Cartoon: A nurse and counselor in every school
As I completed my fifth year of teaching this June, it occurred to me that I had survived the curse and beaten the statistic of half of all new teachers quitting within their first five years.
Although I find it much more honorable to recognize teachers who have made education their life’s work and have put in 25, 30, 35 years in public schools, I sighed a breath of relief at five years under my belt and took time to reflect on what I have learned in the past five years that will sustain me in the next 25.
Confession #1: I have sat at a blank computer screen after midnight searching for inspiration for a lesson plan for the following day.
This is the kind of flashback from year one of teaching that turns my stomach a little bit. It is painful to recollect the anxiety and stress of that first year (there really is nothing like it, is there?), but doing so also reminds me of how far I’ve come.
On one hand, I realize that I was uniquely creative and willing to take risks my first year (probably because I had nothing to lose), but I also had poor time management and basically worked around the clock. Quality lesson planning does take time but it’s also a process that gets easier over time. Since that first year, I’ve learned the benefit of consulting other resources (primarily teachers with great ideas) rather than doing it alone.
Confession #2: I have entered into power struggles with children…and lost.
Word to the wise: expect to be disappointed if you attempt to confront a student who is trying to save face, defend a friend, or otherwise exercise their right to be an angry teenager. You will lose every time. Recognizing the social, developmental and emotional needs of a young person is something I was not able to comprehend in my first couple years of teaching (largely because I was still a young person myself). The more I learn about what students need as adolescents, the less I find myself in absurd arguments over pencils.
Confession #3: I drive home most days feeling like a crappy teacher.
Despite the accolades and positive observation feedback I’ve received, there is usually at least one thing each day that makes me think, “Well, I screwed that up big time” or at the very least “I could have handled that much better.” I say this not to sound dramatic but because I believe it is important to resist the teacher-hero archetype and realize that most good teachers fail.
The process of becoming a better teacher is sometimes a painful one, and you rarely get to see the fruits of your labor as a teacher, but it is a continuous process of discovery. Personally, I find it comforting that I don’t have all the answers yet and that there is still time to become the teacher I want to be.
Confession #4: I have thought about quitting (on several occasions).
Even though I may have beaten the five-year curse, there have definitely been days I have entertained the thought of quitting (and maybe even perused the offerings of Idealist.org). The truth is, teaching is an incredibly taxing job. I have seen friends take higher-paying jobs with less stress and less continued education required, and it can be discouraging. While others will remind me of the perks of having summers off, there really has to be greater incentive to stay in the game.
It is different for everyone, but for me, feeling like I am a part of something bigger than myself and knowing that I am using my talents to hopefully shape someone else’s ideas keeps me coming back. I should also mention that of everyone I know who has left teaching, not a single person attributes their decision to students. In fact, they miss their students terribly, but do not miss the lack of predictability or professional growth in their schools.
Confession #5: I worry about how I will sustain this career over a lifetime.
I entered teaching expecting to be here for the long haul. Still, most days, I get home physically and emotionally exhausted. I marvel at how teachers with families manage both full-time jobs that require so much energy, patience, and so much of your self. I’m worried that at a certain point in my career, the cons will outweigh the perks and I will take rank with the thousands of other ex-teachers who wistfully remember their time in the classroom, yet in the same breath recognize why they no longer are.