Teaching is hard. Why do we stick with it?

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).

 

It’s important

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.

 

Job stability

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.

The students

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.

 

Unrealistic expectations

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!

 

What Teachers Do On Snow Days

Ah, the snow day. What a peaceful, relaxing opportunity to catch up on all those lingering tasks and household necessities that get pushed aside during the regular school schedule.

If only.

Most teachers I know have a laundry list of things they’d like to get done during a snow day, banking on the extra time as a way to play catch up on their personal lives, only to find that none of it really gets done in those few short hours the school day regularly takes up.

Although we’d all really like to dream about what we’d do on a snow day, let’s take a look at what actually happens:

Planning for the Return to School

Lesson planning takes a lot of work, and often when the lesson is interrupted by a snow day it can take extra planning to get the class back on track. This week, for example, my school has had two snow days and a two hour delay in the last three school days. That means that none of my lesson timelines are correct any more and I have a very limited amount of time this week before school vacation next week. I had really hoped to wrap up the unit I’m working on this week so that when we return from break we can start on something new. With all the snow days the chances of that happening are getting slimmer and slimmer, so I have to figure out how I’ll work around this.

Grading

With all this time freed up from teaching, I can get ahead of the pile of assignments to grade. As an English teacher, I can use all the extra grading time I can get. Sure, I’d rather do it at home in my sweatpants than at my desk at school, but it still takes time and mental energy which means that I feel drained after a few hours or so.

Updating My Resume

Maybe this one is just me. I’m someone who likes to keep a current resume even if I’m not actively job searching. It’s a smart strategy – if anything bad does happen, I’ll be prepared for the unexpected. Currently, I’m the newest teacher in my department and I’m working at a public school. That means until next year’s budget is finalized, my job is somewhat insecure. It’s going well and I’m getting great feedback, but until the town agrees on the budget, I can’t be guaranteed there’s a spot for me next year. So, I’m cleaning up my resume just in case.

General Household Tasks

Even though we can’t do all of the things on our to-do list, teachers are people too. That means means doing the laundry between grading papers. It means putting dinner in the Crock-Pot and  running the dishwasher. Of course, for those of us who can’t afford a plow service, this also means shoveling or snow blowing the driveway, parking spot, or sidewalk. These things all take up loads of time and make that dream of having time to relax on a snow day vanish into thin air.

 

The life of a teacher isn’t glamorous. When folks talk about how lucky teachers are to have extra time off, they forget that there’s so much work beyond what goes on inside the classroom. Snow days may mean that you can stay in your sweatpants all day, but they certainly aren’t a “day off” in the middle of the week.

Building Relationships for Better Classroom Management

As I write this, I’m enjoying a well timed snow day. It’s been a hectic week already and when I return to school tomorrow I will be picking up a new class. As I prepare myself for the next few weeks I’m thinking about what’s worked and what hasn’t over the course of this school year. One thing I keep coming back to is relationship-building. In my teacher preparation program they stressed the importance of building relationships with students, but this week I was reminded how this can really impact a class.

Knowing When Students Aren’t Ready to Focus

The Monday after the Super Bowl, my first period class was slightly disorganized chaos. I didn’t stay up to watch the game so I didn’t know until I was driving into work that the Patriots had won. I thought for sure there would be low spirits in the room because of a devastating loss; instead there was mass excitement and most of the class had gotten very little sleep. After various attempts to calm them down, I decided to harness the energy into something that vaguely resembled group work. It wasn’t the highest quality work from any of my students, but it gave all of us a little breathing room and students agreed to come the next day more prepared to focus.

Letting Students Shine

Recently I attended a special education meeting for a student. I know from conversations with this student that English isn’t his favorite subject – he’s historically struggled with it and that’s a source of frustration and embarrassment for him. In my report, I highlighted the things he’s doing best and complimented him on his ability to work hard. Reports from other teachers echoed the same sentiments and he was clearly pleased to see how highly his teachers regard him. We discussed ways for him to improve his skills and suggested that he check in with me from time to time to get extra help. By the end of the meeting, I had a better sense of who he is as a student, I have a stronger relationship with both him and his mother (we had previously only spoken over email) and he seemed more open to the idea of checking in with me for extra help. By first acknowledging the things he was doing well I opened up the door for him to understand how to improve in other areas.

Knowing When to Push Students

There are a few students in my class who could succeed at a higher level next year. They enjoy the class and they’re getting straight A’s without pushing themselves too hard, so it makes sense for them to move up. When I spoke to each of these students individually, two of them were on board right away “Yes, I definitely want to move up next year!”

