4 ways I sabotaged my success as a teacher (and how my thinking changed)

There’s no question that being a new teacher is tremendously stressful. But when I reflect on my teaching practice and how it evolved over the years, I realize that I created a lot of my own stress simply through the way I chose to perceive my work. The mindset that I held toward my students and their parents, as well as how I viewed my role in the classroom, often made an annoying incident feel maddening, and a challenging situation feel impossible to overcome.

Today, I’ll share 4 specific ways I sabotaged my own success as a teacher, as well as how and why my thinking changed over time.

4 ways I sabotaged my success as a teacher (and how my thinking has changed)

1) I mimicked the discipline style of others, even when it made me uncomfortable.

I began my teaching career in a time and place where it was considered the norm to exert power and control over students. Respect was demanded, not earned. Shaming students was acceptable. Getting down in kids’ faces and saying things like, “Do you understand me, little boy?” was considered an appropriate way to help children recognize the inherent imbalance of power between teachers and students and so they’d “stay in their place.”

This approach to discipline seemed to work for my students’ parents, and it worked for many of my colleagues. So I tried it, even though I had never been trained to interact with children that way and hadn’t been raised in a community where that was the norm. And I guess on the surface level, it worked. My kids followed the rules and showed me respect.

But my interactions with them made me feel uncomfortable. Deep down, I was embarrassed about how I talked to my students.  It didn’t fit with who I was a person…or more importantly, with the kind of people I wanted my students to be.

What changed:

I delved a lot deeper into this story (and talked about my breaking point, when I realized I’d made a huge mistake in my discipline methods) in Season 1, Episode 7 of the podcast. It’s called Find and embrace your unique classroom management style. Once I caught a glimpse into the long term effects of speaking to kids in that way, I no longer wanted to be just like the coworkers I’d once admired.

I realized I could incorporate some of their teaching strategies and lesson ideas, but I would always, always need to filter everything I witnessed through the lens of what works for ME and the type of classroom community I wanted to create for my students. When I reflected on how I ran my classroom and led my students, I gave much more consideration to how those choices made me feel, and how they made my students feel.

boss vs leader

Original image source unknown

2) I was a control freak who micromanaged my classroom.

In the beginning of my teaching career, I wanted to decide and control everything that happened in the classroom. This need for control went beyond just creating appropriate procedures and routines and veered into straight up micromanagement in many ways.

For example, I didn’t just teach my students to walk quietly in the hallway. I taught them that their hands needed to be in a specific position. It didn’t matter if some students were able to walk appropriately without keeping one hand behind their back and one hand over their lips in a “shh” motion. I gave the direction for them to walk in that exact position, and therefore everyone needed to do it, every time we walked together as a class. Period.

These little micromanaging tendencies were a result of my natural personality type: I like order and consistency. And my love for these things was reinforced every time someone came into my classroom and complimented me on how organized everything was, how students knew exactly what to do, and how smoothly everything ran. So I truly thought I was doing the right thing.

What changed:

In retrospect, I think I took too much of the classroom ownership from students. In fact, I know I did. Over the years, I learned to involve students in making more and more decisions about how our classroom ran.

It started with baby steps, like asking students how they thought the class should walk in the hallways, and creating the norms together. I experimented with giving them some choice (“Some of us are saying they like to walk with their hands behind their back, and others like to walk with hands at their sides. I think either way would be okay, as long as we’re meeting the goal of not pushing or hurting anyone around us.”)

Each time I gave more ownership to the kids, I saw how much more comfortable they seemed to be in the classroom and how they became more self-directed. I also realized I was a lot happier and less stressed when I stopped taking responsibility for things that the kids could do themselves. Seeing those results made it much easier to give up control and turn the classroom over to kids. In short, I stopped managing and started leading.

4 ways I sabotaged my success as a teacher (and how my thinking has changed)

3) I took students’ behavior personally and let kids anger me.

One of the things that irritated me most as a new teacher was when I’d look a child in the eyes and give a clear directive, and then as soon as I turned my back, he did the opposite. I mean…I remember moments when that made my blood pressure go so high that my vision actually went blurry.

I completely lost the big picture perspective and allowed myself to get irrationally angry at things that are just a normal part of working with children. I’d fume silently to myself and replay the situation over and over again in my mind and to any teacher who’d listen (“I SAW him break that pencil in half with my own two eyes and he stood right there and lied to my face about it!”)

