How to fight disillusionment when the school year isn’t going as planned

The first roadblock of discouragement tends to hit a little sooner than most teachers are expecting. When you’re new to the profession, you assume disillusionment is something you won’t have to deal with until you’ve been in the classroom for years, so when you realize on day 3 of your career that the reality of teaching isn’t going to even remotely align with your expectations, you might experience a horrible moment of panic where you’re suddenly questioning all of your life choices.

And it’s not just new teachers this happens to–when you’ve been in the profession for awhile, you realize some disillusionment is a normal part of teaching, but you convince yourself that THIS year will be different. This year, you’re more prepared. You’re more experienced. You’re going to be ready for whatever comes your way.

And so it’s still surprising when it only takes a week or two of school before that great plan you had for the year seems to fall apart, and all your prior confidence feels like naivety, and your preparations feel totally pointless, like you’d been planning lessons and procedures for a fantasy world.

By October, you’re wondering what the heck you signed up for and how you’ll make it until June. 

Here’s what I want you to know when you hit this point.

5 things to remember when the school year just isn't going as planned

Want to listen to this post instead of read?
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 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! 

1) Feeling some disillusionment is normal, even at the beginning of the school year, because it’s impossible to accurately predict the challenges you’ll face.

Disillusionment happens to almost all of us. Teaching is a really tough job in which it’s almost impossible to imagine (much less prepare for) the depth and scope of the challenges you’ll be expected to overcome.

We all get this picture in our minds of what our students are going to be like, and then we truly start to understand all the situations they’re facing and issue they’re bringing to the classroom, we realize we’re going to have to adjust our expectations. It’s very normal for that to feel discouraging.

Be ready for this to happen so it doesn’t throw you off your game. The reality of what you’re actually going to be dealing with this year will probably hit you like a slap in the face, and when you couple that with all your best-laid plans getting constantly thwarted by unexpected demands on your time, ridiculous inconveniences and requests, and sheer exhaustion, disillusionment will be par for the course.

It’s not fun to deal with. But you’re certainly not alone in facing it. And you can overcome it.

2)  The way you feel right now will not last all year.

The beginning of the year is without a doubt the busiest, most demanding season of the year for a teacher. You cannot look at your current workload and low energy level and start questioning, “How in the world can I keep this up for another 10 months?” And in the middle of the year, you cannot start counting down the days and trying to envision yourself managing THAT (whatever THAT is at the moment) for 124.5 grueling more days.

Allowing yourself to think this way will deplete whatever little bit of energy you have. The key to finding the light at the end of the tunnel is to avoid the presumption that your current situation is permanent.

With any stressful situation in life, you want to resist the urge to assume things will stay that difficult for a long time, because as we know, life is always changing. New challenges will come your way, and old challenges will be resolved.

I can guarantee that you will not be dealing with this exact same set of problems a few months from now—your workload will change, your students will change, and you will change. Some of it will be for the better, and a few things will change for the worse, but it will be DIFFERENT. You will not feel exactly like this every day for the entire school year.

3) Constantly thinking and talking about how bad your situation under the guise of “venting” will not make the situation feel easier to bear; examining the evidence to support your assumptions will.

Stop telling yourself (and anyone who will listen) how outrageous and unbearable the situation is, and think about the situation from an objective, realistic standpoint.

Ask yourself:

