Imagine you’ve been in education for 7, 11, 15 or even 25 years. In each of those 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.

Over the years you’ve had a constant turnover in your administration. New Principals, new Superintendents, new 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 changed multiple times and you are starting another revision, complete with a shift to new 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.

And in the midst of all this change, you are actually getting excited because students are now able to bring devices into school, or maybe your school is giving them devices. Although many 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 over the years.

Not so much by the parents, who have definitely changed over the years. But mostly by managing all of this…picking yourself up

But mostly by managing all of this, picking yourself up every day, and believing you’re doing good work, with good people, for the right reasons.

The Struggle Is Real…

I asked teachers and school leaders what they were struggling with a few months ago, 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.

Teachers & Leaders

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 a support system (family, teachers, friends, coaches) 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. 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 do not trickle down to our students and impact their learning experience in a negative way?

Well, 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 they empowered? 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.

And consistently focusing on what is best for them.

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

Or maybe you are frustrated because you are changing, innovating, and doing creative work, yet can’t seem to get others to buy in and join the movement.

In either case, take a moment to breathe and look at the big picture.

The Silver Lining: Great Learning Can Come 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, a fantastic teacher I worked 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.

A group of teachers in my district were frustrated that our students weren’t getting some of the same opportunities and experiences as those students from other neighboring districts. That led to the creation of a CentennialX: a summer internship and human-centered design program where students work with real companies to create products, pitch those products, and present their work at conferences (like Stanford’s MedX) around the country.

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 23 Comments

  • Hello AJ, I wholeheartedly agree with your article, I myself was exhausted with fighting with administration to allow me to create student centered, project based, problem based, challenge based and place based curriculum for science. So I decided to do something about it. Now as a educational consultant and owner at Brainstorm Consulting LLC , I teach schools and administrators as well as teachers how to create projects and brain considerate classrooms. I found that the administrators wanted us to be creative, however they did not know how to evaluate teachers when the students were central in the creation, performance and evaluation of their own work. They also did not understand how I was integrating all subjects, including other teachers in my projects and teaching students to be responsible, creative and passionate about their learning. They also did not like that I did not use traditional student in seat classroom management techniques. I did not have to, every student was working and engaged each day and I had time to meet with each student and really help them to learn and grow. I am living testimony that Innovative Ideas come out of frustration and the work that you are doing is exactly that. I know that your blogs and ideas will help teachers and there are others out there who are trying to do the same. I am based on the west coast and happy to help educators to bring this creativity and passion into their curriculum and save themselves hours of grading and planning. Good luck and keep the information coming.

  • Karen A Kraeger says:

    For regular ed classroom teachers everywhere, the demands for accountability, measureable growth, and strict adherence to Common Core Standards have created an overwhelming burden that stifles any bit of creativity. They feel pressure to “teach the standards” and “assess for growth”. Many teachers struggle to find time to plan and/or teach innovative lessons.

    You’re right about target professional development being a BIG part of the answer to these frustrations. The message is spreading, so very s-l-o-w-l-y! Teachers also need support and encouragement from their administrators to be innovative and creative in the classroom. Everybody needs a cheerleader, right!

    I’m very lucky to be teaching in an elementary gifted program. I have gifted standards to cover, and must show growth, but how and what to teach is up to me. As part of our Countywide department of Advanced Learning Programs, we are also afforded exactly the type of differentiated training opportunities so many teachers are seeking. All of these reasons are why I LOVE my job! Oh, and the amazing kids I work with daily!

    I know better teaching and professional development is possible, we just have a way to go before it is widespread.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this crucial issue and starting this conversation!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi Karen and thanks for the comment. You are so right, that learning is a big part of this process. We have to own our learning if we want to not only manage change but thrive in a changing educational landscape. This conversation is so important and thanks for being a part of it.

  • Kris Happe says:

    Fantastic article. I am sharing it with many of my staff!
    Thanks for all you do:)
    Kris Happe
    Gifted Education Specialist
    Osseo Area Schools
    Maple Grove, MN 55369

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for reading and sharing Kris! Would love to hear what the conversation is between you and your colleagues.

  • Drazen says:

    Great article, and came just when I’ve started to interest more about education problems. I totally agree innovation can come out of frustration, but it’s more likely to come from outside of the education “industry”, 60% of innovations come from outside. I’m not a teacher, just a father who was not satisfied with learning tools and I’ve invented approach that created wow factor on teachers faces in Europe. I’ve mixed online media with customized lessons in and caused pupils be totally dazzled with seen, and talking for days after. This is my attribution to help teachers cope with desperation and frustration.

  • Lmarie says:

    Teaching ELA for 20 years and have enjoyed them all despite the frustrated and desperate times. No where else could I ever expect to feel so challenged, so creative, so supported, so fulfilled.

