Sometimes our decisions about how to spend our time in the classroom are not made by the wisest parts of ourselves. Our egos or the need for control are sometimes making the decisions for us, and creating both power struggles and unnecessary work.

We’d rather spend an hour after school completing behavior referral paperwork than risk any student “getting away with” challenging our authority.

We’d rather create 10 different versions of every test than risk having a student “get away with” cheating.

We’d rather stay up until midnight grading every piece of paper students touched than allow them to “get away with” not putting in 100% effort on every practice assignment. 

The motive on the surface is a concern for kids’ well-being (How else will they learn how to behave and be responsible? This is just what good teachers do!). But there’s usually a fear underneath of not being respected or taken seriously. Decisions, then, are made by fear and ego (the need to exert authority and maintain control).

This results in a very fixed mindset about what your job is as a teacher, and what kids’ responsibilities are, with absolutely no room for flexibility, creative thinking, or going outside the box.

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Usually, when I hear teachers talking about how they “have to” hold kids accountable, it’s attached to very strong beliefs about what kids are “supposed to do” and how parents are “supposed to” support kids’ education and what teachers “have to do” in response. 

All these “shoulds” and “have to’s” create rigid beliefs. They begin to form your identity. If you see yourself as a “good teacher” and good teachers always __ and never __, then you won’t be able to question the way things have always been done.

In reality, what you believe to be true about holding kids accountable might not be true, or it might not be the only way to do it.

And if you insist on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get the same results. Not only can this mindset be harmful to kids, but it will also prevent you from letting ANYTHING go. 

You’ll continue to go to any lengths to hold students and parents responsible for things you think they should be responsible for. This creates stress reactions in your body over relatively mundane things.

Consider the possibility that you do not have to immediately respond with a consequence any time a student doesn’t follow directions.

Consider the possibility that you do not have to assign a formal grade to every single assignment in order to hold kids accountable for their work.

Consider the possibility that you do not have to give kids homework every night in order to teach them to be responsible.

There are tens of thousands of teachers who have found other methods that work for them and their kids. There is no one right way to teach, so don’t assume the way you’re doing it is the way it has to be done or the only way to “hold kids accountable.” That’s perfectionism — it has to be done my way and to my standard, and nothing else is acceptable 

Think about where this insistence that you have to hold kids accountable really comes from. A big part of it is probably not useful. It stems from wanting to force kids to grow up, handle responsibility, and basically do all the things we hate having to do as adults but have no choice. 

As teachers, we’re frustrated and overwhelmed and there’s a part of us that resents our students for not being as overwhelmed as we are. We feel like we’re carrying the entire burden of getting them to master the standards, and we resent that.

So, we pull rank, micromanage, and threaten kids. We make them feel like they’re going to be total losers if they don’t pass The Test. We do this under the guise of “holding them accountable” and “doing what we’re supposed to do as teachers.”

And we forget they are actually just KIDS, and that’s why they’d rather talk to their friends than do our assignments. You will make yourself and your students miserable if you think it’s your responsibility to make them act like grown-ups or middle schoolers (or whatever it is you’re trying to make them do).

You can’t make them do anything and you can’t control them into it either. Speaking as someone who had parents and teachers do this to me, and who then replicated many of these patterns in my own classroom, trust me … It will backfire.

Ironically, districts treat teachers this way and we HATE it. They micromanage and create extra work for us to force us to prove we’re doing our jobs … then we turn around and do the same thing to the kids.

Everything becomes about proving it, documenting it, following the rules and doing things exactly how the person in charge wants them done, or else. We hate being treated like that, and I think often we take that frustration out on the people that we have more power than: our students.

People in our district sit on their invisible thrones and issue senseless mandates, and we follow suit, replicating that pattern to the helpless citizens of our classroom kingdoms. 

We have to break that toxic pattern, and find a way to lead our students instead of rule over them.

If you can relate to this struggle at all, here’s what I want you to do: start by noticing when you are sitting on your invisible throne.

