A letter to the discouraged teacher.
Sometimes I wish I could be like Ron Clark.
Or LouAnne Johnson.
Or Jaime Escalante.
Or maybe like Mrs. Becky Hoyle, my own elementary school music teacher and whose classroom I accepted my first year of teaching (the first time she retired). She was the North Carolina Teacher of the Year and teaching legend.
There are countless teacher heros and heroines that I would love to emulate in my classroom. Their stories have inspired the nation to sit up and take notice of public education. Teachers watch their movies and cry and clap and cheer because they have told the honest stories of what really goes on in our public schools. We know the stories they share--ones about their unfortunate students, the struggling schools with the lack of funding, the kids who have to worry about guns and drugs before they can recite their A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s.
We know them because we live those stories every, single day.
We know what it's like to be yelled at by parents who have no formal education about what we're doing wrong in the classroom. We also know what it's like to be yelled at by parents who have highly advanced degrees (but not in teaching) about what we're doing wrong in the classroom. Either way, it really stinks and breaks your heart.
We know how it feels to have administration put pressure on us. We know that the pressure comes from their supervisors and their supervisors' supervisors or the government--people who have never stepped foot in our classrooms or building. We know how it feels to have responsibilities dumped on us that take our time away from being the effective teachers we want to be. We know how it feels to not have the simple necessities in the classroom--from textbooks to pencil and paper for our students because of budget funding. We know that when Target or Wal-mart puts back to school items on sale and clearance that it's time to stock up for the rest of the year.
We know how it feels to not make enough money to supply our children with what our county, school, and paychecks cannot provide. We know how it feels to want to scoop these kids up and take them all home for a weekend to give them some love and attention and discipline. We know how it feels when we can't change the way their parents are raising them (or not raising them) and how we have no control over these children's lives when they leave our building each day.
But, we also know how it feels to see that one student understand what you're teaching. We know how it feels when those troubled kids sit up and pay attention to what you are saying. We know how it feels to hand out nuggets of life-advice to our students when instructing our classroom content. We know how it feels to get those love pictures from our smallest students or "I love music!" (or often, "I love mucis!") written in the margin of classroom assignments. We know how it feels when kids celebrate because they are coming to see you today. We know how it feels when they hug you and tell you that they love you--because they really do mean it. We know how it feels to be told you are doing your job well. Or when your colleagues or administrators talk positively about what you are doing in the classroom.
I wish we could all shift our perspectives in the school building. I wish we could all remember that we are not there to better ourselves, our wallets, or our needs. We are there to pour ourselves out completely into the little occupants of our classrooms. We need to stop worrying about how tired we are, how much time someone else might have for instruction or planning, or how much money another state might have for education.
We are all guilty of letting our personal pity parties affect our attitudes about our jobs. I know there have been years that I've gone without an official planning period--or maybe I was given one combined with a lunch break or one single planning period for the entire week. Not one per day, one for the entire week. I've taught up to nine classes a day and have been expected to hold before and after-school duties and/or chorus rehearsals. I know how it feels to be expected to be at curriculum nights for the classroom teachers, but they are not required to attend my chorus concerts. I know how it feels to not have another colleague in my discipline at my school--and being jealous of the other teachers who find classroom support in one another. And I also know how it feels to be "just the music teacher and not a classroom (a.k.a. real) teacher" (which always confuses me because both of my degrees and my National Board certification and the code on my county paycheck indicates that I am, in fact, an educator who works in an actual classroom).
It's very easy to get caught up in the negative. But, I've learned from my own experiences and from my parents (both career teachers who were fabulous and Teachers of the Year and legends in their respective schools) that the power of a positive attitude goes a long way. I have found that when I surround myself with positive people at work, I enjoy the day and the school year a little bit more. Yes, this comes with the risk of people being jealous of your good mood. They will assume because you laugh with your colleagues or have a smile plastered on your face that you must not be working as hard as they are. Or perhaps you aren't teaching. Or that you just sing songs all day--which, b-t-dubs, does, in fact, help keep that smile on my face. There are many days that I am so glad I chose a profession that lets me make noise and play fun music and dance and sing with my students.
I feel like Mary Poppins and Pollyanna and a rock star all rolled up into one.
I have found that when I take the time to dress up my classroom or spend a little more time in the morning making myself presentable, I feel better throughout the day. I have found that increasing my water and decreasing the caffeine makes me a little less cranky (but also sprinting to the restroom between classes).
New teachers, I wish I could encourage you to step away from the cranky teachers. Yes, their experience in the classroom makes them a force to be reckoned with, but they are a terrible influence on you. They will spend their time sharing classroom management tips--but also filling your minds with gossip and lazy attitudes. I know you assume these teachers are probably the close-to-retirement types, but they are often disguised as the not-so-old and highly requested teachers. They have learned how to play the game with parents, teach effectively, and are good at their jobs--but lousy to work with. Be wary of them--you are probably just a pawn in their master plans. They tend to use your youthful energy and good ideas and then will stick you with a lot of responsibilities or initiatives or complaints that shouldn't be yours to carry.
Mid-career teachers, I know how you are a feeling. Oh my. Sometimes we get to the "can I really do this for the rest of my life????" after a particularly tough day. We have removed our rose-colored glasses and have tasted and seen the realities of public education. We came into teaching to change the world and have seen the education world change in so many ways since we started teaching. The "new" methods we got used to during our first years have changed names and are now antiquated. We've learned how to deal with revolving administrators, we've dealt with the good, bad, and the ugly. We probably now have children of our own, and we worry about where education is headed. We recognize that we will never drive fancy cars and that we will always worry that things we do could somehow be misconstrued as harmful to children (ex. Oh, crap. I made Suzy MckSpoiled cry today in class. She'll probably tell her mom and I'll have to go visit the office first thing in the morning to have a conference with the administration about why I made Suzy cry. I didn't mean to make her cry, it was just a joke about her moldy reed that she was using today in class. Her mom is crazy, I might even end up on the news for verbal abuse of children. There goes my career). We also beat ourselves up about the small things we've said and/or done or the mistakes we've made--they keep us up at nights and shame us into thinking that we'll never be as good as our colleagues. We're tired, we're burnt out, and we're underpaid.
But, let me encourage you to make a decision: either be a teacher or find a new job. You are still young enough to change your career. You can go back to school, you can earn additional certification, or you can stay at home with your kids. Those are your options. Or, you can decide to teach and wade through this difficult time. I think this time in our careers is sort of like the middle-aged crisis our slightly older friends are currently going through. We're busy trying to sort out who we are as teachers, what we want to be, and how our classrooms are supposed to look.
When you look at those hero teachers like Ron, Jaime, and LouAnne, we know they went through tough times as well. We know they faced the same things we are currently facing--and they overcame. And they had their hearts broken. And they persevered. And we celebrate them for doing it. Maybe we will never receive the recognition for daily doing the same things they did in their classrooms, but I bet there are children who have been changed for the better because of what we have done in their individual lives.
And don't we all agree that we teach to change the lives of our students?
I think it's time we started believing the company line.
To be continued. . .