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Teachers: Staying Positive in Trying Times

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She was a mentor. She was an innovator. She was a fighter for students, academic rigor, and achievement. I use the past tense not because my colleague has passed away but because her positivity has. And in so doing, administrators have lost a mediator, the staff has lost colleague, and the students have lost a guide.

All staffs are made up of great teachers, good teachers, indifferent teachers, teachers who are in progress, and teachers who should have never been kept on. Versions of these categories are in every industry. But there is also another category of teacher: the one whose heart was in the job, but who had that heart broken after years of professional disappointment. I have, for the first time, been witness to that de-evolution from start to finish.

The De-Evolution of Positivity

This woman spent years building up her own knowledge, pushing herself to learn more and more. She is brilliant in her knowledge of educational technology, has multiple credentials, and has earned multiple degrees, all in the name of lifelong learning. She made an impact on many, but her impact wasn't enough to keep her heart aloft through years of deflated morale. Her talents were never tapped or appreciated.

Her spirit died because of the problems that feel insurmountable: the budget, the villainization of teachers, the over-emphasis on testing. And as the federal government gets muddled about their mission, so do schools. The government dictates blander directives and schools feel the pressure to replace innovation with standardized scripts. And it's chipping away at our sanity.

Since her positivity collapse, she has closed her door to helping other teachers. And while I know that she is still teaching her heart out with her students, doing what she can with so little, I also know that unhappiness trickles down to the students whether we want it to or not. I don't blame her. Teachers are bruised and our bones are broken fighting for the minimum to do our job. But I do wish we could have helped her before her heart's demise.

Keeping Optimism and Hope Alive

Now, while Edutopia is about honesty, it is also about solutions. We are not just an online corner in which to vent our frustrations. We are a community of educators seeking to make improvements in both the system and our practice. So in her honor, and in the hopes that we catch others like her before they hit a place where smiles are in drought, I wanted to post a short list of advice in how to preserve happiness even in these difficult times.

1. Pinpoint what you love about education and live in it. I love the kids. So I open my door during my lunch and spend more time with them. I hate the paperwork. So I've devised ways to lessen my load. For one thing, I've gone paperless, and as a symptom, my learning curve keeps me distracted from the scholastic smog.


2. Find others who can offer solutions, not just an ear. We need people who will listen when we are down. But being an ear doesn't solve the problems, and it's important to surround yourself with colleagues who push you to think in new, innovative ways.

3. Pick and choose the news you read. I'm not telling you to cut off your supply of news stories and bloggers and headlines. I am suggesting that you ask yourself if you need a barrage of educational news all the time. And what quality is that news? Is it always reporting the negative? Is it a feed that only vents or one that inspires forward movement? There's a difference, after all. Pick the feeds that help you, not those who only serve to stoke your anger.

4. Know your limits. Know how big your plate is and protect its edges. You need to say yes sometimes, but you also have the right to say, "so what's coming off my plate if I take this on?" You can at least ask before you say no.

5. Never close your door to collaboration. You know how they say that moving elderly people into the hospital can quicken their demise? Closing your door to colleagues is rather like that. The act begins to deteriorate your ability to see the good. When you close the door, you are moving access to positive practices into hospice care.

6. Be supportive of one another. That means you shouldn't add to the smog of negativity or help propel the riot mentality of anger that can be ever-present in a staff lounge. Instead, it means helping a new teacher or answering an email asking for advice. Helping others also helps you. You'll feel better at the end of the day if you've spent it being neighborly to other teachers.

7. Pick your battles. I'm not saying, "don't fight." Of course we fight. But know what you're fighting about, and make sure it's something that you can rebound emotionally from, or you risk losing yourself.

8. Don't get sucked in. As we watch some of our colleagues down sad and angry paths, try to help them, but also find those who haven't gone there yet. Smiles will help keep you aloft, even if the solutions to greater problems are still in progress.

Look, I know that shutting down is a sort of peaceful demonstration. If we as teachers didn't shut down when lines were crossed, if we permit stakeholders to assume that we will always keep the boat afloat even when they take away our deck, you're right. We will continue to be taken advantage of. But we need to find ways to be happy in our day-to-day lives. We need to find ways to continue to support one another and to maintain our positivity.

During a hard day, what gives you reason to smile?


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Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

Hi David,

It sounds like you've had a very negative experience, and I'm very sorry to hear about that. As I described below, teaching is difficult, exhausting, and draining. And depending on your situation, it can lead to a very negative experience as you may have had. However, teaching is not just a job for many people. It's their lives. It's what gets them out of bed every morning and keeps them smiling even through the trying times. I work to make a better future for our students, and I'm sure a lot of educators feel the same.

There are ways to reconnect with why you became a teacher in the first place, and I hope that perhaps through reflection and some personal time you may be able to find this. But of course, not everyone can overcome some of the trials of working in education, and I don't blame you or anyone for that. We're all different and we are all going to approach a situation differently. It's just important that you don't apply your situation to others and vice versa.

David Franklin's picture
David Franklin
HS English - Philadelphia area

Hi Becky.....

Thanks for your response. I absolutely know what it's like for those people that jump out of bed in the morning, excited about what they're going to every, single day. I've even used sick days (not often, but periodically) to substitute teach a day in one of those districts where the students conduct themselves in a respectable manner, actually try, are not jumping around with joy because they got a D- for the marking period (which means they met the bare minimum and passed - and that's all they're interested in), among other things. Believe me, what those teachers are experiencing are the reasons I got into education in the first place. I don't have to reflect to remember why I became a teacher in the first place.....that's it. What I've spent most of my career doing, is NOT it.

After more than 20 years of this, I just have to treat it as a job and get through until I qualify for retirement, I have too much invested in the system now. If I approach it any other way, it's just day-after-day of disappointment heaped upon more disappointment.

