I have a few students who are very challenging this year. I’ve been unable to get through to them. The old tricks aren’t working. My principal has been supportive. The parents aren’t blaming me or the school; they’re doing what they can. But for these students, it has not been a successful year. In fact, it’s been disastrous. And it leaves me feeling like a failure at the end of many days, which makes it difficult to get up and beat my head into that wall again the next day. I’ve been looking for ways to feel like less of a failure, and here is what I’ve tried so far with moderate success:
When I think of my class, most of my thoughts drift to those students who are struggling behaviorally. This is expected. In order to hold things together, I spend most of my day focusing on them, so it’s not surprising that when I lie in bed at night or prepare for work in the morning I think of them. The thoughts are almost always negative, which is a really bad mindset to have. So one strategy I’ve used is taking inventory. I go through my class list and assess how each student is doing in school. It’s a subjective exercise, but I try to be as honest as I can. Most are having a good year. A few perform inconsistently. Only three are having big problems. Looking at things this way makes me feel like less of a failure.
Forcing Myself to Focus on Positives
The reality is that most of each day is conflict-free and most students have very few problems. Most do their work. Most have positive attitudes. Most treat others respectfully. The incidents that cause me to feel like a failure are rare, but because they’re disruptive, stressful, and often emotional, they are sometimes the only parts of the day I remember.
So instead of thinking about only those students who don’t seem to be improving, I think of some that obviously have. Like the student who started the year not willing to try, but makes an attempt now. Or the kid who couldn’t control his temper, but hasn’t had an explosion in weeks. There are success stories, and acknowledging them is a good way to counter self-doubt.
In my book Exhausted, I discuss one strategy teachers can employ to use less willpower, and therefore conserve energy lost because of the body’s stress response. Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment is well known in education circles. It’s often cited as evidence of the importance of self-control. But Mischel was interested in how students distracted themselves from temptation. And the lessons he learned from the kids apply here. When we focus our attention on negatives, we feel stress. We can reduce this stress by distracting ourselves. The kids in the marshmallow experiment covered their faces, turned to the wall, sang to themselves, and looked at their shoes. They did what they could to ignore the marshmallow.
I’ve tried doing this with my challenging students. Sometimes, their actions are cries for attention. I play into their hands by giving it to them when they make poor choices. And I also stress myself out and feel like a failure. Instead of noticing and reacting to their every misdeed, I focus elsewhere, calling attention to students doing the right thing.
Not Accepting Responsibility For Others’ Choices
My job is to make expectations clear, to be consistent with consequences, to build relationships, and to try to make my classroom a place where kids want to be. If I’ve done those things, students will make better choices. At least, that’s the theory. In reality, some poor student choices have nothing to do with me. This year, I’ve had to remind myself that once I’ve done my job, it’s on them. Each student is responsible for her choices. If they make bad ones, they alone should suffer the consequences.
I wrote more about this here: The Best and Worst Lie Teachers Tell Themselves
Embracing the Challenge
I made a huge mistake at the start of this year. I had a fantastic class last year. I left work with plenty of energy, enough that I started this blog and published two books. I started to feel like I really knew what I was doing, that the success I felt at school was because I was a more skilled teacher than I had previously been. I thought I’d finally figured this thing out, and that from here on out things would be clear sailing.
I forgot a really important truth about teaching: It’s damn hard.
And what makes it hard are students who don’t show up to school with everything they need. You know, the ones who actually need me.
I also need them. My challenging students are there to stretch me as a professional. They provide me with the opportunity to try new things. They force me to adapt, to leave my comfort zone, and try new things. And although most of what I’ve tried this year with those students hasn’t worked, I will show up tomorrow and try something else. I’ll look for incremental improvement, any sign that I’m making an impact. It is those moments, few and far between as they may be, that will help me feel like less of a failure.
Remembering the Past
These are not the only challenging students I’ve had the last 18 years. Far from it. It helps to recall former students who made me feel like a failure. There have been a fair number. I survived every one of them, and I became a stronger teacher because of the experiences. These students and their challenges will not be the last of my career. When I think about going back to work tomorrow or returning day after day for the next twelve or more years, I recall a favorite quote by Marcus Aurelius: “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”