Friday, April 20, 2012

When Teaching Gets Tough:

Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game

By Allen N. Mendler 

Chapter 1. The Big Picture: Attitudes and Strategies

If you want your life to be a magnificent story, then begin by realizing that you are the author and every day you have the opportunity to write a new page.
Mark Houlahan
I was recently consulting at an inner-city middle school and was asked to visit Ms. R's class, which was identified as one of the toughest. Apparently, the day before, she was practically reduced to tears due to their noncompliant behavior. Expecting the worst, I was surprised to find the students relatively well behaved. Many were involved in the interesting video of tornadoes that began the day's lesson, and then were very animated when the metaphor of an angry mother representing a tornado was presented by Ms. R. Kids talked openly about their relationships with their mothers, some expressing lots of love, others telling about how they boss their mothers around, while still others talked about preferring to be swept up by a real tornado rather than facing an angry mom.

About 35 minutes into the 45-minute period, Ms. R somehow connected the lesson to how she was feeling right then and expressed her delight at their positive behavior throughout the day's class. She told them that she actually felt like crying at the joy she was feeling. She then told them how different yesterday was, being very open about how upset she felt and how, as she left school the day before, she wondered why she even bothered to teach. As she went on with this for a few minutes, you could hear a pin drop in the classroom. Every single student was completely mesmerized by what they were hearing. A few minutes after she finished, some of her more difficult students began to revert back to their irritating behaviors.

Attitudes Are as Important as Strategies

The point of this story is that attitudes are at least as important as strategies when you are in difficult situations. Perhaps the two most important attitudes for teachers are:

  1. Live each day as if there is no tomorrow
  2. Understand that change is a roller-coaster ride

I observe many committed teachers lose their enthusiasm for teaching because they don't take it one day at a time. If you have a particularly difficult class or you are surrounded by too many toxic colleagues, it is easy to get discouraged and depressed if you start thinking about the many tomorrows that are ahead. Nobody in the midst of stress wants to think about how there are still six months left to the school year or 25 years to go until retirement. Teachers need every ounce of positive energy and enthusiasm they can muster.

If things are tough, you might begin to think about other life options for yourself or apply for other jobs. Keep the door open to change, but approach each day as if there is no tomorrow. Only then will you have the grounding to live in the moment without being emotionally scarred with what happened yesterday. Take a second and look around. Volunteer with Special Olympics or Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Get outside your own little world and realize that while things are difficult right now, overall you have your summers off, never work weekends or holidays, have a very nice pension, and are blessed to have a career where you can drastically influence and change lives every day. As columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. writes (2011), "Get done what you came here to do, give the gifts you meant to give, do the good you're able to do, say what you need to say, now, today, because everything you see is temporary, the clock is ticking and the alarm could go off any second." Teach with BEEP—belief, energy, emotion, and passion every single day, as if it were your last on this beautiful Earth. Finally, realize that changing behaviors is almost always very difficult. It is a roller coaster ride of ups, downs, loops, and corkscrews. For the teacher, it is like being on the roller coaster blindfolded. Rarely do we know when the twists and turns will come. Virtually all people, including you and your kids, revisit old behaviors as they are acquiring new ones. It is quite likely that Ms. R's kids who started acting out after hearing her touching story were saying, "Don't expect me to be good always just because I've been good today. I'm not ready to be good always."


The wonderful and highly effective FISH! program that guides employees at the Pike Market in Seattle, Washington, emphasizes four primary attitudes when treating customers and coworkers. Unlike any other store that sells fish, this one is special. For me, spending time in a store that sells fish would not normally be a priority. Yet this market is a fun place to be. Although it looks and smells like a fish market, it feels more like a playground for adults.

Customers not only come to buy fish, but also see the market as a fun place to hang out. As described in the book FISH! Tales (Lundin, Christensen, Paul, & Strand, 2002), the fish philosophy is all about how employees should treat customers: choose your attitude, play, make their day, and be present. I believe these same attitudes are at the core of successful and satisfied teachers. The best teachers view their students as the most important customers they have.
Although most of the book is about strategies, we begin with attitudes since attitudes are the fuel that makes the engine go.

1. Play

Employees at Pike are encouraged, and in fact required, to have fun with each other and with their customers. It is not uncommon for employees to be cracking tasteful jokes and playfully tossing fish to customers and each other. They make time to play, bringing energy and fun along with commitment to the job.

