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Uncategorized   |   Oct 9, 2012

When Teaching Gets Tough

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

When Teaching Gets Tough

By Angela Watson


You might call it the October teaching slump. The anticipation of August has long since worn off, and you’re starting to emerge from the survival mode of September…but now that classroom routines are in place, the bigger problems are coming more clearly into focus. From now through the winter holidays, many teachers experience a time of disillusionment: the school year is not turning out to be everything they’d hoped, and the daily pressures have become overwhelming.

When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game is a new book that I think is the perfect read for teachers during the fall. If you’re familiar with even the titles of Allen Mendler’s other books (Connecting with Students and Discipline with Dignity, which he co-authored), you know right away the angle than Mendler is going to take. His tone is relatable and kind. He’s respectful of both teacher needs and students needs. When you read something by Mendler, you feel at once inspired and empowered, and yet pressed to go up to a higher level and improve your practice. I had to read When Teaching Gets Tough during the day, because if I tried to read it before bed, I’d be too wired to sleep and my mind would be swirling with ideas.

There are just five chapters to the book, which makes perfect sense once you realize that the myriad reasons why teaching becomes hard fall into just a few broad categories. The first chapter is called “The Big Picture: Attitudes and Strategies”, in which Mendler explains that your attitude toward teaching is just as important as the strategies you use as a teacher. Mendler suggests that the two most important attitudes a teacher can have are 1) Live each day as if there were no tomorrow, and 2) Understand that change is a rollercoaster ride.:

If you have a particularly difficult class or you are surrounded by too many toxic colleagues, it is easy to get discouraged and depressed if you start thinking about the many tomorrows that are ahead. Nobody in the midst of stress wants to think about how there are still six months left to the school year or 25 years to go until retirement. Teachers need every ounce of positive energy and enthusiasm they can muster. If things are tough, you might begin to think about other life options for yourself or apply for other jobs. Keep the door open to change, but approach each day as if there is no tomorrow. Only then will you have the grounding to live in the moment without being emotionally scarred with what happened yesterday.” (pg 8)

The second chapter is called “Strategies for Working with Difficult Students.” Mendler gives page after page of real classroom examples and responses teachers can use. I absolutely love the section called “Enforce stupid rules but don’t own them”:

Many students think that we have much more power than we do. They don’t realize that teachers are generally at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to setting school policy. They don’t see the bureaucrats at the state education department or the district administrators or the school board members who are often responsible for the creation of the rule. So rather than get locked into power struggles trying to enforce rules that seem designed to complicate everybody’s life, advocate within your school for change, but until that happens, enforce the rules but distance yourself from them.” (Pg 60.)

He then explains exactly how to convey that in an appropriate way to students, showing them that you see things from their perspective and giving them “options other than to argue or disobey.”

The third chapter is “Working Successfully with Unappreciative or Irritating Adults.” A big part of what Mendler addresses here is the feeling of not being recognized for all your hard work as a teacher. Mendler advises teachers to learn how to gracefully blow your own horn and seek out your own compliments:

It seems that either due to human nature or conditioning, we are more apt to notice when things go wrong. It often takes a conscious effort to notice when things are going well. Seek your own positive feedback. Give your students a homework assignment to tell you the two things you do that they like the most. At an open house, ask parents to write down at least one positive thing they have heard or seen from their child about the class. Ask a collegaue to observe you teach and then share specific things he/she thinks you do really well and any suggestions they might have for how you might get even better. Teach your students to do this with each other.” (pg 82)

The final two chapters (“Making the Best of an Imperfect Environment” and ” Taking Top-Notch Care of Yourself”) are shorter than the earlier chapters but still full of lots of valuable information. I was particularly challenged by a section called “Do your best, then turn the page” with this set of thoughts on perfectionism:

“Try your best!” is an exhortation often exclamed by parents, teachers, and coaches. It is important to have a good work ethic, but at everything? … What if it isn’t your best day? What if the conditions “on the field” are far less than ideal? Perhaps better advice would be to work hard and try your best on things that matter to you while you are doing them–but when the game is over, turn the page. It seems to me that people who are compelled to work hard and who are constantly tryig their best can easily become perfectionists who experience little joy in what they do … You shouldn’t worry about how you will feel on your deathbed because you will only spend one day on it. It is all the other days you should worry about.” (Pgs 157-159.)

Each chapter also has questions for reflections, key thoughts, and a section for the administrator (which is fantastic–school leaders need support in these areas, as well.) It’s a book you can read in bits and pieces: perfect for the busy teacher. Almost every section could stand alone, so if you read just one or two pages at a time, you’ll walk away with inspiring yet realistic suggestions you can implement right away in your classroom.

What I love most about this book is the little gems of practical wisdom and thoughtful teaching ideas that are sprinkled on nearly every page. This quote is from a section on teaching difficult students how to be successful:

Your goal is to get across the idea that you have much more control of the process than you do of the outcome. You can’t control your genes, but you can control what you do with them. You can’t control what the pitcher throws, but you can practice hitting different pitches. When prepare, plan, and practice is the success mantra, students will virtually always be able to see themselves getting better.” (Pg. 28)

I think that applies completely to our own practice as teachers, too. Making it through the tough times as educators is not about being a “good teacher” or “bad teacher.”  It’s about preparing, planning, and practicing, and choosing to see and celebrate success, both our own and that of our students. When Teaching Gets Tough does an amazing job of conveying that mindset and showing you exactly how to put it into practice in your classroom.

Want to win a copy of When Teaching Gets Tough courtesy of ASCD? Choose one or more of the options below to be entered in the give-away! The contest ends midnight EST on Tuesday, October 16th.

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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