Dear Sarah,

This is my 16th year as a high school teacher.  I remember my first few years as being very stressful with managing my classroom, but I was very confident in my instructional practices and knowledge of the topic area.  Recently, in the past few years, I’ve had to deal with students (and parents) claiming that I “don’t help them.”  It’s gone so far as parents of students who have never been in my class to call the school and request that their little darling NOT be placed in my class!  I can’t seem to convince my principal that I believe the majority of this issue lies with my students who don’t pay attention in class, don’t attempt the homework assignment, and don’t ask for help when they need it and then use it as an excuse for their less than satisfactory grade.  

I truly care for my students and I want them to be successful, but I’m not going to hand out A’s like candy on trick-or-treat night!  It seems that my principal has a “knee-jerk” reaction to any complaint he hears. In a meeting with him, he makes it sound like he gets multiple complaints but refuses to say who has complained.  I realize there is a level of confidentiality involved but it would be nice if I would be able to explain to him that “this girl has been told multiple times to put her phone away or that boy is out of his seat more than he’s in it.”   

I feel that it is a great injustice that I’m not permitted to “face my accusers.”   Kids will do and say anything is to avoid getting into trouble and playing the “blame the teacher” game is working for them where I’m concerned.

I guess my question is: what on earth can I do to deal with my feelings of being demoralized and still feel part of a group of great teachers?  At this point I’m feeling extremely unworthy and I don’t want to participate in staff activities and such.


Demoralized and Unworthy

Dear Demoralized and Unworthy,

I am so sorry to hear that you find yourself feeling demoralized and unworthy of participating in staff activities with your colleagues. It’s clear this is a crisis of confidence for you, and it’s extending beyond your own classroom and into your relationships with your colleagues. I suspect you feel alone and isolated at the time when you most need to feel nurtured and connected.

I think there’s a lot going on in this scenario, which means there are no easy answers and a few tough questions. However, choosing to confront them may bring you the peace and joy I can tell you want to reclaim.

Let’s start with what I fundamentally believe: you “truly care about your students and want them to be successful.” I think you are entirely sincere when you say this, otherwise, why would you be writing and looking for a better way? As much as I trust this is how you feel, it seems as though you’ve lost your way in living what you believe. I hear a different side of you when your anger and frustration spirals into calling these same students you truly care about “little darlings.”

There’s a lot of blame in your letter. Parents and students are blaming you. You’re blaming the students. The principal is trying to mediate and making you feel unable to defend yourself. I know this: when situations disintegrate into blame and defensiveness, all openings for productive changes are closed. Especially in the context of teaching, these conversations then become about the adults instead of the students and that only results in retreating from a resolution.

I think most teachers have found themselves misunderstood and questioned at some point, maybe even accused. I know I have. These are especially painful times because the only way through them is brutal honesty and then forgiving yourself. Here are some of the tough questions we have to ask ourselves when confronted with an incongruent classroom.

What’s your part in why students aren’t turning in their assignments? Why do they want to have their cell phones out? What are parents really afraid of, which is prompting them to request their children not be in your class? If you put yourself in your students’ shoes, would your classroom feel more like a sandbox or an assembly line? When was the last time you laughed with your students or celebrated their learning? Is there anything going on for you outside of school that is causing you to not be fully present with your kids while you’re there?

I know. These are burdensome questions. But here’s the bottom line: if you want there to be a change, there’s only one person who can make that happen. You. It’s time to have one of those heavy and honest conversations with yourself. Then, you must also forgive yourself for whatever part you’ve had in creating this situation so you may persevere. Recognize you are brave in your vulnerability and you will be a model of strength when you learn and grow from it.

Your principal gave you a gift in not telling you the names of the parents who spoke with him. He’s alleviated the toxicity of grudges or the need to prove to them what they say isn’t true. In the end, you only need to prove it to yourself and your students. As you take on this difficult, but rewarding work consider employing a few basic behaviors that can become habits of change.

  • Talk with your students. Ask them with genuine curiosity what caused them to not get work done. (Don’t be accusatory, though; they’ll see right through it.) Ask them what you can do differently. Ask them how they would design this learning if they could. 
  • Subvert the negative. The smallest irritations can become confrontations when we don’t put them in perspective. For example, if kids don’t bring the materials they need and it frustrates you to the point of getting punitive, take away your frustration by having an endless supply of pencils or paper. We have to chose our battles, and right now the ones you need to take on are deeper than any superficial ones that will only drive you further away from enjoying learning. Laugh away the inconsequential and focus on helping you and them love learning again.
  • Embed choice in consequences. If you find that consequences are necessary, try to give students options — both of which you can live with. For example, if a student keeps taking out her cell phone, give her two options: 1) prove to me you can use that to make you a better learner today or 2) put it on my desk until the end of class. It’s always helpful to be genuine about these choices. Offer them with a smile and resist all judgment for the choice they make.

I’m not suggesting this is entirely your responsibility. Ultimately, the students will have to change the output they’re giving you. However, they will follow your lead, whatever that may be. Fair or unfair: you have to go first. Good luck to you!

Teach openly,

With Teacher2Teacher



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