At the Longaberger Company, a maker of handcrafted baskets and other home products in Newark, Ohio, there is an unwritten policy that employees are to take up to 25 percent of each work day having fun. If this practice was implemented in school, at least one and a half hours every day would be primarily about fun. When I interviewed a few employees to confirm this practice, one of them told me that when management tells employees that that they are having too much fun, it is not uncommon for an employee to answer, "I'm just getting in my 25 percent." Morale seems very upbeat there. Children do not question whether they should have fun; they just do it. Yet, if you ask one of your friends to do something just for fun, you are likely to hear, "I wish I could, but I'm too busy." Like an elite athlete who is not only talented in what he does but also loves doing it, satisfied teachers find ways to enjoy what they are doing and will often create their own fun. Look for ways to inject fun into as many things as you can while you teach. Laugh with your kids. Enjoy their quirky ups and downs. Revel in their youth, dreams, and naiveté.

2. Make their day

Employees are expected to take good care of their customers so they will want to come back. Within reason, employees do whatever they can to please the customer. Naturally, there are limitations. If customers come looking for produce in a fish market, they have to be redirected. Satisfied teachers know that their most important customer is the student. When students feel fulfilled, it makes our job a lot easier. Try to make everyone you come into contact with want to be around you. Take the advice of the noted business guru, Stephen Covey in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and create an "emotional bank account" in which you "give before you get" (1989, p. 188). Ask yourself about everyone with whom you interact: how can I make their day? How can I make this person's life better? Because you are an excellent teacher, you likely do this naturally with most people anyway, but when our batteries are low, we tend to become more self-absorbed. It can help to think about a store or place you love to be. What happens that makes you want to be there? How do the people treat you? For most of us, the most important thing is to feel that others care about us. They notice us through a kind word or caring gesture, letting us know that we matter to them. Often, just some simple acknowledgment that lets each one know that you think he or she is special does the trick. A friendly greeting can go a long way. Making their day will usually make yours!

3. Be there

Employees are expected to be fully present: physically, emotionally, and behaviorally, tuning out distractions unrelated to their work so they are aware of what their customers are saying, thinking, and feeling throughout the day. One more quality is required for greatness as a teacher: passion. It is important to love what you teach and teach what you love so that your knowledge and energy comes as much from your heart as it does from your head. Passion inspires learning. By the time it is fifth period or later in the day, it is understandable that your energy might naturally be lower. So it may require a conscious effort to be on your game as much then as you were earlier in the day. More importantly, be there for yourself by appreciating what you are doing—even on days when no one else seems to care. Most days, you are the best person to congratulate yourself on a job well done. Recognize what you need and figure out the best way to get it. Try to remember that others are probably struggling even more than you are to feel good about what they are doing and about themselves. Therefore, they may not be giving you the support you need.

4. Choose your attitude

While events that happen are often beyond our control, how we react to the events is almost always within our control. This was evident during one of my visits to the fish market. An unsuspecting patron was hit in the face by a flying tuna. The worker/thrower was mortified as the customer cupped her face in her hands. After a few tense seconds, her hands lowered to show a face hysterically laughing. "I didn't know you guys actually throw the fish! That is so awesome. Trust me, I will be ready next time," she said. The attitude this woman chose made what would have been a tense situation into a laugh fest.

How do you react when an unsuspecting cuss word or incomplete homework assignment hits you in the face? Each and every one of us decides the attitude we take in every situation. We can and sometimes do blame others, events, or circumstances, but at the end of the day, we are the masters of our own fate. If you are up at 6:00 a.m. and feeling groggy, you can choose to be grumpy about it or you can get over it and remind yourself how lucky you are to have your health and the myriad of other fortunes that are easy to take for granted. Earlier, I wrote that one aspect of being a great teacher is performing or playing a role. Sometimes performers must act out a role even if it is not how they are really feeling. Sometimes this is necessary! Do you smile or scold when a student walks in late? Do you laugh or yell when a student calls you a name? Realize you don't always have to feel a certain way to act a certain way. We can choose how to be with our students, colleagues, and parents, no matter who they are or what they do. For example, try smiling even when you don't feel like it. You might notice that what you do can change the feelings you have. We can sometimes bring the emotion along by changing our behavior rather than waiting for the feeling to change. Attitudes can change feelings. You can choose to see someone as stubborn or strong-willed, lazy or easy-going, belligerent or persistent, threatening or challenging. The lens we look through determines what we see and affects how we react. Great leaders are able to rally people to a better future.

