Personal Development, Teacher Topics

Had a Bad day? Now What?

Photo Credit: Face palm oh / Pumpkincat210 / CC by 2.0

There’s a common post I see on the teaching groups online, and it’s one that I have, unfortunately, lots of experience with: bad days.  They’re a part of life–no one can escape them.  But for some reason, in education, when we have a bad day it’s magnified.  I have a lot of theories about why this is, but I know a few things for certain: there are lots of personalities in any given classroom, multiply those personalities by the parents and guardians of our students, internal pressure to be the best at teaching too soon, external pressure from administration, and let’s be honest here–kids can push every button you have.  Let me caveat the rest of this post by saying this: I truly and genuinely love my students.  This does not negate the fact that they can drive me nuts sometimes.  Parents and teachers of the world, we are united in these feelings!


So, inevitably, we’re bound to have a few bad days in a teaching career.  You’re LUCKY if you can only count a few.  Most of us have them more frequently.  I’m here to tell you that you can have a bad day, or even a string of them, without questioning your career choice or considering calling in sick.  


Start fresh.  Make amends.  Reintroduce into classroom.

Let’s say for instance the source of your bad day is one lucky student.  Maybe they tested your patience too many times.  Or maybe they behaved in a way that is unacceptable in the classroom.  Maybe you lost your cool (hey, it’s okay.  We’re all human).  Take time after class or after school to decompress.  Don’t dwell on the details of what happened.  Go for a run, watch a movie, take a bath–do whatever it is you do to relax.  What’s most important here it to get some distance between you and the issue.  Once you’ve had sufficient cooling off time, you can begin to think about your problem day again.  But don’t over do it!  Ruminating will get you nowhere.  If you’re stuck for a solution or need advice, don’t put it off.  Call that trusted friend or colleague.  Just don’t turn your conversation into a bitch-fest.  That’s counterproductive for what we’re going for here.  Solicit the opinion you need, formulate a plan of action, and move on.  


Part of that plan needs to include the intention and plan to start fresh.  No matter what happened in class, it’s imperative that you begin the new day exactly as that–new.  That means if you need to make an apology, make it.  If you need to smile and tell that one kid that you’re happy he’s here today, do it.  Don’t just go through the motions though.  Really mean it.  This is just as much for your class as it is for you, never mind the fact that it’s the right thing to do to repair a relationship.  


If a student has been missing from the classroom, possibly due to suspension for something that occurred in your classroom, make an extra effort to reintroduce them back into your community.  You will want to do this without being judgemental or bringing up whatever landed them in trouble in the first place.  Remember, they’re likely nervous about how this initial exchange is going to take place.  Smile, tell them you missed them, tell them something fun or new that you’re working on, tell them you’re glad they’re back because you know they’re going to be interested too, and tell them any need to know information he or she may have missed.  Reintroduction is key to mending relationships with students.  It helps if you can meet them at the door and smile as you see them approaching.  It lets them know you aren’t angry.  You’re not going to hold whatever action they took against them.  You will be a fair and caring teacher.  And these actions are going to go a long way into future positive behavior.  


Confront when necessary.  Let go what doesn’t matter.  

Maybe you had a disagreement with a parent.  Maybe your principal wants to speak to you about some concerns he or she is having.  Maybe you don’t see eye to eye with a colleague about what collaboration really means.  Every job has these problems, believe me.  And teachers, you’re not alone!  We’ve all been there.  Again, it’s important to get some distance from the issue.  Don’t ruminate over it for days on end.  Take time to decompress, away from the problem.  Then tackle it head on.  Early on in my teaching career I indulged in every issue, minor to major.  After years of becoming exhausted by this practice, I finally figured out an important lesson: don’t worry about what doesn’t really matter.  I read somewhere that if it isn’t going to affect your life in five years, you shouldn’t give it more than five minutes of thought.  And it’s true!  So many times I replayed a parent conversation over and over again in my mind that didn’t go well.  I’d hash out the he said, I said.  I’d think of all the things I should’ve done or said.  And you know what, never in all my years of teaching, has a parent interaction or a meeting with an administrator mattered five years later.  Students graduate to the next level, principals move on or find other things to worry about.  And I’m not telling you not to worry about important issues, no.  I’m telling you that most of what teachers worry about isn’t actually all that important.  Even if it seems to be in the moment.  Whether a child is hungry or abused–that’s worth worrying over.  Being told by your principal in an evaluation that you don’t smile enough (true story, btw.  But not mine)–not worth it.  Remind yourself that there will be no shortage of moments like these in teaching.  Let go of the ones that don’t matter.


