Having one of those years? 8 things that can help you make it through

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.





You are in your teaching groove.  You have just delivered a fantastic lesson.  The flow was good.  Your students looked engaged, and they participated throughout the lesson.  You think to yourself, “They get this!”  You are at the point where it is time for the students to work on an assignment so they can show what they have learned.  You carefully give the directions for the assignment and head to your desk to grab a drink of water so you can watch your students get to work.  As you glance around the room, several of your students are doing just that.  They have the materials they need out on their desks and are busy completing their task.  However, you notice that Emily is just sitting at her desk with a puzzled look on her face.  Ben has some things on his desk, but one of them is the wrong book.  Chris has his hand up and is anxious to talk with you.  Jessica is out of her seat and on her way up to see you.  What happened?  The lesson went so well.  You gave what you thought were thorough directions for the assignment.  The kids looked liked they got it when you were talking.  How is it that now it appears that at least four of them didn’t get it at all?

If you have taught for any length of time, this scenario is probably one you have encountered at least once.  It can be frustrating to you as the teacher, especially since you thought your lesson went so well.  It might be tempting to just write it off as students being lazy or “not paying attention”.  While there is a chance this may be true, it is more likely that there are other things coming into play that can affect your students’ ability to be able to hear your directions for their assignment and then be able to get right to work and get it done correctly.

There are many factors that can inhibit your students’ ability to understand and then execute your directions when you are teaching.  Sometimes these factors are things you over which you have no control. Your student didn’t eat breakfast, didn’t sleep the night before, is having conflict with a friend, has a sick parent at home. These situations can make it difficult for a student to focus on instruction.  Other factors that affect a student’s ability to understand classroom instruction and directions include issues like ADHD or auditory processing problems.  If a student has ADHD, there are many things in the classroom competing with you and your instruction for his or her attention.  They may be dialed in for the beginning of the lesson, only to zone out just before you wrap it up and give them instructions for the assignment.  If a student has auditory processing issues, they have trouble making sense of what they are hearing.  They may be listening intently to your instruction, but when you ask them to take out their book at turn to the assignment on page 37, they take out the wrong book or just sit at their desk staring into space.  (For more information on the difference between ADHD and auditory processing issues and how they affect a student’s ability to listen in the classroom, check out this article from Understood.) Taking a minute to consider why a student might be having issues understanding what is going on in your classroom can go a long way in adding to your patience when dealing with your class.

One Intentional Thing

No matter what causes students to have difficulty listening to and understanding instruction and directions in the classroom, there are some things you can intentionally put in place to provide an environment that helps all students know what is going on.

  • Watch your speed. Be sure to speak slowly and clearly when you are teaching.  When we are excited, we tend to speak more quickly, and that can make it difficult for kids to keep up.
  • Don’t just rely on verbal instructions and directions. Make use of your whiteboard or anchor charts as you are teaching.  Write down key words and phrases as you teach and give directions.  Written words don’t disappear, spoken words do.
  • If you know listening is a struggle for a particular student, come up with a silent signal that you can give that student to alert them to the fact that important key information is being presented.
  • After you have given directions to your whole class, offer a second chance to hear them.  Invite students who would like to hear them again or who still have questions to meet with you at the front or side of the room.  This allows those students who understand the task to get to work, and those who still have questions to be able to get the help they need.

What about you?  What do you do to help ensure students understand what you are teaching?  Please share your ideas in the comments.


Intentional Reflection

Winter break comes just in the nick of time, every year.  By the time break arrives, teachers have been giving it their all for at least three months, and they are tired.  Children are so excited about the holidays that they often bounce down the hallways at school.  And there is usually some nasty virus or stomach bug starting to rear its ugly head and spread through adults and kids alike.  But then winter break arrives. And we all take a collective breath and a collective break.

With winter break comes the start of a new calendar year.  Even though this new calendar year comes in the middle of the school year, it is still a good time to pause for a moment and take stock of what has been happening in our schools and classrooms since the start of school this year.  When the school year starts, we tend to get into a daily rhythm.  The classroom can be a hectic place with a hectic pace, and there is often precious little time to really reflect on what we are doing, how things are going, and if our classroom is is truly the place we desire it to be for our students and ourselves.  Winter break affords us a bit of time to intentionally think about these things without the demands of the classroom crowding our attention.

Resolutions are part of the new year for many people.  Exercise more, eat less, unplug, build that savings account.  These things are commonly resolved, and perhaps commonly forgotten a month or two later when everyday life has again started its familiar rhythm.  Resolutions, however, don’t just apply to one’s personal life.  When we take time to reflect on what is happening in our classrooms, many teachers make some professional resolutions as well.  I have teacher friends who fall into two camps in this regard.  Some teachers I know, after reflecting on the year thus far, are ready to make big changes.  This might come in the form of a new way to manage reading or math instruction, or a completely different strategy to help with classroom management and discipline.  Other teachers can’t imagine making huge changes like that in the middle of the year.  They prefer tweaking small things, like adding a new comprehension strategy they read about, using some new mentor texts, or incorporating new writing mini-lessons. Profession resolutions still, only on a smaller scale.

No matter which camp you might fall in regarding resolutions for the rest of the school year, one thing is certain: Reflecting on our classroom and classroom practices over winter break is time well spent. I decided to start this blog in part because I have seen the benefits of taking the time to reflect on life, inside and outside the classroom.  However, merely reflecting on our practice is not enough.  We need to take those reflections and use them to improve our professional practice in our classrooms. Over the life of this blog, I will be sharing ideas and tools that can help you as you seek to make intentional changes based on your reflections, not just at the new year, but throughout the year.


One take on the new year’s resolution that I will be doing this year is My One Word. The idea of My One Word is to narrow down your life plans for the coming year to a single focus, a single word. You can read more about it here. I pondered over what word to choose, thinking about where I am in my life at this moment, personally and professionally.  The word I have chosen for my year is Learn.  I want to use this year to learn-about myself, my profession, about life and living it to the fullest personally and professionally. My hope is that this blog one way that I can do that.  What about you?  Have you made a resolution?  Have you chosen one word to represent your focus for the coming year? If so, please leave a comment sharing it.  I look forward to hearing from you.