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Four Steps to Staying Sane as a Teacher

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A talented young pre-service teacher recently posed a thought-provoking question on my blog:

I am pursuing a professional degree in education … One part of me feels like it's crazy to go into debt for a proper education prep program in the current climate of corporate ed reform. On the other hand, if well-intentioned teachers are turning away from the profession, it would be like letting them win. Am I in way over my head? ... Is it worth it?

I realized that this was my own opportunity to write a "letter to a young teacher," à la Jonathan Kozol. But the prospect of encouraging a young person to go into teaching today is daunting—it is a different world than when I entered the profession in 2000. If I say, "Follow your heart," where exactly am I telling this young woman to go?

But two convictions continue to assert themselves. First, I am also swimming in this sea, making conscious decisions about how not to drown. Why haven't I cut my losses, as 50 percent of teachers do within the first five years of their careers? Because I still believe it's worth it. Second, I cannot be theoretical about my response to this young woman. She is real. She is really thinking about this journey. I may be nervous about answering, but that doesn't matter. She deserves an answer.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Young Teacher,

I'd like to avoid telling you to listen to your heart.

But if you conceive of your heart as going beyond mere emotion—as that sacred place where your talents, training, passions, and convictions converge—then your heart will lead you down a road that is determined by your internal motivation. This is indispensable, whatever profession you choose.

Internal motivation can give us a priceless sense of contentment as well as an unsullied impetus to excellence. Internal motivation doesn’t depend on capricious external circumstances. It is the last thing to fizzle out when we get bored, when our bosses are incompetent, or when our pay is cut. In a very real way, following your heart is your best insurance in tough times.

You're also concerned about material well-being, and rightly so. Consider this: professionals who are internally motivated to excel in their work will naturally seek out opportunities to do so. With luck, those opportunities will afford you the basics you need to be secure. Regardless, internal motivation will better help you find and commit to financially supportive opportunities than choosing work in which you can never feel truly invested. Ironically, in a world where "following your heart" can be seen as the height of irresponsibility, it may be the most responsible thing you can do. If your heart leads you to nothing other than teaching, there’s only one thing I can tell you to do. Teach.

That being said, teaching stinks right now.

Insert wry laughter here, of course. It doesn't stink at all. Sometimes I am totally baffled at the idea that I get paid to read great books with kids; help them write poetry (poetry, I tell you!); benefit from their honest, funny, youthful outlook every day; and then go to bed knowing I've at least approached doing something meaningful in the world. There are approximately two-and-a-half professions like that on the entire planet.

However, I don’t have to catalogue the ways in which teaching, as it is currently configured, can wreck you if you let it. What I want to share with you are the four mental tools that have kept me sane as a teacher. If you do decide to become a teacher, these strategies will serve you well.

1) Collect your own (meaningful) data. This advice bears a misleading resemblance to the "data-driven" mantra of current education policy. But remember: "data" only means "information." And information can be strong or weak—just as it can be used well or poorly. It's possible that you will become a teacher who questions the validity and reliability of standardized test scores. But reformers are right that we need data to help us get better at teaching. So what will your data be? What information can you collect to track students' academic and personal growth clearly and consistently?

As a middle school English teacher, I ask students to maintain year-long writing portfolios, a reflective reading log, a mastered/unmastered spelling list, and quarterly learning goals. Also, I keep logs of my writing and reading conferences and pages of anecdotal notes, including the results of student surveys. Collecting data has meant tying my assessments to standards, and providing summative and formative evidence to my kids about their growth towards those standards. It’s meant revamping my grading policies from scratch.

You can use your data to justify your decisions to higher-ups. However, if your situation demands that you teach to a test, then alternative data sets may not affect how you are evaluated. No matter. Remember this litmus test and work towards it, and you will be able to sleep at night: Data should reflect, clearly and consistently, academic and personal growth to you, your students, and their families. That's all.

2) Find your foxhole. It took a long time for me to realize that I could strive to be a good teacher somewhere other than in a public, diverse, poverty-afflicted school, because I possess an overdeveloped sense of moral rectitude. I am a dreamer and an idealist. I am scarred by each teaching mistake I make (and I’ve made some truly dreadful ones). As a result, anything that gives me even a whiff of shortcuts, concession, or compromise is anathema. Charter schools? No. Higher ed? No. Administration? Absolutely not. Private schools? Forget it.

You might be like this, too.

But here's the thing: This approach is not admirable. It's really, really silly. Particularly right now, when the climate for teachers, socially and economically, can seem desert-dry.

Consider what I call the "foxhole"—a place for reformed moral snobs like myself. It is a place where any work as a teacher is good work. Even in a position that is not ideal for you, you do your best, squeeze it for everything it can teach you, for every little bit it allows you to contribute to the field, to the kids in your care.

Hunker down, keep your eyes and ears open, and hope, patiently. Hope, and work for, a better climate for teachers and schools. Hope for a better world.

3) Seek out your teaching friends. As a teacher, you're going to hear a lot about "personal learning networks" (PLNs). Whether you connect with them virtually or in person, PLNs can be very helpful—to a point.

What you'll hear less about is that finding teaching friends—real teaching friends, who will sustain and nourish you over the long haul—takes effort. You will have to watch and listen to the professionals around you, seeking out the ones who demonstrate love and respect in how they interact with their students. (When the "problem" kid comes up in conversation, they'll say, "You know what I like about Jack?")

Note the names of the cool, respectful, interesting teachers your students mention, and forsake your buddies to sit with those teachers during faculty meetings. Ask for book recommendations from people who are constantly apologizing for their geekiness (this is an excellent sign that they would make good teaching friends). Write embarrassingly honest posts on your teaching blog and solicit comments on them. Attend professional conferences on unpaid time, collecting the e-mail addresses of dedicated teachers like rare coins, and then actually e-mailing these people—even if they don't e-mail you first.

When you find your teaching friends, "grapple them to your soul with hoops of steel," as Shakespeare wrote. Do not worry about what you look like while you're doing it. Kindred spirits will understand.

4) Enjoy being young. I have been happily married for 14 years and am the mother of two elementary school kids. I would not trade this steady emotional center for anything in the world.

However, when I was a young teacher with no children, I had much more flexibility in accepting or rejecting teaching positions. I could take a kick-butt job for very little pay and negligible benefits. I could put in horrific work weeks, pull off ridiculously demanding projects, and sleep later. The personally damaging consequences of my professional behavior, such as they were, accrued to only one person: me.

Now, I would never populate our classrooms largely with young unmarried teachers, unlike some policy wonks. There is simply too much value in an experienced, diverse workforce of educators. Nor would I suggest that this mode is sustainable over the long run. It isn't. Nevertheless, there is real richness in it, and safety, and the potential for tremendous good. Use it, if you have it.

I'll close by saying this: Only you know what to do. However, from what I know of teachers and teaching, you seem to have the qualities of the best ones I know. And as far as your "PLN" goes? I'd be honored to join.

Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future. I hope you’ll let me know what you decide.

Sincerely,

Dina Strasser

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