What career challenges and opportunities do teachers face? What should teachers look for in a school, and what should they expect? To get answers to questions like these, teachermagazine.org recently hosted a live Web chat in which three veteran educators, all members of the Teacher Leaders Network, addressed readers’ concerns about careers in teaching. Excerpts follow.
I am a career changer currently getting a Master’s in elementary education. I often hear horror stories about teaching. Can you give some insight on the realities of the job?
Julie Dermody: One of the biggest insights is that some of the things that new teachers find the hardest aren’t covered in any college courses. These are generally issues related to classroom management, time management, integration of subjects, and differentiated instruction (including working with students who don’t speak any English and students who are gifted in certain subjects). There are several great books to help in these areas, including the classic The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong.
Another way to prepare yourself for real-life teaching is to visit classrooms in different kinds of schools. Get a sense of the sorts of challenges teachers face, and consider what sort of school environment feels most comfortable to you. Look for a school that values what you do. The better the fit you have with your school, the fewer horror stories you (or anyone else) will have. Remember that teaching shouldn’t be an isolating experience: There are lots of colleagues who can and want to help you. In the end, your happiness as a teacher will come down to relationships— relationships with your students, their parents, fellow teachers, and administration.
Deanna Harris, library media coordinator at East Cary Year-Round Middle School in Cary, N.C.
Julie Dermody, literacy specialist at Mary Scroggs Elementary School, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Mary Tedrow, 12th grade English and Journalism teacher at Milbrook High School in Winchester, Va.
In my job search, how can I identify a school that values nontraditional teaching methods? (Think “Freedom Writers.”)
Deanna Harris: Whenever I have applied for a position at a different school, I’ve tried to remember that I’m not just being interviewed; I am interviewing the administrator or interview team as well. Well-crafted questions for the principal, administrator, or interview team can help you determine what instructional methods are valued at that school. Providing insight into teaching methods that you value and use in your classroom with the team can help you share your experiences and help you gauge their acceptance of the methods that you value.
What is the one thing you wish you had known before stepping into your own classroom for the first time?
Mary Tedrow: I remember being surprised by the varying levels of my students and by the very poor academic skills of many students. At first I thought, “Why hasn’t anyone taught these kids anything?” But then I realized that these learning-levels had always existed— and probably always will— but that I had not seen them in my life as a student.
Secondly, I was amazed by the amount of paperwork and non-classroom work teachers have to do on top of actually teaching. At this point, I’ve learned to streamline a lot of the multi-tasking work teachers have to do throughout the day. If you see a teacher with an efficient way of handling routine paperwork, steal it! As a waitress, I learned to make every step count, to do many things on one trip to the kitchen. Now I’ve learned to do that as a teacher.
What career paths are available in literacy that are outside the classroom and the realm of administration?
Julie Dermody: The job of literacy coach is definitely growing. I know it is in my district. These positions are more staff- development oriented than the traditional reading positions used to be.
What suggestions do you have for student-teacher supervisors and career-development directors regarding how we can best prepare our college students for the first year of teaching and beyond?
Deanna Harris: Real experience is key! Having as much time in front of classes and working with teachers in the trenches will provide college students with the real-world experience they need. Classroom observations by college students should begin as soon as they realize that teaching is their chosen profession. I also hope that your student-teacher supervisors and career-development directors spend time observing today’s classrooms and teachers. Sometimes it is easy to become removed from the very profession for which we are working to train our students.
Traditionally trained teachers tend to view new educators from alternative programs with suspicion. What advice would you give to these new teachers so that they go in with the best possible strategy to be accepted?
Mary Tedrow: I’ve seen a number of career-changing teachers come, do outstanding work, and stay in the profession. Others come and go rather quickly, sometimes within the year. So new alt-cert teachers should be aware in advance that your colleagues will have seen this pattern as well— and may have been on the receiving end of a newcomer who has an attitude that they are there to “save” public education because the current system (including the current teachers) is inadequate.
All of us need to be sensitive to each others’ perspectives. The quickest way to any teacher’s heart is to ask for help, and then listen to the answer! The best teachers love helping others succeed. That’s why they teach. It will be easy to find these teachers among your colleagues. Their attitude will tell it all. By asking for help, a novice is acknowledging that he or she is just starting down the path. Listening to advice from master teachers honors the giver.
Please discuss the potential for high-quality, school- and team-based professional learning to provide teachers the support they need to succeed and to stay in the profession. Why don’t schools use this kind of professional learning more?
Mary Tedrow: I’m happy to report that the message that teacher collaboration works best is starting to trickle down to the building level. At least we are starting to hear the words more often than in the past. Finding time for this worthwhile work is always the problem. And time is money of course. My district is struggling with the bottom line and juggling mandates from above— which makes finding time for collaborative work even harder. I think the emphasis on testing has definitely taken precedence over improving professional development programs. Fortunately, good mentors steered me to the National Writing Project, the gold standard for the teacher-collaborative approach to professional development, in my view. I credit the organization with keeping my teaching fresh and my attitude upbeat.
