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Teacher Depletion:

How Challenging Students Suck Us Dry, and What We Can Do About It

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Grace Dearborn. In addition to teaching for nearly 15 years, Dearborn worked as a BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment) Coordinator, PD Coordinator, Literacy Coach, Curriculum Specialist, and Mentor Teacher. Currently she facilitates classroom management and brain-compatible motivation workshops for the consulting organization Conscious Teaching.

If you are frustrated with the daily necessity of dealing with negative student behaviors, you are firmly in the center of the average teacher’s experience. Managing difficult student behaviors will eventually run down almost any teacher, no matter how talented or experienced. So how can we help our most challenging students, without completely depleting ourselves?

Testing and Trusting

Students who present with the most difficult personalities and behavioral choices in the classroom have learned that adults are not trustworthy. In their minds, all adults will eventually abandon or abuse. This abandonment and/or abuse might be emotional rather than physical, but to them this is a hard-learned truth. A fact. They wish it was different, but they have resigned themselves to it.

Still, deep down, they want there to exist an exception. An adult who will treat them with respect, hold them accountable firmly but gently, and never give up, no matter what awful things they do or say. So they test us by acting out in class. They are collecting evidence, watching, noting how we respond. And we pass the test. We re-direct their behavior in a calm, safe and structured way. But they’ve been down this road before. Any adult can pass one test. So they test again. And we pass again. But they know better. They’ve met lots of adults who can hold out, passing their behavioral tests for months, but in the end will always disappoint.

As we continue to pass their tests (which unconsciously is what they want) they start to get nervous. They start to think, “Maybe this adult is safe. Maybe I can trust this person to love me and support me in becoming my best self?” They are starting to trust us. And that will make it that much more devastating when we eventually let them down. Which, in their experience, is inevitable. We are duping them—how dare we! So they act out even more, and worse, than anything they have done before. They have to break us before we break them. And usually, they do.

We are only human. And usually, in the face of such a protracted onslaught of negative behaviors that get worse over time, no matter how safe, structured and consistent we are, and no matter what consequences we use, we eventually give up. Maybe we still go through the motions with them, but our heart isn’t in it. We don’t truly believe they can change or even that they want to change. We just bide our time until the year ends, and they become somebody else’s problem. And now we are just another statistic in their growing body of evidence against adults.

Teacher Failure?

When we try all year but aren't able to reach or help a particular student, that isn't failure. Failure is when we stop caring about that student and stop trying to help him or her. Paradoxically, it is often the teachers who generally care the most who have the hardest time maintaining positive assumptions about chronically troublesome students.  

Teachers with strong, innate maternal/paternal instincts routinely invest huge amounts of energy into their most challenging students, more than is healthy or sustainable. Eventually they get exhausted. And because they get nothing back from the student, and therefore have nothing to show for all their effort, they begin to resent the student. Then they throw up their hands and say, "He can't be reached" or "He has to meet me halfway" or "I've done what I can do" or "I led him to water, but it’s up to him to drink." These are all the equivalent of giving up, of abandonment, and the student knows it.

Compassionate Accountability

The thing is, we don't have to exhaust ourselves in order to keep caring or trying to reach students. We just have to believe in them, want to help them, and keep offering them the choice to do better. And we have to communicate to them in some way that we will be there for them, no matter what choices they make, because we care more about them than their academic progress.

At the same time, we don't let them slide. We keep holding them accountable for their behavior. But even consequences for non-compliance or defiance can be given from a place of internal empathy, while still being completely firm and consistent. It's the difference between giving a consequence because we want them to learn to make better choices (and this consequence will help them learn to do that—someday) and giving a consequence because we are sick and tired of their behavior and want to punish them for making our lives harder.

Internal vs. External Growth

I used to wonder why certain students would never stop testing me, even when I was safe, structured and consistent for months on end. Then, in my fifth year of teaching high school, a difficult student from the year before came by my room for a visit. We chatted for a few minutes and then, before he turned to leave, he said, “You know, you are a really good teacher. You are the best teacher I ever had.”

I was speechless. This was a student who was consistently confrontational, abrasive, off-task and inappropriate in my class. Despite my best efforts, he never showed the slightest improvement in his behavior or his academic progress. He failed my course and had to repeat it in summer school. How could I possibly be, in his eyes, a “good teacher?”

This is when I first started to understand that just because a student doesn’t change on the outside (behavior) doesn’t mean he isn’t changing on the inside (belief). Some kids are battling a lifetime, even if they are just 5 years old, of not being able to trust adults. Some kids need to experience more than one year of consistent, loving accountability in order to internalize trust. We truly never know how we are affecting our toughest students internally. But we can assume the best about them—that they are working on it, even in the complete absence of any external proof.

Assuming the Best

What would happen if we assumed that every negative student behavior was just a test? And that kids test because they are searching for an adult who can pass their tests by believing in them and loving them no matter what? Then our job would be simple… never give up. Pass the test.

This doesn't mean we have to bend over backwards or be overly permissive or exhaust ourselves in this pursuit. But it does mean we have to keep holding them gently but firmly accountable for their behavior. And we have to keep believing that they can learn to be appropriate and engaged, even when all evidence is to the contrary.

Author Note

During my first few years of teaching, I was fortunate to have a close friend, an award-winning teacher who was “unofficially” mentoring me. As a result, I not only survived, I eventually even thrived in my classroom. My mentor’s name was Rick Smith. Not long after I entered the classroom, Rick left the classroom and started an educational consulting company called Conscious Teaching. Many years later, I left the classroom to work for Rick’s company as a national teacher trainer. While our workshops for K-12 teachers are focused primarily on practical, take-away strategies that teachers can try the next day in their classrooms, one of the foundational pieces we talk about is “assuming the best” about kids. This article is based, in part, on that concept. To learn more about me, Rick, or Conscious Teaching, please visit our website at


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