Four Teaching Challenges and Strategies to Deal with Them

Nationally, approximately one in five teachers leaves the profession each year. Among new teachers, one out every two are gone within five years. Among those who stay, too many do so for reasons of job security rather than job satisfaction. What starts as a bright flame that propels most to enter teaching with BEEP (belief, energy, enthusiasm, passion) can dwindle into skepticism, pessimism, and cynicism caused by factors like unruly or poorly motivated students; lack of support from fellow educators; uninvolved, enabling, or angry parents; excessive paperwork; undue emphasis on accountability through testing; and a lack of influence over school policy. In my many years of working in and consulting for numerous schools, I have seen some really good teachers get fed up and leave either physically or emotionally. It’s what led me to write When Teaching Gets Tough. The book and my seminars on this topic address four major challenges and the strategies to deal with each one.

1. Difficult, disruptive, and unmotivated students. The most frequent daily complaint I hear among teachers is trying to teach distracted, discouraged, and disrespectful students. Effectiveness and a sense of satisfaction in working with these students can often be derived or reclaimed by having six factors guide you in your daily interactions with students: relationship, relevance, responsibility, success, safety, and fun. Most important is learning how to prevent or quickly defuse inappropriate behavior so that difficult students want to remain in class and learn. For example, when Matthew is belligerent, we need to stay welcoming while setting limits (e.g., “You are an important member of this class, Matthew, and I’d like to hear about what is bothering you after class. Now is not the time. Thanks for waiting until then.”)

2. Little support and appreciation from colleagues, administrators, and parents. It can be disheartening to show up every day to a place where the challenge of doing what is best for kids is dwarfed by dealing with difficult or unsupportive adults. In my interactions with educators, it is not uncommon for many to report feeling unrecognized when they make good decisions, have innovative ideas, make valuable contributions at meetings, or persist in trying to reach difficult students and challenging parents. Rarely are educators thanked for the many little things they do every day to enrich students’ lives. Perhaps it is human nature to notice only when things are going especially well or miserably. We don’t think to call the electric company for the good work they do keeping our lights on. Appreciation for a job well done is all a good teacher really needs but rarely gets. We need to keep score better for ourselves and affirm each other when things just go smoothly.

3. Lack of resources to do the job most effectively. Most data on job satisfaction are associated with people factors, such as the degree of support provided, involvement with others, participation in decision making, and the encouragement of innovation, but satisfaction with physical working conditions is a factor as well. Unless you are lucky enough to have unlimited resources, there simply aren’t enough counselors, psychologists, social workers, and paraprofessionals; nice, spacious rooms; supplies; and great instructional coaching. Yet those teachers who identify and use the resources available to them, such as colleagues, students, corporate sponsors, community resources, and volunteers, report much greater job satisfaction. Classroom teachers have many ways to get extra support to enrich their students’ lives and to make the job a little bit easier.

4. Failure to take good care of yourself. Most teachers have plenty to stress over, in addition to the aforementioned factors. Educators are challenged to achieve high standards in an inclusive classroom using a differentiated approach with students of multiple intelligences, all while receiving continual scrutiny by a wary public prone to blame and to hold teachers accountable for poor test performance. It can be difficult to accept the things you cannot change and change the things you cannot accept. Yet evidence shows that teachers perform better in the classroom and achieve better student outcomes when they do more to promote their own personal and professional well-being by doing simple things, like keeping a “Three Good Things” journal in which they record three things that go well each day and what they think caused each positive event.

Allen MendlerAllen N. Mendler, PhD, is an educator and school psychologist who resides in Rochester, New York. As one of the authors of the original and revised Discipline with Dignity, Mendler has given many workshops and seminars to professionals and parents and is highly acclaimed as a motivational speaker and trainer for numerous education organizations. Learn more about Connecting with Students and When Teaching Gets Tough or purchase a copy of his latest book.