How to Remain a Healthy Teacher in an Unhealthy Educational System

When I began my career, teaching students, in 1979, my heart was in the right place. I didn’t know much, but I sure had altruistic motives. Not much experience but lots of passion. Over the next several years, I got better at teaching, at leadership, and at managing both students and staff. I had found my niche and my flow.

But something else occurred I was not ready for.

I became more controlling. As time marched on, especially when things went awry, I slowly drifted into wanting control, not only of the curriculum, budget, and program, but of the results as well. Unwittingly, I wanted to control the inputs and outcomes.

This control thing has a handle on many of us in our educational system. When things go wrong, we want control of them. When we can’t control them, too often we throw up our hands in surrender. Recently, I spoke to administrators, faculty, staff and school counselors who’re frustrated with the dysfunctional system they’re in. Limited school budgets; poor performing staff who are allowed to stay; disrespectful students, and parents who are either disengaged or overbearing can burn out the best of teachers. Many believe the entire system is broken. Some are quitting.

Roughly half of U.S. teachers report feeling “under great stress” several days a week; educator job satisfaction is at a 25-year low, and almost a third of teachers say they are likely to leave the profession within the next five years. Most parents apparently believe the system is not working, too. According to a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, approximately 80 percent of Americans give grades of “C,” “D,” or “F” to our nation’s schools. So, how do we respond in a broken situation?

Understanding Our Three Buckets

What I learned over my career is simple: the events and people in my life will either incentivize me or de-energize me depending on how I respond. I’ve come to believe that every experience I have in life falls into one of three buckets:

  • It is in my control.
  • It is out of my control.
  • It is within my influence.

Problems arise when we start placing people and experiences in the wrong bucket. When we get it wrong, it leads to conflict. Distrust. Stalls. Turmoil. The secret to good leadership is to place every experience in the proper bucket. Items placed in the wrong bucket almost always lead to trouble. It’s a control issue.

Utilizing the Right Buckets and Responding Well

My life and leadership has been liberated since learning to place relationships and events in the proper bucket. Especially when I feel I’m working within system that’s dysfunctional—I can get frustrated by misplacing the buckets. Here is a summary of how we must respond:

Bucket One: It is in my control. I must initiate.

Our response should be to take responsibility. If something is in my control, I must flee the temptation to avoid action, or find a scapegoat to blame if things go wrong. In most contexts, we have a role to play. We must not make excuses. We must initiate and take proper responsibility. It’s up to us to lead the way.

Bucket Two: It is out of my control. I must trust.

Our response in these circumstances is to trust. We can’t force others to obey us. We can’t wave a magic wand to make things align. We must trust the process we’re in or get out of it altogether. We must not try to manipulate or dominate. We must remain steady and faithful, knowing it’s useless to fret other things beyond our control.

Bucket Three: It is within my influence. I must respond wisely.

Our response in this third bucket requires wisdom. It is a mixture of the first two buckets. We can’t control the situation, but we can influence it. We can’t force others to change or volunteer, but we can challenge them. We can’t make people act, but we model the way and seek their response It’s a dance. It’s a volley.

Your Assignment

Why not try it out? Grab a sheet of paper or take some notes on your smartphone. Jot down the three “buckets” and make columns underneath each one. List of the items you’re frustrated about, and place each one in the proper bucket. Are there items you need to assume responsibility and act instead of complain? Are there items you simply need to stop worrying and start trusting the process? Are there items you need to consider how you can positively influence that situation?

My hope…is that you hold on to hope. The only way to survive and thrive is to place every situation of your life in the right bucket. Then, do what you’re gifted to do.

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How to Remain a Healthy Teacher in an Unhealthy Educational System