Students’ misbehavior was a personal attack. I made the rules of the classroom, and when students chose to break them, it was an affront to me as the authority figure. It seemed obvious in my mind that if they weren’t doing what I told them to do, they didn’t respect me, and the solution was to demand respect through swift consequences.

What changed:

The more I talked with other teachers and read about other people’s experiences in the classroom, the more I realized that I wasn’t dealing with anything out of the norm. It turns out kids have always been mischievous and will push the boundaries of whatever guidelines are placed on them by anyone. Realizing this helped me not get quite as angry.

I also just plain wore myself out. Around the 3,762nd time a child did something she wasn’t supposed to, I was just too tired to get worked up about it again. It was no longer worth upsetting myself when a child misbehaved, because I was finding myself upset all day long. I no longer wanted to give a bunch of 8-year-olds control over my sanity.

Another catalyst for change was that this was all happening around the time when I started involving students in creating our class rules and routines. Slowly, I started to see that their misbehavior wasn’t about me anymore, because it was no longer MY rule or MY classroom. It was OURS. And they weren’t disrespecting me: they were violating our community norms.

So instead of having to take a hard stance every time and uphold my own authority in the face of disrespect, my job was to simply remind the student of the way she or he had agreed to participate in our classroom, and get things back in order with the help of all the other students in the class. I was no longer alone against 30 kids in trying to enforce my own rules; I had 29 kids on my side and 1 child who in that moment needed to be brought back into unity and harmony with the rest of the classroom community.

4 ways I sabotaged my success as a teacher (and how my thinking has changed)

4) I was incredibly judgmental toward my students’ home environment and parents.

My first teaching job was in a 100% free and reduced lunch school about a mile outside of Washington D.C. And though I chose to work in high poverty schools throughout my career and have always had a heart for serving in those communities, I realized with time that I had a number of blindspots and biases I needed to work through.

I can’t begin to calculate how much time and energy I used to waste complaining about what parents didn’t do for their children and how they didn’t value education like they should. I upset myself so much thinking about what parents are “supposed to do” despite the fact that my attitude was not doing anything to help foster positive relationships with parents. And I was straight up resentful over the fact that I alone was held accountable for my students’ achievement but had no control over the things at home that were having a profound impact on the kids’ readiness to learn.

What changed:

The more time I spent getting to know the families I served, the more empathetic I was toward them. I was a lot less angry at Sydney’s mom for not returning forms on time when she told me she was pregnant with twins and struggling through nausea to do any kind of basic household tasks. I didn’t begrudge Marshaun’s mom for buying him $150 sneakers but claiming not to have money for the field trip once I spent time with Marshaun at recess and learned his aunt had surprised him with the shoes so he could be like his big cousins.

People always have reasons for acting the way they do. And the more that I listened and looked at the big picture, the more I learned to give families the benefit of the doubt and try to understand rather than judge them.

It was a welcome mindset shift for me, because it made me feel less stressed. Each time I was tempted to get worked up about how parents were or weren’t raising their child, I’d remember that the choices they were making somehow make sense within the context of their perspective and reality. Trying to frame their decision-making within the context of my own worldview only frustrated me and drained me of the energy I needed to help my students.

The best thing I could do for my students was to try to empathize with their families’ struggles, recognize that their decisions make sense within the context of their environment, and choose to work with them to fight against the effects of poverty, rather than fight against the people living in poverty themselves.

4 ways I sabotaged my success as a teacher (and how my thinking has changed)

The two common themes in all these examples

First, all change hinged on me being willing to look at the big picture vision instead of just what was happening in the moment.

Every time I got upset, it was because I’d lost sight of my vision for my classroom:

  • I sabotaged my success by emulating other people’s discipline styles, because I was looking for short term results instead of thinking about what kind of classroom community and character I wanted to help kids develop.
  • I sabotaged my success by micromanaging my classroom, because I hadn’t solidified a vision for helping students take ownership of their learning.
  • I sabotaged my success by taking students’ misbehavior personally, because I got caught up in the heat of the moment instead of looking at the big picture of my job as a role model for students in how to control emotions and act rather than react.
  • And I sabotaged my success by judging parents, instead of looking at the big picture of their struggles and the larger issues that were making it difficult for them to make the best choices for their kids.

