What to Do When You’re Fed Up

I get tired. I get annoyed. I start to think that teaching teenagers for the rest of my life is a bad idea.

Are there solutions to this problem?

1. Perspective

Last week, I had a trying morning.  I felt like knocking my Prep students about their heads and yelling “Grow up!”  When I returned, simmering, to my office and booted up the computer, a status update from the same date two years earlier popped up in my Facebook sidebar.  What had I been thinking on that exact day in 2009?

“Just not feeling it.  Is 40 a good time for a career change?”

I remember that day in 2009, and the days after.  By the end of that semester, I was having a pretty good time.  A few months later, I was having the best semester of my life.  And now it’s come around to “Ugh!” again.

The moral?  Everything is cyclical.  I will never get to a place where the hard part is over and the rest of my career is a cakewalk.

As Rilke put it, “Just keep going.  No feeling is final.”

2. Presence

I read Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach a few years ago, and now I’m listening to it as an audiobook.  Palmer has a lot to say about the moments when we get angry, tired and self-critical.  One way to face these feelings, he says, is through presence.  We need to be fully present, fully connected, to all our teaching experiences.  We avoid being present out of fear.

One of my students is disconnecting.  He was recruited by the athletics department from a small town in the north of Quebec; he would not be attending an English college otherwise, because he barely speaks English at all.  He’s bothering me.  His sullen, sometimes slightly belligerent manner throws me off my game in the classroom.  He asks questions in an aggrieved tone when it’s obvious that the information he needs will be coming along any minute now.  He plays showily with his cell phone.  He mutters things to his neighbour, who laughs, but seems a bit sheepish about it.

At the same time, I know why he’s behaving this way: he’s seventeen, he’s confused, he’s tired, he’s living on his own in the student residence and learning how to fend for himself, and every day is an exhausting ordeal of trying to function in a language he doesn’t fully understand.  And, let’s face it: he might just dislike me.  Football players and I don’t have much in common, and I refused to edit one of his Humanities assignments and instructed him to go to the Learning Centre instead.

My inclination is to ignore him, but I know that this will be disastrous, so I’m trying to find ways to be fully present.  I ask him after class if he’s feeling ok, as he seems tired today.  I promise to answer his questions in a moment, and then ask if he has the info he needs.  At the same time, I’m ready to tell him to leave the class if his behaviour becomes truly distracting to me or others.  I have a feeling I’ll have to have conversations with him.  I HATE these conversations, believe me.  If I listened to my fear of confrontation, I’d pretend none of this was happening.

But no.  I will remain present.  If it kills me.

3. Patience

Learning is difficult, and teaching is a constant process of learning.  They will get frustrated, and so will I, because if we’re doing our jobs right, we’re taking on tasks that aren’t easy.  Getting fed up is normal, and it doesn’t have to be destructive, as long as we recognize it for what it is: a knee-jerk response to fear.  Fear of losing control, of being disliked, of failing at whatever it is we’re trying to do.  We can go beyond the knee-jerk if we give ourselves, and them, some authentic and receptive time.

My tendency, when the fear arises, is to become coldly, witheringly annoyed.  I know this about myself, and I judge myself for it.  It’s ineffective and sometimes downright mean.  But it’s possible to know this and work to change it without beating myself up.  I can try to approach the student who bothers me with a real desire to understand.  I can walk into class curious about what will happen.  I can try to maintain a sense of humour instead of a steel grip.  And when I am just plain pissed off, it doesn’t mean I’m a terrible teacher or a miserable person.  It just means I have more work to do.

By the same token, when they are angry, frustrated, checking out, even rude, I don’t have to write them off.  I may never grow to like some of them, and I may have to struggle all semester to work with some of them productively, but what’s wrong with that?  A little struggle never hurt anyone.

I want a job that never makes me mad.  Unfortunately, I live in the real world with other human beings.  I’m going to try to give myself some basic help: more sleep, plenty of vegetables, maybe even a bit of fresh air sometime between now and Christmas.  And then I’m going to maintain perspective, stay present, and be patient, with them and me.  I may have to kick someone out of class or give them a good talking-to, but I won’t smack anyone or quit my job.