    What theatens that comes in the name of common formative assessments and professional learning communities. I have no problem with these ideas, but as they are currently addressed and implemented where I teach makes innonvation tricky. The overall idea is we must teach in lock step. In other words, new ideas and strategies are great as long as everyone agrees.

    And we disagree often–not because we are dysfunctional, but because we are passionate about our teaching, and our pedagogies, talents, experiences, etc vary.

    But we also respect each other. And in the end, our differences in teaching are not wildly apparent in the classroom. We meet frequently, communicate openly, learn from each other all the time.

    While I am a team player, I must address what my students need. If I veer from The Plan from time to time to meet those needs, so be it. I also don’t hide those times from my colleagues or admins. I guess I decided a few years ago that some things are worth getting fired for. And that’s sounds so much more dramatic than my reality; I’ve never felt my job has been in jeopardy, not even close.

    But I became a teacher to help students read and write and think; not to follow a script. I hope all teachers, new and experienced, continue to put their stamps on the profession.

    • Karen A Kraeger says:

      Thumbs WAY up to you for putting your students first! Sharing your story encourages others who may be intimidated by Ed Policy to try it too!

  • Dale Mate says:

    Continual micromanagement and making work difficult when supervisors don’t like you.

  • Nick Lera says:

    Well said! This year has been a doozy, and I’m heartened by the perspective you’ve (AJ) offered.

    I have a general comment that is often lost in these conversations: time is our most valuable commodity.
    Change breeds conflict costs energy takes time. And, meanwhile, in schools, many innovators are being pushed to do more and more, to “move the needle” and generate the next new idea (often, while the last one is still in the air).
    Whenever I wax philosophic on this subject, I’m reminded of the Good Samaritan study by Darley and Batson ( I would contend that the rapidity of change is leaving us directionless, awash in new media meeting old meeting mediums. Uncertain of the course ahead.
    I would also contend that the best parts of education, the deepest parts of our thought and reason, are accessible through conventional means (that is, “old school” stuff).

    Metadata is finally starting to show its true self: a gaping maw, greedy for ever more, ever more data points.

  • Steve Weatherell says:

    Thanks, AJ. I enjoyed this piece, as ever. I do think we need to examine the common assumption that change in education must accelerate. For me, it is not inevitable that temporary exponential increases in computing power correlate with the rate of change of education. If we observe this at the moment, it isn’t clear to me that it is more than a psychological phenomenon. What our forebears experienced in societal development immediately after the World Wars is probably just as dramatic. We must make sure we are not suffering from chronocentrism – a belief that our own era is more unique that it actually is.

  • Steve Weatherell says:

    This piece led me to the link to your post about gamifying PD which I found to be implementing a change I would be interesting in trying out, doing the same work as you in an international school in Europe. That was in 2014: How did it pan out? Are your colleagues motivated by badges and mastery?

  • Alena Jones says:

    A few years ago, when I returned to teaching from administration(from another state), I was excited to be part of project based learning. I was able to teach outside the bounds of a tight schedule, able to combine subjects, write a pretest and post test to measure growth and present new and developing learning through technology. I was able to see excitement in the children, along with collaboration, and meaningful learning.
    Now, I must adhere to a schedule for each subject separately and transition, quickly to the next curricular area, because this is observed. Standards (skills) are taught in isolation and I must be teaching what the teacher next door is teaching, each day(same standards/pages/homework). And at the same time.
    I am burdened by what Dale shared. Also, the intense look at data for only data’s sake. One test in the fall is sacred and all is based on the outcomes, only to move on to a different, better test and throw away the results from the one we held sacred in the fall!
    I really care about the kids and believe we must get hold of what we now can teach them using and through technology, knowing full well that it will be totally different for them in only 4 years. We have to hit an agreed upon starting place for technology in all we do and use it more than I see now.

  • Shannon Goodwill says:

    I teach art at an elm Project Based Learning School in CO. This is my third year at this school and I have learned a lot about PBL, TAB -Teaching for Artistic Behaviors, and now 20% Time! My Students have enjoyed the ability to have voice and choice in the classroom and are creating some amazing things. My struggles have been with my admin observations and ratings. This is why I have enrolled in the genius hour online course and have been using the passion project plan and action plan to show that we are not just taping cardboard boxes together as busy work to parents and admin. Sadly, they still didn’t get it and I was told that they will not be renewing my contract with them for next year. I am passionate about the process of creating all things and love the experience of being in that moment with children! I am now faced with the task of finding a better fitting art position, which I thought PBL school would have been my best bet. This is what us frustrating me at the moment!

  • Elizabeth Hill says:

    Here’s a link to my response on my blog that echoes the article. In short, IT’S OK TO BE FRUSTRATED… I sure am. Thanks AJ for having the guts to post about feelings and the courage to ask others for their honesty.