Just notice it to start. Don’t judge yourself for it or berate yourself, because that’s reinforcing this same mentality of “badness” needing to be shamed or punished.

If you’re constantly shaming yourself, you’re going to naturally shame your students, and we want to move into a mindset that is kinder to you and your kids. So just notice when you say and do things from a part of you that feels entitled to sit on your invisible throne. 

Notice how that feels for you. For me, it often felt good at the moment. I released my frustration by giving a show of power, the student shrank back and acquiesced, and I got my way.

But that feeling never lasted. I’d look around at the other kids’ wide-eyes and uncomfortable grimaces. And I’d look back over to the face of the child I’d just forced into compliance, and see the dejected or disheartened or sometimes seething rage on this face and think, 

CRAP, I really just blew that. That was such a short-sighted reaction. I don’t want to rule over my students with fear. I don’t want them to mindlessly do whatever I say and obey me because they’re afraid of what I could do to them — shame them, punish them, embarrass them — because of my position of power. 

If you notice those same feelings in you, sit with that discomfort. Discomfort coupled with reflection is what leads to change. Notice when you are ruling from your invisible throne: pay attention to how that feels and what results it produces.

And, notice when you make choices that aren’t coming from your ego or power trip. How do those responses feel? 

The more you can familiarize yourself with the difference, the easier it will become to check your ego instead of issuing a decree and getting into a power struggle with a child who’s challenging you. 

As you pay more attention to this, you’ll start to notice patterns. You’ll realize there are certain times of the day or certain behaviors that set you off. You’ll see what the triggers are — and most of us have a handful of things that just TAKE US THERE, EVERY TIME.

And that means you can plan in advance how you will respond to those triggers in a way that de-escalates.

Think about how the wisest part of you would respond to triggers. How would you like to react in those situations?

The wisest part of you isn’t seated on that throne. So when you tap into that, you’ll be able to make better choices during heated situations. You’ll be able to consciously move down off your throne when you feel your authority is being questioned, and respond from the wisest part of yourself that is thinking about the big picture and not just about eliminating a short-term threat. 

This process will help you become more conscious of the power dynamics in your classroom.

You’ll start to find other approaches that get you better results.

You’ll find yourself softening when you hear about concepts like flexible seating and culturally responsive teaching and restorative justice, which might have previously caused you to retreat to your safe place of power: the invisible throne.

You’ll find yourself building better connections with your students once you stop focusing on getting them to respect your authority and instead focus on modeling good leadership skills for them. 

And if you want to talk about what this looks like with other educators, I hope you will join us in our month of focusing on “fewer things better.” 

You can join the group now — we’ve got more than 4,000 teachers there already reflecting and doing this work. And then throughout the month of March, we’re going to pull out key ideas from the book.

You can read (or listen to) the book at your own pace, and check into the group anytime — as often or as little as you’d like–throughout the month of March.

There’s no pressure to read chapter by chapter: in fact, the discussions will be valuable to you even if you don’t read the book at all.

We’ll be discussing the power struggles and unnecessary work mentioned in this podcast, along with:

  • Challenging the martyr mentality in education
  • Questioning what “has to” be done 
  • Speaking up effectively when you’re being taken advantage of
  • Dealing with imposter syndrome
  • Figuring out what is “enough” to give each day

I want this to be an easy, no-commitment way for you to have community and support in living the “fewer things, better” way.

So, I’m also giving away 10 copies of the book (in your choice of paperback, eBook, or audiobook.)

Go to fewerthingsbetter.com to win a free copy, or join the book club.

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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Discussion

2 Comments

  1. Valerie Johnson

    This was an amazing article (I read, rather than listened.) Thank you for reminding us to get off our high horses and do what’s best for the kids and for us!

  2. Sadaf

    How wonderful to be part of your mission I have improved my outlook and have achieved loving relationship with kids and more nurturing environment . from Pakistan

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