In teaching, some years are easier than others. And some years are downright hard. Those kinds of years, the hard years, can take a toll on you. I recall one year when I was teaching 4th grade. Beginning in January or so, I started to cry every day on the way to work. I would start crying at the same street every day, and then a few miles later I would turn the tears off, steel myself, and drive the rest of the way mentally preparing to get through the day. Now, I’m sure that part of the tears were due to the fact that I was pregnant that year. But, in addition to that my class that year was a challenging one. I had over 30 students, many who had things going on at home that I couldn’t even imagine, and many who had special needs of one kind or another. I loved teaching, but that class required every ounce of my energy- physical, mental, and emotional- all day long.
These memories came to mind recently while I was chatting with a colleague who teaches in another building. She was sharing the difficult challenges she is having this year. Hearing her stories and the emotion with which she was telling them made me think, “Oh, she is having one of those years.” I started thinking about what I have learned about making it through those tough years. Even in the midst of the struggle, there are steps we can take to improve our life in the classroom. Some of these things are easier than others, and I’m not going to pretend they will “make it all better”, but they can help.
- Practice rational detachment- I am an instructor for non-violent crisis intervention in my district, and this is one of the key things we teach in that course. Rational detachment essentially means not taking behavior personally, and remaining in control of your emotions. Having a well-thought-out plan in place before incidents occur can help you remain calm. Understanding that you are rarely the cause of the behavior can help you separate your students from their behaviors, seeing them as people who need your help to function successfully in school.
- Remain calm- In the midst of challenges in your classroom, it can be difficult to remain calm, but that calmness can mean the difference between an okay day and a bad day for you and your students. Taking deep breaths or counting to 5 in your mind before you talk can help you take a moment to consider your words before you say them. Think low and slow, in your voice and your actions.
- Don’t pick up the rope- We have a poster that we use in our non-violent crisis intervention training with this statement on it. It is one of my favorites. It refers to power struggles. Think of a power struggle as a student challenging you to tug-of-war. If you pick up the rope, digging your heels in to prove your point, you will spend a lot of energy with little to show for it. Don’t get sucked into a power struggle. Don’t pick up the rope.
- Model what you want to see in your students- Do you have a class who can’t seem to find one nice thing to say to each other? Intentionally say nice things to them. If you have students who seem to dwell on the negative, say point out the positive whenever you can. You and your colleagues can also model what you want to see when you interact with each other. Not only will doing these things provide a model for your students, it will likely make you feel better as you focus on good as often as you can.
- Notice the good- This goes hand in hand with modeling what you want to see. Intentionally look for your students doing what you want them to do. Notice the kids who see the positive side of things and tell them how much you appreciate it. Positive attention from a teacher is something nearly all students enjoy. Reinforce what you want to see, whenever you see it.
- Pick one thing- When we have a student who is struggling with academics or behavior, we don’t try to fix everything at once. We pick on thing to focus on at a time. This can work with your class, too. Make a list of the things your class is struggling with. Look for patterns. Look for the thing that seems to start a chain of events. Focus on that thing first. As that improves, look at the next thing on your list and target that.
- Educate yourself- No one knows everything. If you have a student with a diagnosis that you don’t know much about, read about it or ask someone with more expertise to help you learn strategies for working with that child. Talk to previous teachers to find out what was successful in the past. A little time spent seeking knowledge can make a big difference in how you handle things in the classroom.
- Take care of yourself- A challenging year with challenging students is stressful. Stress is bad for your physical, mental, and emotional health. In order to be the classroom leader you need to be, you have to take care of yourself. Exercise is a great stress reliever. Meditation can be, too. Don’t keep everything bottled up inside. Talk to a friend. If stress starting to interfere with your ability to function at school or at home, seek professional help. There is no shame in talking with your doctor or a therapist. It can make a huge difference in your ability to live a life with happiness and joy even in the midst of a challenging year.
To those of you reading this: I hope you are having a great year, a year that leaves you smiling most days you leave school at the end of the day. If you are having “one of those years”, I hope you found something here that can help. And, I hope your days get better and better from this point on.