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Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Apr 21, 2019

My best advice on 10 sticky situations in schools

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

My best advice on 10 sticky situations in schools

By Angela Watson

Today we’re talking about tricky topics that teachers face. These are issues that it’s difficult for me to offer detailed advice on without knowing a whole lot of specifics. So I’m going to stay big picture, and give you my best piece of advice – the one thing, the most important thing – that I can say about topics such as:

  • leadership that plays favorites
  • working with student teachers
  • supporting colleagues when morale is low
  • lack of student motivation
  • kids who can’t handle choice
  • anxiety over teacher evaluations
  • when you have to teach the same way as your colleagues

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How do I support colleagues when morale is low?

My best advice is to expend less energy on the aspects of the job you can’t change. Be aware of how your mood and energy level is impacted whenever you spend time complaining about systemic issues and massive bureaucratic and societal problems that you have little power to change. It doesn’t seem like a big deal and can be cathartic in the moment, but repeatedly turning your attention to those topics will drain you.

You need to really tap into what brings you joy, and what reminds you of your purpose. Incorporate more of these purposeful moments into your day and into instruction. Spend the majority of your time with colleagues who use humor to make light of a difficult situation, look on the bright side, or are super motivated and ambitious.

I’m sure you know this already, but are you doing it? Are you actively spending more time with the colleagues who energize you and refocusing negative conversations when you start to feel hopeless or depressed?

Take charge of where your energy is being spent. Notice which people, activities, and conversations lift you up and which pull you down, and make small changes to your day to make sure you’re not just giving of yourself all day long without having anyone or anything to pour back into you.

How do I deal with leadership that plays favorites, and doesn’t value fidelity or ethics?

Without knowing all the specifics related to this person’s question, let me offer my one best piece of advice: figure out how to finesse and quietly subvert the system. You’re not likely to have much success by repeatedly calling out the favoritism or inequality, and being passive-aggressive and complaining is not going to create change, either.

Understand that we’re not working within a meritocracy — not in our schools, not in our country, not in our world. Who you know and your connections have a lot to do with getting ahead and being treated well, and everyone is not treated equally. Schools are just a mirror of this truth in society as a whole.

So look for ways to subvert this quietly, and interrupt the damaging patterns you see in your school. What “ins” or privileges can you utilize to fight for more equality for everyone? What are some ways you can work around the system to get what you need? Don’t just hope that if you play by the rules, everyone in charge will do the same. Sometimes you need to play the game and finesse the system or quietly subvert the system in order to move things more in the direction of “right.”

How do I handle the stress of knowing my school is not meeting the needs of all learners?

This question was submitted by a teacher who is wracked with guilt and losing sleep over a student who’s been shunted into a computer-based program due to test scores. He’s not getting the services he needs and the school is under-resourced so the teacher isn’t able to do what’s best for him, either.

This kind of stress is never about one student or situation. Because even if you could make things right for him, there would still be 1,500 other instances in which you know things aren’t being done right by kids.

One thing I have learned is that this kind of stuff doesn’t bug everyone. Not everyone sees the inequities, and not everyone is so moved by them that they’re thinking and talking about it in their free time. This is a special insight that’s been placed on your heart, and your reaction to what you’re experiencing is an integral part of who you are and the work you do.

So my best advice is to embrace that part of yourself: the fact that your heart hurts over this is indicative that it’s part of your mission or purpose on this planet.

You may want to consider making an impact in education through another role, at some point in your career. Think about what issues you’re really passionate about advocating for, and how you can position yourself to have more influence and ability to create change (or educate others) in that arena.

Also, think about what you can do now in your classroom to experiment with various solutions. This will not only help you make a difference now in your current position but also pave the way for the work you do in the future.

How do I handle anxiety over teacher evaluations?

Remember that you can take charge of your evaluation rather than letting your admin control the narrative. Check out EP129 where I interviewed Jennifer Ansbach on this. We talk about how not to take a negative evaluation personally and a lot more.

But the primary piece of advice is to take responsibility for telling the story of your classroom rather than letting someone else tell it for you. Make sure you are documenting and sharing with your admin the good stuff that is happening in your classroom, the successes, the PD you’re doing, and request that these things be added to your file.

Don’t wait and hope your admin notices it or allow just their 15-minute walk-through to be the sum total of what’s written about your work. When you decide to be an active participant in the evaluation process, some of the nervousness disappears because this one short lesson is no longer the entire picture of what goes into your evaluation.

