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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Response: Teaching Can Be Tough, But We’re ‘Lucky’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 23, 2017 20 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What do you think is the toughest part of teaching and how do you deal with it?

In Part One, Roxanna Elden, Robert Ward, Cindi Rigsbee, Megan Allen, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Daniel Jerome, and Lois Weiner shared their answers. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Roxanna, Robert and Cindi on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Jen Schwanke, Amanda Koonlaba, Jennifer Orr, Allison Rodman, Patricia (Tish) Jennings, Peter P. Leibman and Bill Ivey contribute their thoughts. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke is the author of You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders (ASCD). Schwanke began her career as a language arts educator and is currently a principal for the Dublin City School District in Dublin, Ohio. A graduate instructor in educational leadership, she has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications and blogs about her experiences in learning and leading at jenschwanke.com. Follow Schwanke on Twitter @Jenschwanke and Instagram @jenschwanke:

No one is going to deny that teaching is tough. It’s a challenging job, for two separate but simultaneous reasons. The first is management, and the second is the emotional investment that is required to be a teacher.


Getting it all done. Each day, whether we teach 25 students or 125 students, there are piles of things to work on. We can never really seem to catch up.

Paperwork, documentation, and data collection. Keeping track of student growth has become a requirement and, therefore, we have to devote constant attention to it.

Long hours and days. In a lot of ways, teaching has become an around-the-clock, around-the-year thing. Evenings after school are filled with paperwork and planning; summers are spent in on professional reading and professional development.

Balance with other requirements of our lives. Juggling the needs of our families and loved ones, or trying to focus on some other aspect of ourselves, can feel overwhelming. It’s tricky to excel in our work as teachers when we’re trying to get better at everything else, too.

Teaching is also an emotional challenge:

There’s never really an endpoint. We can teach our hearts out, and then the school year ends and we gather our energy and we do it all again. And again. And again. There’s never a time we can actually wipe our hands on a proverbial apron and declare, “Well. That’s done.”

Success measurements are subjective. Our success isn’t necessarily measured in what we know about students and their learning--it’s measured with standardized tests that are can’t capture all the great things we’re doing.

Accolades and satisfaction must come from within. Rarely does someone stop to say, “Thank you. I really appreciate all the things you are doing.” Teachers have to find our own motivation and satisfaction with the work.

Parents. The spectrum is wide: parents who want nothing to do with us, and parents who want to take over and do it themselves. Each one of them requires a different approach.

Expectations. Expectations are constantly changing for teachers, and they come from everywhere: School and district leadership, state mandates, parents, colleagues, and students themselves.

Constant reflection. It’s what makes us effective—the ongoing search for ways to improve instruction--but it also means there’s always an underlying vulnerability. We walk around all the time with a little cartoon bubble above our heads that asks, “What can I do better?”

There is inevitable failure. We’re not going to get to them all. We’re just not. There are going to be students with whom we cannot connect; parents who dislike our work; and leaders who make us feel like failures.

So, yeah. It’s tough.

What will help us handle it all? For me, it’s remembering why we’re here. I get really feisty when I hear a repeated lament on how hard teaching is. Of course it’s hard. Work is hard, by nature. That’s why we call it work. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s hard—and then move on. Staying in the place where we’re just discussing the hard-ness of our work won’t get the work done. It’s like a runner who doesn’t take off after the gun goes off because he knows the race is going to be tough, and he’d rather stay back at the starting line and ponder it a little longer. Nope, we’ve got to get going. Get started.

Let’s remember this: At the end of each day, despite the stuff that challenges us, we’re still the ones lucky enough to work with young people. We get to teach them things, and expose them to things they will carry with them forever and ever. And when we remember that part of our work? That isn’t hard at all.

Response From Amanda Koonlaba

Amanda Koonlaba, Ed.S., NBCT, is a teacher, artist, and writer. She is a member of the 2015 class of ASCD Emerging Leaders. Follow her on Twitter @akoonlaba:

This question provokes many emotions. The toughest part of teaching for me has been filtering away from my students the negativity in the culture surrounding the public educational system in this country. I am talking about the negativity you hear from policymakers and in the media. Sometimes it feels like all you ever hear about public schools in the media is how lazy the teachers are, how much money it costs to educate students, how low the test scores are, etc. It is hurtful on a personal level. I am a teacher deep down to my very marrow. I teach from the very deepest part of who I am as a human being. When the governor of your state calls public education an “abysmal failure,” and you are this committed to teaching in that public education system, it is personally hurtful.