  • Is my situation completely bad and a total failure? There are few situations that don’t have at least SOME good in them, hence the old saying about every cloud having a silver lining. If you’re telling yourself a student is totally hopeless, a lesson was a complete disaster, or your job is absolutely miserable, you’re being pessimistic, not realistic. The reality is that the situation is NOT all bad; you’re simply choosing not to see the part that’s good and pretending it doesn’t exist.
  • Is the problem truly unbearable? After all, you’re bearing it, and other teachers are bearing much worse. Most of what we complain about is nothing more than a first world problem which a teacher with 75 students sitting on a dirt floor in Uganda in 110 degree heat would be thrilled to “put up with.” All suffering is relative, and you can handle a lot more than you give yourself credit for. Stop telling yourself your problem is unbelievable, and come to terms with reality. It’s happening. Believe it. Deal with it.
  • Is it possible that the situation may not be the way I perceive it, and there is an alternative explanation? Most of the time when we’re unhappy, it’s really not the circumstance making us miserable, but our interpretation of it–the story we tell ourselves about the circumstance. If you can consider that there are other, less miserable ways to experience the problems you’re facing–perhaps by seeing how one of your colleagues is coping–you’ve taken a huge step toward changing the way you experience a difficult situation, because now you understand that your present experience is not the only possibility.
  • Is it useful or beneficial for me to perceive things this way? You might truly have a class that never stops talking, or a perpetually broken photocopier, or a parent that is determined to get you written up. But ask yourself whether it’s helpful in any way for you to choose to think about your situation that way. Let’s say a student has a 42% average and the quarter ends on Friday. It could be completely true and accurate to think, Maria is going to fail the class and there’s nothing I can do about it. But does that thought help you teach your classes with enthusiasm and energy? Does it stir up feelings of compassion toward Maria so you’re motivated to help her do better next quarter? Does it make you feel good about yourself and your work as a teacher?

If a thought or perception doesn’t make it easier for you to do your job well, then choose not to dwell on it! Let the thought enter your mind and pass right back out without attaching any importance to it or giving it any further thought. Dismiss it, distract yourself, and replace your thoughts with things that are beneficial. Tell yourself:

Nope, I’m not going to start thinking about this–it’s not helpful and there’s no good that can come from me ruminating on that idea. I choose not to think thoughts that don’t contribute to my mental well-being. Moving on.

4)  The best way to fight disillusionment is to view setbacks as situation-specific, temporary, and changeable.

No one has a crystal ball, so most of the time, we don’t know for sure if a bad situation is going to be pervasive (keep getting worse), permanent (go on for a long time) or be impossible to change (leaving us hopeless.) Pervasive, permanent, and powerless are the hallmarks of a pessimistic outlook on life.

Most pessimists think they’re being realistics. But deciding that a situation is hopeless and unbearable is not being realistic. It’s simply your perception. If you’ve never challenged your assumptions about your situation, you’ll automatically be convinced that the way you perceive things is factual, when it’s actually a result of the way you talk to yourself, and the story you tell yourself about your life.

You may not be able to change your circumstance, but you can change the self-talk that colors everything you see. Challenging pessimistic thought patterns means choosing to see things as they really are, not as they appear to be through the lens of a negative interpretation you’ve applied.

Do not take your pessimistic explanations lightly. These are not harmless habits: they are at the very root of teacher burnout. When you convince yourself that your work is just not making a difference, things will probably never get better (and may just get worse), and that you’re helpless to do anything about it. You’ve painted yourself as a victim of unfair circumstances, and being a victim is stressful and depressing.  

So refrain from making a negative guess, assumption, or prediction about how your situation will go.  No matter how dysfunctional the situation is, your perspective will determine whether you feel courageous and accomplished or discouraged and defeated.

And it’s certainly possible to overcome disillusionment, because tens of thousands of teachers manage to do. You might even know some of them yourself–people who keep giving their all day after day in the most troubled and challenging schools, and even seem to enjoy it.

Here’s their secret: they have optimistic explanatory styles.

They believe that good things are happening and are worth focusing on, that problems will not last forever, and that their own efforts are making a positive difference. While the pessimists sees setbacks as permanent, pervasive, and powerless, the optimist sees setbacks as situation-specific, temporary, and changeable.

You can even choose to see disillusionment itself as situation-specific, temporary, and changeable. It’s a reality that you’re not really loving your job. That is a fact. But you can choose to interpret your disillusionment as something that you’re facing right now–something that won’t go on forever, won’t continue to spiral and get worse, and most importantly, won’t be something that’s out of your control.

5) You can fight disillusionment by concentrating on one day a time.

It’s easy to get sucked into pessimistic thinking when you try to take on too much at one time.

So, resist the urge to worry about how you’re doing to balance everything next month, next quarter, or next year. It’s impossible to predict how certain problems will improve and which new issues will crop up to take their place, so don’t expend too much mental energy on this or start making negative assumptions.

Instead, trust that you’ll have the wisdom and the strength for each day as it comes. You will know what to do when each problem arises. Choose to be okay with taking two steps forward and one step back—don’t let that discourage you, because even with the setbacks, you’ll still come out ahead from where you started.

Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching by Angela Watson

I’ve written about this pretty extensively in my book Awakened, because this is a core aspect of the pessimistic outlook that has to be overcome if you want to maintain your enthusiasm for teaching. I wrote Awakened to help teachers develop the resilient, flexible, positive mindset that’s needed in order to:

  • Consciously challenge the negative thoughts that discourage you
  • Build your tolerance for frustration so you become less ‘disturbable’
  • Live beyond your feelings to stay motivated when you don’t see results
  • Change your perception of setbacks so they feel less stressful
  • Let go of unrealistic expectations, standards, and comparisons
  • Realize a sense of accomplishment in a job that’s truly never done

Awakened tells the complete story of how I overcame the negative, pesmissitic outlook that comes naturally to me, and re-trained my mind to see setbacks as situation-specific, temporary, and changeable. I’ve tried to provide simple steps in the book that will help you feel peaceful and energized, no matter what’s happening around you. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I hope you’ll check out the book!

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!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Becci October 2, 2016 at 4:43 pm

Thank you so much for this podcast! This is exactly what I’ve needed. This is my second year and I truly felt I was failing because I thought I should be doing “better” than last year. I am grateful for the fact that your suggestions both validated my concerns, helped me to dismiss the overabundant negative thoughts, and suggested ways to switch my mindset. Thank you!

On another note, I was wondering if there is a chance your Awakened and Unshakable books will be available to purchase as audio books anytime soon. I listen to your podcast and 40HTW audios during my daily commutes and would love to listen to those books as well!

Reply

2 Angela Watson October 3, 2016 at 8:46 am

Ah, the trap of “should be doing better”…I think every teacher can relate! The irony is that if you can let go of that belief, you’ll be able to look back at the end of this year and realize you DID get so, so much better. It’s that old adage of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

I’ve had a lot of requests lately for audio versions of the books…it’s a big project to take on so I haven’t been able to do that yet, but I appreciate your suggestion. :)

Reply

3 Liz October 2, 2016 at 10:31 pm

Thank you for discussing a topic that most people in education ignore. No one ever wants to admit that they feel this way. It takes a lot of positive self-talk to get through a school year. Especially when the administrators are not supportive.

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4 Angela Watson October 3, 2016 at 8:54 am

Liz, I, too, have found that people are reluctant to discuss disillusionment in this profession. I remember during my first year of teaching, I confided in my supervisor that I was feeling really frustrated by some specific bureaucratic issues that were stifling my ability to give the kids what they needed. I told her, “I don’t know, I’m just feeling kind of…disillusioned…teaching isn’t what I thought it was gonna be.” My supervisor stared at me for a moment, and then kind of chuckled to herself. I waited for her to say something but all she did was slowly repeat my word “disillusioned” and kind of stared off for a moment before saying, “Yeah, I understand.”

It was a moment that really stuck with me–I remember it so clearly even though it was nearly 20 years ago–because there was this sense that I had said something she could relate to on a really deep level but didn’t feel she could respond to. The experience left me with this feeling that disillusionment is something that every educator struggles with at some point, but it’s not anything we can or should give voice to. So even today, it’s validating for me to hear others say they can relate to this. Thanks for your comment.

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5 Susan October 4, 2016 at 8:44 pm

Hi! This was my first podcast ever and it couldn’t have come at a better time. However, I do feel that I am at a crossroads. So basically, I am a teacher at a school where half of the students are more troubling than others. Everyday is a new write up on a student or two for physical fighting and bullying each other. I feel like a total failure because I think that this happens to me more often than usual. I feel that parents will see me as an unfit teacher. The fights can get pretty aggressive and I just don’t know how to deal with that. Also, I’m afraid of going to work everyday, for the constant chaos that happens. I’ve tried setting up class rules and following them. I’ve even tried parental and adminstrative interventions. Nothing has worked!! I’m so defeated and I’ve tried being optimistic (believe me!), but a fight happening while I’m teaching a class is not making anything better.

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6 Amanda October 5, 2016 at 12:43 am

Exactly the words I needed to hear tonight! I’m so happy I stumbled upon this podcast!

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