I’m not a runner, so using running analogies in my writing is a dangerous proposition for me. But a few parallels between teaching and running strike me. The National Education Association has been collecting data on teachers for years. What they reveal is that 50% of teachers quit within their first five years of the profession. And they never teach again. That means half of the people who enter the profession spend less time IN the profession than they did preparing for the profession.
Those are staggering and disappointing numbers, but I’d have to also confess, that they don’t surprise me. I threw so much of myself into my job that I became sick in only my second year of teaching. I had never been sick before. My illness baffled and scared me. The doctors couldn’t explain it to satisfy me. I was desperate to get better and considered quitting the profession at that time. But I hung in there and realized that teaching, if you wanted to make it a career, was more like a marathon than a sprint. You simply can’t finish a marathon if you try to maintain a sprinter’s pace. No, I’m not in favor of half-way teaching. I’m a teacher who threw herself whole heartedly into the profession. BUT if you don’t find your own pace, your comfort zone that will somehow sustain you to hang in to make it to the end of the marathon, you will never survive in this career.
After more than two decades of teaching, I moved from the elementary grades into high school. High school?! If you had told me at any time during my first half of my career that I would eventually teach high school, I would have laughed in your face and then run out of the school building…in a sprint. In my 24th year of teaching I taught high school for the first time.
I didn’t just move from elementary to high school, I also moved into an entirely new student demographic at the same time. Most of my students were tough and oppositional, living in at-risk situations. Many of my students didn’t know their fathers and some even had mothers in prison or unemployed parents on drugs. I have no idea what kept me from quitting that year. Professionally it was the hardest year of my life. I almost quit in the first week of school. I only made it until 11:00 am on the second day before I was crying. I spent the rest of the year questioning my judgement for staying. That first group of teens chewed me up and spit me out on the pavement. Then they walked over me and left me for dead. And they enjoyed it.
I continued to teach in that challenging environment for 12 years. Do you know what I learned? When I made a positive difference in a student’s life in that environment, I was usually the only person turning that kid’s life around. I learned that those kids challenged me until they trusted me. Life had dealt them some serious blows and they weren’t going to let anyone hurt them again. Once they finally trusted and accepted me then they became my greatest allies. It was in that school that I accomplished some of my most meaningful teaching. It was, in a strange way, kind of intoxicating. I was making a difference. Isn’t that why most of us enter this profession? To make a difference?
It was also during this era that I began speaking and writing about teaching. I wanted to encourage and inspire other teachers. Day in and day out I saw a lot of teachers who looked defeated. I wanted them to feel supported and realize the positive difference they were making. Speaking and writing helped build my self esteem back up a little while the students continued to pummel me like a tether ball dangling from a pole in a prison yard. Yes, making a positive difference in a tough environment feels good, but it also had its down side. I began to feel pessimistic about the future of our country. If the students I was teaching were the future of our world, what was our world going to become?
Fortunately for me my teaching career took another unexpected detour. Someone heard me speak and offered me a job in a more traditional academic high school teaching in a Teacher Academy program. The students who enrolled in that program already knew they wanted to teach. For the most part they were wonderful role models, great students, caring and encouraging to others and even their teacher. The last seven years of my full-time teaching career were blissful. I maintain long-term professional friendships with many students and I watch them finish college and enter their own classrooms. Once again I feel quite optimistic about the future of our schools and our country.
Today I continue to write and speak about teaching while I supervise college level student teachers part time. I love this role. In this capacity I am able to be in and out of schools interacting with top quality mentor teachers, while calming the fears and encouraging beginning teachers. After twice considering walking away from the profession, it turns out I am a teacher for life.
Tips for Running a Teaching Marathon
Find your own pace. When you discover your energy flagging, turn your attention to the other parts of your life. Are you socializing enough? Are you having any fun in the rest of your life? Have you given up an activity you enjoy? If teaching consumes your whole life, you won’t be able to stick with it long-term.
Find a coworker with a positive attitude and good sense of humor. You can encourage one another and laugh about the occasional lunacies of the profession.
Focus on the students. Try not to focus on the frustrations of the profession. There will always be a new program, new curriculum, a new computer system, data collection, testing pressure, politicians who complain about schools during campaigns, or a change in policy or administration. None of that is as important as building a rapport with students and helping them learn and grow into positive adults. Laugh about the rest and focus on the kids.
Don’t eat lunch with the crab apples. Every school (or business) has crab apples. Spend your time with the positive staff members. Avoid staffers who complain about the quality of the students, the community or the administration. Seek out professionals who genuinely care about the students and have the ability to keep the rest of the job in perspective.
Never quit after a frustrating year. There’s an old saying, “Never cut a dead tree in the winter time.” Wait until spring. It may just appear dead and will flourish in the spring. In teaching, each school year is a clean slate. I’ve had some of my best teaching years just following some of my most challenging. Those sweet years can rejuvenate you.In my life I play many roles. I’m a daughter of aging parents, wife, friend, mom, grammy, speaker and writer. But in addition to all those roles, I know that in my soul I am a lifetime teacher. I hope somehow you will be able to obtain the satisfaction from teaching that I have. The world needs committed teachers more than any other profession. If you agree, you are probably one of us. I teach to change lives.
TEACH…To Change Lives
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