Teaching is not an easy profession. It is not built for people who don’t care about the well being of others. It is not a career for people who don’t want to work. It is a difficult job, and there is a lot of turn over as new people enter the profession and quickly discover it’s not right for them.
Yet, there are also plenty of teachers in the system who have been doing this for fifteen or more years. Why do so many teachers stick it out that long?
I’m not in my fifteenth year; I’m not even in my fifth year, but I’d like to share some of the things I like about this job that I think will get me to that threshold (and a few obstacles I’ve encountered so far).
I’ve struggled in the past to find a job that felt significant to me. I’ve worked both in the service industry and as a research assistant, and in each case the work felt unimportant. Although I was technically helping people, it didn’t feel like it was important work that was affecting their lives. In both cases I felt like just a cog in a machine that didn’t seem to be doing much to reflect my values.
As a teacher, I have flexibility, independence and influence over people’s lives. Daily, I stop tears, calm anxieties, teach skills and build confidence, all before lunch. Everything that I do has a direct (positive, I hope) impact on someone else’s future and that makes the work feel important.
Although new teachers can be subject to budget cuts and enrollment numbers, overall the profession of teaching is a stable career path. Even as we incorporate computers and other technology into the classroom, there will always be a need for experts to teach novices. This is a career that won’t be automated anytime soon and in fact, teachers are needed now more than ever in the era of fake news and alternative facts, but that’s for another post.
If you work in a public school, the teacher’s union has a lot to do with this too. The union is there to protect you should the administration make a sudden change to the expectations of your job. The flip side of course is that you adhere to your professional responsibilities. As long as you are still performing in a professional manner, you can often stay in the job until retirement which is somewhat of a rarity in today’s workforce.
It’s never boring
If you’re doing it right, teaching is never boring. Even on a good day when things run smoothly and all your lessons go as planned, your students can still surprise you with a nice word or a funny insight. Sometimes when things don’t go as planned that can lead to the most interesting lessons of all. If it goes badly, you can learn from it; if it works but not in the way you planned, you can also learn from it.
There is no truly routine day in this job even though we have a set schedule and certain expectations. This is the kind of thing I love. I know where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing at a given moment of my day, but often there are surprises along the way that make the journey more interesting and even fun.
Not all surprises are good, though. As an English teacher, I sometimes get writing back from students that I don’t expect. When I see admissions of drug use or other issues obviously I need to report them, but these things can sometimes be a cry for help which can lead to a more trusting relationship with that student.
My students are thoughtful, interesting people looking to take on the world in their own way. They are scared of certain things; sometimes they can be vulnerable, but they genuinely want to do well. It’s so interesting to see a kid who never stops talking in class and often struggles to complete written work get so deeply engaged in an art project. Likewise, a student who was particularly interested in meteorology surprised me when he got deeply engaged in a discussion about the hurricane scene in Their Eyes Were Watching God. He had serious scientific knowledge to apply to the novel and share with the class. The level of enthusiasm my students bring to their work (even when English isn’t their favorite subject) tells me that I must be doing something right. It also inspires me to keep creating interesting lessons for them because I know that it’s making a difference.
A Few Potential Obstacles
New teachers often leave after only a few years. Why? The reasons are numerous of course but here are a few things that I’ve noticed so far.
Lack of support
Not all mentor programs are created equally. In my state, public schools provide a mentor program for new teachers in the district regardless of how many years of teaching experience the teachers have elsewhere. However, teachers in their first year (or two) often need much more support than teachers in their eighth or ninth year. While the mentor I’ve worked with has been excellent, there have been a few times when he’s forgotten just how many things there are to learn in the first few years alone.
The district also provides us with a monthly meeting for the new teachers which often consists of “how’s it going?” conversations and comparisons between our district and other places teachers have worked previously. While it’s nice to know what’s working and what’s not from that perspective, often teachers in their first year or two need more specific help – classroom management, using the online gradebook, communication with parents – and those conversations get pushed aside for more general topics. Those kinds of issues, the real day-to-day minutia of the classroom need to be addressed otherwise new teachers may feel unsupported and called to leave the profession.
With all of the federal regulations and policy changes over the last several years, there is more pressure than ever to perform as a public school teacher. The problem is that most of these federal regulations are written by policy makers who have little to no experience in the public education system. Teachers need a greater say in the policies that regulate them, otherwise we will see an increase in the number of people leaving the profession. It is a complicated matter of course, but when you have funding decisions tied to test scores, it creates a toxic environment for those working hardest to do the best for our students. And of course there are inherent biases built into the tests, not to mention the factor of the kids themselves and their drive to do well or not. The unrealistic expectations teachers face could be their own post, so I will leave it for now.
Why stick with it for fifteen or more years?
In the end, this career is worth the challenges. The students teach me everyday, just as I teach them and it’s so lovely to see how their thinking changes over the course of the school year. No job or career path is perfect, but this one with it’s many benefits outweighs the obstacles that we face each day. Plus, if you’re good at it, it’s pretty fun!