Not today, anyhow.  We’ll see how I feel this time next year.

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Image by Christian Popescu

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15 responses

  1. Excellent post, Siobhan…very REAL, very honest. I like that! And I believe everything you’ve said has crossed the mind of every single teacher out there – who is aware and present and not a narcissist – and it’s comforting to know that we are not alone in thinking that.

    Keep up the great work, and for God’s sake, keep writing about it!

  2. Yes, thanks! In the humanities class I teach I always get a handful who really hate the subject matter and every once in a while I get a student who is so bitter to be in class that they take it out on me. It is sad when one student can ruin an experience. I find that I start harping on those students in my own mind and also vocally at home, and pretty soon I have forgotten the other 48 students who are polite and kind and doing their best. It is a good wake up call to have you write about it, and good advice as well. We can’t always reach every student, but we should keep trying. Just the other day I got several facebook messages from previous students telling me how something I said or a piece of music I introduced them to changed their lives. Who knew? We can never be sure the impact we are making. Perhaps your kindness and patience towards this student will pay off in some way in the end.

    • Damommachef: Palmer talks about this, too: how we become obsessed with one student who’s giving us a hard time and forget about the other 40 in the room who need us as much as or more than he does. One of my goals this semester is to stay fully present, not only for the difficult students, but the ones I’m not noticing because they’re causing no trouble at all!

  3. The name Parker Palmer rang a bell. Sure enough, the book you cited, The Courage To Teach, is sitting patiently in my home library, hoping I will read it some day! Thanks for the push — time to put it in the “batter’s box”, i.e. my bedside table.

  4. I needed to read this today. I was just talking to one of my colleagues about how much I hate 9th graders at the beginning of the year. They are like these little, dirty, whiny, pustules that can’t do anything… and yet by the middle of each year I adore them. I always seem to forget how annoying they were in the beginning. Like you said, it is all cyclical and it’s important that we don’t beat ourselves up when things don’t go exactly as planned.

    • TG: your description made me laugh out loud. I actually remember going into a bit of depression before I entered the ninth grade, and my mother giving me a little talk about how, about halfway through ninth grade, the other kids, especially the boys, transform. They stop being whiny pustules and start heading toward adulthood. She was right. Fortunately, I only had to go through ninth grade once – I feel for those who go through it every year!

  5. Excellent advice to help all teachers get through these feelings that I remember well form when I was in the classroom. These feelings seem to be a requirement of being a teacher. And you are so right about Parker Palmer–his work is well worth the read.

  6. Well said. Thank you for reminding me that it is okay to become frustrated. That even a teacher has moments when we just don’t want to do it…and it is okay. It passes. One of my favorite sayings, “The hard thing to do, and the right thing to do, are usually the same thing.”

    Teach on.

  7. You can’t reach everyone. All you can do is hope to be that special teacher for some students, and bring as many of them as possible along to their best potential in your class. Sometimes I get fed up, too, but I mostly view my teaching as “creating the next generation,” and therefore see it as extremely important work. Maybe in addition to being tired, this student doesn’t see any relevance of the class to his real life. If there is a way see if you can make it relevant to him personally, perhaps his behavior, and your feelings, would be able to improve. Also remember that every class “gels” differently. I once had a class that didn’t gel at ALL. I almost quit teaching that year. But the very next year’s class gelled so well, as did subsequent classes. So try to look at it as temporary.

    Also, if you think of doing something else, what would you do? Could you move in that direction in baby steps, either as a hobby, or a volunteer, or take steps to think about what you would do if you left teaching? Maybe you just need something to refesh you.

    Best of luck with this; I understand your frustration.

    • We can’t please everyone, for sure. And believe me, I’ve thought about other jobs, and this is the one for me – as I said, there aren’t any occupations that promise we’ll never get angry! There are days when it seems like a terrible struggle, but the rewards are just as great.

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