Teaching Opinion

Response: Recover From Bad Days by Seeing ‘Disasters as Opportunities’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 03, 2013 10 min read
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(This is Part One in a multi-part series on this topic)

This week’s “question-of-the-week” is:

What do you do when you’re having a bad day in the classroom? How do you get over feelings of frustration?

Who among us doesn’t have a bad day now-and-then?

This post kicks-off a three-part series responding to this question, so there is plenty of time for readers to continue sending in their suggestions. Today’s column has quite a line-up, starting with Roxanna Elden, who is one of the most engaging and entertaining education writers around. Her contribution is followed by guest responses from two other exceptional educators and authors -- Allen Mendler and Julia Thompson.

Before we get to them, though, I’d like to share a few of my own ideas. My comments are coming in two parts: today, I’ll be focused on prevention -- what can we do to minimize the chances of having a bad day? Later this week, I’ll share what how I try to handle things when all my preventative actions come to naught.

There’s a lot of truth in the old proverb, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

We obviously have an enormous amount of control about whether it’s going to be a good day in our class or not. Here are some of the preventative actions I take to reduce the odds of the day “going south":

Putting a lot of effort into developing relationships: By demonstrating interest, respect, and caring, students are more likely going to make an effort to try their best or, at minimum, be less likely to be disruptive.

Having a positive classroom management plan in place: You can read more about the kind of classroom management strategies I use in these previous posts.

Preparing an engaging lesson: If I’ve prepared a good lesson, which includes containing interesting material, requiring a fair amount of cooperative work, and doesn’t have me speaking a lot in front, then it makes it less likely my students and/or I are going to have a bad day. One of the elements I’ve been trying to be more intentional at this year is what one of my mentors, Kelly Young, calls having an “academic press” -- the one key learning that I want students to get out of each lesson.

Modeling student activities: Explaining what I want students to do is not enough -- I have to model it. It doesn’t have to take long, but whether it’s showing how I want students to work in a small group, or demonstrating how and where on a text I want them to write about a reading strategy they will be using, there’s no question that modeling minimizes confusion and increases learning (and the odds that we’re all going to have a good day).

Getting enough sleep, feeling rested, and being healthy: Generally, bad days happen when I’m feeling tired, run-down, or sick. I’ve found that they’re less likely to occur if I’m regularly getting my exercise (which has been playing basketball at a mediocre skill level for forty years).

These actions are not foolproof, though, and I still have my share of bad days. As I mentioned, I’ll share what I do when that occurs in Part Two of this series.

In the meantime, here is some great advice from my guests....

Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is a National Board Certified high school teacher and a speaker on education topics. A second edition of her book See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, is due out November 7. For more information visit the book’s website:

It’s in teachers’ nature to start the year hopeful and full of new ideas. This year is going to be different, we tell ourselves. I’m going to get all those papers graded. With insightful comments. Within 24 hours. The kids are going to walk in quietly and enthusiastically every day. Last year’s mistakes are in the past.

Then the school year starts, and things get complicated.

By November, the “honeymoon period” of student behavior - if there ever was one - has long ended. The hours of lost sleep have added up, and this year is starting to seem a lot like... last year.

So what do you do after a frustrating day? Here are a few suggestions.

Plan Something More Fun - or Less Fun - For Tomorrow

Sure, you know that you need to plan good lessons if you want the kids to behave, but if today was frustrating because the kids acted up during your carefully-planned, fun activity, you may need a less active, less fun lesson tomorrow. Students need to know they share the responsibility for making enjoyable activities run smoothly. By all means plan good lessons, but also have some type of backup plan that starts with the words, “Take out a blank sheet of paper.”

Avoid the Hollywood Version of Teaching

Movies based on stories teachers have written about themselves, filtered through the lens of the movie industry, are a lot less inspiring when the non-Hollywood, unscripted version is playing full time in your classroom. The same goes for books written by award-winning teachers who seem genetically engineered not to need any sleep. Funny movies about less-than-perfect teachers, like Hamlet II, Chalk, or Bad Teacher might be a better fit. Better yet, watch something that has nothing to do with your day job. Leave teaching films for their intended audience - the non-teaching public. Watch “inspiring” shows about doctors and policemen instead.

Reach Out to Rookies

If you’ve had a bad day recently - or even a string of bad days - remember that the new teacher down the hall might be struggling even more. The period between Halloween and Thanksgiving is what the New Teacher Center calls the “Disillusionment” phase for new teachers. This is the time frame in which new teachers are most likely to burst into tears in public, type up resignation letters “just in case,” or fantasize about driving off a bridge on the way to work. So stop by - not for a gripe session, but to offer help and reassure newer colleagues that this season is tiring for everyone. Remind them that while teaching has its low points, there are plenty of high notes still to come. They won’t know that you’re secretly reassuring yourself.

