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Rediscovering Your Fulfillment as a Teacher

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator
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A female teacher is sitting at a desk, looking up and smiling. She's holding a pen in one hand, and stacks of paper and folders are in front of her. She's wearing glasses, big, pearl-like earrings, a turquoise necklace, and a lanyard.

Some years ago, my wife, who was a special education coordinator, counseled a very bright young man out of the teaching profession. He was an adequate teacher, but he just didn't enjoy it. His lessons were uninspiring, he was often sarcastic with his students, and he couldn't leave fast enough at the end of the school day. When asked what he liked best about the job, there was nothing beyond job security that came to mind. In his spare time, this young man would spend hours blissfully tinkering in his garage. After some counseling and considerable reflection, he decided to quit teaching and ended up becoming an extraordinarily successful salesman of construction products, eventually opening his own business. To this day, he thanks my wife for encouraging him to find what he really wanted to do and go for it.

If you are continuously feeling unfulfilled as a teacher and have been for a while, perhaps you should pursue something different as well. There is no shame in finding what makes you truly happy and productive -- life, after all, is short. However, it may be that a few small attitudinal and behavioral changes can dramatically change the dynamic for you.

For most unhappy educators, some combination of inane policies, misbehaving or unmotivated students, and unsupportive administrators, colleagues, or parents is at the core of dissatisfaction. Nonetheless, if you are committed to remaining a teacher and want to add more joy to your work, the employee guidelines offered by Seattle's exuberant Pike Place Fish Market can be a very good starting point. An adapted version follows:

Be Playful

Like an elite athlete who is not only talented in what he does but also loves doing it, satisfied teachers find ways to enjoy what they are doing and will often create their own fun. Look for ways to inject fun into as many things as you can while you teach. Imagine being tickled or frolicking with your best friend. Poke fun at yourself. Sing when you discipline. Laugh with your kids. Enjoy their quirky ups and downs. Revel in their youth, dreams, and naivete. Don't take them or yourself too seriously.

Commit to Being a Positive Force

Strive to make everyone with whom you come into contact want to be around you, but don't burden yourself if it doesn't happen. It can help if you think about a place where you love to be. What happens that makes you want to be there? How do the people act? What do they say or do that makes you want to be around them? Challenge yourself to be like one or more of these people for at least two consecutive weeks, focusing your attitude and action on people whom you currently find frustrating -- and see what happens.

Be There

Practice being fully present in the moment -- physically, emotionally, and behaviorally. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow hasn't happened yet, so right now is all there is. Approach each day as a new beginning, especially with people that you probably wouldn't choose in your regular life. Hard as it might be, try to remember that those who are driving you crazy are probably struggling even more than you are to feel good about what they're doing and about themselves. Most important is to be there for yourself by appreciating what you're doing -- even on days when nobody else seems to care. Keep a daily journal of things that you did to benefit a student, colleague, or parent, whether or not anyone else will ever notice.

Decide How You Want to Be

Do you smile or scold when a student walks in late? Do you laugh or yell when a student calls you a name? Do you thank or argue with an administrator who gives you feedback that you don't like? The lens we look through determines what we see and affects how we react. Choose lenses that get you to outcomes you prefer. To do so, consider the following experiment. For the next month, become an actor for at least one hour every day. Try to vary your schedule so that every block of classes gets to experience your act at least once each week. During this hour, act as though you worked in the greatest school that ever existed, with fabulous colleagues and administrators, policies you agree with, a rich and exciting curriculum, and kids who are motivated to learn and eager to behave. Move around with an extra bounce in your step and a welcoming demeanor, even if you aren't "feeling it." In fact, don't expect this to feel at all natural in the beginning. That's alright -- think of the first week as a rehearsal. Like actors who have to put on their game faces when in character, no matter how they really feel, make it your goal during this time to be the Brad Cooper/Reese Witherspoon of teaching!

Your feedback is always welcome. In particular, if you're an educator who has found your way back to joy in teaching despite all the obstacles, please share your thoughts.

Editor's note: This post is adapted from Allen Mendler's books When Teaching Gets Tough and The Resilient Teacher.

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Akilah Brown's picture

I stopped teaching during the summers. As soon as I made the decision and informed my boss, my level of love for teaching went back up. Burn out is real. Take care of yourselves.

(1)
Tenesha Gordon's picture

I have been teaching for nine years. About 4 years in, I found that I was becoming very despondent. I dreaded Mondays and couldn't wait for holidays. However, what I did was to sit one day and reflect on why I was feeling that way. It turns out that I felt that I wasn't maximizing my potential as a teacher. So like you said in this article, I made an attitude adjustment. I started looking for more fun things to do with my students. I got involved in more professional development and I genuinely found joy in work. Last night I was telling a friend that it's near the end of the school year and my mind is already bursting with enthusiasm about strategies I want to try next school year. What I've realized is that there are many factors that can make teaching feel unbearable, but if you decide to focus on the positives and to consistently seek to innovate and grow, it is one of the greatest jobs on earth. Greetings from Jamaica! !

(5)
Sally Ann Meitz's picture

After teaching the same grade for 16 years, I was feeling bored and frustrated. A move to a new building and grade has revitalized my career. Now once again I walk into work every morning with a smile on my face.

jrussell75's picture

How do I get my groove back? I am such a workaholic I burn out by February. Any suggestions?

Mark Noldy's picture
Mark Noldy
21st Century Educator

About two years ago, I decided NOT to teach summer school again. Now I get away with my wife a few times a year to recharge the batteries. Vegas in February (during President's Day break) is a favorite. Sunny and warm there, cold and yucky here (in Penna). Funny how a long weekend of Vegas shows and interesting dinners can revitalize me.

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