Allen Mendler, the author of Connecting with Students and co-author of Discipline with Dignity has a great offering for all teachers headed back to school this month. When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game is full of practical tips and well-researched ideas that address the actual issues teachers face on the job. The beginning of the school year can be overwhelming, especially for new teachers. This book is a great source of reminders about how to stay in the game and how to keep on top of your work.
Research has shown time and again that the key to student achievement is teacher effectiveness, and Mendler begins the book with that premise. But becoming – and staying – an effective teacher is difficult in these times. The book is divided into four main sections: working with difficult students, working with “unappreciative or irritating adults,” making the best of few or dwindling resources, and taking care of yourself personally. Each of these areas is crucial for maintaining your effectiveness and stability. One piece that I really appreciated as I read was Mendler’s inclusion of a section for administrators at the end of each chapter. This addition to each aspect of effective teaching makes this a book exceptionally well suited for PLC group reading or for collaborative efforts between teachers and administrators.
The key to dealing with difficult students – and any students, really – is that essential piece of giving students a sense of ownership, choice and responsibility over their own education. I discovered the very real advantage to this in my high school classrooms. Giving students choice, and even allowing them to be in charge of solving their problems feels risky at first, but comes with great rewards in terms of building relationship and reliability with your students. Offering student choice is tough in an era of proscribed curriculum, standardized testing and other mandates that take a lot of the choice out of the teacher’s hands, not to mention the students’. But finding ways to insert options for students is the best possible way to get buy-in and cooperation in your classroom. Mendler offers very practical tips on how to do this, from setting clear, specific procedures, managing short interventions, encouraging students in various ways, and how to set your students up for success. The key here is to “be firm when it comes to your expectations of outcome, but flexible about process.”
If you are like me, then the most challenging relationships in school are not with your students, but with some of the adults you have to work with. No workplace is free of at least a few unappreciative or irritating co-workers. In education, we need to constantly collaborate with other teachers, communicate with difficult parents, and work with unsupportive, or often absent, administrators. All of those different groups of adults offer challenges and can put a lot of pressure on our effectiveness as teachers. What Mendler reminds us is that we only have power over our own actions: “we can only control the effort, diligence, and commitment we bring to the moment.” Influencing others does require you to blow your own horn a bit. You can’t have a say in the direction of the school or your own classroom if you aren’t a visible member of your learning community, and unless you are respected by those you work with. So finding ways to de-escalate conflict, to deal with difficult people, and to work with those who have very different ideas than you are all crucial skills for maintaining your effectiveness. This book offers detailed, specific tips on how to do all of these things. These practical ideas are varied and numerous enough that every reader will find ones that fit their situation.
One of the biggest challenges in modern education is the lack of resources and that students are forced to learn and teachers are forced to work in some of the most crumbling buildings and environments imaginable. When I first began teaching in a school that lacked resources, I ended up spending hundreds of dollars of my own money to compensate. But that is impossible and unsustainable for a teacher, so finding other ways to work with your environment is essential. And in the end, finding ways to sustain yourself personally is what will truly support you through the school year. As Mendler points out, it is still very rare for educators to focus on taking care of themselves, especially in the midst of the stressful school environment. Practicing mindfulness, positive self-talk and other practical ways of dealing with stress are crucial for your own sustenance as a professional. But most often, these are the very practices we let fall to the wayside amidst all the items on our “To Do” list.
I highly recommend When Teaching Gets Tough as a practical guide to have on your bookshelf as you start the school year. Pick it up and look through it as the year progresses to remind yourself that part of your best practices are about sustaining yourself. Your goal of reaching your students and leading them to success works only if you can keep yourself strong and in the game as you go along. If you haven’t heard it lately, let me remind you: being a teacher matters. You matter. Caring for yourself as a person and a professional is what will make you an effective teacher and your students their most successful.
Disclaimer: This book was provided to The Educator’s Room free of charge by the publisher. However, neither The Educator’s Room nor the reviewer received any compensation for this review. The opinions contained in this review are those of the reviewer alone and were written free of any obligation or agreement with the publisher. If you have any questions regarding book reviews, see our full disclaimer or contact the Book Review Editor.