Q: I’m looking for ways to help teachers in my district deal with frustration. I’m an assistant superintendent, and I spend a good deal of time in schools working with teachers who often feel frustrated with their students and do not have the tools to put their interactions in perspective, especially in the moment. I would like for them to see challenging students as an opportunity to teach whatever skills are necessary for those students to grow, but all too often I hear how the students have not been prepared by previous teachers and how students these days are not as good as they were in past years. I often hear, “What am I supposed to do?” I know that just being frustrated is not the answer, but I’m not sure what the answer is.
A: I’d start by thinking about what’s beneath their complaints. I can think of several different possibilities. First, I think it’s significant that they’re complaining to you, someone who holds a position of authority. You might not be their immediate supervisor, but they likely hope you will think highly of them. So, I’d first see their frustration through that lens. Are they concerned that you will judge them if their students underperform? Is this protective stance because students’ test scores have plummeted? If this is their primary concern, they may simply need you to reassure them that you don’t blame them and understand they’re facing some real challenges. The worst possible response would be to signal that you judge them for feeling that way. Feelings are never “wrong,” and they’ll be more open to problem-solving if they feel you understand their perspective. Besides, your goal is to improve their interactions with kids, not control their emotions, so try to conceal your frustration with them.
A second possibility relates to burnout. People have a much lower threshold for frustration when they’re not at their peak. Have these teachers neglected their own needs to meet their professional responsibilities? Do they feel it’s impossible to do their job well and maintain a semblance of balance in their lives? They’re more likely to get triggered by misbehaving students or to deflect blame when they’re fried and exhausted themselves. Can you offer them any resources? Do they just want a decision-maker to hear them out? Is it the end of the year and they’re in dire need of a break? Try sharing personal stories of times when you’ve felt that way. What helped you? Along those lines, think about other teachers who have had the same concern in the past. What helped them?
A third possibility is that they need some psychoeducation about the developmental phase, brain science, and behavior. They’re specifically asking you what they should do, so give them more information. The old thinking is that kids’ misbehavior is purposeful, but recent neuroscience research shows that students may lash out subconsciously and unintentionally when they inaccurately perceive threat. Perhaps your school district needs to offer more training around relationship-building and childhood development.
Regardless of the root cause of their frustration, validate their concerns and figure out what you can do to support them. Do they want you to bring feedback to decision-makers in central office? Do they feel that students aren’t being held accountable in a constructive way? Are there, in fact, weak teacher links that need to be addressed? Do what you can to make them feel heard and empowered, then circle back to see how they’re doing. In the same way that students need to know their teachers care, teachers need to believe that you’re on their side. As an added bonus, you’ll be modeling the same behavior you hope they exhibit.
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