Second, change did not happen overnight.

I didn’t flip a switch and somehow become laid back, unaffected by students’ disrespect, and completely non-judgmental. I just had a few moments of clarity and took action on them. Then I took action on them again. And again.

And in between those times of action, I inadvertently took steps backward and fell into old patterns sometimes. But my overall momentum was in a forward direction, and I was actively trying to make better decisions. Like any journey of self-improvement, changing my mindset was a process that took place over many years and is something that I have to continue to be aware of and implement every day.

If you want to learn more about making these mindset shifts, check out my book Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching. There, I’ve shared all kinds of lessons I’ve learned through the years. I walk you step by step through how I changed my perspective on teaching, and how you can make changes, too.

making mistakes

Only had time to skim this article? Download the audio above and listen on the go!

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!

Next week: Stop overworking Future You–why NOW is the perfect time to make changes in your classroom

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go!  A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Wendy Stuck March 13, 2016 at 5:46 pm

Great article. We often do sabotage ourselves…


2 Arnie March 13, 2016 at 6:56 pm

Wonderful article, extremely helpful. I’m sharing it with other teachers and administrators.


3 Charlie Gerancher March 13, 2016 at 8:12 pm

Hi Angela,
Great post! I do think you should clarify it by adding “unintentional” though! In my opinion this is very commonplace. Young teachers want to fit in like anyone in a new situation. I learned the hard way too about numbers 1 and 3 on your list. I began my career teaching 7th and 8th graders. The worst thing one can do with those children is be confrontational. I was and I learned the hard way. Live and learn! Sometimes it takes some time and “seasoning” to get that through though!


4 Angela Watson March 20, 2016 at 8:56 am

I totally agree–I think self-sabotage in general is unintentional, and most of us have to learn these kinds of lessons the hard way!


5 Carol March 13, 2016 at 8:22 pm

10 years of teaching and I thought I’ve got it down pat. You’ve reawaken my ‘insecurities’ for I find myself regress to these sabotaging practices.


6 Angela Watson March 20, 2016 at 8:57 am

Carol, I commend you for your transparency and willingness to reflect. It’s not an easy process, for sure, but you and your students will benefit from it!


7 Jennypher Doan March 13, 2016 at 9:05 pm

Love when teachers share their perspective. I’m a mother but my child’s first teacher and I believe the home-school connection is extremely important and have so much respect for what you do each and everyday for our children. Thank you.


8 Angela Watson March 20, 2016 at 8:57 am

Thanks for adding your voice here. Much appreciated.


9 Lauren v March 13, 2016 at 10:05 pm

My entire teaching career has been touched by Angela!


10 Angela Watson March 20, 2016 at 8:57 am

I appreciate your kind words, Lauren! Thank you.


11 Maria F. March 14, 2016 at 8:16 am

Great article as I enter my first year of teaching–possibly in a low-income school. Thank you!


12 Sheri G. March 14, 2016 at 9:12 am

This is not just for beginning teachers, but anyone that has taught children. There are a few seasoned teachers, who really need to read your article, great food for thought! Thank you!


13 Esther B. March 14, 2016 at 2:02 pm

Thank you, Angela! I think all teachers can learn from this; I know I did!


14 Erika D. March 14, 2016 at 6:04 pm

I have all of Angela’s books and have enjoyed learning and relearning. I have been a teacher for 25 years and I continue to learn from rereading and sharing. Thank you, Angela for your honest perspective on the challenges of teaching.


15 Angela Watson March 20, 2016 at 8:58 am

25 years–congrats! I am honored to have helped and encouraged you a bit along the way. Keep up the important work!


16 Marcus Elvér March 15, 2016 at 4:25 am

Simply great article. I will forward this to my fellow teachers at my workplace. Sometimes we all need to be reminded to step back and reflect on how and why we work the way that we work. Keep up the good articles.


17 Mark E March 15, 2016 at 9:21 pm

Thanks so much Angela. It’s SO easy to get stressed and let it take over. It’s often not the students but an accumulation of a lot of stressful things overburdening teachers. This post, like this blog, have been huge helps for me as a teacher in reminding me that it’s normal to feel this way and deal with these issues. Thank you!


