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Teachers: Staying Positive in Trying Times

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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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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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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Rae Pica's picture

This post and its many comments inspired a segment for Taboo, on the BAM Radio Network. The title is "Disillusioned and Teaching with a Broken Heart Because I Must," and commenter David Franklin is one of the panelists. The passion, thoughtful comments, and sage advice from all of the panelists make it worth a listen for those struggling with disillusionment. You can find it here:, or on iTunes here:

Jennifer's picture
High school teacher and department head

I enjoyed your blog. I work at a small private school with a ton of great parental involvement, yet we still have many of the same issues. Your eight "solutions" are right on the mark. I agree that we need to maintain a positive attitude regardless of what is going on around us. I find it useful to have a "mentor" regardless of how long you have been in the teaching profession. I am continually learning even after 15 years in the field.

DrEmilyKH's picture
School counselor

I remember feeling so beaten down and broken hearted!! I wish blogs like this existed back in those days...thank you for providing a place of encouragement for so many!! May God bless each and every one of you as we strive together in the noblest of all professions! For anyone who is interested, check out this book of encouragement and prayers for teachers and educators. All proceeds go to building schools - no profit goes to the author - me - I offer it as another tool of solidarity. You can preview it at and purchase it there or you can purchase it at If you get it through Tate, more money goes to building schools. Don't lose hope!!! I bump into former students who are succeeding in the world when I never could have imagined it would be possible for them! You are doing great work - even if you don't see the fruit of your labor! :)

Mrs. Brookins's picture
Mrs. Brookins
4th grade math teacher in FL

Me, too. I get sucked in, and become one of the negative people, if I'm not careful. Ironic that this post should be posted now. I'm in the process of raking off my plate, and NOT putting anything else on it. It's okay to say "no" every once in a while, even to those in a higher position than we are. We don't have to be mean about it--just firm.
Great post!

Mrs. Brookins's picture
Mrs. Brookins
4th grade math teacher in FL

So going paperless--I suppose that constitutes having a 1:1 classroom? Like several others have posted, lots of schools have subpar tech within the classroom. I'd still like to have less papers to keep up with (student assignments, so to speak). I'm thinking of creating worksheets, or even when I give out written assignments, to have the students do them first on a hard copy, then take about 5 minutes to log into Edmodo and input their answers in the "quiz" section. If it's multiple choice, it's already graded, and I see which question they answered incorrectly. While I "look" at all student work, I don't want to give a grade on all the work, and I certainly don't want to carry tons of papers only to have my coffee spilled on them ;)

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Kind of a weird analogy but I think this may work so bear with me :)

I do a lot of yoga and one thing we focus about a lot is learning to breathe through (and sometimes even enjoy) difficult poses. Sometimes, I find myself even smiling and you couldn't imagine the impact it's had on my overall attitude within yoga. I no longer dread the hard poses and focus all of my energy on when it's going to end -- in some weird way, I really enjoy them.

So..what the heck does this have to do with education? Sometimes, I think we need to enjoy life for its challenges. For me, I find it comforting to know that I have confidence in myself to navigate the many challenges of life (and in particular working within education) and I'm working on learning to even appreciate them.

I'll end with this quote that has given me strength:

"There is a saying in Tibetan, 'Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.' No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that's our real disaster." -- Dalai Lama XIV

Michele's picture
Middle School Math and Reading teacher

"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.:"

This is where I have worked very hard on improving myself as a teacher. It is very difficult for me to say "no".

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Michele, I think it's true that all caring people have a hard time saying no. At the same time, it's absolutely critical to learn to do so. I've seen too many wonderful people burn out, because they couldn't learn to say no.

Sophie's picture

This is my first year as a teacher, and I am really struggling with the negativity that is surrounding my school. I work in a low income area, so my children often come to school without lunch and have problems with their families. However, my problem lies within the teachers, my 'colleagues,' you talk really badly about the children and seem as though they are only here for the... little amount of money. I have heard some horrible things, and this article helped me a little bit. As a beginning teacher I feel that these years are formative, and I am being dragged down.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Sophie! How did the year end for you? I'm hoping that you're getting some good rest this summer. That first year can be brutal under the best of circumstances, but not having positive colleagues can make it even harder. Sometimes the support we need has to come from outside- from an online community like this one, or a Twitter Chat, or a Facebook group. I've had former students reach out to me for support and I'm always happy to support them through that first couple of years (and longer, if they need or what me to!) Good luck!

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