Teachers' Attitudes

There is a good likelihood that if you have been a successful teacher with a feeling of fulfillment, the above four attitudes are a reflection of who you are. You are either built this way or you have learned well from others. Your success can be attributed to the fact that teaching has enabled you to be playful and present for your students. Although things haven't always gone your way, you have felt in charge of who you are and what you do. Your greatest satisfaction has come from seeing the glow on the face of the kid who finally gets it, the relief from the burdened student who trusts you enough to confide in you, and the fun you experience when you go to your place of work realizing that an important part of your job requires you to think, feel, and sometimes even act like a kid. Just as likely, if there are growing doubts about whether teaching remains the right career for you, one or more of these attitudes is being chipped away by people, events, or circumstances that may or may not be directly within your control. Keep in mind that changes in behavior often precede changes in beliefs, attitudes, habits, and expectations (Kotter & Cohen, 2002; Fullan, 2007). As noted by Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, and Switzler (2008), the change process begins by asking, "In order to improve our existing situation, what must people actually do? (p. 26)" A good place to start reclaiming your enthusiasm is to recognize how your thoughts, expectations, or behaviors are getting in the way and then figure out what you can actually do to change them.

Four Major Challenges and Strategies to Deal with Them

After my many years of observing, counseling, and advising teachers, four major issues stand out as factors that lead to teacher dissatisfaction. Each section of the book addresses one of these challenges. All contain problem-solving and coping strategies to keep you energized or reawaken your BEEP (belief, energy, enthusiasm, passion).

1. Difficult, disruptive, or unmotivated students with or without a sense of entitlement

By far, the most frequent complaint among teachers is disruptive or unmotivated students. Effectiveness as a teacher and feelings of satisfaction can often be derived by focusing on six factors:

  • Relationship
  • Relevance
  • Responsibility
  • Success
  • Safety
  • Fun

The more you are guided by these six characteristics in your curriculum and in your interpersonal moments with students, staff, and parents, the better your chances are of having motivated and well–behaved students. Because teachers spend the bulk of their time with students, when students want to learn and want to behave, most teachers feel fulfilled and are happier. Although it is not the only cause of burnout, without question, unruly, unmotivated students is the number one cause for most teachers. Because of this, many strategies (which I will explain in Chapter 2) focus on how to deal with difficult students and manage your classroom most effectively. Chapter 2 also provides practical strategies to make your classroom a place where both you and your students want to be.

2. Little support and appreciation from colleagues, administrators, and parents

There are few tangible external rewards available to teachers. Virtually all teachers make the same money and receive the same benefits, which are based on seniority rather than merit. It is amazing that even the best teachers are rarely noticed by administrators, thanked by parents, appreciated by colleagues, or recognized by their pupils for the myriad of things they do to enrich the lives of their students. In fact, those teachers who become the best at working with the hardest to reach students are often rewarded by being given even more such students with no more support or resources. If that wasn't enough, too often adults who should be supportive and appreciative are irritating and blaming. You will learn how to seek support from others, but more importantly how to provide your own self-nourishment regardless of the environment around you. Chapter 3 contains strategies to defuse hostile parents, colleagues, and administrators.

3. Lack of resources to do the job most effectively

Availability of resources varies by school and by district, with wealthier schools usually having an abundance of the best supplies and materials while less wealthy schools often struggle to provide updated textbooks to students. In some schools, it is not unusual for teachers to change classrooms each period, making it extremely difficult to keep organized. Some schools have a bright, cheery feel of openness due to updated construction, sun-splashed vaulted ceilings and brightly decorated walls, while others look like condemned institutions.

One of the challenges some of us face is how to access more materials when we need them and how to brighten a dreary environment. Additional resources for teaching are often best secured through enhanced professional development opportunities. Like great doctors, great teachers need continuous training to keep abreast of the latest pedagogical methods and technological advances. Yet with schools always subject to the vagaries of the larger economy, professional development is one of the first things to go when budgets are tight. Complicating matters, the presence of inane policies and unrealistic expectations are often enough to drive away some of our best. Chapter 4 explores how to secure the best resources you can and survive the rancor of misguided policies, procedures, and expectations that can steer even the best teachers off course and make them want to throw in the towel.

4. Inability or unwillingness to make yourself a priority

There is only so much that individual teachers can do to change the system or other people. It may be human nature to think that the "grass is always greener." However, when we get up close to the other side, we often realize that the grass is just as green or brown there as it was in the place we just left. There are certainly exceptions, but if you are good at what you do yet you are feeling stressed out or disillusioned, it may be that teaching is a great fit for you, but you need to take better care of yourself.