Thanks again!

David Franklin's picture
David Franklin
HS English - Philadelphia area

Hi Heather.....

Thanks for your response. I just finished putting a reply together to Becky which addresses some of which you discuss, so I'll try not to repeat myself here.

I wish we had a segment of the student population that showed the enthusiasm you mention with regard to excitement for class and the "lightbulbs." I think a description that often escapes description in educational analysis is that teachers feed off of that energy that kids like that generate. How do teachers make it through 180 +/- days a year for 35 years? .....the energy from the students. When you have kids that get interested and excited, it drives teachers.

When you have 35 kids per class and they all ask, "Well, what's the LEAST I have to do to pass?" ....it just drains you. When less that 10% of your senior class members go on to further their education every year.....it just drains you. When you see statistical reports that 10% of THAT 10% just make it to their second year of post-secondary education.........it just drains you. Well, you get the idea.

Thank you again, I really appreciate you taking the time to get back to me. I hope this didn't go on too long, but I just felt you more than deserved an answer to your well thought-out commentary.


Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi David!
I live in the suburbs of Philly, so I hear daily what's going on in the city, and know from Chris Lehmann how tough things are in general. We have issues here as well, with money being tight and teachers feeling undervalued.
As a parent, nothing saddens me more than for teaching to become more about the assembly line and less about the joy of learning. I get that at this point, you need to do what you need to do to stay sane, but I can't help but asking is that what the kids deserve? Do they feel that you kind of are past the point of caring or investing any more of yourself in the job, and does than exacerbate the issues on some level?
That said, it's unconscionable what's been happening in Philly especially in terms of what's happening in Harrisburg, and the recent death of a girl because there was no school nurse and her asthma attack ended up being more serious than thought. http://practicaltheory.org/blog/2013/10/10/dear-gov-corbett-how-many-kid...

Is there anything that the community can do to help support teachers? Are you in a school where the parents may be more of the problem than a cure? Are there any other ways to address the problem, or can we head off the problem in other schools where teachers may simply being on the verge of giving up caring any more?

David Franklin's picture
David Franklin
HS English - Philadelphia area

Hi Whitney.....

Thank you for your comments.

The parents are a huge part of the problem. When you get a single-digit turn-out for conferences and "Back to School Nights" out of 165 students each semester, that tells you they're a problem. When you call to let them know about their son's/daughter's conduct in class and roughly 40% of them tell you, "Don't call me again about this!" and the other 60% "Uh-huh" you but there's no change, they're a problem.

It's a systemic problem. Whether they perceive that I care about them or not, they don't care. School is a social gathering place for the students and a babysitting service for their parents - and that's it.

Everything is backwards. Where you and I dreaded the idea of losing our summer vacation and the embarrassment of having to attend summer school when we were kids, they relish it. "I get a chance to see my friends!" and "I can get the same credit in 6 weeks for a lot less work than I would have to do if I tried in 40 +/- weeks of school," they tell me. They know how to play the system to their advantage.

I've had principals that have graduated kids that have failed all of their classes their senior year. The kids know that. They know we've been told that we'd BETTER have so many "A's," "B's," "C's".....etc. in each class we teach. So....why should they even try? As you're also in Pennsylvania, you know about the senior project requirement. We've had students caught red-handed plagiarizing their senior papers. Once notified, administration has told us they would take over the issue. They have............they've passed them.

Since schools are evaluated on things such as graduation rate, failure rate, and more, these administrators make sure that everything is presented in the best possible light to the state.

It's really way beyond what one person can do or how they are perceived.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi David!

Thanks for engaging here, and for talking about things openly I just wanted to message you and suggest one nugget I got from Rick Lavoie a number of years ago. Instead of calling parents with bad news, try calling with good news- when a kid is making progress (even slow progress) or otherwise does something great. heck, even I get nervous when there's a call from school, and always assume it is nothing but bad news and feel defensive- even if it turns out to be something as simple as arranging a meeting or volunteer hours! It might be enough to change up the script with kids who are trying, and encourage them to do more of the same. And the parents will never forget it either.

I'm sorry we can't wave a wand and make things better, but maybe we can find a few rays of light here and there and hope to foster those embers to make life a little brighter, even if only in a few spots.

Fingers crossed..

Katrica's picture
3rd grade teacher from Roselle, New Jersey


Thanks for the encouraging words. Often times we find ourselves slipping into a rut and don't know how to get out. I believe that the strategies that you have offered here will definitely help me to push forward and smile more.

Blaze's picture
Staff Training

Thank you so much for the advice. Teaching is consuming and the issues related to teaching can be difficult to deal with without doing some of the things that you mentioned. Reading this will help me take care of myself and also to take care of my colleagues as they try to manage the day to day lives.

Rhonda's picture
First grade teacher from South Carolina

Thank you for posting this. As I was reading and reflecting on my own day to day feelings and actions I realized that is a lot from this post that I could apply to myself. When I read #3 not only pick and choose the news we read, but also the "news" we hear from others. I know I often hear from someone I work with how bad the children are and how there is lack of administration ect. Sometimes you get caught up in all the "bad" talk that it sucks you in. I know I've tried to offer positive words and advice, but the truth is, some people do not want to hear it. I should choose carefully the people I listen to and spend time with. Thanks again for your post! It really made me think about some different things!

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

Hey Rhonda!
Thanks for your comment. You know, even those who we deem "negative" have value in our staff, but it just may not be in terms of promoting positivity. Friends and colleagues all serve different purposes. Know those that can help you develop your smile and those that don't. That doesn't mean you need to ditch those people totally; but it's important to know how their frown may corrupt your day.

Thanks again for chiming in, and I'm happy this gave you some new ways to think on your own day!


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