I teach in the best school. Not the best school in the city (although it is that). Not the best in the state (that one, too). Just the best. We’ve got the best kids, the best teachers, the best administration, all of it. The problem is, we’ve also got a bad case of the Februaries, and lately, it’s been a pretty negative school environment.
It’s hard to teach in a school with constant complaining, especially when the focus of all the complaints is the kids. The kids are the reason we go to work in the morning, right? I mean, aside from the huge salary and eternal fame and glory. If all we hear all day is how terrible this year’s kids are and they’re so lazy there’s no point even trying to make them learn anything, it makes work seem … futile. Depressing. A slog. Also, did I mention it’s February? I live in the South, so we don’t have to deal with the cold as much, but we’re currently building arks and gathering two of every animal.
It’s been a rough start to the semester where I teach, but I’ve figured out a few tips for continuing to kick ass when those around you have lost their get-up-and-go.
1. Get out when you can.
If your school lets you leave during your planning period, do it. Grade papers at a coffee shop. Take a walk. If those aren’t options, just go to the library to do your planning. Anywhere away from your classroom will work. Because if you’re in your classroom, you know what will happen? The teacher across the hall will come in, sit on your newly-Lysoled tables, and start in with, “I don’t know why I even bother with Joselin …” And by the time she’s done, you won’t know either. But you’ll be in a bad mood third period because you spent all of your planning time listening to her instead of making your copies. Plus you will have missed grabbing one of the donuts that somebody put in the workroom that got snapped up within ten minutes.
2. Do nice stuff for students.
Four kids in my first period had birthdays last week. One of them is a girl who’s really struggling—issues at home, parents who don’t bring her to school on time, and she’s failing all her classes. Nobody was going to celebrate this kid at home, so a colleague and I went all out. Under the auspices of celebrating “class birthdays,” we brought in breakfast, organized gifts, and threw a lunchtime birthday dance party. And that was enough to keep me going for the rest of the week.
Another good, cheap hack is to write notes to kids who do something great or who need a little extra encouragement. It helps the kids feel seen and loved but, more importantly, it reminds me how much I love them and what a privilege it is to work with them.
3. Localize your own whining.
This one is tricky, but it’s essential for the final tip, which is the most effective one. Pick one person—your work bestie, if you have one—to whom you will complain about work. That is the only person you can go to when you’re feeling stressed about the negative school environment. Even when your planning gets taken for the third time in a week by a meeting with admin about your students’ behavior during the fire drill, hold in your rage until you find your designated complaint receptacle and then let it all out. Because now you’re ready for tip four …
4. Be a ray of freakin’ sunshine.
This is my favorite. Refuse to participate in negative talk, especially about kids. When your colleague comes in, flops into a seat, sighs heavily and groans, “God, is it only Tuesday?” … don’t commiserate. Make your response as over the top as you can. “I know! I’m so excited about the assembly tomorrow!” “Right? We’re already halfway through Tuesday … this week is flying by!”
Will this increase the overall positive energy in the building? Probably not. But it will certainly help you because everyone will stop complaining to you (except your bitching-buddy from tip number three). The first few interactions like this might feel awkward. Take heart; the awkwardness means you’re doing it right. It only takes a few incredibly lopsided interactions for people to realize that you are not the person they want to complain to. They’ll find a new venue, and you can head to Starbucks to finish correcting those essays.
Power through. You got this.
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Plus, how to recognize a toxic school culture before you get the job.