Four Tips to Stay at the Top of Your Game

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WhenTeachingGetsToughBy Allen Mendler

There’s a lot to love about teaching, but there are also plenty of obstacles: complaining parents, difficult students, unappreciative colleagues, rigid policies, frequent interruptions, and Common Core confusion, to name a few. It’s enough to make even the most gifted teacher’s head spin.

Teaching is a tough job. Is it any wonder that by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, most of us let out a collective sigh of relief as we look forward to that break?  Enjoy it. You deserve it! But as we all know, in the blink of an eye the wake-up alarm will sound and the school buses will roll their precious load our way: “Game on!” I offer four suggestions to keep or get you feeling energized, enthusiastic, and positive. You owe that to yourself and, more importantly, to your students, who need you at the top of your game every day.

Deliberately be thankful. It seems like human nature to notice when things go wrong but fail to see when they go right. We don’t pay much attention when the roof isn’t leaking or when the car starts normally. We can easily spot a misbehaving child in the supermarket but are less likely to notice the cooperative ones. It is easy to take for granted the many positive things that happen every day. Focus on celebrating small victories that can be easy to miss. From the end of Thanksgiving until Christmas, keep a written record of at least three things that went well every day at work and what you think caused the positive event (e.g., “Five kids did their homework”; “My classroom was clean when the day began”; “Most parents signed the permission slip”; “Joey had one tantrum instead of his usual five”).

Make fun a priority. Every school should require its teachers (and students) to have fun every day. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen any time soon. There is no doubt in my mind that we can be far more successful at getting kids college- and career-ready when learning is fun. Further, we should be a model of what we expect. Show your kids that you enjoy what you are doing. If that hasn’t been happening enough, include some combination of an activity, story, experience, joke, or poking fun at something that you usually take too seriously at least once every hour.

Allen Mendler on showing you careSee the silver lining in every cloud. My daughter is a first-year special education teacher in an inner-city elementary school. For the first month, her phone calls home revolved around exasperation with an out-of-control boy who she was convinced should not have been placed in her class and would never be manageable in that environment. Despite doubting her ability to influence change, she agreed to welcome him every day for two consecutive weeks with an affectionate greeting (usually a hug) and highlight at least one positive accomplishment or contribution every day.

In the second week, she called excitedly one day to say that for the first time, she did not have to send him to the office. Things have continued to improve ever since, although not without occasional regression. As you head back following the break, consider how some of the challenges you face give you opportunities to make you even better at what you do and about who you are. Here are a few examples:

Fred B.: Your strong opinions and occasional insolence when you don’t get your way push me to think about how I can tap into your persistence to get noticed and be a leader in a more positive way.

Ben L.: Your incomplete homework assignments have made me think about why I give the same assignment to everyone and whether giving zeros to a kid who already knows the material makes sense. 

John S.: Working with small groups in the converted storage closet reminds me that my space is far less important than my skill in connecting with kids.

Make their day. The most important thing for emotional well-being is to feel cared about. Best of all, it rarely takes more than a kind word or caring gesture to show that you care. Make it a habit to show your kids, colleagues, and parents that they matter: for example, a friendly greeting, a touch on an unhappy child’s shoulder, a moment to listen to a stressed colleague, a phone call home to share good news. These gestures will make their day, and you’ll probably notice that making their day will usually make yours!

Allen Mendler is an educator and school psychologist who has worked extensively with children of all ages in regular and special education settings. He provides school-based inservice training on this topic and on motivating and managing difficult students. Allen can be reached via allenmendler@rocketmail.com, and his ASCD book When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game is available in print and e-book formats in the ASCD Online Store. A free study guide is available on ASCD.org.