Desperation and Frustration in the Classroom

Doing the impossible in the classroom

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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Join the discussion 20 Comments

  • Jacquie says:

    I am a 50+ year educator and I found myself mentally saying (okay, yelling) “YES” many times while reading this ‘on the money’ piece. Point number three says volumes. [Go ahead and reread that part – please.] “What can we focus on in the midst of all the change? Our students.” Amen.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for sharing Jacquie. It has to be all about the students. If it is not about what is best for the students then we miss the point of why we are in education!

  • Colleen says:

    I totally agree with 3 but 2 is crucially important also. The number of times a younger teacher has asked me why I keep doing professional learning is amazing. The current expectation in our jurisdiction is a minimum of 20 hours per year and last year I was involved in more than three times that. Some younger teachers thought I was nuts! But up-skilling, reviewing, revisiting, extending, relearning and re-motivating are crucial in these times of change. Continue to focus on the important things and extend your understanding of what works, that way you keep up with the kids and the parents and the new curriculums while maintaining a sense of self as a good teacher!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Colleen you are spot on with this comment! Professional learning is something we must do…and I’m not saying it is always going to be easy (it’s not) to stay up on best/next practices.

  • Amy says:

    My favorite part of that movie. We need to think outside the box. We adapt or die.

  • Donna says:

    Thanks. I needed to read this, just to know that I am not alone in feeling the way I do. You speak truth!

  • Steven Lucey says:

    I really connected to this post, I have been reading your posts for about a year.

    I am a Tech coordinator for a school district, so I see the “frustration and desperation,” in teachers everyday, I am impressed when they continue work hard to keep up.

    I will be sharing this with the teachers I work with because I feel your suggestions are valuable. The work is worth it.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hey Steven, thanks for reading and the comment. The work is definitely worth it. I know it is difficult to see that light sometimes, but just as you pointed out, I’m inspired by the teachers who are working hard everyday to make positive change to their students lives!

  • Niall martin says:

    Love your enthusiasm, don’t curb it. Love what you’re writing!

    Art teacher, from Ireland!!

  • James says:

    I have a new mantra: it’s better to be at the point of the spear than on the shaft.

    Change happens, but there is a growing shift toward teacher leadership. I have been energized by taking advantage of opportunities to both learn and lead. Great post, AJ.
    (BTW: I used some 20% time I gained during our district’s first snow day this week to read your book!)

  • John Bennett says:

    I’m not sure who said it: “When life presents you lemons, make lemonade.” Very often, we cannot control what happens around us and to us; BUT we can control how we decide to react! Would it be easier if those happenings weren’t here? It’s tempting to always answer with a resounding “YES” – but think about it a little bit longer: (1) It’s most likely happening to lots of other educators; so there’s a group of people in similar circumstances, with whom you can collaborate to optimize the outcomes with a constant eye on our students’ effective learning! And (2) more importantly in my thinking at least, we are always going to be seen as role models for our students – whether we want to or not; what kind of role model are we becoming if we are constantly complaining without any experiences from seeking to make the best with our colleagues – you know, the reactions that lead us to put them into time-out or send them to the principal’s office.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      John, that is a great point about being role models for our students. It’s very easy for students to see how complaining and frustration can impact the kind of learning happening. This is not to say that we should always “give in” to every change. I think a fair amount of push back is needed…but it is how we push back and our attitude towards moving forward that students will see and notice!

  • Bill Keilty says:

    Twelve years I took a risk and started a special school that broke all the rules. At its core was Choice. We took what kids wanted to learn and worked to make it fit the system. We dealt with ambiguity daily. We listened to kids and responded sometimes successfully, sometimes not so. But over time the school program evolved. Kids have graduated and gone off to good schools and have since gone off to good jobs or graduate school.
    I dissolved the lines between grade levels, teachers became facilitators, we dissolved the lines between disciplines and relied on inquiry learning. Our facilitators took what kids learned and made it fit the system. We took the lid off and let kids soar.
    It works

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Bill, I love that this “works” in education. Because we already know choice works when we are learning in real life! Can you share more about this school that breaks all the rules?

      • Bill Keilty says:

        The Lighthouse School started as a program, very small, 9 students. We built slowly and adjusted how it would work. I had targeted highly gifted kids when we opened the doors, but soon discover many other kids who responded to how we operated, demonstrated their capacity to perform and began to soar. We relied upon technology which supported our efforts to personalize learning. We are now the Lighthouse School in Spring Lake Park, MN. I have presented on this idea numerous at the national level and recently completed a TEDX on the idea. There is nothing quite like it. I have moved on after 12 years to other work but I would like to replicate it in other parts of the world. It works.
        I just met with one of the students who sought us out from out of state. She got going and taught us, in part how this should work. I had enrolled her at age 14 into a high school medical careers course, because she was too young to get into the EMT class. She went on a site visit to the local hospital. She came back saying she was going to shadow a burn surgeon. I checked into her experience and found she had drilled the surgeon with difficult questions that left him thinking she was knowledgable and driven. I told her to maintain a reflective journal. I had another surgeon friend read her journal. He said she was on target and wrote better than he did in his note taking. We took what she was learning and made it fit standards and benchmarks in life sciences. She was on her way. Now she is an undergraduate taking graduate level coursework in a university that understood her drive.

  • Carol Stewart says:

    When I read your posts, I always come away inspired and committed to stay on track with what I know intuitively is right- engaged kids in a safe and accepting learning environment is what it is all about. Last year I introduced the Global Read Aloud (amazing impact on me and all my students), this year I am starting the Genius Hour (20% Time). No surprise that with a little choice and exposure to a wider picture of the world, our children show their best selves. Keep writing! Your name in my inbox is like a little vitamin pack that I need to keep marching on.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for the kind words Carol! Yes, it’s amazing how much of an impact choice can have on student engagement and ownership of their learning experiences. I’d love to hear more about how the GRA impacted you and your students!

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