18 Angela Watson March 20, 2016 at 8:59 am

I think you’re right, Mark. Teachers are micromanaged and controlled, and we end up passing that same problem on to students. We take out our stresses on the kids. I do believe it’s normal to face these kinds of issues and they can be overcome slowly but permanently over time.


19 Eris March 19, 2016 at 11:20 am

Inviting students to take more ownership of their classroom is definitely a huge keystone in creating a sane and kind space for the teacher and the students! We start our year by setting our class rules on the first Thursday (after we’ve had some time together), then the students make a poster of the rules. Their attitudes are so different when they realize that they are in a community space which is owned by, created for and maintained by them. We have regular community meetings as well during which they solve any problems that came up (things being mistreated, people being rude in the community, someone tinkled on the seat, that kind of stuff). The dynamic in a co-owned classroom (one you share with your students) feels so much better than a guardian ruled classroom!


20 Angela Watson March 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

Well said! Thanks for sharing your experience.


21 Paul Xuereb March 20, 2016 at 4:39 am

Hi Angela,

Great article and I am now looking forward the read the book.

The article sheds light on the dilemma new teachers have, either because of lack of experience or when they first join a new school as teachers. Besides the pressure from peers which is very often unintentional, there is also the tendency for us teachers to adopt the pedagogies used in our own teaching. This is not necessarily the best way to teach as the context is different.

In my opinion, following training and professional formation, one should adopt those teaching methods which are in line with his/her own charisma. In this way, our teaching becomes more authentic and leads to more job satisfaction and learning.

Years of experience should help to refine and adjust our methods of teaching accordingly.


22 Angela Watson March 20, 2016 at 8:50 am

Great points, particularly about defaulting to the pedagogies used when WE were students. Not only is the context different, but the goals of education are now largely different.


23 V March 22, 2016 at 5:59 am

Thank you! I’ve been struggling with almost the same issues in my classes. I know I need to make changes but feel discouraged when I have setbacks and fall into my old habits. I’ve been praying over this and scouring the Internet for a teacher who feels the same,but all I’ve found is shaming. it’s so refreshing to see some honesty! Thank you!! I feel less like I’m “stuck this way” and ” not cut out to teach” this morning! I can’t wait to read your book for more tips!


24 Angela Watson March 26, 2016 at 10:44 am

V, I’m so glad this was encouraging! I’ve seen my share of shame around these topics and it’s baffling to me. I find it hard to believe that the vast majority of people haven’t fallen into these traps at once point or another. You are NOT alone and you CAN change! As you work to show your students and your families more grace, be sure to show yourself grace, as well. We are ALL a work in progress!


25 Becky April 25, 2016 at 7:25 am

Thank you, Angela for this wonderful article and awesome advice! I did a lot of the same things and basically scared the kids to where they didn’t want to come to my classroom. That was a rude awakening! I sought advice from friends and a counselor who taught me to look at everything from the kids’ perspective, and once I did, I changed how I interacted with them. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did. I’m now studying for my masters in school counseling, and these skills will be most useful then too! Thanks!


26 Angela Watson May 1, 2016 at 12:44 pm

I’m so proud of your willingness to learn and grow as an educator for the sake of your students. Awesome! We can’t change the past, but we don’t have to be stuck there, either.


27 Nini April 29, 2016 at 3:45 pm

Really appreciate your unguarded honesty in this article. Thank you for your courage, clarity, humility, and for sharing your well-earned wisdom. It’s absolutely mystical that, with everyone in agreement about your conclusions, this isn’t standard teacher training material. Thanks again and again.


28 Angela Watson May 1, 2016 at 12:41 pm

I appreciate the kind words, Nini!


29 Anita Iliaens May 4, 2016 at 4:07 am

Hi Angela,
I discovered your blog trough a facebook group for dutch math teachers. Ik was intreaged by your experiences as a beginning teacher. I used some of your ideas and sollutions in my lesson today, I hope you don’t mind? I teach future teachers mathematics, and my students just had their first teaching experience. This lesson I give is the 1st lesson afterwards, and I dedicate it completely to reflection. Thx for this nice structured view on first teaching experiences and your insight.
Grts, Anita


30 Angela Watson May 8, 2016 at 7:21 pm

Awesome! So glad it was helpful!


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