What should I do when my colleagues are creating unnecessary work and we have to agree on shared policies?

This is a question that was submitted by a person who must reach consensus with their teammates about grading and assessment practices. She has ideas for streamlining but her coworkers feel that it would be lowering their standards to do so. Their principal has agreed the team is doing too much but her colleagues are adamant that their current workload — which involves around 20-30 hours of grading time each week outside of contractual hours — is “just what good teachers do.”

If I could give one piece of advice to those who work with colleagues who refuse to streamline their work … it would be to brainstorm specific ways to simplify or streamline, preferably some small adjustments that will make a big difference. Figure out how those adjustments benefit kids, and use that as the selling point when presenting them to your colleagues so they don’t feel like they’re being asked “to cut corners” (which again will conflict with their identity as a person who never does that).

You may want to invite your principal to sit in on that discussion and help guide the conversation. His or her affirmation that the team is putting too much pressure on themselves will lessen your colleague’s fear that they are shortchanging kids.

This is not a situation where it’s likely to work if you try to force them to change or threaten colleagues with union involvement. These teachers have plainly stated the root problem: They believe they MUST teach in this way and they MUST spend all their free time grading and planning in order to feel like they’re doing a good job teaching. I think many of us have felt that in one situation or another. Tapping into that empathy is really useful in coming up with a solution.

In order for them to be open to another way, they need to feel like the alternative is not going to compromise their integrity as teachers or cause them to do a lesser job for kids. Otherwise, your suggestion will conflict with their belief that hard work equates with effectiveness.

So, anytime you’re not in agreement with colleagues on a policy and you have to reach a consensus, figure out the root problem — what is the real issue that’s keeping them from seeing things your way — and present solutions that enable them to compromise without feeling like they are being untrue to themselves or what they believe to be best for kids.

How do I help a student teacher while trying to maintain classroom control?

There are so many dynamics that factor in and variables at play, but if I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to let the student teacher uncover his or her own unique teaching style without feeling pressure to emulate you perfectly. A student teacher is not going to be a clone of you and has to find a way to engage with the kids that feels authentic to him or her.

So, don’t be afraid of confusing the kids if you have slightly different procedures, rules, or expectations. Kids are very adept at figuring out what they’re allowed to do with various adults in their lives. They know mom will never allow this one thing, but dad is a stickler for this other thing, and they can get away with this thing with grandma, but when they’re with their teacher, they need to follow these other rules. It’s good for kids to learn that each person has individual needs and preferences and to respect those preferences, whether it be for different friends, family members, or teachers in the school.

If you can embrace this and let your student teacher uncover their own unique teaching style, the entire experience will be a bit smoother. Release that need for control a bit. Watch and learn from their experimentation and mistake — you might discover some interesting or surprising things about what’s effective with your students.

How do I deal with a lack of student motivation?

This is a sticking point for every teacher, I think. And if I could give one piece of advice, it would be to let go of judgment and focus on the shared human experience which you have in common with kids who seem to be unmotivated. Remember what you felt like going to school every day as a student, and how you feel now as a teacher. Are you motivated to work hard and be energetic each day? Do you feel like giving 100% every moment? You might be thinking, no, but I still show up and do my best … I encourage you to question that. Do you always do your best? Every day, every moment … you put forth 100% effort and never have an attitude about it or take a shortcut or turn things in late?

We’re talking about basic human motivation and psychology here, and extremely normal behavior for kids. I hated school for most of my childhood and definitely all of my pre-teen and teenage years. I was super unmotivated, I skipped class all the time, I didn’t pay attention and talked constantly when I did go to class, and I never did my homework. That’s a whole story there which I’ll tell you in a separate podcast. But I mention it here because I’m sure many of my teachers assumed it was pointless to keep trying with me, and wrote me off … I doubt that anyone who taught me in high school would have thought that one day I’d be a teacher of teachers and successfully run my own business.

So, let go of the judgment that a kid who seems apathetic is going to grow up to do nothing with their life and feel like something’s wrong with them. School is hard work and it’s often boring to learn about things you don’t want to learn about, and all of us tend to avoid things which are unpleasant, it’s just human nature. The less you try to fight that, the happier you’ll be.

Let your kids be human. Do your best to plan engaging lessons and help kids stay on task but don’t repeat a story to yourself that labels the kids as apathetic or unmotivated or that they should somehow be bright eyed and bushy tailed and eager to do whatever you say at every moment. They’re human as are you. Embrace the humanness.

How do I keep the extreme behavioral issues of one student from negatively influencing the rest of the class?