Great teachers are notoriously good at nurturing others but not necessarily good at nurturing themselves. A top-notch teacher needs to take top-notch care of herself to remain top-notch. This can be accomplished through physical exercise, better nutrition, and healthy activities that can calm your mind. Fortunately, there is much you can do to enliven and reawaken your own spirits that is largely independent of your surroundings. Chapter 5 offers healthful activities for the mind and attitude adjustment strategies that will help keep you level-headed and emotionally responsive even when you can't directly change the people or circumstances around you.

The book is designed for each of the subsequent chapters to stand on its own. You do not have to read one to benefit from another. So move about depending on what you suspect is the biggest obstacle to satisfaction for you and explore, learn, and practice those strategies. For example, if you primarily find yourself dissatisfied over a lack of support from colleagues or administrators, go right to Chapter 3.

Questions for Reflection

  1. If the road to satisfaction is choose your attitude, play, make their day, and be present, on a scale of 1–5, where do you rank on each measure?
  2. What are the obstacles at school or in your mind that prevent you from moving in the direction of any or all of these attitudes? Can you think of any ways to address these obstacles?
  3. If there was one new thing that you had to do tomorrow to further fulfill each attitude, what would it be?
  4. Four main issues have been identified as the leading cause of stress and burnout for teachers. On a scale of 1–5, rank each issue according to how you are affected by it.
    1. Disruptive/Unmotivated students
      Not a problem 1---- 2---- 3---- 4---- 5 Source of great stress
    2. Lack of appreciation from colleagues, administrators, and parents
      Not a problem 1---- 2---- 3---- 4---- 5 Source of great stress
    3. Inadequate resources
      Not a problem 1---- 2---- 3---- 4---- 5 Source of great stress
    4. Lack of attention to yourself
      Not a problem 1---- 2---- 3---- 4---- 5 Source of great stress

Your responses to this informal survey can give you a good idea about where to go within the book for strategies and ideas. Obviously, the higher the source of personal stress this issue is for you, the more likely you will be to benefit from the strategies in the section that addresses the issue.

Key Chapter Thoughts

  • Live each day as if there is no tomorrow and understand that change for you and others is a roller coaster ride.
  • Play and have fun. For example, try smiling even when you don't feel like it. Make a point of saying or doing at least one thing you enjoy each period.
  • If you strive to make their day fulfilling, there is a really good chance that you will make your own day satisfying.
  • Be there. It may require a conscious effort to be more on your game with some of your students, classes, parents, colleagues, and administrators. It is ultimately worth the effort. More importantly, be there for yourself by appreciating what you are doing even on days when no one else seems to care.
  • Choose your attitude. The lens we look through determines what we see and affects how we react.

For the Administrator

Ours is a people business. With all the talk about the need for high standards, a challenging curriculum, relevant instruction, 21st century skills, professional learning communities, and innovation through technology, running an effective school is about establishing a climate where teachers want to teach and students want to learn. It is people who bring about change for better or worse, and your best teachers are already making things happen. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't want or expect your best teachers to get even better. As new approaches develop to help students learn at high levels, even the best teachers will need to embrace change. However, the last thing you want is for the latest mandate, initiative, or vision to be a source of irritation and stress. Since your best teachers already have what it takes, your goal should be figuring out ways to get more teachers to act like them.

When there is a desire or mandate for a new initiative, think about ways your best teachers can get behind this initiative with the same verve and skill they bring to their classrooms. Realize that new initiatives should be presented, initiated, and evaluated while furthering the four key attitudes among your best teachers and hopefully awakening these same attitudes in those less capable: choose your attitude, play, make their day, be present. As the school leader, you should encourage all teachers to behave in ways that reflect these four attitudes in order to establish or reinforce a school climate that provides the energy and creativity essential to the teaching-learning process.

When change is on the horizon, give your best teachers a "heads-up." I have noticed that it is often the best teachers who are most bothered by mandated curricula or schedule changes. Sometimes they simply disagree with what has changed, but more often they are resentful at having had no say. To paraphrase Saphier (2005), virtually never will they disagree with goals that articulate a crystal clear curriculum that includes a compact list of learning intentions and success criteria. They may have issues pertaining to curriculum content, the specifics of the learning goals, or how to best measure mastery. Seek their involvement and their ideas about how implementation can best happen with the least amount of disruption. If there is disagreement, uncertainty, or confusion, provide clarification. Kotter and Cohen (2002) point out, "In a change effort, culture comes last, not first" (p. 175). Culture changes after people change. The more you can get your best teachers behind a new initiative, the more likely this initiative will become a permanent part of the school's fabric.

Copyright © 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. No part of this publication—including the drawings, graphs, illustrations, or chapters, except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles—may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system , without permission from ASCD.

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