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Advice for Teachers Who Try Hard but Feel Hopeless

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Frustration

A few days ago when taking votes for my next ebook, I received a response from someone who I’ll call “Rachel.” She wrote a heart-rending message that I’m guessing literally thousands of Teaching the Core readers can relate to (details changed to protect Rachel’s anonymity):

Dave, I’ve been teaching high school for close to 25 years, and every year I see more and more good teachers, both veterans and newbies, both traditionally certified and alternately certified, leave the profession. I am at the point where I wish I too could leave. I get pretty good teaching reviews (for the past few years I’ve gotten the highest rating my district offers) and I constantly strive to improve my lesson plans and delivery methods. But like so many of us I feel sabotaged by my administration and ultimately ineffective. I’m expected to be too many things all at once and I feel set up for failure.

At our last faculty meeting our top administrator felt it necessary to stand up and tell all of us that just because we had a signed contract didn’t mean we actually had a guaranteed job (Arizona is a “right to work” state). We’ve now been told that administrators will be present at every department meeting, and that our teacher evaluations will be conducted by a new administrator who has less than 5 years’ classroom experience.

Other than looking for a job at a munitions factory, do you have any advice for me and others like me who try hard but feel hopeless?

Thanks.
Rachel

First of all, Rachel, if all else fails, I hear munitions factories are wonderful places to work. And just think of the service you’ll be doing the world while crafting weaponry.

But seriously — I’d like to respond to a few ideas in your letter.

1. Although your feelings are legitimate, your administrators are probably unintentionally de-motivating you

Both teachers and administrators easily fall into an “us versus them” herd mentality, and as a result, a lot of generalized, ill-thought statements are made to groups of people (e.g., your entire staff) when in fact they would be more wisely made to specific people. Just as it is foolish for me to chastise my whole class of students for not doing their homework last night when in fact it was only a percentage of them who didn’t do it, it is foolish for administrators to chastise an entire staff for things that don’t apply to the entire staff.

Now, far be it from me to cast the first stone on admins who make this mistake (like it seems yours did) because the above example of chastising the whole class isn’t even close to made up — I’ve resorted to tactics like that in my career more than I care to recount. And whether it’s in the classroom or the faculty meeting, generalized critiques like this are harmful in at least two ways.

Whole group critiques are highly de-motivating to both groups.

Few in a group are motivated to change by whole-group critiques.

Those who are guilty of the misdemeanor feel safer than they should because, based on the size of the group they are in, the problem seems to be widespread. In other words, when you tell an entire staff that they are messing up or that they aren’t doing enough collaborative activities or aren’t using essential questions correctly or what have you, those who actually have the problem will assume they can skate by with minimal action because, after all, it is unlikely that they, out of the whole group, will receive corrective actions.

On the other hand, those who are trying their hardest get the impression that their hardest is inadequate (as in your case). People who work hard tend to apply the generalized critiques they hear to themselves, so when the generalized critiques seem to come despite our best efforts, the result is high stress, high burnout, and a highly toxic educational environment in which we all must, like Boxer in Animal Farm, adopt the party motto, “I will work harder.”

The end result is exactly the opposite of what the whole-group critique was meant to create: both the low-performing and high-performing groups meld into an apathetic, survival-oriented group.

That’s horrible in a classroom, and it’s even more horrible in a staff.

It’s also totally avoidable — admins and teachers just need to direct critiques to those who need to hear them.

Whole group critiques are also inefficient.

Not only do generalized, whole group critiques (and keep in mind that this is applicable to our work with students just as much as it’s applicable to how administrators work with staffs) tend to create a de-motivated whole group. They are also wildly inefficient. Consider the purpose of the critique: it’s to curb the problem behavior, correct? Whether it’s worksheet-driven teaching (something a teacher might be critiqued for) or lower-casing the first-person pronoun I (something my students might be critiqued for), our goal in addressing it with the whole group is to get the people doing the wrong thing to start doing the right thing.

But, as basically explained above, the psychology of low-performing people tends to be “it’s somebody else’s problem,” whereas the psychology of high-performing people tends to be “it’s my problem.” Thus, giving critique to the whole group that should have actually been given to the low-performing group is nearly pointless.