However, this personal hurt is nothing compared to how I feel about what I see it do to students. I’ve had students repeat to me what they’ve heard in the media, or what they’ve heard their parents repeat from the media. I also hear other teachers, from all across the country, tell similar stories, which is disheartening. Students are internalizing this negativity. On the one hand, they get the message that they shouldn’t respect their schools or teachers because the people in power don’t respect them. On the other hand, the message is that their teachers and schools, both things they care about, are abysmal failures. So, they must be abysmal failures themselves.

I am a teacher, and I have to look into the faces of students every single day. The people putting this negativity out into the culture do not. So, trying to remain positive while working with my students in the midst of such negativity is tough.

I deal with this by being an advocate and activist. At some point, I just started seeking out opportunities to make my voice heard. I write for whatever publication outlets I can find. I have formed relationships with my governmental representatives and the administration in my district. I’ve joined groups for educators, such as Delta Kappa Gamma and developed networks, such as with the ASCD Emerging Leaders. I’ve also started volunteering with advocacy groups, such as The Network for Public Education. I do not think I know everything, but I want to be part of the discussions taking place. I want to model for my students what it looks like to stand up for others and what it looks like to participate in a democracy, or representative government.

Before I began using my voice as a citizen of this country, I felt very much like it was hopeless to try to change the narrative surrounding public education. However, now, I feel like I am doing something worthwhile. It feels really good to know that I am modeling what I expect out of my students. I expect good citizenship from them. I expect them to stand up for themselves and others. So, by being an activist and advocate for my students, I am able to have hope for the future of our schools. This is how I deal with what I’ve described as the toughest part of teaching, and it gives me great strength to move forward in this profession.

Response From Jennifer Orr

Jennifer Orr teaches kindergartners at a public Title I school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader, blogs at jenorr.com, and is @jenorr on Twitter. She feels lucky to have a job she loves:

Teaching is full of tough parts, but most of the time I enjoy them. Getting to know students and building solid relationships with them and their families is no easy task. But I recognize the value of doing so and am aware of how much it will make other parts of my job easier. Creating a classroom community in which students feel safe and able to take risks as learners is exceptionally difficult. It is something I love doing because I know how much better our time together will be if it is done well. Assessing students’ understanding and planning appropriate, interesting lessons is also a challenge. Again, however, I find it to be like a puzzle, a fun undertaking.

The toughest parts of the job are also, often, the reasons I love the job. They are the parts of the job that are directly related to my students and their learning. These parts of the job are why I am in this profession, why I continue to do this job year after year.

That said, the parts of the job that are truly the toughest for me, the ones I want to put off or avoid altogether, are the parts that seem removed from my students. These are the parts that don’t seem to impact my students or improve things for them. Completing paperwork, entering data, copying things for cumulative folders, and such are the tasks that are the most challenging for me. There is no obvious link from these parts of teaching to my students and their learning so these feel like an unnecessary burden.

Regardless of how they seem to me, these are tasks that must be done. It’s possible I procrastinate more than I should on them, but eventually they are completed. One strategy that helps me is to write these tasks on a to-do list (I use a digital one that I can access from any device). Seeing them in black and white makes it harder for me to ignore them. Plus, checking them off feels good!

I will often require myself to do one or two of these onerous tasks during my planning time or after school before I treat myself to a bit of time on Twitter or reading blogs. Rewarding myself after completing a task I find to be a challenge helps me find the necessary motivation to get started.