  • Ted Williams says:

    Thanks AJ, your article is inspirational and resonates with me personally.
    Re-creating the planetarium program at Centennial started with frustration at the state the facility was in. A beautiful planetarium theater with a projection system left from 15 years past, almost incapable to deliver visual astronomy, yet suitable for many other equally important uses.
    If we break the paradigm of planetarium = astronomy and we capitalize on the digital capability that we currently have (working inside the box) it will allow us a new view of planetarium = virtual reality simulator/exhibit hall.
    I find my diminished capability of delivering optical astronomy drives my creativity in other curriculum areas to new levels of excellence. Coming up with new approaches to a digital domain the likes our district is lucky to have has been an amazing experience of new growth for me. Using new approaches to center the students in the planetarium programming is key. They need to have the live experience of discovery and exploration, not a lecture of facts and listings.
    While optical astronomy will play a smaller role in that experience, we are still afforded a digital universe at our fingertips. Enlisting the students as guides to our cosmos as seen from the perspective of all academic areas including the arts should drive our central focus. Even though we cannot properly see the Pleiades cluster with our current planetarium, I don’t feel it should stop us from coming up with new ways to explore the universe (now at all scales) around us.
    I feel your article is right on target with our educators today and appreciate your sharing.

  • Kelly Dumont says:

    This post really struck home with me because my wife will retire after 33 years in the classroom. She would have liked to have taught a couple more, but her principal kept manipulating things to get what she wanted, not so my wife would stay. The principal makes such a huge difference in the culture of a building. More need to realize that and act on doing what is right not only for students, but for teachers as well.

  • Hi AJ. Thanks for this. Been thinking a lot about how to help educators see the need for continuous learning and improvement without the frustration and cynicism that often comes with initiative fatigue.
    As educators, the learning never stops. To me, best practices suggests an end point. We need to be sure to stop and celebrate these practices and success or people will complain that you keep moving the bar. But then, we must press on. When people say “We just learned that, now you want us to learn this? Make up your mind.” I think, “This is our best new thinking. How can you learn something new about your practice and not use it? There is a Citizen Watch commercial called, Better Starts Now which is a great example of what we could miss out on if people see best practice or success as an end and not a beginning of something better. We keep iterating – not because we are not good enough, but because we can be even better. Who doesn’t want to be better for our students?
    One thing your post made me think of is the notion that so many teachers have a hard time with change and they all went through an education system that is pretty much like the one we have today. If we want our kids to be better at change, why would we want to give them the same educational experience we had?

  • M. Tyson says:

    I completely agree with the only constant being change. I’m coming up on finishing my 2nd year, and all I’ve known is change. It’s very frustrating, but I’ve seen myself adapt to it all. With all of the constant change, how do we know what is/isn’t working if all we have is change?

  • Craig says:

    Hello AJ,

    Love the article!

    In teaching and education, there are very few absolutes. One of them though is that change will always be a constant. Some of change will be forced on us, while other parts are more self driven. As somebody who has taught for almost 3 decades, I’ve learned that controlling what we can change is most important. For example, if there is a schedule change, it doesn’t serve me or anyone else any purpose in compliaining about it. On the other hand, what we can do is make adjustments in our lessons and teaching that enhance our instruction. Take a possible stressor and make it a positive reality.

    These kinds of mindsets aren’t easy though. They take time, energy and a team effort. Without those little things, you’ll almost always fail.

    Have a great day!!


  • Lynn Cashell says:

    As always, you are the hammer who hit the nail right on the head. I realized after reading your blog that my frustration stems from two sources: my students not doing the work, and my colleagues not working as collaboratively as we could to support each other.
    My students love all of the innovation, design thinking, problem- and project-based learning that I have infused into my lessons, yet while engaged, I still feel I need to slow them down to do the background work (I love LAUNCH and they want to leap from L-A to C!). I respect that they live in an age when everything is FAST, so we have room to grow into the slower pace of planning, collaborating, and creating.
    My colleagues are working at different paces in embracing design thinking and growth mindsets, but we are still not good at sharing with each other or collaborating. There’s a sense of competition and the feeling that if you are not doing something with technology, or design thinking, or project-based learning….or any of the newer innovations, that somehow you are not a good teacher. We put that pressure on ourselves, an occupational hazard.
    I read a post by John Spencer who added to the thinking outside/inside the box by suggesting that creativity is not only thinking outside the box, but looking at the box differently. As I move along my journey with innovation, growth mindset, design thinking, etc. I am definitely looking at the box differently. One thing I did when my colleagues did not share with me, was to seek other teaching and learning communities. (Thanks ITA and Twitter!)

  • I love this article because it summarizes where I have been at for the past few years as an educator. I’ve been trying to being these changes into action in my ELL class. It has been very empowering to bring real topics into my instruction and support my learners to grow as indepentent thinkers. One of my struggles is managing all of my resources and teaching kids to be their own learners.
    I will share this with my school. Thank you.

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