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How to Thrive When Teaching Gets Tough

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In the famous words of Mark Twain, “I can live two months on a good compliment.” Kind words have a way of nourishing the soul, giving us the moral rewards we need to keep going: a student saying “thank you” for helping them get to that “aha moment,” a colleague recognizing all your hard work organizing the Annual Math Night, or a parent writing you a letter extolling how your extra work with their student was responsible for their better grade, better test score, or even their better future. For educators, who many times do not have other extrinsic reward systems to keep them going — like rock-star salaries, short and painless hours, or an endless budget for the supplies we need to do a job well — verbal and moral rewards carry a lot of emphasis when we think about why we chose to stay in the profession.

When Teaching Gets ToughSo what happens when the moral rewards are not present? When there is such a substantive change in the way we do our work, or the resources to do our work, that the people with whom we used to be on the same page are no longer on board, or even more than that, we have colleagues who pedagogically disagree with what we are doing, parents who complain and blame, or administrators who are unsupportive?

According to Allen Mendler, author of When Teaching Gets Tough, there is an intricate balance that must be struck between seeking support from others and providing your own self-nourishment regardless of the environment around you. And ironically, just as within a system of Positive Behavior Supports for our students, it starts with paying attention to the positive behaviors of our colleagues and ourselves.

As Mendler says, “Virtually nobody pays attention when they flip the switch and the lights go on, but everybody notices when the lights go out.” Very literally, his point being that someone took effort, took care, even took pride to make sure that everyone had light by which to learn and work, and yet no one is acknowledged for that effort. More symbolically, this effort to “turn on the lights” represents day in and out the hard work and effort put forth by all educators to make sure the teaching and learning environments are setting students up for success. This includes the physical spaces of the classrooms and school environments, and also incorporates the environments in which teachers, paraprofessionals, and faculty are meeting the social, emotional, and developmental needs unique to each student with whom they work. This is all a lot of work that takes time, skill, and passion to maintain, and yet almost every day, this work goes unnoticed.

So this is where we must start, by acknowledging ourselves (and our colleagues) and all the important work we all do, day in and day out, to make schools work. So let’s start with ourselves. The first step Mendler speaks to is keeping things in perspective. When you hear a complaint, or when it feels like none of your colleagues are listening to your point of view, it’s important to take the time and space you need to analyze the situation. Are these isolated incidents? If they are, are there still “lessons” that can be learned? If you take the time and space you need to analyze the situation, you may realize that it is not as big of a deal as originally perceived. However, if a pattern seems to be developing, then maybe there is a trend that deserves your attention. “Don’t ignore the feedback or give up, but keep doing essentially what you have been doing and don’t make yourself crazy. Let it sting a bit because the hurt can provide motivation to get better. Then let it go,” Mendler recommends.

One thing you should not let go of is learning how to gracefully blow your own horn. Essentially, if you are not getting the recognition you need, one method is to make your students’ or your accomplishments more visual. Mendler recommends looking for opportunities to publically praise your students in the presence of staff and parents from whom you seek recognition. More than anything, in life and following the “rules” of human behavior, you get more of what you pay attention to. So be generous in giving recognition to your peers, your students, and families with whom you work. There is more to appreciate than you may realize, and while you do not want to appear as if you are ingratiating yourself to your peers, simply making a goal of one compliment per person per period of time is a great way to support your own work.

This also will go along way to make yourself visible — your school is a community, a family even, and while we all have our preferences of who we spend our school time with, it is important to expand your horizons and make sure you are not inadvertently becoming a member of a small clique. Head over to another department. Eat lunch at a different table. Offer assistance to a colleague or parent you overhear discussing something that is frustrating them. Again, you get what you give.

But what if you need to dive more deeply to work with difficult colleagues, parents or administrators? What can you do then? Start by listening respectfully and intensely, even when you disagree. Refrain from offering your opinion, or tuning out to plan what you will say in response. Instead, opt to respond later after you have thoroughly listened to their thoughts.

Before you respond, take time to consider how you will hear the message. It is important to hear their concern (or blame), and then embark on a path of empathy. You can do this in a variety of ways, two of which Mendler mentions: 1) By hearing their worry and listening to your needs and feelings (this is best encapsulated in an “I-Statement”); and 2) By hearing their anxiety but listening to the other person’s needs and feelings. The latter is an active listening strategy that will show you are truly hearing what they are saying: “You must feel very strongly about this and I recognize the courage it took to talk to me. Tell me more about what is going on.” This shows the person that you are willing to hear their concerns and are prioritizing their feelings.

It is also important to THINK prior to any response to a colleague, parent, or administrator. THINK is an acronym that stands for: Take a few deep breaths; Hold your tongue; Initiate positive conversation; Nosiness gets you nowhere (no gossip); and Know what to say or do to make the situation better, or get out of there! Perspective on the disagreement is also important – when you are disagreeing with someone, try to see the issue as a temporary lapse rather than a permanent quality. Similarly, you could make the issue about the idea, not the person or personality. If you are really cruising while using these strategies, you could further try on your rosy lenses and reframe the problem into an asset. Essentially, you have more control over how you view something than you do over what you are viewing. Our viewpoint of an issue or person has a great influence in how we react. So, ask yourself the question, “Are your challenging colleagues oppositional or independent-minded?”

Staying on top of our game as educators means we will have to find ways to remain resilient in the face of adversity, even as it is sometimes presented by our peers, parents, and administrators. Ultimately, for educators to continue to bring their best efforts even when teaching gets tough, we need the tools and resources at both the individual and system level to help work through these obstacles. •