Protecting yourself (and the kids) from bureaucracy

January 22, 2012

in awakened

It’s disconcerting to realize that being good at teaching is not necessarily a requirement to be successful in the field of education. Individuals who possess little or no instructional expertise can somehow land extremely powerful positions. And for those who are in the classroom, being an effective instructor is only a small part of being an effective teacher. There are political games that must be played. There are interpersonal protocols to follow and administrative pet peeves to avoid. There are things to document on paper that defy common sense and basic reasoning.

bureaucracy

Yes, the person at Very Demotivational who created this image made a typo. Someone should probably create a system whereby there are three proofreaders, each of whom fill out a form documenting that they've checked for errors and then...oh, wait. Never mind.

What makes this so baffling and infuriating is that we’re constantly reminded of how we don’t work in the dog-eat-dog business world. If we were attorneys or ad executives, we would expect the need for “working the system.” But teachers are repeatedly told, It’s all about the kids! We’re all here for the kids! The implication is that we’re on the same team, and if we each put the kids first, things will work out great for everyone. After awhile, we discover that this is patently untrue! No wonder we get frustrated and disillusioned.

The truth is, teaching is NOT that different from most other jobs. Like every employee, part of our role is to make our bosses look good. We also have to do certain things to please our “clients” (students and parents.) Additionally, we have to make things appear a certain way on paper, and make other things happen in practice.

This is not fun. It is not fair. Often our students suffer the most. But upsetting yourself about these things changes nothing! Getting mad is a reaction, not a solution.

Many teachers resent having to “play the game.” The key is to stop viewing it as game playing. Think of it as a strategic approach to being successful in your school and/or district. Dealing with unfairness is part of the job; it’s not a personal affront to you, and you are not the only one affected.

Practice letting nonsensical demands roll right off your back; comply with them as needed but don’t brood and complain incessantly. Train yourself to see favoritism and inconsistent expectations as part of working in almost any job. Be patient with bureaucratic limitations and misplaced priorities.

None of these things are right or acceptable, but thinking about how bad they are is not helpful. If you constantly lament these issues as major problems, you will get frustrated and burned out. Keep your mind focused on your students and not on the behind-the-scenes stuff that wears you down.

If you find yourself resisting this perspective, keep in mind that you are resisting reality. It’s like getting mad about high gas prices or a long line in the grocery store. If you stubbornly insist, “No! I do not accept this ridiculous practice! I will not make peace with this!” you are harming yourself and causing more suffering. In addition to the practical problem, you’ve created an emotional problem. Detach from the situation so that it does not cause a stress reaction in your body.

Remember, the ultimate goal is to maintain healthy thoughts and enthusiasm for teaching. Work to produce positive change whenever possible, but keep your mind set: I will not be offended, I will not take things personally, I will not frustrate myself by trying to control things I cannot control. I accept that sometimes things are unfair and do not make sense. I refuse to lose my peace over something inane. 

If you really want to shield your students from the inequities and absurdities of the educational system, enter your classroom each day with exuberance and positive energy. Don’t let bureaucracy wear you down so that you are too discouraged to give fully of yourself to the kids.

Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your TeachingThis post was an excerpt from my latest book, Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching. You can read sample chapters and reviews, or purchase. The discount code NEWYEAR allows you to buy the eBook (for Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc.) from my site for only $2.99 throughout the month of January 2012.

How do you maintain your enthusiasm despite bureaucracy, favoritism, paperwork overload, and other stuff that detracts from good teaching?  Any tips for coping with ridiculous expectations that are enforced inconsistently or unfairly? 

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Check out the free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tom Panarese January 23, 2012 at 9:12 pm

I think this is the first post I have read in a long time that actually looks at “the system” in a realistic sort of way and I really wanted to thank you. There is something quixotic about trying to constantly be the voice screaming about how the system is unfair. Acknowledging reality and then working it to your advantage or just doing things in spite of it seems to have been better for my mental health lately (though I will admit feeling burned out from time to time). This is great advice and something I’ll definitely share. Thanks again.

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2 Angela Watson January 23, 2012 at 10:43 pm

Thanks, Tom. I was hoping the post didn’t sound defeatist outside the context of the book. I’m glad you got the point I was trying to make, and I love the way you phrased it: “There is something quixotic about trying to constantly be the voice screaming about how the system is unfair.” You can’t be an effective teacher if you’re emotionally drained and totally exhausted from bemoaning how screwed up the system is. I know, because I *was* that teacher for a long time. Then I realized the really spectacular veteran teachers I knew just tuned out all the crap that was happening around them. They lived by the motto “just shut your door and teach.” Once I started doing that, I actually had the energy to stand up for the kids through protests, etc. I had to stop letting the unfairness and inequities weigh me down and focus on the things that really mattered.

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3 Miriam January 24, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Love this and your work, Angela! (The poster is great, too!!) Thanks for what you’re putting out into the world!

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4 Angela Watson January 27, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Thanks, Miriam! And same to you! :-)

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5 Amelia January 27, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Awesome advice, and it makes so much sense! :) Thanks!

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6 Lisa January 27, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Angela,

Were you a fly on the wall in my classroom today? It’s like you are reading my mind! So much is not “right” in education. So much. It’s depressing when teachers can’t teach because of paperwork/data/testing demands. I’m really struggling with that.

Lisa

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7 Sharielyn January 30, 2012 at 9:11 pm

I like the advice you have shared us here…Thanks a lot!

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