Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Springtime is a tough time of the year to be a teacher.
Spring Break came and went too quickly. In the few weeks of school remaining we will administer state mandated tests and receive our annual evaluations. Many of us will complete our inservice requirements and submit annual teaching portfolios. On top of that, there’s field day, graduation, prom, and any number of concerts, school plays, field trips, and banquets. And don’t forget end-of-course exams for the secondary students, and promotion/retention conferences at the elementary level.
The sprint toward the school year finish line is stressful for most of us. Almost every day features some activity or requirement that has little to do with the curriculum. The optimism of August is a distant memory, and there’s not a school holiday in sight. The dream of making a difference gives way to the goal of just making it through the school year.
And many teachers consider calling it quits. When I hear about teachers who’ve left the profession, I wonder if a small (or even major) adjustment could have kept them in the classroom. What caused their dissatisfaction with the profession they prepared for? Did they just get a bad case of the teacher blues?
Please understand that I’m not addressing those teachers who’ve decided to leave the classroom to pursue other jobs, responsibilities, or interests. Certainly, there are several good reasons for ending a teaching career. I’m not suggesting that teachers who have carefully considered their options remain in the classroom as martyrs to their college degrees or schools. And sometimes a career change is in order. Most of us know a teacher who was miserable in the classroom, and didn't really have the aptitude for teaching.
No, I’m writing to those experienced teachers who feel a general malaise with their careers. You aren’t sure this is what you want to do for the next five or ten years. You’ve fallen out of love with teaching. You have the teacher blues.
But I believe in most cases, the teacher blues can be cured with a few adjustments. Maybe you’ll find one or two tips in this blog that will help.
Give yourself a room make-over.
Take a look at your classroom. Is it fun? Is it cheerful? Is it a place you feel comfortable? Think about it – you’re in this room for several hours a day. In fact, you probably spend as many (or more) waking hours in your classroom than you do at home. What have you done lately to make your classroom more pleasant? Do you still have those old Hannah Montana posters on the wall? Are those fake flowers on your desk older than your students? Do you still groan every time you sit in that World War II-era desk chair? Sounds like it’s time for an upgrade!
Let’s face it – most schools don’t budget for decorations or new furniture. You’re probably going to have to spend a little money. So, set a budget and see your project for what it is – an investment in your teaching career and mental health.
I admit, I hadn’t been in a Hobby Lobby until a few months ago. Wow! I could spend $100 and give my classroom a whole new look. Check out the All Posters web-site. They have thousands of posters at very reasonable prices. Give them your e-mail address, and you’ll get online coupons for discounts and free shipping.
Photographic enlargements are just a few dollars (cheaper with the coupon) at Walgreens. Print your favorite family and vacation photos, frame them, and create a teacher’s corner in your classroom. It will give your students a chance to know you as a person, not just a teacher. (That’s a joke.)
Also get on the Office Depot/Office Max e-mail list. When those cushy office chairs go on sale, you’ll be the first to know. Several years ago I bought an all-in-one laser printer for my classroom (printer/copier/scanner) and I can’t imagine life without it. It was on sale for less than $100. Generic toner is cheap on Amazon.com, and the convenience of making a quick copy in the classroom is wonderful!
Teachers are typically frugal, and you’re probably doing the math right now. Realize you don’t have to buy everything all at once. And remember – you’re making an investment in your career. For the price of a college textbook, you can create a happy classroom environment.
Develop a New Unit of Study
Have you been teaching the same curriculum using the same strategies and resources for the past several years? It’s time to update at least one unit of study. Maybe you’re teaching middle school science, and your curriculum includes natural disasters. Download some YouTube clips, schedule a guest speaker from the Red Cross, and design a post-disaster simulation project for your students. Pretty soon, you’ll be known as the "Master of Disaster" in your school, and other teachers across the district will be asking for your lesson plans.
Okay – so maybe you don’t teach middle school science, but the point is made. You don’t have to re-design the entire curriculum the first semester. But if you change one or two units each year, it won’t be too long until you’ve totally revamped your course.
Move to a New Classroom
How long have you been teaching in your classroom? Five years? Ten? If you have to stop and count, it’s probably time to trade. A change of scenery – even a few doors down the hall – can do wonders for the teacher blues. Consider asking your principal about changing rooms next school year.
Change Subjects or Grades
Can’t stand the thought of teaching 2nd grade again next year? Then don’t! Teach 3rd grade. Or 4th grade. Or kindergarten. Tired of world history? Teach United States history or civics instead. Most of us have teaching credentials that allow us to teach several subjects and grades levels. Express your interests to your principal, and see what develops. A colleague could be looking to switch, too!
Sponsor a Club
Becoming a club sponsor can breathe new life into your teaching career. Use your expertise, interests, and talents and form a club at your school. Sponsoring an extra-curricular activity gives you a chance to work with small groups in a setting that’s less formal than the classroom. Even if you don’t have time for a full-year club, consider a short-term involvement. You could sponsor a Thanksgiving canned food collection, or organize an Angel Tree Christmas project at your school.
A few years ago I was digging through a cabinet in my new classroom and I found the Chess Club Champions plaque. The names of the school chess champions were inscribed on the plaque, but no names had been added in several years. I asked around school, and discovered that the chess club sponsor had retired several years ago, and the club disbanded. Long story short: I decided to restart the club. By the end of the school year, we had 30 members and crowned a new chess champion. And I don’t even like chess! We met two afternoons a month, and my commitment was minimal. The kids just wanted to play chess, and I gave them a venue.
Okay, this might seem a little drastic for some of you. But if you’ve truly got a bad case of the teacher blues, you may need to investigate changing schools. I have known several teachers who were miserable at one school, and absolutely thrilled at another school. One teacher had the fewest years of experience in a very experienced math department. Every year his job was in jeopardy, based on enrollment projections. One year he asked for a transfer, and he quickly became a department leader at his new school.
Another teacher – an elementary library media specialist – grew weary of budget cuts that threatened his re-hire status on a yearly basis. He bravely dove into the transfer pool, and landed his dream job – teaching digital photography at a top-rated middle school. He even wrote a textbook based on his experiences. (That’s me, by the way.)
Maybe your daily commute is to blame. You've grown weary of a long drive each morning and afternoon, and you've actually calculated the number of hours you spend in the car each month, and counted the number of schools you drive past. A switch to a school closer to your home or closer to your child’s school could alleviate those stressors.
Are you hesitant to change schools, for fear of looking like a quitter? Just remember – you signed a one-year contract. You completed that year. You’ll be working in the same career, and probably for the same employer (the school district.) You’re just changing your location. And if that simple change cures your teacher blues, then it’s worth it.
Take a College Class or Attend a Conference
Are your teacher blues the result of curriculum stagnation or a lack of collegial involvement? In other words, are you professionally bored and lonely? You can update your knowledge base (and work toward recertification, too) by taking a college class in your subject area. A class at any level – including community college – is bound to result in new information and ideas.
Your class may even take your career in a different direction. Case in point: my good friend Mike. He was a PE teacher, and took a ceramics class. This class led to a love of art and a career as a pottery teacher at a visual and performing arts magnet school. Mike’s now the potter-in-residence at a prestigious folk art school in the Appalachians.
Professional conferences can also be quite invigorating, especially for teachers who don’t have subject-area colleagues at their schools, such as art teachers and library media specialists. At an educational conference you can learn about teaching strategies, curriculum resources, and new technologies. Contact your fellow teachers at nearby schools, and organize a trip. Spend the night, enjoy a good meal, and network with your fellow professionals.
Put the Teaching Experience in Perspective
Are your teacher blues related to the non-curricular aspects of teaching? Are you frustrated by the ever-changing teacher evaluation system? Are you discouraged by the hours of high-stakes testing your students endure? Are you disappointed in your students’ behavior? Maybe it’s time to put it all in perspective.
Employees are evaluated by their superiors in almost every career. Performances of fast-food burger flippers and corporate CEOs are measured by their respective bosses. Fortunately, as teachers we have a degree of input and control in the process. Volunteer to serve on your school or district-level evaluation committee. Learn all you can about the evaluation process. Provide professional and courteous input through the proper channels.
High-stakes testing looks like it is here to stay, but the pendulum appears to be swinging back toward moderation. And if you’re struggling with classroom behavior issues, consult a more experienced peer, attend a workshop, or read a professional book about constructive classroom discipline.
And if you’re relatively new to the teaching profession, realize that teaching is a craft that will probably take years to develop. Your teaching skill set will improve, and your curriculum repertoire will expand over time. Teachers experiencing the teacher blues after only one or two years on the job probably have unrealistic expectations of their abilities.
I can tell you right now – I stunk my first two years of teaching. But I remember as I stood before my class on the first day of my third teaching year, something clicked. I had my units mapped out for the entire semester. (I was teaching public speaking class.) My student assignment sheets and my grading sheets had been copied, and were organized in my filing cabinet. My lecture notes were filed as well, and I’d already taught those lessons several times before. I knew what worked before and what didn’t – keeping the former and discarding the latter. In year three, I had finally found my “sweet spot” in the classroom. Thirty years later, I’m glad I didn’t let my teacher blues derail my career.
The Season for Decision
Finally, realize that the end of the school year is probably the worst time to make a career decision. Most of us are eager for eight weeks of blissful summertime self-direction. If you’re sincerely considering leaving the teaching profession, make that decision in August, not May. Give yourself time to think and meditate on the previous school year. Instead of dwelling on the low points of the system, think about ways to improve your teaching experience and satisfaction.
The teacher blues are real. Don’t throw away your career, when one or two simple changes could provide the cure.
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 35 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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