BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER BJ ENZWEILER
Recently, I found myself in a rideshare, Lyft if you must know, with a chatty driver. He asked what my job was, and I told him I taught 11th graders physics. Normally when strangers hear what I teach they go on about how they either loved or hated high school physics, but this guy went a different route. He asked me, “Is teaching your calling? Did you always want to be a teacher?” The way he asked if teaching was a calling got me to thinking about that terminology and the expectations that often come with it.
It seems that everyone has their own perceptions of teaching and education, and well, that makes sense because we’ve all had teachers in our lives. But the vast majority of people don’t know what happens in the hours before classroom instruction. The world outside of education has some expectations about our field that are often contradictory and wrong, for example:
The item from that list that frustrates me most is the first one. Teaching is a calling for some in our field but not all. I think that this expectation of the “calling” of education sets an unhealthy precedent for all. Ask anybody in any career, and I think you’ll find that most people seem to just fall into what career they are in. The same goes for teachers. Only a small percentage of the colleagues that I work with every day wanted to be teachers when they were in high school, and I don’t think any of them were divinely inspired to take on this career.
The toxic expectations that I want to focus on in this blog post are the ones that often come to those new to teaching. First and foremost, I have seen too many of my colleagues dedicate so many of their waking hours trying to be the perfect teacher. The fear that comes with letting students down often leads to unhealthy work hours, sacrifices at home, and self-destructive behaviors. In my experience, those with the most unhealthy work hours are those who have the idea in their head that good teachers just work long hours. Again, these expectations are coming from a naive and often over-zealous understanding of excellence in our chosen career.
Second, we teachers know that we didn’t get into education to get rich. It is likely that most people think this about their intended careers, but a teacher who already has the anxieties of their job should not have to worry about money so much that they need another job during the school year. During the school year, roughly 18% of teachers have a second job, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (Scheaffer, 2019). A teacher, just like any other professional, should expect that their career allows them to make ends meet. We should feel more comfortable complaining about this transgression.
Third, the teacher feels responsible for the successes, and especially, the failures of their students. I and many of my peers have had students act up in class, only to be later asked by an administrator or someone else, “What could you have done to build a relationship with this student which could have prevented this?” as if our students are only in the bubble of their school and nothing outside of it affects their behavior. Nevertheless, we internalize these ideas and think about what we could have done. Those moments in the classroom often seem to distract us from anything outside of work.
The effect of these expectations of sacrifice from our teachers is, I think, at the root of our difficulty in keeping teachers. According to the Learning Policy Institute, 8% of all teachers leave the profession every year, and a different 8% of teachers move from one school to another (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017). These rates of education retention are unacceptable and preventable. The expectations that are placed on teachers by society, their administration, and especially themselves contribute to teacher burnout beyond that of many other careers.
At the risk of being pedantic to the pedagogical, here are some suggestions which should help teachers identify their expectations and find more healthy sustainable practices.
1. Figure out your own efficiencies. For example, many teachers, especially new ones, put too many hours into grading because they want their comments to be useful to the students and agonize over the wording of what they have to say. Stop yourself and examine how long your comments are and how many annotations are you actually going to write out for your students’ work? Only you can figure out that efficacy.
2. Not every lesson needs to be super exciting. Sometimes the students just need to listen to you and learn. Not every day is an adventure on the Magic School Bus, and you’re not Ms. Frizzle.
3. You’re not the teacher of the year… yet. New teachers should not expect to design and/or implement the best version of their curriculum. Recognize that it takes years to build up your personal curriculum and make you amazing.
4. You don’t have to be in charge of everything all the time. What repeatable routines and procedures can you put into place to make your classroom run without you directing everything? How can the students help you with time consuming but easy administrative tasks?
5. Know who you are and where you are. Teaching is a career and that’s it. Yes, you can put some of your self-worth into that career, but if all of your self-esteem is in your job then you’re setting yourself up to burn out.
I eventually told that Lyft driver that I fell into teaching. I didn’t plan on being in this career since I was 11 years old. I do, however, enjoy my job. I think I’m damn good at it, and I want to make sure more people find joy this incredibly rewarding profession. In my opinion, by consistently naming education a calling, we do a disservice to ourselves and disregard the struggles of our chosen career.
Carver-Thomas, D., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It. Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It. Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Teacher_Turnover_REPORT.pdf
Schaeffer, K. (2019, July 1). About one-in-six U.S. teachers work second jobs – and not just in the summer. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/01/about-one-in-six-u-s-teachers-work-second-jobs-and-not-just-in-the-summer/.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee