This past fall, Roxanna Elden, author of the book See Me After Class, offered teachers a lifeline. Aware that many teachers leave their jobs around Thanksgiving, she began offering what she called a Disillusionment Power Pack: an email subscription service that would send teachers constant notes of encouragement and reflection. As an NPR story noted at that time, Elden started with a simple statement: It’s OK for new teachers to cry in their cars.
The Disillusionment Power Pack sends an email almost every day to those who sign up. Throughout the course of a month, Elden offers reflections on such things as setting expectations and moments of failure. Now, after a little more than two months, more than 5,000 teachers have signed up for the Power Pack. Due to its popularity, Elden also wrote a follow-up for Hechinger offering support to those supporting teachers.
Elden is an English teacher at Hialeah High School, in Florida. In addition to her aforementioned book, she also has a new children’s book out, Rudy’s New Human. Currently on maternity leave, Elden had some time over the holidays to talk with me about what she’s learned from her email project, among other things. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Education Week Teacher: In one email, you solicited feedback from readers asking them what they wanted to see you address, and the overwhelming response centered on classroom management. Why is that particular area such a thorn?
Roxanna Elden: Someone told me when I was writing my book, “Just so you know, every single person who’s thinking of buying this book is going to read the first couple pages, and then they’re going to turn directly to classroom management.”
First of all, it’s the most obvious issue in your class, right? We’d all like to be more data-driven or, name your goal, but if you can’t get your kids to be quiet, that’s a really in-your-face insult to your teaching and your own ego on a constant basis. But it’s exhausting. So I think that’s part of why.
And I also just think most of what you do learn in training about classroom management is actually good information, which is why I think people have trouble getting past some of these soundbites. You know: ‘Be consistent!’ Yeah, you should be consistent. ‘Give positive reinforcement!’ Yeah, you should give positive reinforcement. But then, when you’re actually a new teacher and you’re facing this nonstop stream of judgment calls, sometimes you ask yourself, well, what would it mean to be consistent in this situation? And there are often two possible, contradictory answers.
There’s just a certain amount of teaching that I think you have to learn through trial and error, and I just feel like everyone has an incentive to bury that fact. You know, if you in any way are involved in training teachers, you’re not going to say, “Yeah, teachers end up crying in their cars in October,’ because it might be true and you have to deal with reality.
You’ve argued in both the Power Pack and elsewhere that there are too many grand expectations on teachers. Where did you develop that mentality toward the teaching profession?
When you’re obsessed with one subject, which I am, and you talk about it for 10 years, you keep on trying to get to, “What’s the one kind of thing I can say that will get down to the core? What’s really itching me about this issue?” You can get accused of so many things as a teacher who pushes back on any of this “Freedom Writers” narrative. “What are you saying, that every teacher is good? We should never fire any of them?” Not really! You keep wanting to say no no no, that’s not what I’m saying, I’m saying this, and eventually you get I think pretty good at isolating what you’re trying to say.
We want teachers to act in this superhero way. We encourage a lot of unhealthy habits, like not sleeping, like not taking care of your own needs as a human being, and acting like that’s going to make you a better teacher, which I think is very disruptive. Then there’s the media angle, with the hero teacher movies especially; I think it really encourages teachers to insult their more experienced colleagues. You’re going to come in, you’re going to fix everything because you really care? Well, what do you think these teachers who have been doing this 20 years are doing there if they don’t care? That’s a really bad way to go into a school and try to be a new teacher.
In your emails, you make the case for teachers to have a “board of advisers.” What’s the difference between a board of advisers and a professional learning community?
The best PLC would probably be a lot like a board of advisers, but PLCs are put together by people other than you; it would be put together at the school level. Is that right? The difference is you choose your own board of advisers. Your board of advisers, they need to know each other. They need to have some relationship with you. A PLC is great, it’s just a different thing.
Having a whole board is good because sometimes teachers need more than just a mentor, right? Especially if they don’t have a good mentor.
My mentor was great, so I don’t know this from personal experience. But I definitely had friends who their mentor was the principal’s best friend, and was kind of a spy in their classroom. My mentor taught a pretty different group of kids than I did, so we taught the same subject matter, but there was a lot that I couldn’t use for my classroom.
Also, I thought teachers can define their own PLCs, but maybe that’s one of those terms with no agreeable definition.
There are so many of those in education.
Did you hear from any teachers who still hung it up after subscribing to your emails?
I heard from a lot of people, and the majority was “Thank you, this is exactly what I have been thinking, I thought I was the only one.” But I do think one person did say she was going to leave teaching—and I think she might have gotten fired—but that happens, right? You have 5,000 people reading your emails, they’re going to have 5,000 different experiences.
Besides classroom management, what did you hear about the most?
Problems with administrators. And I don’t know if that’s necessarily because that’s the main second issue, but I think it’s the main issue where they’re really stuck and they don’t know what else to do. They probably can’t talk to anyone else in their school building about it.
There are some bad principals out there. I don’t know exactly what teaching is like if you get stuck with that one. The main thing I tell people is that there is a decent chance that a bad first year does not mean that you’re not cut out to be a teacher. If the only thorn is a school administrator, you don’t necessarily have proof that it’s you and not the administrator that’s the problem.
How close were you in your first year of teaching to quitting?
I don’t really think I was close to quitting, because I was one of those people that wanted to be a teacher since high school, and I just ... that wasn’t what I was going to do. I wouldn’t have known what else to with my life besides teaching.
Are you a believer in New Year’s resolutions?
Not really. I’m not a big believer in the power of our best intentions, if that makes sense. I feel like your best intentions wear off very quickly when you get very tired. A New Year’s resolution probably has the best chance of working if you’ve really given some thought to how you act when you’re not in resolution mode. So if you get tired at 8 o’clock every night and you are able to plan around that, you’re better off. You have a better chance. But I don’t make them.
What advice might you offer for a teacher who’s just coming out of their own winter break then?
I am a very big believer in second-half-of-the-year resolutions for new teachers. I don’t think that’s a New Year’s resolution. That’s a real if-I-had-known-then-what-I-know-now-I-could-do-better thing, and you really can make some changes in your classroom in January.
I think the most important thing to know is if you’re going to make big plans, and if they go 80 percent as well as you thought they would, then you’re doing great; you can give yourself a big pat on the back.
But second of all, I think teachers are better off, instead of giving themselves this big pep talk about how they’re going to be better at everything than they were at the beginning of the year—this time I’m going to keep up with grading, and this time I’m going to make sure the color-coded folders are filled out by Thursday night instead of Friday morning—you might be better off saying, “How can I simplify my grading, and how can I not color code my folders?” And just do something that’s more basic and more easy to keep up with.
Give an incentive for kids to remind you. One example of something I did in January of my first year: I had a real problem remembering to send the attendance card to the office—which is obviously not how it works anymore—and I would feel bad. They really needed them by 9:30, so I would get a call. But my brain was so chaotic and I kept forgetting to do that. So in the second half of the year, instead of me just saying I’m going to be better at this, I realized if I made it a contest where the kid who reminded me to take the attendance cards would get to go down the hall and take them, [that would help]. And it was just the simplest little tweak, and I never forgot the attendance cards again. Something like that where you can figure out how to work around your weakness instead of just resolving to not be weak, I think you’re better off.
Follow Roxanna on Twitter: @RoxannaElden
More on teacher mental health and support:
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.