The statistics for teachers are glum: over 50 percent of teachers quit in their first five years. Now, I realize that teaching isn’t for everyone. Some people are not cut out for this profession, and I would imagine that every profession has some attrition when newly minted college graduates begin doing the work they have trained for and realize that they just aren’t that into it.
That’s a good reason to get out of teaching.
However, I’ve also witnessed and been friends with several new teachers who, I believe, really are cut out for this profession. They are invested in their subjects, have great rapport with students, and invest themselves every day with creativity, curiosity, and compassion.
And then they leave.
And it breaks my heart. As a department chair, selfishly I feel frustrated by this situation because it means that I have to mentor yet more new teachers and hope that somehow they will be able to make it past the difficult years. I have a lot of conversations with teachers about how much they would love this job “if only” something were different. I think that at least some of these “if onlys” can change for you.
- Join a professional organization and stay connected. No matter what field you teach in, there is a professional organization for you to join. There are national organizations and state organizations. Join one or both. I am or have been a member of TCTELA, NCTE, and NWP.
- These organizations will allow for my next piece of advice: Network with people outside of your own school and/or district. Sometimes you can get stuck in the vacuum of your campus, your focused narrowed to one small set of problems. It can help to realize that many places have the same problems. It’s also highly empowering to know lots of people from all over, in the event that you might want to get a job somewhere else. We can all outgrow our context, and we need friends outside that context to be there when we need out.
- Identify your greatest frustrations with the job and tackle those. Always ask yourself, how could I do this differently? Work on maximizing the parts of teaching that you love and minimizing or transforming the parts that you despise. Look around at your colleagues, observe what they do well, and ask for advice. I recently had a conversation with our AP Biology teacher about how I could streamline my grading; he had some great tips.
- Begin creating and contributing to your profession. Write a blog about your ideas, especially the ideas you have as you tackle those frustrations and make improvements. Join the Twitter community. Apply to present at conferences. Mentor newer teachers. Believe in your own power of influence. Always try to channel your energy into something positive so that you don’t slip into cynicism.
- Speaking of cynicism, don’t take the bureaucracy of the system too seriously. Public education, in spite of its epic vision and fundamental importance to the progress of our society, is a huge government institution with all the accountability, public spotlight, and politics that entails. Most districts pay high level administrators to deal with most of those issues, and I thank God every day that someone is willing to do those jobs and that the someone is not me. Every day I’m asked to do all kinds of tasks that don’t directly affect kids in positive ways. I don’t spend a lot of mental energy or time on these tasks. I get them done, eventually, but I don’t let them rent space in my head. And if I have to choose between spending time on what’s best for students and getting paperwork done, well, that’s a no brainer.
- Change your context. If you work in a district or a school where the bureaucracy is draconian and the workload is too heavy, you don’t have to stay there. If you believe that you really want to teach but you’re frustrated with your current context, explore other options: try a different school, a different district, a different state, or even a different country. Try a private or charter school. You can even try working for a private organization that will allow you to use your teaching skills in a new way.
- Stop taking work home. I realize that we all have to take some work home from time to time, but limit this. Really. Force yourself to get work done at work, and if it’s not finished, leave it there. Here are some tips.
- Find a mentor. Apprentice yourself to someone. Teaching is a craft that takes years to learn, and we should probably approach it like any artisanal craft, learning from master teachers. Unfortunately most schools don’t set this up formally, so you will probably need to find your own teachers to closely observe and talk with.
I realize that even great teachers may still leave, but I want everyone to realize that you have choices. If you believe that teaching is a career that you would enjoy “if only,” then try to change the “if only” to keep yourself in the classroom.
We need you.
Photo credit: “Heiwa elementary school 18” by ajari from Japan – Heiwa elementary school %u5E73%u548C%u5C0F%u5B66%u6821 _18. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.