25 Ways to Be Proactive When Times Are Tough

By Julia Thompson

Author and award-winning teacher Julia G. Thompson is best known for her advice and “survival tips” for beginning teachers. See all of her articles for MiddleWeb here

Having a bad day at school? Try the following strategies to banish the stress that comes when everything seems to be going wrong.

1. Go to your school’s media center and escape into a good book or read a newspaper for a few minutes.
2. Talk things over with a sympathetic colleague or mentor.
3. Take a brisk walk around the perimeter of your building.
4. Refuse to take it personally when students are rude or disruptive.
5. If you have too much to do, divide each task into manageable amounts and get busy.
6. There are several free apps for mindfulness or meditation. If you would like to try one, a good place to start is with Calm.
7. Take a break. Change activities. Do something you enjoy instead of dealing with drudgery.
8. Close your classroom door. Set a timer for five minutes. Allow yourself to just rest and be quiet.
9. Grab a sheet of paper and a pencil. Brainstorm solutions to the cause of your stress.
10. Listen to relaxing (or energizing) music for a few minutes. The Internet radio service Pandora (http://www.pandora.com) makes it easy for listeners to create personal listening stations. Create a “soothe and smooth” playlist for tough times (share with your students when appropriate).
11. Eat a healthful snack. Junk food will cheer you up for only a few minutes.
12. Even though using mindfulness activities in class for students is now a widespread practice, there are plenty of benefits for teachers as well. A useful site designed specifically for educators is Mindful Teachers.
13. Acknowledge that you are genuinely upset. Denial doesn’t solve problems.
14. Plan a fun activity that you can anticipate with pleasure.
15. Ask your students for their advice if the problem is one where they can help.
16. Clear up some clutter. Tidy your desk or your classroom.
17. Shift your activity. Move to another location in your building or campus, if possible.
18. Ask for help. Doing this can allow you to move closer to a positive resolution to a problem.
19. Post a funny cartoon, meme, or photo where you can see it when you need a laugh during the school day.
20. Tackle busywork: grade quiz papers, answer e-mail, anything to be productive instead of paralyzed in negative emotions.
21. Deal systematically with the problems that cause stress. Don’t procrastinate. Cope.
22. When you find yourself dwelling on the negative things that can happen at school, make a conscious effort to reframe those thoughts in a positive manner. For example, instead of thinking “My students are always out of control after lunch,” try “My students need ways to channel their energy after lunch.”
23. Remind yourself once again that today’s problems likely won’t be important a year—or maybe even a week—from now.
24. Choose your battles. Is what you are stressed about worth your time and energy?
25. Take a deep breath. Hold to the count of three. Exhale slowly. Repeat until you 
feel calmer.


Questions to Discuss with Colleagues 

Sharing ideas with colleagues is a helpful way to devise solutions to some of the problems that you must manage successfully at school. Here you will find several topics to open discussions with colleagues about successful instructional practices:

  • You have had a stressful day at school in which nothing seemed to go as you had planned. What can you do to remain confident while learning from the events of this tough day?
  • You just received an e-mail from your principal telling you that she will visit your classroom later in the day. Your lesson is not a very exciting one, nor is it particularly well structured. What should you do? Who can offer advice?
  • You and your mentor do not have a common planning period. How can you find the time to work together?
  • Although you are sure that you want to create a supportive network of colleagues to share ideas with, you are not sure about how to begin. How can you and your colleagues near and far benefit from your own professional learning network?
  • What problems can you anticipate that you will have as a first-year teacher? Where can you find help for them? 

Topics to Discuss with a Mentor

Although the topics that new teachers need to discuss with a mentor vary from teacher to teacher and from school to school, there are some that most first-year teachers should be comfortable discussing with a mentor or a trusted colleague. You should ask your mentor about these topics from this section:

  • How to learn about professional development opportunities in your school district
  • Tips for making sure your evaluation process goes well
  • How to set appropriate goals for your first year
  • Which teachers at your school would be interested in observing you and in being observed themselves
  • How to manage school-induced stress and maintain a work-life balance

Reflection Questions to Guide Your Thinking

  • What are your personal strengths as a teacher at this point in your career? How can you use these strengths to overcome some of the problems that you will face this year? Tap into your super powers.
  • If you are like other teachers, you are understandably nervous about the evaluation process. How can you make sure that you know what to expect and how to prepare for it?
  • How can you find the time to start a program of sustained professional growth and still take care of your classroom responsibilities?
  • What part of your school life has been stressful so far? How have you managed this stress? Are you comfortable with your work-life balance so far? If not, how can you improve it?
  • What can you do to maintain your fresh idealism as you go through the ups and downs of your first year as a teacher?

We’ve All Been There

All teachers experience professional challenges. First-year teachers, experienced teachers, and teachers at every grade level cope with complex problems, no matter how ideal their school situation.

Anytime you feel overwhelmed, remember that all teachers have had to deal with what you are going through. In fact, here are some of the most common challenges that all teachers experience:

  • Finding a work-life balance
  • Stacks of tedious paperwork
  • Difficulty in connecting with parents and guardians
  • Integrating technology appropriately
  • A culture or generation gap with students
  • Not enough equipment, materials, or time
  • Short student attention spans
  • Students with overwhelming family problems
  • Uncertainty about the right course of action to take

If some of these problems seem all too familiar, remember that the hallmark of a great teacher is not the absence of problems but the ability to generate and implement innovative and effective solutions to an array of classroom challenges.

With a positive attitude, a professional approach, a bit of creativity, and plenty of practice, you will soon be able to manage your new professional responsibilities. Truly.

Julia G. Thompson, who received her BA in English from Virginia Tech, recently retired after forty years as a classroom teacher in the public schools of Virginia, Arizona, and North Carolina. She continues to focus her advice on the practical aspects of a teacher’s busy professional life.

Author of The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide (4th Edition); Discipline Survival Guide for the Secondary Teacher; First-Year Teacher’s Checklist; and The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide Professional Development Training Kit (summarized here)Thompson also provides advice on a variety of subjects through her website, on her blog, and on Twitter.


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1 Response

  1. Great post and lots of food for thought here. Thank you!

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