Desperation and Frustration in the Classroom

By AJ Juliani, 20 comments

Imagine you’ve been teaching for 15 years. In those 15 years you have grown as a professional, learned new technologies, shifted with the standards, had new initiative after new initiative started in your school, and seen the way you have been evaluated move from observations to data back to observations and data.

In those 15 years you’ve had 6 Principals, 4 Superintendents, 3 Directors of Curriculum, and many Special Education leaders. You’ve seen some of your best friends and teachers leave the classroom. Some have gone on to administration. Some have left the school. And some have left the profession altogether.

Your curriculum has been turned over four times and you are starting the fifth revision…complete with a shift to new core standards.

The schedule has changed three times. You’re now required to have common unit based assessments multiple times a year. You are part of a school data team that looks at all of this “stuff” and tries to make sense of where you can make an impact.

Everyone is excited because students are now able to bring devices into school, or maybe your school is giving them devices — you are worried because this is going to change everything…again…and it’s not going to be easier.

And you are exhausted. Not so much by the students, although they have changed in 15 years. Not so much by the parents, who have definitely changed in the past 15 years. But mostly by managing all of this…picking yourself up everyday…and believing your doing good work, with good people, for the right reasons.

The Struggle Is Real…And Worth It

I asked teachers and school leaders what they were struggling with last month, and this is a compilation of their similar story. The two words used most in email responses to my question were “frustrated” and “desperate”…

In the wake of a new year, I wrote about how pumped I am for education moving forward. But I can’t help to notice the sighs of desperation and frustration inside many classrooms.

Most of us got into education because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of our students. Education is the bridge to so many opportunities in this country and around the world. We know as teachers and school leaders the avenues it can open up to any student, and we also know how hard it is for some students to overcome personal circumstances without the help of teachers who care and want to make a difference.

It seems that change (and there has been much of it in the last 5, 10, 15 years) frustrates many of us, and leaves us desperate for some consistency in the teaching profession.

I wouldn’t argue that point.

Yet, change (like anything else), is not all bad and not all good. It’s a mixed bag.

What is true is that change is constant. It’s also getting exponentially quicker. This is not only in education, but in many fields of work. It’s taken a while for change to pick up the speed with which we now see it in the classroom, but it has always been there.

So, how do we handle this as teachers and school leaders? How can we keep the frustration and desperation from boiling over and hurting all potential progress? More importantly how can we make sure the frustration and desperation does not trickle down to our students and impact their learning experience in a negative way?

We can start with these guiding beliefs:

1. Change is constant, let’s focus on how we manage it


If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude – Maya Angelou

We may not be able to influence what types of changes are made in schools. Some we are going to love and support. Some we are going to disagree with and oppose. Regardless, the one thing we do have control over is how we manage change as an organization, team, and individual.

Start with yourself. How are you talking about change? How are you managing the process? What can you do to help colleagues through the change?

2. Don’t wait for training, be a learner, go out and seek it

If we accept that change is constant, we also have to realize learning is constant. Professional development and training can only take you so far as an individual. If you want to be successful through times of change then go out and seek new learning opportunities and training.

The internet has changed how we learn forever. Anything you want to learn (or need to learn) is most likely available online for free… This is not to say that organizations should not provide training. Of course they should. But how can we seek out learning opportunities (and share those opportunities with colleagues) that can help all of us in times of change?

3. Focus on the important things (many of these do not change)

Are students engaged? Are we challenging students and supporting students through various learning activities? Is the classroom a student-centered experience? Are we focusing on the whole child?

I get that curriculum changes. Technology changes. New initiatives are always around the corner. But the best practices of “how we learn” are focused on student-centered experiences with the right amount of challenge and support for all of our learners.

What can we focus on in the midst of all the change: our students.

If you are feeling frustrated in your current situation…or desperate for some help in managing all of this change, take a step back.

Take a moment to breathe and look at the big picture.

The Silver Lining: Innovation Out of Frustration

I was frustrated as a teacher a few years ago when I thought all my 11th grade students cared about was their grades. Out of this frustration came the 20% project in my class.

I was desperate for a new way to teach students about human rights violations and genocide. Having them read articles and watch a few videos wasn’t cutting it, because the students needed to “do something” about these issues. Out of this desperation came a collaborative project that my students helped create: Project Global Inform.

Last year as a staff developer many of our staff members were frustrated that they had to learn about a new tool with the entire staff during an in service when they already were using it…why have the same training when everyone was on different levels. Our game-based professional development missions came out of this frustration.

And just this year, a fantastic teacher I currently work with was frustrated with how “Industrial Arts” still looked for the most part like it did when he was in high school. After a lot of hard work, this frustration turned into a new 9th grade course (Creative Design & Engineering) and a reworking of the entire scope and sequence to create a true Maker Department.

If we choose to let frustration and desperation get the better of us…then we choose to miss the silver lining: Innovative ideas come out of frustration. 

We tend to think of creativity and innovation as something that happens outside the box. But I would disagree. The most creative and innovative work comes from circumstances that force a new type of thinking for solutions inside the box.

It reminds me of the scene in Apollo 13 when the carbon dioxide is building and they have to make a filter using only the materials inside the shuttle. There is pressure. There is frustration. And there is a group of desperate people working to create an innovative solution…

Put all the circumstances out on the table. Embrace the feelings of desperation and frustration. And then create something inside the box that is going to benefit everyone.

Because the only other option is to give in and give up. And that sure wouldn’t be any fun!

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