Teaching Opinion

Minding the Middle Years of My Education Career

By Starr Sackstein — June 18, 2017 5 min read
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At the beginning, everything is new. What we think we know about teaching is usually idealistic at best, as we wear our experiences from our own schooling and see through rose-colored glasses. It’s overwhelming and exciting, but mostly overwhelming once we step into that new job and there is so much more emotional stress than we anticipate and that is without the realities of managing whatever life we have (had) on the outside.

Much like having a new baby, we think we know what we’re in for, but really have no idea. Maybe we’ve read the books or heard stories regaled, but honestly every experience is different to some degree, so we wrongly believe that this part of our career may be different for us.

My early years were nothing like I’d thought. I started teaching without being certified yet, so I skipped the student teaching and went right to the classroom, literally straight from my corporate job. I was a great student. I loved school. How different could it be, really?

Looking back now, I have to laugh at my naivety and find myself really drawn to help new teachers because of it. There were many people in my early years who saved me from leaving the profession and I’m glad they did because so much of teaching is finding the right fit and filling our professional tool boxes with skills, experiences, and respected colleagues and friends.

When we begin to eke out of the early years into the middle years, things change. It’s likely that our lives have evolved some on the outside. We’ve developed some tools, had some experiences, and maybe even found a “forever” home in a school with colleagues and students we love.

But everything is different now in terms of our perspective. For me, I was afraid of complacency. I loved the school I was in (I started there in my 6th year of teaching) and I adored my program, but I was comfortable. And for me that’s dangerous.

Life outside the classroom was complicated. Between divorce, co-parenting a child, health related challenges, and a growing professional life outside of school, my needs had changed.

In 2010, I investigated doing National Board Certification as a way to make sure I kept improving toward my ultimate goal of being one of those educators kids don’t forget. Being that for any of my students has always been the highest reward. Those teachers who were there for me as a student made all of the difference and if I could give that back a little, then I knew I was where I needed to be.

National Board Certification was an eye-opener, it challenged me in a way I hadn’t been for a while, probably since I’d received my masters several years earlier. More importantly, though, it put me on my journey of being a more intentionally reflective educator and that is what gave birth to my first book and my connectedness on Twitter and blogging.

Now, several years after that, I’m solidly in my middle career. Folks have asked me if I’ll be an administrator and I never thought I’d want to be, not in the traditional sense at least. But as more time has gone on, I’ve realized that in order to keep moving education forward in the way I believe I can be a part of, I must take on that role or something in that capacity.

When folks ask if I’ll consult full time, I don’t feel there is much of a shelf life in that, as being a practitioner is a part of my draw. People want me to work with their staffs around the work I’ve done because they know for teachers to buy in, they need to relate to the person they are working with. I know this too as I am one of those people. It’s hard to respect or follow someone who has been out of the classroom longer than they have been in it. So much in education changes and so much stays the same, but needs to change. The wrong folks at the front of the ship is just a waste of money and I don’t want to be that.

So I’ve struggled with deciding what comes next.

Almost stubbornly, I’ve avoided getting my leadership credentials because I have always believed in teacher leadership first, but as I’ve written recently there is much bureaucracy in education that requires additional credentials and being stubborn in this way doesn’t serve me. So when I decide to go back to school, it isn’t giving in to the system, but it is an opportunity for me to grow as an educator with a new set of skills that make me more marketable in the future.

Many middle career teachers I have spoken with feel this way. We love the classroom. We love the kids. We have a perception of those in charge that we don’t want to be associated with.

But over the years I have met some very inspirational leaders, the kind of leader I would want to be. I admire their commitment to student learning and teacher learning to improve student learning. These leaders have inspired me to take that next step and see the value in becoming a school leader in more than just my classroom capacity.

An education career is stable, but it requires tending to. Much like a garden, it’s not good enough to plant a seed and leave it be. It is our obligation to become the best version of ourselves for the students and colleagues we work with. So in addition to professional learning, formal education, edcamps, reading, and being connected, every educator needs to stay on top of the changes and reforms happening at the moment. We must maintain the growth mindset we espouse to our students and model what that behavior looks like, so we keep our minds and practices agile.

If you would have asked me at the beginning of my career where I saw myself in the future, I’m not sure I could have imagined being where I am now. It was always a lifelong dream to write a book, let alone eight. Technology once frightened me, but now I embrace the challenge. Control was a necessity at one point, since I was desperately afraid of what would happen if I relinquished it and now, I give it away freely encouraging students to take the baton. Although I had to be the teacher I was to be the teacher I am, the two are hardly comparable now. The one strand that hasn’t changed is my want and ability to connect with kids and colleagues in a meaningful way to challenge their learning and help them develop their voices in their own meaningful way.

And I still believe that is important.

As we make it into our middle and later years as educators, we must stay on top of our game. Regardless of the means by which we do it, it behooves each of us to ask questions, dig deeply and stay curious about learning and people we come in contact with at whatever level we are working at.

How has your practice evolved over the years and in what ways do you hope it continues to grow? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.