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4 Ways to Manage Challenging Circumstances

Teaching can be a highly rewarding way to spend each day, but it can also become so difficult that remaining in the classroom becomes untenable. Education is a rough profession to be involved with at times. With so many pervasive daily obstacles such as getting class coverage, helping students who struggle, and figuring out how to have enough time in the day to get everything done, four tried-and-true strategies can help everyone proactively manage challenging situations before they get out of hand. 

Positive Presupposition

Considering that most adults walk around school buildings with the overall intent to help kids, there is an awful lot of animosity that can arise when people feel that they are not being trusted to do their jobs. Typically, the highest level of conflict occurs between leaders and teachers, but that is not necessarily the norm at every school or in any given situation. For example, while teachers may resent intrusions into their planning time thanks to interruptions like pep rallies or initiatives that administrators spearhead, there is also a healthy degree of conflict in teaching teams when people do not agree on the best way to conduct instruction, or when they clash on anything from philosophical to methodological approaches.

Assuming good intent is key to mitigating some of the pervasive conflicts that arise. If I spend a while planning an activity for my team and then a colleague doesn’t use it, my immediate assumption is probably that they don’t respect my work, or that they pushed it aside for reasons that are anything but collegial. However, if I’m brave enough to have a conversation with them about why they didn’t use what I designed, it’s possible they have an explanation that is focused on something they were trying to do to meet the needs of their students, rather than on disregarding my work. In other words, it’s not usually about us, and we misconstrue a situation if we don’t engage in effective communication with our colleagues.

Collective Expertise

When we spend a lot of time working with a specific age group or content area, it is not uncommon to develop added knowledge or expertise on whatever that focus might be. I recently saw an episode of Grey’s Anatomy in which attending surgeons were chastised for allowing first-year residents to specialize in one area (such as neurology or cardiology) rather than giving them equal time in all specialties to learn about different aspects of the human body. In short, it made them weaker surgeons.

The same potential pitfall holds true in teaching. True, I may be the 11th grade English teacher with the most experience in my department, but overinflating my skill set by claiming I have specialized knowledge that nobody else has is problematic for many reasons. For one thing, if I am suddenly assigned to teach another grade level, I may be blindsided by how little I know about working with students of a different age. More important, by becoming an in-house expert and continuing to monopolize the classes I love to teach, I’m also denying colleagues the opportunity to learn more and grow. Ultimately, expertise should be shared among teachers as much as possible.

Believe in Kids

Early on, a mentor shared this phrase with me: You can’t save everyone. At the time, I was a rookie teacher and ran myself ragged to help every single kid, even the ones who consistently turned me away. My mentor’s advice felt practical and freeing at the time, but I didn’t realize until later that saving everyone was not the same as doing my best to reach all the students in my class. In other words, I couldn’t control their reactions, but I could ensure that my own behavior reflected a consistent belief that every student has the ability to learn.

Each kid in a classroom matters, no matter what. Maybe they test our patience every day by acting out, or maybe they do their best to be invisible so that we don’t notice them. Whatever the case may be, it’s not our job to mentally write anyone off because we cannot exert full control over how their lives progress. Instead, we must use the time we have in the classroom to do the best possible job while we are still able to exert some positive influence.

Trust and Share

This may sound dramatic, but I stand by my opinion that if we cannot place faith in our colleagues and students, we are lost. Teaching is known to be “in the trenches” as a profession for a reason, which is the continuous intensity of the urgent work we do to educate children and ensure they are ready for their next step, whatever that may be. 

To that end, everybody in a school building represents a partnership, and that includes kids. If the adults in each building don’t entrust students with at least some responsibility for their learning, the result is that kids feel micromanaged and separated from their own role in the classroom. For example, asking students to take an active role in class on a regular basis (maybe designing an activator, or creating a quiz to help one another review for a test) demonstrates a mutual trust that the teacher holds for students. For adults, sharing our best tips and practices is a practical way to show that we care about one another’s success, and that we trust one another enough to work together.

Nobody pretends (or at least they shouldn’t) that working in a school is easy. There are too many moving parts, too much human interaction, and too many unpredictable moments. While ideally it would be wonderful if each day could be smooth sailing, it’s better to be realistic and be prepared for any challenging situations that could come up. It benefits everyone to be proactively cooperative, trusting, and to assume the best of one another so that we can all complete the intended work of each day: to help students grow and thrive. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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