One student wasn’t so sure. She thought it would be stressful to move up. I told her it would certainly mean more work than she’s doing now, but that she could handle it and it might be a good idea for her. She’s interested in a career in the performing arts and we talked about how, as far as core academic classes go, English most closely aligns with what she wants to do. With strong skills in English she could not only perform, she could write her own shows as well. The skills of empathy and perspective taking that we practice when we read a novel will help her get into character on stage. By the end of the conversation she seemed much more open to the idea. It will be a challenge for her, but if she decides to move up, I think it will be worth it in the end.

Understanding Class Dynamics

I do a lot of group work in my classes. Often I let students pick who they want to work with, but occasionally I assign groups. What’s interesting is that with a few exceptions, even when students pick their groups, the groups look different every time. I can’t possibly stay up-to-date on who is on good terms and who isn’t, but I do make note of partnerships that consistently work well (or not) so that when I do assign groups they’ll be effective. This is also particularly helpful when creating a seating chart.

 

All in all, the better you know your class, the easier it is to teach them and create opportunities for them to learn. That’s why when I walk into my new class tomorrow, I’ll focus on getting to know my students first. We won’t have a ton of time as it is mid-semester, the week before a break, but I know that it will make a huge difference for all of us.

 

Self-Care and Teacher Stress

Because I am early in my career still, senior teachers frequently give me unsolicited advice. I often appreciate what they have to say and I soak it all up like an overly eager sponge. In the last few weeks however, I’ve noticed some trends in that advice so I tried a few things out and I’ll share what’s worked for me.

Get as much sleep as you can. Take naps.

I’ve heard this one over and over throughout my life. I’m prone to taking on a bit too much at one time. Until I started teaching though I never really appreciated how much a good night’s sleep can improve your day. Studies show that sleep deprivation impacts focus, memory and mood, all things necessary to being an effective teacher. Going to bed a half an hour earlier really can make the difference in terms of being prepared to face the challenges of the classroom each day. I can tell immediately when my students aren’t well-rested and if I’m going to remind them to get enough sleep, it’s important that I come to class well-rested each day as well.

Exercise

Exercise can boost mood, increase energy, and reduce stress; all of these things are essential for teachers at all stages in the their career. Not only that, but like sleep, exercise has been linked to improved cognitive function and memory. With benefits like that it’s hard to justify skipping a workout.

Believe me, I try to justify skipping my workouts nearly everyday. But I know the movement is good for me and I’m trying to work on really cutting down the excuse list. One thing that’s helped has been getting up 2o minutes earlier and doing yoga before school. This starts my day off right, with an increased awareness of my mood, energy and body as well as a peaceful state of mind. It’s easier to stay focused and respond calmly to anything that arises when I start my day off with a relaxed, quiet mind.

Find something to take your mind off school

I know many teachers that watch a lot of tv. They’re tired after a long day of decision making and it’s easy to zone out while watching back to back episodes of “Breaking Bad.” In the English department we have a particular fondness for BBC and PBS specials. Sometimes, though, a hobby can fit the bill nicely. I once knew a teacher who had a side business making quilts. She spend her time after school quilting and in the summers she would present her work at local craft fairs.

During the school day there’s plenty to get frustrated about or worry over, but after school, try at least a few nights a week to let go of that and delve into something that’s completely your own. Whether that’s several episodes of “Downton Abbey” or a few hours spent with your sewing machine, let that remind you that you’re a human being first and teacher second.

Don’t check your email after 6 p.m.

This one has been a lifesaver for me. Once, after inputting grades for a particularly difficult test, I received a panicky email from a student pleading with me to say that I’d made a mistake. I hadn’t made a mistake, he’d earned a D. The email was unnerving though, and I didn’t sleep well that night. This made teaching early the next morning difficult and I knew I needed a change. That’s when I implemented a cut off time for checking my email at night.

In today’s world, we’re expected to be “on” all the time. But that mentality leads very quickly to burn out. It’s important to set boundaries for yourself and your students. The likelihood of receiving a calm, well written, level-headed email from a student (or parent) at 10 p.m. is slim. If you’re receiving emails that late, chances are the response can wait until the morning.

 

The most important thing is to take care of yourself. Teachers are held to a high standard of decorum, professionalism and leadership. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t be our best in the classroom and there’s a lot at stake. The future is in our hands.

If you can’t be kind, be quiet.

This weekend, along with millions of people around the world, I joined the Women’s March. I marched because I care about the future of my country.

Because I care about the future of public education in our country.

Because I care about basic rights like access to healthcare for all.

Because I care about civil rights for everyone.

And most of all, because on election day I had so much hope. On the day after I couldn’t find the words to express my despair. I wanted so badly to spread hope and lightness but instead I was overwhelmed by a deep, dark gloom.

There was a bright spot though – my students.

I teach in a liberal-leaning town. Many of  the students in my junior class were rooting for Hillary although they couldn’t vote. They came into class that Wednesday looking as though, collectively, their dog had died.