I don’t want to keep driving this point home, but suffice it to say that, whether you’re an admin or a teacher, you (and I) need to think carefully the next time we’re tempted to disguise as a whole-group problem something that actually only a small group needs to hear.

2. Cultivate excellence in yourself

In general, I have found that as long as a teacher is trying her hardest and showing a reflective, professional attitude toward whatever this year’s initiative list contains (notice I didn’t say doing everything on the initiative list — I don’t think keeping my teaching job is worth abandoning what I know is most important for my kids’ long-term well-being), her job is safe.

But your desire, Rachel, is about more than being safe, isn’t it? I don’t get the impression you’re much worried about getting fired (after all, you received highest marks on your evaluations this past year). Rather, you’re worried about hating your job; you’re worried about working in a lethally toxic environment.

common-core-rafe-esquith

I’d strongly recommend this as summer reading for folks who are feeling like Rachel. This book shaped much of how I think, as I read it during my School of Ed years.

Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind here. Atticus works hard at his job simply because it is who he is — it’s this attitude I try to emulate in my work not only as a teacher, but also as a husband and a dad (I think this is a side effect of having read the work of Rafe Esquith, who also holds Atticus as a role model). I think we have to strive to be like Atticus, Rachel, if we are going to avoid going insane, especially in what sounds like the hellish year you’re headed into. We have to strive for this, Rachel, because this makes us unshakeable, just as it does Atticus while he represents Tom Robinson in an unjust trial or gets mocked by the vile-mouthed Ms. Dubose.

I want to be someone who can legitimately work hard each day, know I did the best I could on that given day, know I used my time well, and then go home and be with my family. If you work for de-motivating leaders — which it sounds like you do, Rachel! — this is pretty hard. Just keep in mind that Atticus’ working conditions in To Kill a Mockingbird were miserable, too; he, too, worked in an unjust, toxic, insane environment. And yet he conducted his work with excellence and dignity–even treating with dignity those who treated him with disdain.

May we become more and more like him.

3. Speak truth to power

Initially, I had written down that I would give you the pragmatic advice to “speak the language” — you know, the buzzwordy stuff like “close reading” or what-have-you. After all, many admins (and teachers) focus on external things like language and fail to seriously examine what works and what doesn’t, what’s fluffy and what’s got substance. But then I realized that advice would completely contradict what I just said about Atticus Finch, excellence, and pursuing greatness at our job because it’s who we are.

We do need to keep up as best we can on the latest research — I pray Teaching the Core helps — and that does mean we’ll “speak the language” a bit with as much authenticity as we can muster.

But more important than speaking the language, I think, is speaking truth to power, a phrase my first department chair Nicole Newman taught me.

Just as it sounds, this concept means that we tell those above us, from a stance of humility and service, the truth.

Dave’s Rules of Thumb for Speaking Truth to Power

  1. Be earnest. If there is something on your mind you feel your administrator needs to hear, for the good of the students in your school, then you should say it.
  2. Be picky. Keep in mind that every single gripe or insight you have into your school is not something your administrator needs to hear!
  3. Be mindful of time and place. If you have an earnest concern to bring to your administrator, it’s wise to do it one-on-one rather than in front of the whole staff.
  4. Be careful about emailing. Even though I feel much safer writing about tricky things than speaking about them — especially to a boss — email is a poor medium for communicating stuff that’s touchy. Instead, make an appointment with your admin and, if you need to, bring a few bullet points on a Post It note.
  5. Be humble. My goal when speaking to an administrator needs to be to serve the students, not to prove that I am right or to get payback for a comment that rubbed me the wrong way. I say “needs to be” because I am super fallible when it comes to acting from a place of humility — when our pride pricks up and we fail to be humble, we dust ourselves off and try again tomorrow.
  6. Be non-evaluative. Your goal shouldn’t be to tell them they’re doing a good job or a bad job. Instead, you want to tell them what you have noticed and what you think that might be doing.
  7. Don’t generalize. It’s much better to say, “This past staff meeting when you stood up and said none of us have a guaranteed job, I felt _______” than to say “You are always saying things to de-motivate the staff.”
  8. “Truth” doesn’t always mean bad news! These same rules are helpful if you want to encourage your administrator, too.

