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Teaching Profession Teacher Leaders Network

A Skeptic’s Guide to Loving Surviving Teaching in Tough Times

By Roxanna Elden — March 30, 2011 5 min read
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Before you begin a teaching career, you watch movies like “Freedom Writers” and think Hilary Swank’s character will be you one day. You will reach the students others have given up on, hand them composition notebooks, and deliver a speech about how they haven’t failed school—school has failed them. And then, as they share their life stories with you in complete, articulate sentences, they will realize they finally have a teacher who cares about them, and they’ll see that learning can be fun, because you’ll relate the lessons to their lives. Then they will teach you to dance, and you can tell your friends that you learned as much from your students as they learned from you.

A few months into your teaching career, you don’t expect students to teach you to dance anymore. Now, you’re just mad that in “Freedom Writers” all the kids actually bring their composition books to class on a regular basis. You’ve also realized something worse: If teaching really were a movie, you wouldn’t be the star. You have papers stacked in the back seat of your car and on your ironing board. You spend less time listening to your students and more time wishing they would listen to you. Your to-do list, which includes contacting parents, has grown to include contacting lawmakers about policies and funding cuts.

For today’s new teachers, the standard they-never-taught-me-this-in-school reality check intersects with a financial and political climate that can leave beginners feeling torn. Certainly, it’s hard to get behind the idea of seniority-based layoffs when you’re trying to gain a foothold in a school district on the verge of bankruptcy. Yet it’s also unsettling to hear that people expect you to “rescue kids from lazy, tenured teachers” with your youthful energy, low-priced yearly contract, and relentless pursuit of learning gains. That’s a lot of weight to add to your psychic tote bag while you’re still trying to figure out what to teach tomorrow—especially if you’re turning to experienced teachers for help.

Then there’s the test. While you want to know what your students have learned and see if your efforts are paying off, the months of frantic test prep feel counterproductive. Is a huge chunk of your school year always going to be “crunch time”?

Fortunately, the children make it all worthwhile. Sometimes.

At other times you need a little bit of “positive thinking,” as the self-help experts say, to get you through the week—or at least to keep you from feeding yourself headfirst into the laminating machine. You may think it’s difficult find much to be positive about in the current climate—but fortunately you have me to guide you. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’ve come up with the following things you can feel good about as an educator today.

Standardized testing allows us to teach excellent test-taking skills. Yes, you are tired of getting up on weekends for the Super-Saturday-Achievement-Success-Academy-of-Amazing-Test-Prep-Fantastic-ness. Yes, you have a nagging feeling of uneasiness during your school’s test pep rally. But it’s important to remember that this is not about your feelings. It’s about the future. As the reformers never cease telling us, our students will soon need to compete in an emerging global economy. You know—that economy where the skill set required to bubble in test answer sheets will be in high demand. Best to prepare our students for this challenge early. Otherwise, when the heat is on, they may make stray marks and forget to erase them.

You don’t have to read the very latest articles about education before leaving for work. Reading articles about how people don’t value teachers is not the best way to get in the mood to see students—especially those whose behavior suggests they don’t value teachers much either. In fact, all news is pretty much a downer these days. Try listening to upbeat music on the way to work instead. Then when you get home, just watch cartoons and eat candy until bedtime. Okay, maybe that’s just for really bad days.

Teachers aren’t the only ones whose career paths are getting rocky. It may not be a great time to be a teacher, but it’s also a hard time to be a real estate agent, a truck driver or, for that matter, the President of the United States. Other fields that might seem tempting from afar are likely going through their own unpleasant changes. That’s not inspiring, but it is a good reason to hang onto the profession you trained for and ride the waves.

Technology offers new ways to engage students. To meet the needs of an increasingly tech-savvy student population, teachers can now use digital resources to reach beyond the textbook and expand the boundaries of the classroom. For example, we can now supplement traditional lesson plans by finding related videos on YouTube. Or we might even be able to connect our classroom computers to interactive whiteboards so the whole class can watch how trying to visit YouTube from a classroom computer activates the school systems’ porn-block filter. And this is only the beginning. The coming years promise technological advances we can’t even imagine now—like fire alarms that don’t need to be tested during class time. There will be other things, too (though our schools probably won’t be able to afford them).

Change can lead to opportunity. The teacher bashing that accompanies current reforms may not inspire much hope, but sometimes changes with negative consequences in the short term can open opportunities down the road. The current upheaval may unearth some exciting new positions in the future, like “Acronym Creator,” and “Reading-Coach Coach.” It’s also possible that at some point decision-makers will start listening to what teachers have to say about teaching, and today’s challenges will leave you in a unique position to help shape the education world of tomorrow.

So hang in there! For now, find other outlets for your frustrations, like venting about your job on first dates, airplane trips, or blogs that include thinly disguised identifying details about your school.

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