Sounds surprising, right? Especially after the Chicago Teacher Strike, after reading daily about how awful public schools and teachers are, and after dealing with my horrendous first year teaching experience. Then there’s the recent and provocative essay “The Exhaustion of the American Teacher,” in which the author blames all adult stakeholders–especially parents–for the demise of the American student and burning out of teachers, contending that educators are unfairly singled out and asked to change, to make heroic and impossible efforts to “fix” the schools, while parents and policy makers and politicians aren’t asked to do anything.
I don’t disagree with the article’s premise.
But I do believe there are still reasons to believe in the power and efficacy of teaching and teachers.
I’ll admit I don’t have classrooms with thirty-plus students. I don’t have to worry about excessive standardized testing in every class. I don’t have administrators breathing down my neck, asking me to fill out countless forms to please the higher-ups. But I do teach in a public urban high school, with many of the issues that plague our system: abused, abusing, and neglected students, too-much testing, and sometimes inflexible curriculum and scheduling.
Nonetheless, there are still many reasons to embrace teaching, and they aren’t just June, July, and August.
Countless Small Wins
I’m hard-pressed to think of another profession with the potential to have so many small victories and breakthroughs every day. Take this past Wednesday, for example. Jujuan, Deonte, and several other students voluntarily stayed after school for English tutoring. They helped me teach a student from another class, Rick, about appositives and complex sentences. They raced up to the white board, grasping green and blue dry erase markers, then explained the basic structure of a literary analysis paragraph. They wanted to be there, to get better. I smiled inside and out. Pretty big win.
Earlier in the day, I told Kirsten that somebody fixed my classroom speakers. Her eyes lit up–she lives for music. At the end of class, I played one of her suggestions off the class playlist. Small win.
Some of my former FMD (Functionally Mentally Disabled) students emphatically fist-bumped me in the hallway, asking when they could be in my media class again. Small win.
Demetrias, an oldest child who lives with her mom and four younger siblings, often taking on enormous childcare responsibilities, entered class with some good news. She asked it I could help her apply for an advanced media summer program. Bigger win.
There are still many pain-in-the-ass moments during the school day, and it’s not easy to ignore and filter them, allowing for a fertile environment for small wins and breakthroughs. But it’s possible, and it’s one reason why teaching is still great.
You Can–And Have To–Say No
The demands keep piling up our our desks and in our psyches like an overflowing garbage bin. We need to raise test scores. We need to stay every day for tutoring, if necessary. We need to call parents. We need to sponsor more clubs and activities. We need to fill out paperwork.
Not going to do it all. I’m not superhuman, and I’m not able to save all souls. I’m not going to make excessive personal and professional sacrifices to do things that parents, local businesses, politicians, and other adults should be doing more of, like helping to build character, crafting more sane education policy, and providing opportunities for youth to be positively engaged in communities. I’m only effective day in and day out in the classroom when I put on the brakes and have peace of mind.
This point may seem like it doesn’t belong in a list of why teaching is still great, but here’s why it does: If you can, do your best to say no to or ignore everything that isn’t directly relating to teaching and nurturing kids. Nowhere in my contract does it demand me to FIX SOCIETY, even though that’s the explicit and implicit message us educators receive daily. As tough as it is, we can embrace and enjoy teaching by saying no.
It’s Not A Desk Job
Some days, due to testing or being flat-out tired, I’ll spend a good chunk of my time in my twenty dollar faux-leather chair. Most days, on the other hand, I have the opportunity to buzz around room 137 and Fern Creek’s hallways, creating opportunities for small wins. No two days during the course of my nearly nine-years teaching have been the same. I never wake up and think, Damn, I’ve got to face another day just like yesterday, or like last week, or like last month. The variety of challenges and encounters teachers face keeps it exciting and, despite being exhausting at times, boredom does not come into the equation as far as work satisfaction.
I’ve used Edublogs with middle and high school students. While I’ve retracted my more permissive stance on cell-phones in the classroom, I’ve tested out Poll Everywhere and other services that allow students to use their gadgets. Via Skype and Google Drive, I’ve connected my class with students in Miami to collaborate on writing and media work. I’ve utilized all sorts of tools to challenge students to create authentic digital storytelling projects.
There is no end to the possibilities that technology affords us. Some tools are better than others, for sure, but this is part of the journey. Like the idea that teaching is not–or shouldn’t be–redundant, stagnant work, technology tools offer us opportunities to innovate and experience variety on a daily basis. Some courses and curriculums are better equipped to utilize technology, but every classroom experience can be enriched by the digital world.
Many teachers–including myself–have griped about inflexible and mandatory professional development within their school districts.
There is good reason for the discontent, as often teachers are excluded from the design of the training sessions.
But teaching is still great is you tap into online communities and independent organizations like ASCD that offer outstanding networking and professional growth potential. Twitter has also become a lifesaver for some educators, who set out in the sea of 140-character messages and links from educators around the world to share and build on ideas. Personally, I’m fortunate to be a part of three organizations outside of my school district that help recharge my batteries, so to speak. They are Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Teacher Network, the National Writing Project, and the Teacher Leader Forum. I’ve met dynamic folks in person and online through these organizations.
Teachers don’t have to feel isolated within buildings and school districts, but the onus is often on us to find the professional networking and development that suits our needs.