As a teacher, I knew I had to set the tone in the room, but in that moment, seeing all those dejected faces, I felt powerless. I had wondered as I drove into work that morning what my role was in this version of America. I had wondered what I could contribute to a world that I very clearly did not understand. Looking out at my classroom that morning, I knew I needed to teach. That was my role in the world – to teach my students so that they might feel empowered to create change. Education can open up those kinds of opportunities. As I looked out at them, I saw girls wearing safety pins on lapels, white students wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts, and some glimmer of determined optimism behind the sadness.

Inspired by my students’ quiet optimism, I knew I needed to take action. Of course, the Women’s March was only the first step. There will be many more moments of activism to come, but I went to that march because I was inspired by my students and because I wanted to be a role model for them. I wanted to put the act back in activism. I didn’t want to hashtag my way through the revolution.

Many of my students also went to the march. It was beautiful to see so many people gathered together for a common purpose. Of course, within that common purpose there were many different subgroups, and many people held signs to show which one they belonged to.

Far and away, my three favorite signs spotted at the march said:

“Make America Kind Again”

“If you can’t be kind, be quiet”

and the simple, beautiful, “LOVE”.

I’m committed to continuing to act outside of the classroom, but inside of the classroom (where I have students from everywhere on the political spectrum) I’ll continue to focus on empathy. This is how we create global citizens who care about each other. This is how we teach students to inspire others. This is how we make our mark on the world.

The Importance of Student Choice

My freshmen boys don’t always love to write essays about what they’ve read. Unfortunately, as an English teacher, I have to make them write.

What I’m finding, though, is that I can give them some choice in what they write. College is still a long way off and they will get plenty of practice in the serious literary analysis so not every paper has to fall under that category right now.

We’re wrapping up a unit on Of Mice and Men now and the class will have the option to either write a short creative piece related to the book or a more formal literary analysis as their final paper. They’ll do some pre-writing and brainstorming activities for each option, but they will have a choice of which one they want to complete.

Why give the class a choice like this? Many reasons. I already know they can do the formal literary analysis. They’ve done more formal writing earlier this year, and they’ll get more practice before the end of the year as well. I know that next year the focus for many of them will be on the formal analysis papers as they begin to prepare for state testing.

Many of my students are not strong writers and giving them a choice of how they want to write about this book allows them to show off their strengths. School is exhausting enough as it is, and the high school I work at is a high performing school where a lot of my students are overly focused on their grades, even in lower level classes. My hope is that giving them a choice will alleviate some of the panic they feel when they hear that they have to write.

On that note, I want them to have some agency in their learning. Learning can get passive very quickly if students are simply being told what to do. When we give students a choice and tell them, “Here’s what I hope you learned, here are some options for you to show me that you learned it,” it can be very powerful. It encourages metacognition and allows the students to take responsibility for their own learning.

I don’t give choice on every assignment, but I do try to work it in as often as I can because I know that students are more engaged and more thoughtful when working on something that they have chosen to work on.

In Praise of the Socratic Seminar

As a high school student I dreaded the words “Socratic Seminar.” The activity made me nervous. I wasn’t a fast talker and many of my classmates seemed more comfortable speaking up in class than I was. My teachers would often set us up with one group talking and one group observing, and the thought of half the class observing my every move was daunting.

Of course, as an adult I realize that likely only a few of those kids were really paying attention to the discussion let alone to me, but as a teenager I felt like I was stuck under a microscope.

When I began my teacher preparation program it had been a couple of years since those dreaded mornings in A.P. English, but even still when my professor said he wanted to model how to run a Socratic Seminar for us I felt those old pangs of nervousness. “I can’t put my kids through this,” I thought. “Why would anyone think this was a good way to teach?”

Well, because it is.

The Socratic seminar is one of the best teaching techniques for engaging students in critical thinking and meaningful discussion of a text. Students are expected to articulate their own thoughts as well as listen and respond to others in the the group. The purpose of the seminar is not to debate or prove a point but to discuss open ended questions and explore many facets of a text.

What I found in my program was that most of the nervousness I felt in school came from inadequate preparation.My teacher would often spring it on us at the last minute and we would have to scramble for things to talk about. We would find ourselves drawing a question out for an extra ten minutes after we ran out of things to say about it just to fill the time. It was awkward and school is often already awkward enough for our students.

If students are properly prepared, i.e. given questions to think about ahead of time, asked to come up with their own open-ended questions for homework, and told how they’ll be evaluated, it takes a lot of the stress away. At that point the student can focus on what matters: thinking critically about the text and having an open, thoughtful discussion with their peers.

I see now that the Socratic seminar is a valuable teaching tool. Students can get fully engaged in the discussion, they can listen to each other more carefully and they can add more meaningful commentary.

Of course this will all take some modeling, but with clear expectations, adequate preparation and a complex text to discuss you may be happily surprised at the quality of discussion your students are capable of!