Response From Allison Rodman

Allison Rodman (@thelearningloop) is the Founder of The Learning Loop LLC, an educational consulting organization that provides professional learning services to districts, schools, and educational nonprofit organizations. She has worked as a teacher, instructional coach, assistant principal, and director of teaching and learning. Allison is a board member for the Haddon Township School District in New Jersey and delegate to the Camden County Educational Services Commission. She was named an ASCD Emerging Leader in 2013:

Amazing teaching—the kind that brings you to the edge of your seat, waiting for the next lesson—is an art. It is also downright exhausting. A seasoned teacher shared that good teaching is like being a juggler in a circus on a plane that is on fire while trying to land on a moving ship. And the really good ones, he continued, do it without even thinking about it. While this was shared as somewhat of a joke, it is an accurate analogy for the demands our teachers face.

Circus juggler - Teachers engage in an endless balancing act of student, parent, and administrator demands. Dropping balls is simply not an option and frequently more are added to the act. Teachers learn to manage this with grace, much like a circus performer.

Flying a plane on fire - Schools continue to do more with less. Teachers facilitate lessons in an era that demands virtual and personalized learning tools, yet education budgets face ongoing cuts, making these difficult to integrate. Educators use money from their own shrinking salaries and get creative with policies such as BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) to help fill the gap.

Landing on a moving ship - The goals we set for our students and schools continue to move. Teachers begin each year with a new set of learning targets and a fresh batch of standardized tests to measure their mastery. The landing pad keeps moving, making it difficult to chart one’s progress and make refinements from year to year.

It is no wonder that one of the toughest parts of teaching is the exhaustion. It is important for teachers to take an intermission to reflect and recharge:

- Set limits on the amount of work you bring home. Preserve weekends and one or two nights a week as time to reset. Stop laughing - yes, you can do this and still be a good teacher. Make a clear action plan for each week to maximize your work time and still respond to “in the moment” needs.

- Practice mindfulness with your students. Be aware of your surroundings, including your stressors, and own them. Teach your students mindful meditation strategies and incorporate them at the beginning of class. Both you and students will begin the lesson in a much more focused state. An added benefit is that mindfulness has been shown to boost our immune systems (and save money on Cold-Eeze).

- Identify accountability partners. Pair up with colleagues who will hold you accountable to actions that are important to you - exercising, reading a good book, or simply leaving work on time.

- Find your tribe. Look for people who fuel your soul and make you happy - those who remind you why you began teaching. Add them to your professional learning network and connect with them often. Meet for coffee, tweet, vox, text, or call - just do not close your door and go at it alone. Teaching is not a solo sport. Even circus jugglers are sure to keep good company.

Response From Patricia (Tish) Jennings

Patricia (Tish) Jennings, MEd, PhD is an Associate Professor of Education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of social and emotional learning and mindfulness in education with a specific emphasis on teacher stress and how it impacts the social and emotional context of the classroom. She is the author of Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom part of the Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education:

Lee Schulman, Emeritus Professor at Stanford who studied professional development for over 30 years remarked that, “classroom teaching ... is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented. . .” (Schulman, 2004). After 20+ years as a classroom teacher, I heartily agree.

Since I left the classroom I have been studying what makes teaching so demanding and stressful. I discovered that the classroom context has features that are unique in the world of work. The classroom is full of constant activity, placing a very high demand on a teacher’s attention and other cognitive functions. She must shift her attention from one student to another, while maintaining awareness of everything else that is going on and tracking the sequence and content of her lesson. She must juggle the demands of individual students against the needs of the rest of the class and monitor multiple levels of learning and development

The social and emotional demands of the classroom are staggering. The teacher must build supportive relationships with 20-30 young people, with their own individual needs, desires, fears, and concerns, while these young people are learning how to manage social relationships between and among themselves, working through their emotional ups and downs, friendships and conflicts.

Add to this the fact that there is no privacy in the classroom and everyone is a virtual captive—none can leave without adverse consequences, especially the teacher. This lack of privacy and sense of being a captive, creates an added level of stress—it can sometimes feel like a pressure cooker. To top it off, when students go off task or interfere with lessons, a teacher can become frustrated and annoyed but must manage her feelings professionally without losing her cool. In other work contexts, when something frustrates us, we can take a break to cool off. Teachers don’t have this luxury.

Teacher preparation programs rarely address these issues and most teachers enter the workforce ill equipped to perform well without additional professional development and coaching. The good news is that more schools of education are addressing this need. At the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, my elementary education students learn strategies to manage these demands in the classroom management course I teach. They learn about emotions, the stress response and why the classroom can be so stressful. They learn tools to monitor and manage their stress as they work so they can avoid burnout that is taking a toll on our teaching workforce.