When dealing with any administrator or superintendent, I try to put myself in his or her shoes and imagine what I would be feeling and thinking and wanting if I were them doing their job. I’ve learned the hard way that I am not perfect in imagining what others want or need, but I know that, if I were an admin, I would want earnest, thoughtful feedback from my staff — just as, being a teacher, I want earnest, thoughtful feedback from my students.

As crazy as it seems, administrators doing harmful things like those described in your letter often have no idea the harm they are causing, just as, every single year, I inevitably find that I have unintentionally done harm with my words and actions in the classroom.

So, Rachel, those are my thoughts on your letter. I hope that, above all, I’ve not minimized your feelings and concerns, as I find them wholly legitimate and brave. Please do keep in touch, and for any Teaching the Core readers who empathize with “Rachel,” feel free to leave your solutions-oriented, encouragement-minded comments below. You can also always contact me.

Yours,

Dave

PS. If you know an administrator who is stolid enough to read this thoughtfully, forward it along to them. If you are an admin, spread this amongst your administrative colleagues — based on my observations of schools around the country, I genuinely think many administrators aren’t aware of some of the damage they cause with whole-group critiques.

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13 Responses to Advice for Teachers Who Try Hard but Feel Hopeless

  1. Shelby Denhof June 30, 2014 at 10:12 am #

    Very nice, Dave.

  2. rachelwasserman2013 June 30, 2014 at 10:14 am #

    Dave, this is Rachel. Thanks so very much for your thoughtful, supportive, and pragmatic commentary about my concerns. I particularly appreciated all your thoughts on whole-group critiques, and cringed when I realized how often I too have transgressed in this way in my own classroom. You were right on target when you pointed out that hard-workers take these critiques, which are often NOT intended for them, to heart, while the offenders slough the comments off.

    This past year I made a concerted effort to avoid these whole-class critiques (based solely on my own unhappiness at being on the receiving end of so many of these), and I worked hard to focus on the positive aspects of my kids’ work rather than on the negatives — and for the first time in 5 years I enjoyed a really great year in my classroom with my students — despite the constant pressure and fear most of us felt about our administration.

    I also will take your advice about how to speak to administrators to heart. In my first few years at this school, some 10 years ago, I made all the mistakes you point out one should avoid and I’ve had to learn the hard way how to phrase my concerns so that their legitimacy and rationality comes across.

    Boy, how I wish I had someone like you to advise me when I was first starting out!

    I’ve read a few of Rafe Esquivel’s books (because you so highly recommend his oeuvre in your blog), but perhaps I missed his most important points. What I seem to remember most about his message was his call to always do the right thing for your students, despite what your district and administrators say they want. Shut the door and teach the way you’d want your own children to be taught is what I got out of his work.

    Esquivel also urges teachers to develop a fulfilling personal life outside the classroom — which is an area I find many of us struggle with. I don’t know why teaching becomes an all-consuming effort for so many of us, but it does seem that the best teachers I know pour 9/10ths of themselves into their work — preparing interesting and on-point lesson plans and assignments, “performing” for our students to keep their attention, grading papers, etc. Yet the happiest (if not the most effective) teachers I know are those who spend at least as much time and effort developing their personal lives as they do on their lessons. There has to be a happy medium out there — and maybe this will be the year I discover it!

    Anyway, forgive the digression, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking my cry for help so seriously!

    • davestuartjr June 30, 2014 at 2:47 pm #

      Rachel! I was wondering if the rockstar of other comments on the blog was the same person who wrote me that message. I hope that my anonymity measures were adequate — thanks so much for being open and honest and real.

      Yes, Esquith’s main draw for me is that he believes so heavily in what his kids are capable of, and his kids love rising to the occasion. Even though his kids are predominantly ESL, he doesn’t “teach down” to them — he calls them to higher ground and supports them on the way there.

      The fact that you are enjoying the time in your classroom is huge — that is where it’s got to start for us. Issues outside of our classrooms are much less in our control than issues inside of them — we’ve got to treat our rooms like our “gardens” and the school is like our block. You want a nice block, but it starts with your own garden.