If you’re a teacher, why do you embrace/not embrace your job? What are some other reasons why we can still be optimistic and satisfied with our profession? If you’re not a teacher, what do you have to do in order to ensure work/professional satisfaction? What can be done so more educators feel valued? How else can other stakeholders truly contribute to making public education better?
Thanks for the comment Sham! I hope I’ll still be inspired if I choose to stay in the education game as long as you have.
I’ve been 25+years ‘in the game’, mostly at Junior College but your post reminds me so much of my late hubby-a former high school drama teacher in Missouri. That was how he saw his days…little wins… Like the the student who’d driven him half mad with frustration because of his ‘bad ‘ behavior, but who, before he left school on his last day, shook his hand and said ‘thank you sir’, ‘you really were ok’!! For me in college, it’s seeing the smile spread across the face of the 50yr old who’d come back to study for the first time since 9th grade, scared, doubtful of her abilities, full of past failures…that smile as she reads the ‘pass’ written on the top of her paper. That’s a huge win. Teaching is a bit like parenting…they only teach you so much at University…the rest you learn ‘on the job’; and you never learn it all, you’re always a bit behind the 8-ball; and every day leaves you exhausted; and every day you go back to try to do a bit better yourself.
Thank you for the article, it reminded me of why I’m still here at 60!.
Thanks Carley, please spread the word!
My friend, who is a middle school principal, told me he understands that he’s asking his teachers to do a lot, but with the testing pressure and school sanctions, he finds himself in a tricky situation.
I’m glad it gave you a boost! It is saddening to hear about the burn out and other issues swamping teachers–I’m not immune–and unfortunately, the conditions many teachers face make it difficult to overcome the victim mindset.
You’re right about needing to attract top talent and attracting more people who want to embrace the challenge and solve problems.
What a great post. It is nice to hear that you are really paying attention and appreciating your small wins. I hope you inspire other teachers to be mindful of how they can be most effective and not take on too much.
This post makes me SO HAPPY! I LOVE being a teacher and think it is one of the best careers out there. That’s why it’s so saddening to hear other teachers talking about how “things are getting worse” and “we’re under attack.” Though we must stand up for ourselves, we cannot be victims. We have a great life, and the more we broadcast how wonderful teaching is, the more we’ll attract top talent to the field!
You too!! Keep up the great work!
You’ve made me realize that perhaps the title of this post should be “Five Ways to Avoid Teacher Burnout.” Thanks for stopping by.
Thanks for the compliment, and your comment makes perfect sense! I think it’s almost impossible to strictly teach content and subject matter at school with high-needs students, because there are so many barriers to break through to make academic gains.
Sounds like we’re on the same page as far as trying to find balance.
I’ll admit, it’s easier for me to be avoiding burnout–while still trying to do a great job–without a family of my own to take care of. That will be the next challenge…
I totally agree with you.
There comes a time when you have to stop thinking about what everybody else is expecting you to do and do what you think your students expect you to do to achieve the objectives they should be achieving;and, furthermore, as you say, we do not have to fix society and do what parents or administrations should be doing.
This is a great way not to become burnt-out.
Great article, congratulations!
Good stuff, Paul. Sq
I was a teacher at the college level — after a year in a private boy’s school in New York. I loved teaching and enjoyed the interaction with the students. But I taught the subject matter to the students; I didn’t really teach students (if that makes any sense). I was much more at home with bright students who liked what I was excited about than I was at getting students excited about things that simply didn’t interest them. I dare say you are a much better teacher than I was!
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I really admire your commitment to avoiding burnout. Too many people, and passion is wonderful but…, try and try and try…and end up bitter and angry instead. I work in journalism and it, too, can wear you down to the nub. I work freelance but refuse to work nights and weekends. Sure I would make more $$ but what’s the point if I never relax and recharge and enjoy my social relationships?
I suspect too many parents and maybe their kids remain passive as if their becoming educated was “your job” — and not their AND yours together.
Thanks for stopping by, David. With regards to civic and business leader participation in the public schools, what do you think about the idea of creating more work/internship/exploration programs for high school students to be exposed to and begin learning real-world skills outside of school? So many students have no idea what is demanded or required in various job settings.
I’m afraid we’re at the cusp of too much “blind” tech. adoption in schools, allowing corporations and other consultants to step in and push products, rather than schools being independent and figuring out what’s best for smaller school communities. Not enough exploration.
Thank you! I’ve been able to string together some great teaching weeks, which inspired me to share. Hope you’ve had a nice weekend.
Great post, Paul. Points 2 and 4 especially resonated with me. On 2: Teachers can’t do it all. Civic and business leaders need to participate, not just with either empty praise of the idea of teaching or mechanistic demands for better outcomes, but with involvement and thoughtfulness in improving the structure within which teachers work. On 4: Love your emphasis on EXPLORATION of technology and how it can help. A cornucopia of apps, solutions, etc. is coming, but (a) it won’t contain a single magic bullet for (to quote your post) “sav[ing] all souls,” and (b) much of it will be designed around the technologist’s dream, not the user’s need. An explorer’s attitude seems the right way to approach all this: Try with an open mind, reject instantly what doesn’t work, adopt what does, then repeat. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Great post!!! You inspire me so much. I need to take breaks in the middle of the day so I don’t get too wound up. It really helps clear my mind which leads to much clearer thinking. Thanks for a hopeful and inspring post!