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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Step Back, Then Tackle Your Frustration: Tips for Mindful (but Busy!) Teachers

David Castillo Dominici/

In my last post, I focused on taking a mental break from the inherent stresses of our challenging jobs as teachers. This time, I’d like to focus on dealing with the frustration that comes from feeling like we don’t have control over our work.

Don’t Throw Good Time After Bad

Most of us tend to deal with our frustration by venting to a friend or trusted colleague, which can be a great way to blow off steam. The problem is that it's usually followed by venting to another friend, then venting to another colleague… followed by venting some more, topped off by a bit of additional venting...

I don’t know about you, but that tends to leave me feeling worse: I've spent even more of my day focused on what's bothering me, and none of that energy has gone into changing the situation.

Take a Step Back and Keep Things in Perspective

It's helpful to take a step back.  Or maybe I should say, take three steps back and ask yourself:

Step 1: How serious is it? Should I just let it go?

Step 2: Is there anything about this situation that I can control?

Step 3: What's the most effective way of dealing with it?

What You See Depends on Where You Stand

I’ve talked to a lot of parents and administrators, as well as students and teachers. I’ve heard a lot of frustration from all parties, but I’ve never seen anyone rub his or her hands together with glee and chortle:

“Heh heh heh. My evil plot is working: I’m preventing people from learning!”

I try to remind myself (for example, through thinking about the Enneagram) that we're all seeing things through our own lenses. I may assume that a student or colleague is being "difficult" but there may be a reason for his or her behavior that I'm not aware of.

This hasn't eliminated my frustration, of course, but it has helped me realize that the vast majority of the time, the other person isn't trying to drive me crazy but simply has a different view of the situation.


Your “Nemesis” Could Become Your Ally, or Even Friend...

When I was setting up an Intensive English Program in Japan, everyone warned me to stay away from the chair of the existing English program, who had been vocal in opposing the new program. Instead of avoiding her, I decided to sit down with her to discuss her concerns. 

It turned out that she had a lot of good points about how the IEP should be implemented, and we started working together to improve it. (We also discovered a mutual love of theater and had some great excursions to see kabuki and bunraku.) 

...Or not. But It Might Not Matter That Much.

Earlier in my career, I had a head teacher who insisted that students use clusters (word webs) for every single writing assignment all semester.  

I never use word webs personally. And, with a few rare exceptions, my students didn't find them terribly helpful, either.

So for the first couple of weeks I worried that there was something terribly wrong with me, and with most of my students. 

Then I started to notice little word webs all over the head teacher's office.  

Well, great. She found something that worked for her. But it still didn't work for me, or for most of my class.  So from then on, I presented them as one possibility, along with freewriting and outlining.
The head teacher found me a bit odd (doesn't everyone word web their meeting notes and grocery list?).  But as long as the students knew how to use them, it was OK with her if they chose a different option.  

On the other hand, maybe it isn't that simple.

The following are some common teacher frustrations, along with links to the best (in my humble opinion) article or two I've found about coping with it. (Please post a comment to share your own perspective or your own favorite resources.)

If the problem is standardized tests...

Check out Teaching Despite the Test from Mary Ellen Flannery.

If the problem is lack of administrative support...

Ben Johnson has some tips to Get off on the right foot with a new principal and Mary Ellen Flannery has some ideas on How to create a good working relationship with your principal.

If the problem is difficult students...

Check out Robert McNeeley's tips on Avoiding Power Struggles with Students or Summer Langille's suggestions for Dealing with Challenging Behaviors in Young Children.

If the problem is the students' parents...

See the 10 best strategies for dealing with difficult parents at Clouducation.


If the problem isn't anything specific but more that you feel so overwhelmed you just can’t take it any more, hang in there until next week’s post on coping with burnout.  In the meantime, be sure to check out my previous post on reducing stress.

related posts:

I Wish You Peace: A Simple Lovingkindness Meditation

Realistic Self-Care: How Do You Handle Anger?

Wise Elder Visualization: A Practice for Parents and Teachers