Why I Stay in Teaching
A veteran teacher shares the motivations that have driven his work with students for more than two decades.
Teaching is difficult and often exhausting. I spent 22 years in the classroom, and I plan to keep teaching until I reach retirement. What motivates you to come back for more, even after your toughest teaching days? Several factors keep me returning year after year.
Searching for Mastery
I am definitely a better teacher now than I was at 22 years old. I wish I could apologize to my first group of second graders, whom I taught when my lesson plans were almost nonexistent and my classroom management consisted of turning out the lights and yelling at the whole class. I have improved greatly. I use differentiated lesson plans to cover multiple standards, and I can regain the attention of distracted students by just one “teacher look.”
This doesn’t mean I have it all figured out. There are still students every year that I never quite reach. I often feel there was something more I could have done for them or one more trick I could have tried. Would calling home after that failed quiz have helped? Should I have contacted the counselor to help deal with the anxiety? Some students leave me with more questions than answers. This is obviously frustrating but also motivating. If we embrace the idea that we will never master teaching, we can use these challenges as motivators to keep us going. When my special education students struggled with assessments, I didn’t give up. I modified the study guides and created special “science test” lunches for the days before assessments. We have lots more work to do, but I no longer feel like I am failing to reach this group.
As part of a tight-knit teaching team, I celebrate the victories and help work through the challenges with my colleagues. We help with lesson plans when someone is out and stick up for one another during difficult parent conferences. It is critical to find teachers at your school who make your job better. The colleagues you lean on may not always be the ones next door to you. Look for the teachers whom kids still talk about after they have moved on to another grade. Reach out to teachers who share common interests with you or who make you laugh. Even if it requires walking across the building for a five-minute conversation with a teaching buddy, it is a better career if you don’t do it alone.
A Summer Reset
While many of us work second jobs in the summer or spend summer days lesson planning and taking classes, summer break is a mental reset that keeps me fresh. I spend 10 weeks just being a dad and a husband. I imagine this time as an undercover superhero waiting for the next adventure. Whether or not summer is a true vacation, it is a chance to rest my teaching muscles. By August, I feel my energy returning. Most of the challenges of the previous year are forgotten. I dust off my Superhero Teacher Cape and start all over again.
Permission to Nerd Out
Most people assume teachers are nerds, so I fully embrace the nerd role. I love receiving Bill Nye socks and dorky science T-shirts for Christmas. I enjoy Netflix documentaries about black holes. I relish the nagging feeling that there is always something new I should be learning. I am never embarrassed to ask lots of questions on museum tours or to test out cool toys in the gift shop. It is all part of my role as a teacher—always learning and staying one step ahead of my students. Whatever your teaching role, if you have fun chasing knowledge, you will avoid boredom and inertia. Great teachers inspire not because they know everything, but because they are constantly learning and growing along with their students.
Work That Matters
On difficult teaching days, I sometimes dream about an office job where I sit in a cubicle, drink my coffee, and do work all by myself. Then I remember, even the worst teaching days are impactful and important.
I try to focus on the tiny interactions that make differences for students: a two-minute conversation about a student’s new dog, a positive email to a parent about her child’s progress, a high five for a former student in the hallway. These moments sometimes remain in students’ minds long after they leave us. Students remember us not because of our lesson plans, but because of the personal connections we make with them. This is daunting—our words and actions build students up or bring them down. It is a privilege and a responsibility we must take seriously every day.
Working with kids every day is rarely boring. Kids are naturally fun. Their curiosity and energy rub off on me and keep me coming back for more. No matter how much education changes, kids will always need good teachers, and we will always need them right back.