      Okay, maybe too much coffee this morning to be slinging out analogies. Anyway, thank you so much Rachel and do keep in touch as we head into this coming school year 🙂

  3. Chesca Lynnette June 30, 2014 at 11:25 pm #

    Thank you! I share many of the same concerns Rachel shared, and I am grateful you took the time to craft such a fabulous response.

    • davestuartjr July 1, 2014 at 10:31 am #

      Chesca, it’s so good to hear that the time I spent on this post was worth it to you. Take care!

      • Karen September 5, 2014 at 10:05 pm #

        Dave, I really needed to read your comment today. It helps to know I am not alone. The scenario sounds similar in some ways. I know I can do great work with the students I just met and that’s the wonderful part. The changes in administrative attitude and tactic will not deter me from my work. I refuse to relinquish my enthusiasm even though today it was dented slightly.

        • davestuartjr September 6, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

          Karen, thank you for taking the time to share this — every time someone says they read a post at just the right now, it’s hugely rewarding for me.

  4. Marianne R July 1, 2014 at 10:08 am #

    Thank you Dave for the sound post and Rachel for the asking the essential question to begin with. Regarding the rules of thumb for speaking Truth to Power, I have found that many teachers are afraid to do so or intimidated for a variety of extensions – being reprimanded, losing their job, not being understood or heard, etc. What advice do you have for overcoming that fear?

    • davestuartjr July 1, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

      Marianne, this is a great question. The first thing that comes to mind is one of the only direct quotes I remember from a professor, ever. It was one of those Intro to Education classes, and the prof said, “We need to teach as if we’re not afraid to lose our job.” I have taken that to heart and do try to teach (and speak to our admins) from a deeper place than a fear of losing my job.

      NOW, with that being said, I’m certainly not trying to lose my job everyday as the sole breadwinner of my family, and I know that some administrators simply do not want to hear the truth, at least not from their employees, and that “speaking truth to power” can result in formal reprimands or worse. I always try to give my admins the benefit of the doubt first, and to seek them out on something I’ve thought long and hard about. In advance, I try to search my heart for any animosity or anger I’m trying to vent by speaking to my administrator; I write out what I want to say, maybe more than once; and I might even practice in the mirror.

      Erik Palmer says in Well-Spoken that one of the keys to getting over fear of a speaking situation is preparation — so I would advise fearful teachers to prepare, not just what they’ll say but why they want to say it — and then to go for it from a stance of humility. Even when I once did come across an admin who did not want to hear what I had to say, the admin was gracious with me and did not punish me, perhaps because I did not come to fight with the admin, just to speak the truth to him/her.

      I hope that’s at least a bit helpful for those teachers, Marianne.

  5. Marianne R July 2, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    Thanks, Dave, it is helpful. I agree that preparation, especially writing out what needs to be said is important. Sometimes just the act of writing down the truth is enough to help orient oneself to humility and get rid of the subtle emotional dynamic that is connected to the issue. Looking forward to more posts by you!

  6. krinerk July 3, 2014 at 10:03 am #

    I appreciate your comments under “speaking truth to power.” In my own experiences, my administrators have been under similar pressure to “perform” without adequate funding or guidelines and we sometimes immediately push our frustrations back on the messenger. I think many times if we would go back, and as you detail, simply explain how we felt/the message we heard, our admin will be able to adjust and perhaps become a stronger leader, which is win-win for all involved. Very often, I have been told that, much like our classrooms, “I was only speaking to the two or three people who abuse the rules (insert guidelines, policy, etc here).” My reply to that is always that there are so many, working so hard, doing what is right day in and day out, that perhaps we should focus on that and the outliers should be dealt with one on one or in small groups. (and then I always think, geesh, yes, that is true in my classroom as well….)

    Thanks!

    PS: In respect to the fear of being reprimanded or punished for attempting to address true feelings and issues, I repeat to myself (and say outloud often!) the line from An American President: “…I was so busy keeping my job, I forgot to do my job.” (The whole speech is pretty good! Google it.) It gives me strength when I wonder if it’s really worth it anyway to remember why I went into this profession. We all knew the job was dangerous when we took it. (SuperChicken circa 1970s cartoon)

    • krinerk July 3, 2014 at 10:07 am #

      It’s THE American President, not AN. Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen (1995) -sorry off topic I know!

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