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.
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.
- 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.
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!
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