Schulman, L. S. (2004). The Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learning, and Learning to Teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Response From Peter P. Leibman

Peter P. Leibman Ed.D, is author of Launch a Teaching Career: Secrets for Aspiring Teachers (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), associate professor and supervisor of student teachers at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights where graduates are securing teaching positions in record numbers. Dr. Leibman has served as principal K-12, director of planning in central office, and president of the Principals’ Association on Long Island in an extensive career:

The toughest part of teaching is effectively dealing with our diverse population of children and the social issues that negatively impact learning. Diversity is not limited to cultural or racial differences but also includes a wide range of academic abilities, disparities in self-esteem and focus, degrees of support and guidance children receive at home, economic differences, special needs and the limited English speaking skills of a significant immigrant population.

With an out-of wedlock birthrate, nationally, of 40 percent, divorce rate of over 50 percent, alcohol and drug abuse, cyber bullying, suicide, child abuse and the negative influence of social media, our children are bombarded with all of the wrong messages.

In any of our classrooms dedicated teachers can become frustrated with extreme diversity and overemphasis on test scores and children can be prevented from developing higher order thinking skills and self-esteem. As the family unit breaks down and detrimental experiences abound, children have limited guidance and focus. Education is relegated to secondary importance.

Given these factors, how does a teacher succeed? Typically, children who do not achieve in school are not known as teachers focus on what they teach rather than what students learn. In order to be successful teachers must first learn student gifts and challenges providing lessons that enhance talents and address deficiencies.

Gathering as much information about your students can be accomplished by meeting with counselors, school psychologists and social workers, by reviewing records, securing student writing samples, pre-testing, meeting with parents/guardians, having students and/or parents/guardians complete a thoughtful questionnaire, building self-esteem with the establishment of genuine occasions of success, “seeing” everyone and being a good observer and creating effective strategies and related methodologies that allow for maximum interaction, a prelude to learning. A review of standards and objectives for the year before and the year after your grade level would also be helpful.

Response From Bill Ivey

Bill Ivey is Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School:

First, I think the toughest part of teaching is going to vary for everyone. Teaching draws so heavily on so many different parts of who we are and is rooted in our experiences, personalities, skillset, and content knowledge, not to mention our knowledge (and the reality) of our students’ experiences, personalities, skillset, and content knowledge. Depending on who we are, the kids with whom we are working, and where we are in our career arcs, the answer is bound to be different from person to person and even perhaps from moment to moment, often profoundly so.

That acknowledged, for me, the toughest part of teaching is maximizing honest self-reflection on how to continually improve without undercutting my self esteem, finding that elusive balance where I can be comfortable knowing I’ll never be perfect but that I’m also continually getting better. I achieve that balance, oh, maybe one or two days a year. In general, I’m pretty hard on myself, so my off-balance moments skew hard toward a distinct lack of self-forgiveness.

I see each one of the wonderful kids that have been entrusted to my care, each one absolutely unique and so absolutely special. I want them to be their own best possible selves, with the emphasis on “possible” while simultaneously recognizing one can’t always accurately judge potential. I want them to be curious, and stretch and challenge themselves, and love and respect themselves and each other, and always, always, grow in the moment and over time. Anything I can do to help them along that path is great. Anything I do, despite all best intentions, to inhibit their progress is completely unacceptable. The tougher part is wondering “if.” Sure, Sara’s writing is much stronger than it was four months ago. But if I’d thought of something else to support her, would it be even stronger? That’s the space where I struggle the most.

I know we’re supposed to believe that only the genuinely good and great teachers experience these kinds of struggles, and deep down I think there’s some truth to that. And yet... what if I’m experiencing these kinds of struggles because of who I am, not how effective I am? That’s the toughest part for me, and what sometimes keeps me up at night staring at the ceiling.

Responses From Readers


Toughest part of teaching: finding time to grade student writing. How I deal with it: assign less, shorten the assignments.

Thanks to Jen, Amanda, Jennifer, Allison, Patricia, Peter and, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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