I’ve been teaching for 19 years and am proud of who I am a teacher. Not every lesson is successful and some years have been tough, but I love what I do and I always love my classes. This year is different. I can’t find the joy in my class. The kids don’t listen. What I’ve done in the past isn’t working this time. There are behavior issues that wear me out and every day feels intense. Here’s my question. How do I find that joy again? I have half of a year left with my third graders and I want to know how to take a bad situation and make it a good one.
Reclaiming Classroom Joy
Dear Reclaiming Classroom Joy,
My heart aches for you. Thank you for being brave enough to say out loud what every teacher has felt at some point. Ask anyone who has been in this profession for awhile about “that class” and you’ll see a look of understanding, of empathy.
I remember first learning about “that class” from my mother (who recently retired from 30 years of teaching fourth grade) that year when I kept finding her quietly crying in the basement when she thought my siblings and I were asleep. She was one of those special teachers that students clamored for and parents were thankful for. She found and brought joy to learning for decades of young people. But that year she had a student who would stand on his desk every chance he got, a group of girls who were incessantly cruel to each other, and no matter what she tried they complained and whined. I remember her teary confession one night, “They make it so hard to like them. I don’t know if I can.”
The same words have come out of my mouth. I remember the year my sophomores were so trying that I was exhausted before they even walked in the door. I tried everything: incentives and consequences, lots of choice and highly structured lessons, positive notes home and tough meetings with parents. I invited in extra adults whenever I could. I even brought in my Air Force brother who served in the Special Forces to talk about respect of self and others. I consulted every teacher I knew and even then, nothing. They were mean to each other. They were mean to me. Every minute seemed a Sisyphean task. One day I finally muttered the words to a trusted colleague, “I just don’t like them.”
In life and in teaching, I often have to say the words out loud in order to get past them. It’s the confrontation with the part of myself I’m scare of, which also liberates me. So I said the words out loud. To another human being. I couldn’t take them back. That forced me exactly into the space I needed to go: uncomfortable change. Soon, I started the practice that changed the semester for me. I stopped eating lunch with my colleagues and instead prepared for class by taking out my class list and saying out loud something I liked about every student. The insight came swiftly: if I couldn’t figure out what I liked about them, they would never like themselves. And, of course, that was the real problem in our classroom. For all of the ways I felt helpless in this situation, this was the one lever I could control.
Don’t misunderstand me. This practice wasn’t like magic pixie dust that transformed our classroom into the stuff of inspirational teacher movies. No. We still struggled. Every single day. But the more I leaned into the challenge instead of evaded it, the closer we got to rewriting our story. Now, when I think about “that class,” I do it with a smile, a reverence because it’s “that class” who taught me about facing fears, it’s “that class” who taught me that every student has a story and every story matters. It’s “that class” who eventually caused me to paint on a wall in my house: “We believe the stories we tell ourselves.”
We believe the stories we tell ourselves. When I read your question, I know what’s underneath it. You’re really wondering if you can still be a good teacher if you don’t like your class right now. The answer is a resounding yes. Yes, because you care enough to wonder.
I have three children whom I love dearly. But some days we don’t like each other very much. Our responsibility in these times is to put one honest foot in front of the other, to go out of our way to extend kindness and to be willing to find meaning in getting to the other side. I don’t think for a second you’re going to end your year on a note of “good riddance.” Without a doubt, I know you’ll slow down enough to see your own arc and along with it, the arc your students have drawn with you.
Then I hope you’ll pass your wisdom onto the rest of us.