Saturday, December 26, 2015

Finding Strength to Do the Real Work of Teaching

I love to ask teachers questions that get all of us thinking. By using the right questions, we can learn from each other and from ourselves through reflection. If you’re interested more about good questions for reflection, please see:

In this post I raise one such question: How do you keep going when teaching gets tough? I’ll answer it myself first, then I’ll present the answers I received from an informal survey I gave to my extended PLN on Twitter.

Photo credit: DSC_1342 via photopin (license)

Doing the Real Work

The second step of The Way of the Artist is to do the work to make your dream into reality. There is no way around it. Some days great art demands sheer effort to push through. Everything else has to be put on hold. The final product becomes a work of art, in the truest sense of work.

Good teachers know that real teaching also demands that kind of effort. 

I reject any advice for success that promises an easier path. I've spoken with teachers who think they're doing something wrong when it requires so much. I say it might be a sign they're on the right track.

Certainly it's not always exhausting. But it's a challenge to lead our students through deep, personal learning experiences within the constraints of a largely outdated system. We often discover it takes more from us than we expected to give. And while we keep the classroom going daily, we must constantly improve our craft to keep pace with the change of our times.

I have so much respect for those teachers who, in these circumstances, do this hard work and regularly make a positive impact. I like to ask them what the do to press on even when the job gets tough.

Of those I know personally, they've told me things like they rely on God or they stay focused on the students. Many seek affirming relationships. A few press on, carefully tracking the years or days to retirement.

My Secrets to Success (or, at the very least, showing up for the struggle)

I don't have classes of my own anymore, but I still face discouragements and challenges common in education. The task of encouraging people (most often adults or young adults) to learn and to stretch wears me down at times. After more than 20 years in education, I learned, whether in the good or tough times, I need a daily routine to keep the right attitude for success.

My mornings start about 90 minutes before I have to leave for work. I believe teaching is a calling from God, so I start my day with a spiritual focus. I have a responsibility to teach in this place and time where I find myself, even when it doesn’t seem to fit me. I take time to read the Bible and pray. Through periods of depression and the many years I felt out of place teaching high school math, this is what got me through. I will continue to point to this foundation for any success I might achieve in my career.

My routine usually continues with a short workout. Through it I listen to worship music or other uplifting songs. Music is a passion and creative outlet that energizes me in profound ways.

I also make time for professional development and the big picture of education by going through Twitter and blogs I follow.

A shower and my 20 minute drive to work provide the opportunity for the big ideas to come. The visions and insights I get then stem from and fuel my passions. Whether on the job or as a side project, they can keep me excited for weeks at a time. When the daily job is tough, I look forward to what I might accomplish in the bigger picture through conferences, training and more.

As others will say below, I also rely on conversations with colleagues. I benefit greatly from continuing those conversations with my wife, who lets me express everything without the professional restraints required in the workplace!

Responses from Other Teachers

As I said, I posted this question to educators on Twitter. Thanks to everyone who anonymously submitted their thoughts. Also, thanks to Wesley Fryer for retweeting it and extending it beyond my reach!)

Almost all of the responses are from classroom teachers at different grade levels. Everyone except the last person still works in schools.

The themes of their answers are evident. Teachers get through the tough times by focusing on the positive things that are working and we rely on each other.

They also bring up a couple other less common practices that are great to consider.

Take a moment to read their responses in their own words. I phrased the question to them this way:

What are one or more things you do to keep pressing on when the work of teaching gets you down?

Teacher - Grades 5 and 6

There is always a good news story happening in a school. I focus on that.

Elementary Music Teacher

Take some time for me.

Remind myself that I don't have to keep teaching - usually the reminder reminds me that I actually do like it. Focus on the good things that happened that day and tell people about it.

Talk with a friend or - even better - a fellow teacher about it.

Read a book or watch something that takes me away from my life so I can have a more objective view of my struggles when I 'return' to my life.

Focus on taking care of myself. Making myself a priority makes me feel like the world won't end due to the fact I'm having a hard time.

Cuddle with my kid.

Laugh with my students.

Sometimes when I get so mad at my students that I want to yell, I speak in an accent instead - it works!

Director of Technology (Former Classroom STEM Teacher)

Find ways to laugh with co-workers & maintain a good sense of humor. Seek support of colleagues, both nearby in my building and virtually in my PLN.


I surround myself with positive colleagues who help me keep things in perspective.

English, Grammar, Linguistics Teacher

I remind myself of the sense of accomplishment I always get after finishing a tough project, telling myself I've gone through harder tests and succeeded. I remind myself of how far I've got so far.


I pursued National Board Certification. It helped me refocus my energy and find my joy again!

High School Teacher

Thinking back to the successes my students have made

Thinking back to the great things have helped make happen in the classroom

Colleagues who are also friends


Go visit the kindergarten class - It makes me appreciated my older kids.

Take a break from marking and do something fun.

English Instructor

Devote the opening thirty minutes of every day to my PD -- If I'm sitting at my desk working, nobody knows what I'm working on.

Set up doable tasks for my breaks -- Grade four essays, populate my online class calendar for next month, etc.

Director of Technology

Look for small successes. Always be positive!

Art and Business Teacher

I talk to other teachers.

I put things into perspective and tell myself if i only reach one person, then I'm doing a good job.

Try to see things from a student's perspective.

Know and believe I can make a difference.


Having a supporting learning network is huge; but having a will to improve above all else keeps me going!


This final response is from someone who eventually found their place in education outside of the school setting. Many of us have considered such a move and there's certainly nothing wrong with the decision to leave. Obviously the conventional path of a teacher is not the only road to success and fulfillment.

Former Middle School Social Studies Teacher - Now the Chief Academics Officer in an Ed-Tech Start-Up

I used to scroll through teaching jobs overseas - I had taught English in China right after college and traveled a lot so these bookmarks with job posting were my little escape route after a horrible team meeting.

When the teaching got me down so deep that I could no longer see the ladder up, I turned in my letter of resignation. It was relief and joy that I felt (I even went shopping and bought a new Coach purse!).

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