Know When to Quit: No, no. Don’t quit your job! Just quit talking about it. Quit replaying the day in your head. Quit reading about education politics as a “break” from reading student papers. Sacrificing your personal life to the classroom may seem like a sign of dedication, but is more likely to lead to burnout and bad attitude. We all need to time to go home, turn the teaching dial down, and go back to being a person with a first name. An extra hour at school in which you only got three papers graded would have been better spent relaxing so you can be mentally prepared for tomorrow.

Response From Allen Mendler

Allen Mendler is the author of When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game (ASCD, 2012) and Discipline with Dignity: New Challenges, New Solutions, 3rd edition (ASCD, 2008):

Realistically, none of us are going to be at the top of our game every minute. Like a great athlete who makes an error or strikes out, keep your head in the game. Review the play later to see what you might have done differently in hopes of avoiding a recurrence. Our obligation is to be at our best for our students at all times. You need to turn the page as quickly as possible in the moment to keep the bad day from continuing. Was one or more of your students behaving badly? Did you do or say something you regret? Apologize soon thereafter and encourage the student to fix his behavior

‘I messed up earlier when I lost my temper. I should have found a better time and place to let you know that I wasn’t pleased when you (describe the objectionable behavior) and I will try hard not to do that again. Now that you know what I can do better, is there anything you think you can do better?’

Did a colleague, parent or administrator say or do something inappropriate? Take a few deep breaths and deal with it.

‘I don’t appreciate being talked to in that way. Please don’t do that again.’

Are you often having ‘bad days’ and is this just the latest? What is at the core of your dissatisfaction? Is it within your control or beyond? At the very least, focus more on what you have to feel grateful about rather than whatever is keeping you from feeling good.

‘I have a good paying job in a spotty economy.’

‘As tough as it is, I’m not in a hospital fighting for my life.’

‘I have an opportunity every day to affect how kids think and feel about themselves.’

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is a teacher, consultant, and best-selling author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide. Thompson maintains a Web site for educators and a blog, and can found on Twitter at @TeacherAdvice:

I’ve written a great deal about teacher frustration and stress over the course of my long career probably because I am always trying to figure out ways to manage the negative side of a profession I love. Although I write for other teachers, I am also seeking solutions for myself. There’s no doubt about it: teaching is a very stressful occupation. Some of us become too burned-out to function well as teachers or even as humans. Worse yet, some teachers stay in the classroom and inflict us all with their gloom and doom. If you’ve ever read any of my advice on managing stress, those are the teachers I warn you not to sit with at lunch.

As an experienced teacher, I have made a conscious effort to develop strategies that I can deploy when I feel frustrated at school. Here are some of the techniques that work for me.

  • Don’t rant endlessly, but do seek support from your colleagues. Everyone needs friends at school. One of the best things about working with teachers is that we are trained to offer encouragement and advice.

  • If you have a stressed-out moment during class, smile and act as if you have things under control. Your students do not need to know that you are having a bad day.

  • Give up those heavy loads of teacher-guilt that we all carry around. We cannot make all of our students into happy and successful scholars in the course of a school term, no matter how diligently we try. Do your very best every day and do not allow yourself to feel guilty about all of the missed opportunities for improving your students’ lives that you missed along the way.

  • Take care of your health. Eat well. Get enough rest to function successfully at work. Practice deep breathing exercises to stay calm. Exercise will help you cope with the effects of stressful situations, too. Get outdoors and get moving.

  • See opportunities instead of disasters. You will need to develop an optimistic and resilient attitude in order to feel confident as a teacher. Instead of dwelling on the things you have done wrong, learn from them instead.

  • Leave your problems at school, but take your successes home. If you don’t learn to compartmentalize your professional and private lives, you will be stressed out over your job twenty-four hours a day.

  • Take ownership of what goes on in your classroom. If you blame others, nothing will ever change. If it’s your problem, you can solve it. Taking charge of your classroom is empowering because it allows you to move forward toward solutions.

  • Solve your problems as quickly as you can. If you are stressed, because you have too many papers to grade, for example, divide them into reasonable stacks and get busy. Settling down to solve a problem will prevent it from looming over you.

  • Refuse to take it personally when your students are disruptive or uninterested in a lesson. The cause of the problem probably has nothing to do with you.

  • Focus on the big picture. On those really tough days, remind yourself that a year from now, today’s problems will probably be forgotten.

Thanks to Roxanna, Allen and Julia for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be including many readers’ comments in a future post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be ending this year with Stenhouse.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from this school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar.

Also, Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Look for Part Two in a few days...

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.