What are the top 2-3 sources of joy in teachers’ work and what are the top 2-3 sources of frustration? What suggestions do you have for alleviating the frustrations?
Deanna Harris: From my experiences, the joys have always surrounded student learning, the teachable moments, and my work in providing professional development to my colleagues. The frustrations have been and will probably continue to be the bureaucracy and the politics that often squelch the spirit, innovations, and passion of many teachers. And the sometimes endless paperwork.
We need more teacher leaders, more openness to teacher voices, more school-based personnel making the decisions for the curriculum, instruction, facilities, and staff of their schools.
Please describe what you consider to be positive working conditions for teachers and how it affects student learning conditions.
Mary Tedrow: Here is my list for ideal teacher working conditions: conversations that include the teacher in the development of building-level decisions; support in obtaining classroom teaching materials; technology support; clean, bright classrooms; and availability of basic supplies. Another key is mutual respect between teachers and administrators. I want the same kind of community I try to provide for my students, where risk-taking is welcome and problems are solved rather than created.
And a window in the classroom is always nice. Seriously, little things can make a difference. They acknowledge that we may be in the same building for a career, not just a few years like the students.
From my experience, the joys [of teaching] have always surrounded student learning, the teachable moments, and my work in providing professional development to my colleagues."
Do you have any advice for prospective elementary teachers who are having a hard time finding a job?
Julie Dermody: Come to North Carolina! Seriously, if you are flexible, there are jobs available in different spots all over the nation. In my area right now, we can’t find enough teachers, and we are opening new schools every year. If you can’t move, consider adding on to your license so you could work with elementary students in specialized areas— such as English language learners, gifted education, or special education. Often you can be more attractive to school districts if you have extra areas of expertise.
I’m a graduating senior and I’m trying to decide if I want to pursue a career in education. What are some of the most important things I should keep in mind when making this decision?
Mary Tedrow: Teaching is a great profession, if you like children. And though this seems obvious, it isn’t always. Some teach because they love their subject. Others are attracted to the hours, which do afford an earlier ending time and a summer break.
But the truth is that to do the job well you must like the “messiness” of working with children. And though, on paper, the day ends early and there are summer breaks, the work during the school year is intense, extending beyond the day spent with the kids and often into the weekend. When summer rolls around, the break is well deserved.
I read this statement once, and it rang true to me: “Some love to teach English. Some love to teach children. Some love to teach English to children.” It is the third sentence that reveals the careful balance you need to be the kind of teacher who will actually enjoy the work. Even loving children too much won’t work out if the subject matter is neglected.
Remember that teaching shouldn't be an isolating experience... In the end, your happiness as a teacher will come down to relationships."
After teaching middle school for 12 years, I’m feeling the effects of burnout. Are there concrete ways (strategies/techniques/career & life changes) teachers use to cope with all the demands placed on them?
Deanna Harris: Well, for me, I took steps to make concrete change. I went from the language arts classroom to the library media center, though still in the middle school setting. Some of the challenges are the same, but there is a whole new set of challenges, too, ones that allow me to grow and stretch as a professional.
I also made a list of all the extra things I was doing— club sponsorships, committees, workshops, etc.,— and ranked them. After I determined what was most important, I gave notice that I would not be involved in the others the next school year. Guess what?! There were others that could serve on those committees! Perhaps you need a change of venue, subject, position, or a non-teaching activity to energize you.
In today’s standards-based atmosphere, how do teachers provide meaningful lessons and personal relationships?
Mary Tedrow: Good teaching generally encompasses the standards and more. And meeting the standards doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating the other items you mentioned. Confident teachers know that establishing relationships and routines with students will make the time spent on curriculum “stick” in the long run.
Though it varies from state to state, lists of objectives can be distracting if a classroom teacher looks at each one as a discrete goal, because well-crafted units should knit many objectives together. Teachers can make the mistake of trying to cover it all and doing none of it well, as opposed to doing most of it well and ensuring that basic objectives were met even as the students actually learned something they can carry to the next level.
I would rather have the equipment I need to teach and an extra conference period for planning than a raise. How do other teachers feel about this?
Julie Dermody: Actually, most teachers would agree with you. Poor working conditions are what most teachers cite when they leave, not the lack of pay (although we all would like to have bigger pay checks!) Having adequate planning time is a huge problem, especially in elementary schools. Having equipment— that works— is also a problem in many schools.
A positive, nurturing, and supportive school climate would top most teachers’ list as well. It’s not all about the money. But it is about being treated as a professional.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2008 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as CAREER Intelligence