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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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Karen Johnson's picture

I agree Martin. Many of us try to do everything while others are very good at drawing their boundary lines and saying no. Somehow, it's often the teachers without tons of grading and/or high stakes testing who draw the lines so well.

One of the changes that needs to happen in education is that language arts teachers must get smaller class sizes and more time to "prep." We are asked to be on every committee--especially those to do with curriculum--because we are knowledgeable and articulate.

PE teachers have huge classes and management issues, but they go home after school, do not have endless meetings with parents and specialists, and if they coach after hours they are paid for it. No one is watching the elective teachers closely because no one cares or tests how well the kids learn.

I see English language arts teachers giving up - either literally (retiring, leave of absence, changing careers or subjects) because it's too difficult and disheartening.

I am one of the naturally happiest people around and I LOVE teaching middle school, but I am already behind and losing my joy. Couple that with change after change, a lack of understanding from others and a lack of respect, and I foresee a time soon of a revolving door of ELA teachers where no one spends the time to get good at it.

Perhaps changes should be made before we lose all the critical teachers who give a care.

Karen Johnson's picture

Oh, and did I mention we are paid the same as other teachers with much smaller workloads? That's one reform that definitely needs to happen.

Don't pay based solely on education and seniority. Teachers of different subjects should be paid differently. Teachers in poorer districts should be paid more. How about a small stipend for each Sped, ELL, 504, and even low SES student in a class? How about a stipend for each additional student after say, 125?

And what if we have no one in administration who hasn't been a classroom teacher of a core class?

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Such an important issue!! In the research I did for my book, WHEN TEACHING GETS TOUGH (ASCD), one of the best practices I came across was from a midwestern company that REQUIRES its employees to have fun 25% of the time every day. If teachers applied this principle, that would amount to fifteen minutes every hour, more than a day every week and forty five full school days every year. Imagine how that would affect the positivity equation!!!

Tricia's picture
Middle School Reading Teacher


Thank you so much for this post about staying positive in the classroom. I know myself well enough to know that although I am an optimist by nature (much to the chagrin of those around me at times) I am also a workaholic. The tendency to stay at school all hours of the day and night, constantly planning, replanning, and fine tuning my lessons and assessments, serving on multiple committees and PLCs and the "millions" of other things I am responsible for every day can tend to wear me very thin. I was very glad to see that one of the things you recommended for remaining positive is remembering to think about things before taking on additional tasks. It is also very, VERY encouraging to be reminded that it is alright to say "No" every now and again, especially to those things that I am not thrilled about doing.

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

Heather, this post is bringing up such an important topic. Teacher morale is just as important to school culture as the curriculum, the students, and any other aspect of education. We all go into teaching because we love it. Not for the money, not for the glory. We love educating young minds and being a guide and role model. However, teacher burnout and negativity is a real problem.

There are resources out there like FuelEd: http://fueledschools.com/wordpress/

But we also need to stick together and be supportive of one another, as others were saying on this post. And most importantly, we need to stay on top of how we are feeling. Saying "no" is important when we're feeling bogged down. Taking a break when necessary. Asking for help from others. We may feel superhuman sometimes, but in actuality we are still human beings who have the same needs as others. It's important to remember that we can't do it all and we need to be okay with that.

Catherine O'Brien's picture
Catherine O'Brien
I teach sustainable happiness.

I recently offered a workshop on sustainable happiness to teachers. The aim of the workshop was to introduce them to the concept, provide opportunities for them to explore it for themselves and then share the free resource that they can use to teach health education outcomes with sustainable happiness (linking happiness, wellbeing and sustainability). I asked the teachers what brought them to the workshop. All of them said they were there to learn about happiness for themselves. They realize that they need to focus on their own happiness and wellbeing in order to be a positive educator. I'm really interested in hearing from other educators what they feel would be the best methods for supporting the happiness and wellbeing of teachers. Is it a book, a listserve, online course, professional learning circle? As I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps Edutopia could create heading specifically for teacher wellbeing for all of us to share insights and resources.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

Hi Catherine, thanks for the suggestion. We're working on a redesign of the Edutopia site that will hopefully address this need. In a nutshell, we plan to organize blogs, videos, resources, and discussions around topics, and you can learn more about what we're doing here:


I can't promise a Happiness topic, but there will almost certainly be a Teacher Burnout one.

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

"Fantasyland" is a great place to visit, but you can't avoid getting a "Reality Check" in the day-to-day execution of your duties.

Many get "sucked in" with #8 because the morale of the staff is poor, since the administration couldn't care less about staff morale. #7 - Some of us have battles that have to be fought every, single day. We HAVE to fight for enough textbooks for the students, we HAVE to fight to get a regular classroom and not be forced to "float" every year. No, I shouldn't have 33-35 in my class while a teacher next door has 12. There's ANOTHER fight.

#6 & #5 - Hard to do when there's an entrenched atmosphere of jealousy and hatred among the staff. And if there's the introduction of "merit pay," why should I share ideas I've developed so that someone else steal them, use them during their observation, and then falsely paint a picture that they're a better teacher than someone else?

#4 you do the best you can, but if your administration is constantly piling on your work load and then using that as a measure of your evaluation, it makes it mighty tough.

#2 is IMPOSSIBLE to achieve when the staff thrives on hate and gossip.

That reduces #1 (What you love about education) down to 3:00 everyday, holidays, and summers off. You teacher your schedule and then GO HOME the minute you're allowed to leave. Leaving your door open at lunch to socialize works if you're in a school where they don't yell obscenities at teachers, throw something in their room and run, vandalize your car, steal your record book (or laptop) with the grades, that sort of stuff.

Sometimes, rather than searching for some positive that's nonexistent, it's better to just treat it like a job. Punch in to start the day, put your time in, and clock out the first available minute you're able to.....and stop looking for a "Goodbye Mr. Chips" ending. It's NOT reality.

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

Hey David,
I felt compelled to comment as I was drawn in by your experiences. In fact, it might come as a surprise that I recognize them as well. My post is meant to not only give advice, but to also acknowledge the loss of this teacher's positivity as something with which I emphasize. I may have a different state of mind, but I can't blame her for her shut down. I merely reflect on how to avoid it, and I have vowed that when I feel that way, I find a different path, a different place for my abilities.

Easier said than done, I know. I know also that every school has its teachers who, as you say, are vindictive or who thrive on the smog of gossip. But I also know that every school has teachers who still feel the calling and still feel the excitement of seeing lightbulbs go off over kids' heads.

As for the students, well, the environment that you speak of is a reality. Anyone would be a fool to pretend that it wasn't. However, it isn't every school's reality. Nevertheless, it does exist out there, and far more than the politicos know. However, I must push back and say that even when I taught in one of those schools early in my career, there were still those kids who looked forward to class everyday, if only for an escape from their own reality.

Thank you for commenting. It's really important that even while we talk about what works in education, it's just as vital to clear the glass and look through an accurate lens. This post reflects my reality; and I hope it can help you through yours.

I've been there, and I really feel for you.

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

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