Those of us committed to a long career in the classroom must seek new challenges if we expect our 20th year of teaching to be as engaging as our first. This doesn’t necessarily mean changing jobs or grade levels—opportunities abound for those open to them.
Isn’t teaching hard enough already, you ask? Why take on something new? Yes, teaching is exhausting, especially the parts we can’t avoid—grading papers, attending staff meetings, preparing students for another standardized test. But if we focus on things that drive our passions for teaching, we can stretch ourselves and energize our careers.
What do you love about teaching? Maybe it’s connecting with students who have fallen through the cracks. Maybe it’s taking kids outdoors to enjoy nature. If you could spend more time doing the things you love, what would your school day look like? How would that fit into your current school’s reality?
Start With Your Passions―and Your School’s Needs
While the new challenges I have accepted fuel my passions, they also benefit my school. I love stargazing and teach astronomy to fifth graders, but I couldn’t excite students about constellations with a daytime sky. My solutions: bring the inflatable Sky Dome Planetarium to school with help from a PTO grant and take my students on an optional Friday night field trip to our local observatory.
I also love seeing older students working with younger peers, but struggled to align schedules so that busy high school students could support my fifth graders. My solution: support a group of highly motivated high school students who created an after-school Elementary Science Olympiad club.
Sometimes new challenges take me out of my comfort zone. I don’t have a green thumb, but when my school needed a greenhouse manager, I swallowed my doubts and stepped in. Many of our plants have failed, and I’m still learning along with the students. The excitement on students’ faces when they took home their painted marigold pots for Mother’s Day erased my doubts and energized me to do even better this year.
Need a Little Help?
We often need help to get a great idea from dream world to the real world. Lowe’s Toolbox for Education program gives grants of $2,000 to $5,000 for school improvement projects. On DonorsChoose.org, teachers propose projects, and generous school supporters give money to ideas they find compelling. And the National Education Association funds grants of up to $5,000 for members with ideas for enhancing teaching and learning at their schools.
Maybe instead of financial help you need a partner to make a new opportunity worth pursuing. A collaborator makes the unknown less scary—and hopefully more fun. Just choose your partner wisely. Does her personality mesh well with your own? Do your strengths complement each other’s? I couldn’t take the headaches of planning our school science fair without my co-chair, who keeps me laughing and is always ready to divide up the tedious tasks. A partner should bring positive energy to a new project and make everything a little bit easier.
Make Professional Development an Adventure
Perhaps you will rekindle your passion for education away from your school building. There are adventures awaiting for teachers willing to spend precious personal time away from family and friends. Travel companies like Education First organize trips for students all over the world, many with historic, STEM, or service-themed itineraries. Teachers travel free as chaperones and can experience a new place alongside their students.
There are amazing opportunities for teachers to travel and learn with other teachers as well. The Earthwatch Institute has fellowships for educators interested in working with scientific and cultural researchers all over the world. The Japan-U.S. Teacher Exchange Program for Education for Sustainable Development funds short-term exchanges for teachers to learn about Japanese culture and Japanese environmental education. The Fund for Teachers program allows educators to create their own professional development experiences and funds travel and other expenses to winning proposals.
Over my 22-year teaching career, I have tracked elephants in Kenya, visited schools in Japan, attended Space Camp in Alabama, learned about environmental education in Colorado, and studied writing in Chautauqua, New York, all at the generous expense of corporate sponsors and nonprofits looking to expand teachers’ perspectives and improve teaching.
Don’t Do Too Much
Finally, I urge you to challenge yourself—but don’t kill yourself. Taking on new experiences and opportunities should be energizing, not exhausting. Attempt just one new initiative at a time. Plot out the hours you estimate it will take out of your week or month and then think about where that time will come from. Is there an old commitment that can be jettisoned or passed on to someone else? Can you cut back on your TV time or get up half an hour earlier once a week?
Don’t be afraid to admit if you find that you’ve taken on too much—if a commitment becomes overwhelming, find a way to step back or find help from colleagues to make it sustainable.
I continue to feel energized and passionate about teaching despite the fact that I have been teaching fifth graders for 20-plus years. I love kids and I love my job, but I think I would lose some of my passion if I didn’t continually find new opportunities and new outlets for my creativity and energy. I hope you find ways to do the same.