This question was submitted by a teacher who has a student she describes as “very defiant and emotional.” Whenever she gives him a consequence, he starts yelling, slamming his fists, etc. Because of this, and she hasn’t been giving him consequences for every infraction (only the major ones) and is concerned that this is a mistake because the rest of the class is getting rowdier.

My take is that it’s not necessarily a mistake to choose not to respond to every outburst, particularly if it’s going to trigger a major meltdown. I think it’s wise to focus on just a couple of key behaviors you want the student to work on at a time, and not get on him about every minor thing which obviously seems to be creating frustration.

In terms of the core of this question — which is about other kids emulating this one child’s behavior — my best advice is to talk to them about it. I think sometimes, as teachers, we feel like we have to pretend everything’s fine, and any problems can be handled by you privately later. We’re just all going to agree to pretend like it’s fine that someone threw a desk two minutes ago and we’re just going to proceed with the lesson now like nothing happened.

But it’s no secret to the rest of the class that this child is working on managing his emotions. They’ve noticed the disproportionate reactions and are probably feeling insecure and confused or maybe even frustrated about it.

So if I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to enlist the rest of the class in supporting him. Have a class meeting, and talk about questions like these: What helps you calm down when you’re upset? How do you practice responding calmly when the teacher gives you a consequence? What would you like others to do when you’re upset? What do you wish others would stop doing when you’re upset?

Obviously, the way you structure these questions and the tone of the discussion will vary according to the grade level you teach, but the goal is the same regardless. You want to give the rest of the class a chance to respond to this, for several purposes. You want them to have a chance to process their own feelings about it. You want the classroom to be a safe place where kids can talk about their feelings and experiences without judgment. You want the rest of the class to empathize a bit with the child who’s struggling. And, you want them to share their own strategies for coping which might help him.

Then the next time he has an outburst, remind the kids about the types of things they said would be useful in that situation: take deep breaths, go sit in the comfy chair in the back of the room and listen to music with headphones, and so on. Give the child who’s struggling some strategies to try for self-regulation, and give the rest of the class strategies for responding to him in a constructive way.

Then they’re no longer looking at him like that behavior is okay and they can act that way, too, nor are they looking at him as some unpredictable weirdo they should stay away from. They get him — they can relate to those struggles with intense emotions, and they understand this student needs them to respond in helpful ways and encourage him, rather than ignore him or emulate his behavior. When the child who’s struggling feels that support (rather than feeling the eyes of the entire class just staring at him during an outburst), his behavior will start to improve, too.

What should I do when a student can’t handle choice (like flexible seating or partner work)?

Bring the student into the decision making and give limited choice: “You can sit here or here” (both choices which are close to you or isolated in the classroom so there are fewer distractions).

You can also level with the child: “Partner work doesn’t seem to be helpful for you, would you agree that it’s more difficult for you to focus when you’re with a friend than when working alone? Could you make the choice to work alone for these types of assignments, and let’s see how that goes? We’ll talk again in a couple of weeks and see if you want to change things.”

If they insist on doing the partner work, check in after: “I felt like you talked a lot and the assignment didn’t get finished. What can we do about that next time so it doesn’t happen again? I want to try having you work on your own a couple of times and see how that feels for you.”

Try this — I promise the student will respond in a much more mature and thoughtful way when you’re working together to meet his or her needs instead of issuing a punishment and deciding for the child that she needs to work alone.

If you’re facing a tricky situation in your school and you want me to address it on an upcoming podcast episode, go to TruthforTeachers.com and let me know. Your takeaway truth for the week ahead is this: “Live less out of habit, and more out of intent.” When you find yourself in a sticky situation, don’t be reactive, just do what you’ve always done, and rely on your regular habits to get you unstuck. Instead, be intentional about the outcome you want. Try asking yourself the same question I asked when determining how to answer these questions: If I could give one piece of advice, what would I say, or What would be my BEST piece of advice for another educator on this topic? Get still for a moment with yourself and the right answer will come to you. You can do this — and remember, it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.

This epsisode was sponosred by TLC. Do you need graduate-level credits for license renewal or a pay-step increase? Look no further than Teacher’s Learning Center. TLC’s independent study, self-paced format allows busy working teachers to earn graduate-credits any time of year… without time restraints, traveling, or technology hassles. TLC has been offering these courses for over 15 years and is a partner with regionally and nationally accredited universities. Go to TLCGraduateCredits.com/angela to get your coupon code now.


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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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