Five Strategies for Surviving a Hard Year of Teaching

Last year was my hardest year of teaching. It didn't have anything to do with my students. The whole thing began when I was pulled into a meeting to talk about technology. Despite having a solid track record, we had experienced horrible wear and tear on the plastic Samsung models. I felt entirely alone as as I sat in an empty classroom for an hour and a half trying to explain why cheap technology fell apart.

I had never experienced anything like that before.

I left the meeting in tears. I had never experienced that kind of professional shame in my entire career. I replayed every sarcastic comment in that meeting and wondered if maybe it really was my fault. Then I got angry at myself for letting it get to me. At the time, I wanted to quit. I looked around for a new job opportunity. At one point, I actually considered moving our family to Denver or Memphis.

I remember stopping my car in the parking lot the next day and having a panic attack. I was terrified and crushed and shamed to the core. I had to tell myself that I still liked teaching and I wasn't going to let fear define me. Still, things got worse for the next two weeks. I had never, in a decade of teaching, been the "bad teacher."

I didn't quit. In the upcoming months, things improved. When the facts played themselves out, things became smoother. Slowly, my mindset shifted. I went from dreading going to work to tolerating going to work to falling in love with teaching again. In fact, I'm already dying to get back into my classroom and start the next school year.

Here are four strategies that helped me survive the year.

#1: Focus on Identity
I hit a point in this process where I began to question who I was as a teacher. I knew better. I watched the work that my students were doing at the time and could point to it as something observable. However, for all of my introversion, I found myself reaching out to two former principals who affirmed my identity as a competent teacher. These horrible periods aren't horrible simply because they are uncomfortable. Rather, they are shameful and the only way to heal from shame is standing up and being unashamed. Sometimes that requires a trusted friend.

#2: Be Realistically Thankful
One thing I missed in the midst of this period was that there were people on campus who had my back. Our assistant principal was amazing. I had a few co-workers on my team who were really there for me in the midst of it. However, I also had great classes with great students. All year, I kept a private thankful journal describing why I still loved teaching. It wasn't a schmaltzy, fortune-cookie, mall kiosk kind of positive. It was more of a gritty sort-of happy that you manage to pull out from the hard times.

#3: Seek Out Teacher Friends Away from School
I have a community of friends I know from social media. I remember sending e-mails back and forth to people like Philip Cummings, Jeremy Macdonald, Dean Shareski, Curt Rees, Jon Samuelson and Michael Doyle. I remember realizing that some of these people had experienced similar situations, despite the fact that they couldn't really share it online. Suddenly, I felt less alone.

#4: Try Something New
I know this sounds strange, but I have found that adding a new challenge can actually help in the midst of a hard year. When I had a difficult class, I found that focussing on developing a challenging project actually helped me refine my craft. This is how we ended up doing our Create a Product project (which was a huge success) and Create a Video Game (a Scratch project that was only so-so).

#5: Compartmentalize
I know, I know, I know. Compartmentalization is supposed to be a bad thing, but I didn't "eat, sleep and breathe" teaching last year, because of what I had experienced in my first month. I played catch in the backyard with my kids. I had long conversations with my wife (sometimes about work frustration, but often about ideas and life and books). I worked on Wendell the World's Worst Wizard. For awhile, I simply had to avoid reading education blogs and articles.

photo credit: . SantiMB . via photopin cc

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If you connected at all with this post, you might want to check out The Fireproof Teacher. You can download it on Kindle, buy a print copy or listen to the audio version.
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


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