But confront the ones that do.  Don’t wait for the right words or the right moment.  Speak kindly and from the heart.  Remember not to be accusatory or angry.  Bottom line: be a professional.  Clear up miscommunications.  State your needs and expectations.  Speak up and be heard.  Right a wrong.  Apologize if necessary.  And then go back to step 1 and let it go.


Make a plan.  And stick to it.  

You might not be able to change a parent’s mind or see eye to eye with your supervisor, but you can work toward a common goal.  Find something actionable you can do to solve the issue, or at least work toward a solution.  Miracles don’t have to happen, but as long as there’s positive progress, all concerned parties should be satisfied.  I didn’t say happy, I said satisfied.  When push comes to shove and you don’t see the purpose in sticking with your plan, remember you’re a professional and this is how you’re handling the matter until it’s a non-issue, either when that evaluation is over or the student isn’t in your class any more.  It’s about doing what’s right when the time is right, not appeasing until you don’t have to any longer.  But that’s also one of the built in beauties of being an educator–everything changes so quickly.  Students come and go every year.  Do the best you can with the time you’re given.  


What else is out there?  Consider your options.  

Why did you get into teaching in the first place?  Was it because you’ve always wanted to be a teacher?  And now you’re feeling the weight of the classroom responsibilities and wondering if you made the right choice?  I’m here to tell you, you did make the right choice.  If you chose education, obtained a degree, jumped through the various educational and legal hurdles of obtaining employment–if you went through ALL that–you’re supposed to be a teacher.  


Now, on the other hand, if you got into teaching because you thought it would be easy and you mostly just liked the idea of summers off–you’re probably not on the right career path, sorry to say.  


If you’re the former type of teacher (not the latter, my advice for you is different), seriously weigh the commitment you made to teaching.  Refresh your mind and remember those core beliefs about education you have.  Reach back and recall what it was that led you to the teaching path in the first place.  Remember that we all feel a little discouraged and off-center from time to time in our careers.  It’s part of growing and it’s also par for the course in a dynamic profession like education.  Stick it out for now.  Reevaluate how you feel in a few months or years time.  


I want to share the story of my first BAD day as a teacher.  I say BAD with emphasis because it was, to date, my worst day of teaching.  


I wasn’t even a teacher yet.  I was finishing my degree and working as a substitute at the time.  That day I was subbing for a high school English class.  This was an unusual class because it was for students who were taking 9th grade English…for the third time.  Yes, you read that right.  

I’m an English major, so I always loved getting those classes.  I especially loved that group because it was a small class and a challenge.  Maybe I could teach them something useful, I remember thinking.  


Well, just like most bad days, this one didn’t start out badly.  Things were going well: students were completing their assignments, all was orderly.  Until a massive fistfight broke out, unexpectedly, in the middle of the classroom.  I’m talking should-be 11th grade boys the size of full grown men, going at each other with a viciousness I’ve never before witnessed.  My heart leapt out of my chest.  I panicked.  I didn’t know what to do.  I screamed for them to stop.  The perpetrator had the other student pinned in an instant and was hailing blows down on his head faster than I could imagine possible.  I truly thought he might beat him to death.  If not, he was going to hurt him badly.

In my panicked screaming, another student jumped in and pulled the perpetrator off of his classmate, immediately dismantling the fight.  The whole ordeal only lasted a moment or two, but it was enough to completely shake me.  In the time that followed, I questioned everything: was I capable of maintaining a classroom?  What have I signed up for?  What the hell just happened?  

A lot of things transpired before my ordeal was over, but the one that stuck out the most was the conversation I had after class with the school’s Resource Officer.  He grilled me acustaorily.  He asked me why I allowed this to happen.  What would I have done if that student hadn’t have intervened and saved the situation?  How I could even let an innocent student enter into a dangerous situation in the first place?  He wondered if I should bother coming back to school here on Monday.  He left me, a pre-service teacher who had a really hard day, reduced to tears.  

I wondered about his questions for a long time.  I considered it was my fault, and maybe I had been negligent and missed some sign, and maybe I wasn’t cut out for this job.  Remember, these kids had been in the same English class for. Three.  Years.  Why did they wait for today to do this!?

But you know what?  Everything worked itself out.  I received personal apologies from both students.  I’m still teaching 10 years later.  I haven’t had a bad day like this since and I hope I never do again.  Take my story for what it is.  You’ll likely never have a bad day like this.  But let it offer you a little prospective.  Your bad day can’t be nearly that bad, can it?