Before You Quit Teaching, Please Reconsider
I read an article last week in Education Week Teacher entitled “Why I’m Calling It Quits After Six Years as a Teacher,” by Rosa Nam. I was moved by the honesty of this teacher and I wanted to offer some encouragement to those who are feeling this way.
Let me say, from the outset, I’m not a better person than the author. I’m not a better teacher than the person described in the article. I, too, have stood before my students woefully unprepared, underprepared, prepared, over-prepared, expectant, disappointed, frustrated, overwhelmed, dazed, and confused.
Teaching is as much an emotional investment as it is a mental one. Teachers are human. We have good days and bad days. We love our jobs when things are going well and we hate our jobs when they are not. And we are, every single day, humans on display. We carry the burden of not only disseminating the academic curriculum for our courses but reinforcing the hidden curriculum of social grace, nurture, community, etc. We are held to the standard of our community whenever we are in view of our students—in the classroom, at the grocery store, at houses of worship, even when dealing with loved ones in the hospital.
It is not realistic for us to expect ourselves to be 100 percent all of the time. What is reasonable is to expect that we take measures to protect our mental health. Feelings of failure and frustration in the classroom are a part of the job, but they shouldn't be the norm. And if they do become the norm, it is a blessing when we realize that—but it’s not necessarily a sign that we should leave the profession. The fact that you are analyzing your effectiveness means that you have what it takes. The fact that you hold yourself accountable means that you have the presence of mind to correct the situation. And for those who actually have the courage to own their mistakes honestly—that is one of the priceless gifts that make good teachers.
If you will allow me, I offer some suggestions to teachers who feel beleaguered and frustrated. And whether or not you ultimately decide to leave, perhaps this will help you regardless of the context. The following comes from my own experience inside of and outside of the classroom. I hope that you will find it helpful.
1. Be real. Teachers are not superhuman; don’t try to be. Be your best as often as possible, and be patient with yourself. Be honest with your students. The ability to catch yourself in a “bad attitude” and admit that to your students is more than a good lesson, it’s a life lesson. Don’t leave them with what a bad teacher looks like, show them how a good teacher turns things around.
2. Be Fair. Be fair to yourself as an educator and realize that, like any other profession, you won't master the art without time, dedication, and learning from your mistakes. That last one implies that you will make mistakes. One of the best life lessons I ever learned from competitive activities: When you lose, don't lose the lesson. If you've had a rough year in the classroom, maybe you lost the battle, but don't lose the lesson. Working through this time can make you a stronger teacher and, more importantly, a stronger mentor for new teachers.
3. Be Encouraged. Surround yourself with good teachers. They may be on your campus, they may be on other campuses in your district, they may even be on a blog. But they are out there! Young and old, first year and 31st year! They have energy, enthusiasm, fresh ideas, tried and true tricks of the game, and war stories. A night out with good food and good wine and you’ll find out that you’re not alone. Those master teachers have had good days and bad days, and some have had bad years, classes they failed, students they failed. But they didn't quit, they learned. The desire to teach was strong enough to motivate them to figure out how to do better.
4. Be Committed. Good teaching requires relationship-building with your students. And like any relationship—sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard. The key is to go into it knowing that you’re willing to fight to maintain that relationship. Let your guiding star be what’s best for you and your students. Will that ensure that you never have a bad day or a poor attitude? No—remember, you’re human—but it will help you on difficult days.
5. Be Moving. Never let yourself stop growing as a teacher. Professional development comes in all shapes and sizes. Always pursue growth in your specific content area, teaching methods, etc. There are opportunities in your district, through professional organizations, and online. And be open to the idea of presenting professional development workshops through one of these venues. Sometimes encouraging others has a side effect of renewing our own spirit.
6. Be Successful. I know, right?! But seriously, my go-to support resource is Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey talks about articulating your personal values and then letting those guide your choices, behaviors, and habits. You have to consciously take back control of your attitude. Find your inspiration. Maybe it’s a book, a song, a spiritual text, even a movie. But find your center, get back to it, and let this career choice be the one you want to make, not the one you feel forced to make.
Teachers are much like parents—when we fail we feel like we have let a child down. And that feels awful. There is guilt, there is heartache, there is sorrow. But there is also redemption. There is also grace. And there is great need for teachers who love teaching, care about kids, and are brave enough to be human and genuine with kids. Ultimately, in my experience, teaching is not a depressing profession. It inspires me. Being around kids learning inspires me. Laughing and sharing and growing inspires me.
I hope you’ll stay. I hope you’ll find renewed vision and energy in the coming weeks. Perhaps a student, or two, will share how you've made a difference for them. But perhaps you don’t. Perhaps you go into another line of work. Just remember—days of failure are going to happen. Believe in yourself and in your calling and give yourself time to grow.