students. Maybe I just suck at this whole teacher thing.

I was in the classroom for thirty-nine years, and I still remember, way too vividly, those days, or weeks, or, in one case, the better part of an entire year. It just sucks. And nothing anyone can say really makes it any less sucky. Nevertheless, let me offer you a few pieces of hope.

You Don't Always Know

Here's a story. In February of my first year of teaching, one of my students entered my classroom during a period other than his scheduled one, and stood in front of me threatening me with assault. It lasted roughly seven hundred hours, and then he left. I pretty much kept doing what I was doing (handing out papers) and responding very little to him (I later learned the students in that class were split between believing I was scared and believing that I was secretly a kung-fu master and I didn't want to kill the kid). It was not a good moment. I'd been trying to reach the student, and congratulating myself on doing a decent job of getting through. This did not seem like a sign that I was doing all that well.

Then, at the end of the day, he came back, sat down in a desk, and we talked for thirty or forty minutes about what was bothering him. What I came to understand was that I had probably been the recipient of his threats and venting because he actually felt safe with me. He served his suspension and we had a decent rest of the year.

Now, the point of the story is not that threats are okay (they aren't-- and if he had actually thrown a punch at me, this would be a much different story). The point is that sometimes it looks like you're not getting through at all, and yet, you actually are. You just don't know. I can't tell you how many times students later in life would tell me how much they liked my class or even me and all I could think was "But you were an absolute ass to me all day every day." It's a mystery. If you care about them and act like it, somehow they get that, somehow? I don't know. I just know that you're probably reaching more students than you think you are.

It's Not Personal, Because You're Not A Person

Okay, most teachers get this, and it doesn't always make you feel better. But to your students, you're not a real person (the younger they are, the more true this is). Sometimes this is cute, like when they run into you in the grocery store and are shocked to realize that you eat food and do actually leave the school building. But sometimes it means that you are like a door or a sofa or some other object that they punch because they can't strike out against what they'd really like to strike ott against.

This Is About Them     

How your students treat you is largely about them. It's about the baggage they carry to school with them, about the families that create a particular atmosphere at home, about the problems that nagged them in the morning before they left for school and the problems that will be waiting for them when they leave the building. This is about whether or not they've learned the basics of respect and kindness. This is about whether or not they have the emotional resources to deal with one more thing in their life, even if that thing is as innocuous as an art project.

Yes, I know. A great teacher is supposed to be able to reach past all of that a perform pedagogical awesomeness, and it's true that the longer you teach, the better-trained your reach. But you're not magic and you're not a superhero and you don't have infinite time or resources, and so you aren't going to be all things for all students on all days. Plus, their main job is to grow up and you can't do that for them.

Play the Long Game

Sometimes education comes in time-release capsules. Another benefit of teaching a long time in a small place-- I've had former students tell me about how they had fond memories of, or had been influenced by, Lesson X. And I have no memory of teaching that lesson, or saying that thing they've always remembered me saying. I can recognize most of them as thins that certainly sound like me, but that's it. And I know that I must have thought that Lesson X was a dud, because if I hadn't, I'd remember it from the many times I used it over many years.

Or there's my former colleague who taught upstream from me. Her students would come to me the next year, often disparaging her class. "Oh, heck-- we didn't learn anything in there," they'd say, but as each unit began, I would quiz them on prior knowledge, and they would already know all this stuff, and I would ask how they knew that and they would scratch their heads and say, "Huh. We learned that last year in Ms. Z's class." She was the greatest stealth teacher I've ever known.

Sometimes teachers are just planting seeds, and the harvest doesn't come until weeks, months, or years and years later. It sucks, because we usually don't get to see the crops come in, but there can be no doubt-- just because your students don't appear to have grasped anything right now doesn't mean that the lesson failed completely and forever.

Some People Are Jerks

Seriously. You know adults who are jerks; do you think they turned into jerks suddenly when they turned 21? The tendency, in my experience, runs the other way-- far more young jerks grow up to be great adults than great children who grow up to be jerks. The odds are excellent that somewhere in your classroom are some young jerks. The odds are good that they will grow out of it, and it would be jerk-like for a teacher to hold it against them or engage them in a contest of jerky wills. Still, that's what you're working with in the here-and-now.

De-jerkification lessons like "other people exist" and "being unkind is uncool" take a long time to take root, and you may never reap the rewards of teaching them (see above). But in the meantime, some of your immature students will act like immature children, and that is natural and normal and the greatest teacher in the history of the world cannot instantly erase nature.

Yes, if you find yourself blaming all your classroom troubles on all your students being jerks, then you are a big part of the problem. But it is okay to recognize that children will sometimes act childishly, and that is both normal and outside your control. Just keep focusing on their better parts.

Avoid the Failure Spiral

Any teacher worth her salt can tell you, right now, five things that she needs to do better. One of the hardest parts of teaching is this-- you know what you should be doing in a perfect world, but you don't have enough time, enough resources, enough you to do all that, and so you have to pick deal with the knowledge of all the ways you're coming up short.

What that means is that if you go deliberately looking for reasons that you are inadequate, you can always find them. Don't let yourself get sucked down that failure and shame spiral. And do not imagine that somewhere in the world, or your building, there are teachers who never have any of these problems. You know which teachers don't think they have anything to work on as teachers? Lousy teachers. That experience of getting to the end of a day and thinking, "I am just never going to get good at this," is absolutely universal.

After 39 years, I still had those days. My secret? Not taking a single day as an indication of my whole career. At the end of a crappy day, I (mostly) said "Well, today I sucked" and not "Well, I guess I'm a total failure as a teacher always and forever." Teachers have successes and failures; don't get into the habit of thinking that your failures mean everything and your successes mean nothing.

Next Week Is Another Week

The students will reset quickly-- a day is a long time to them. You will reflect on what happened, what worked, what didn't. Spend time with people who love you. Do that self-care thing. Next week is another week. You will go back to the classroom better than you left it, and you will continue to grow stronger and better as a teacher. You got this.


  1. Thanks so much for this, Peter. I shared it with my principal.
    Last week at my middle school, the students were focused on the chance of snow (here in Portland, Oregon, that is rare). It's encouraging to read this and know that we are making a difference.

  2. I'm printing this out and taping it to the wall next to my desk. And sharing with all my teacher friends. Thank you.

  3. Great piece. Ought to be shared by teacher educators everywhere (I'll do my part). One quick, confirming story:

    A couple years back, I got a social media message from a former student. He's now a successful songwriter in Nashville. He listed all his published songs and all the recognizable, big-name folks who have recorded his tunes. I owe it all to you, he said. You told me I ought to switch instruments (from trumpet to percussion), and that I had real talent as a musician. We moved to Nashville a year later, and I started playing drums and writing songs. Are here I am!

    I did not remember him. The name was only vaguely familiar. When I had him (for an hour a day), he was one of 400 students (speaking of not enough time and resources). His picture (he's in his 40s now) didn't help. I decided to accept his thanks and believe him, as compensation for all the students I felt I failed because, like all of us, I wasn't even close to perfect.

  4. Oh boy, did I need this. Thank you, thank you.

  5. I'm new to your blog. Thank you for this. I've been teaching for 20 years and it has not gotten easier. Your words are true and encouraging.