Always a teacher: a reflection (& confession) on 5 years out of the classroom

June 9, 2014

in coaching and consulting, rants and reflections

I can’t believe it’s been 5 years since I wrote this post about the (hilarious?) adventures of my very first job interview in Manhattan as an instructional coach. I also can’t believe that next June will hold my 20th high school reunion. Time flies and all that.

I want to make a confession here. With each passing year, a growing part of me worries that not being in the classroom hurts my credibility as someone telling teachers not only how to improve their work but to ENJOY it more. Sometimes I hear a little nagging voice saying, You’re not in the trenches, so who are you to advise anyone on anything? What, you enjoyed teaching so much that you stopped doing it? And the world of teaching has changed so much, so quickly—what if I’ve become arrogant, out of touch, outdated, and irrelevant?

always a teacher

As a young teacher, I thought I’d be in the classroom forever. But that perspective changed in a single day in 2009. It was three months after The Cornerstone was published, and a local charter school principal invited me to conduct a workshop on classroom management. His teachers’ work schedule was the same as mine, so in order to accept, I’d had to ask my principal’s permission to to leave my students and use a sick day. That was the first red flag that being a teacher and a consultant might not be compatible for me.

I’d structured the day so I spent the morning giving PD and the afternoon doing individual classroom consultations, helping teachers apply what I’d taught them to their own unique situations. Two of the teachers actually cried during our consultations because they had felt desperately alone and were so grateful that someone was finally offering them some specific support and encouragement. I knew that sense of isolation well and cried with them. That was probably unprofessional, but I was touched. Deeply.

I drove away from the school that day exhilarated, knowing that I had just made a positive difference for not only my own students, but for an ENTIRE SCHOOL. This whole teaching teachers thing? Oh, yes, it was definitely for me. That I knew.

But I also knew immediately that I was not going to be able to help teachers on the scale I wanted to while still giving 100% to a classroom full of kids who were depending on me to show up each day. Some teachers can—and do—pull it off. But I know my own limitations, and it just wasn’t possible for me to be an excellent teacher AND an excellent author, blogger, speaker, consultant, curriculum writer, and all those other jobs I was trying to squeeze in between 10 pm and midnight.

I wanted to make the biggest difference I could for teachers and impact as many students as possible. And so I had to make a choice: to stay in the classroom and focus on helping 25 kids, or leave the classroom and potentially impact the way hundreds of thousands of kids learn.

And honestly, after 11 years of teaching, I was ready for the change. I thrive on new challenges—those of you who have followed me since the inception of this site in 2004 will remember that I taught in 7 schools in 2 states during those 11 years. Changing to a different role in education fit my pattern perfectly. I knew I’d miss working so closely with children, but I also knew I would love my work with teachers in the same way I used to love being in the classroom.

In my mind, I am still a teacher. I’m just not in the classroom. I view my role as an instructional coach and educational consultant as an honor and a calling. I believe that those who are in the classroom desperately need the support of instructional coaches and mentors–people who have been in the trenches, but now have the time and opportunity to support other teachers without needing to rush back to their own classrooms and put their own students first. I have the privilege of making the support of other teachers my #1 priority. Who could begrudge me of that? And why would I ever berate myself for it?

Ironically, now that I’m out of the classroom, I think I actually have MORE to offer teachers than when I was in it. A few years ago, my experience was limited mostly to my own four classroom walls: now I get to visit teachers and schools all over the country. I get to talk with teachers in small rural schools and problem solve with those in big urban districts. I work with high school teachers all the way down to PreK. I feel like I have a better understanding now of what it’s like to be a teacher because I get to spend more time than ever listening to actual teachers instead of being isolated in my own classroom.

The posts and books I write aren’t telling anyone to stay in the classroom. I’m not sitting back on my couch in the morning relishing the fact that I get to work from home a lot and make my own schedule while telling teachers how to do their jobs. I’ve written extensively about how teachers can make the choice to leave and how to transition into other roles if they so choose, and just last week, I shared a 30 minute podcast about launching your own business as an edupreneur. A huge part of my job in empowering teachers is giving them hope and helping them find the right role in education so that they can enjoy their work and make a difference for kids.

I’m also not telling anyone how to do their job. I’ve always espoused the philosophy that there’s no one right way to teach. I try to share my experiences from a place of humility and from the position of a learner: here’s what has worked for me, here’s what I’ve seen work for other teachers, tell us what works for you. I don’t write about any mistakes I haven’t made myself, or any principles I haven’t had to learn in my own practice.

My goal is to share strategies I’ve learned and continue to learn about making teaching more effective, efficient, and enjoyable. And that “enjoyable” piece? It’s been my main focus over the last three years, and I’m pursuing it with even more intensity. I’m rapidly nearing the final draft of my book Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Love Teaching Every Day…No Matter What. I don’t think enough influencers are talking about how to make teaching enjoyable and inherently fun. I want to see more conversations about meeting the needs of the whole teacher, more consideration toward how school policies contribute to or detract from teacher motivation, and more realistic advice for how teachers can tap into their passion for their work and ignite that same passion in students.

I can’t change ridiculous school policies, or repeal standardized testing, or reduce class sizes, or make any of the other systemic changes that would help teaching feel less insurmountable. But I can share practical resources to make the day to day stuff a little less frustrating and little more rewarding. If I can give you some ideas for making a connection with that seemingly unreachable kid or shave 20 minutes off a mundane task so you can focus on something more meaningful, then I feel like in some small way, I’ve made a difference. I’ve helped a teacher somewhere keep a smile on her face for her students and end the school day on a higher note than if she hadn’t read my words.

In my mind, I will ALWAYS be a teacher, whether those I help are little kids or other educators around the world. And so I choose to silence that voice in my head that questions whether I have the “right” to give advice to teachers about their work. This isn’t about advice. My job, as I define it now, is to empower, support, inspire, and encourage other teachers. I just don’t think there could EVER be enough people doing that…and I’m honored to take on that role.

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Check out the free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Katie June 9, 2014 at 5:02 pm

I have the same exact concern. I have been in the classroom for 9 years, but recently got my doctorate in C&I and am interested to transition into a different type of job that supports teachers rather than remaining in the classroom myself. But, like you, I have concerns 1. I worry that I haven’t taught long enough to be an “expert” and 2. I worry that I haven’t taught a wide variety of grade levels (I’ve taught Head Start, Kinder, and First). I am really excited to read the other posts you’ve written that you linked to because I need advice in this process of transitioning!

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2 Angela Watson June 10, 2014 at 10:00 am

Thanks for sharing that, Katie. It definitely makes me feel less alone!

I’ve taught only a handful of grade levels, too (PreK/HeadStart, 2nd, and 3rd) and have actually found that to be helpful in establishing my niche. You may find that the PreK-1 crowd appreciates your complete focus on early childhood and your “limitations” are actually a strength. :)

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3 Elicia Cardenas June 9, 2014 at 10:13 pm

Angela,
After spending my first year in the deep, dark trenches and coming back frequently to your book, this blog, and the resources that you provide and link to, I am incredibly grateful that you chose to pursue teacher training. I turn to this again and again, for hope, inspiration, practical tips, and guidance. And you have saved me a lot more than 20 minutes at mundane tasks!

It has been a tough year and I keep reflecting on the idea that not all schools are the same, nor are all grade levels. With that in mind (and some posts that you wrote), I sought out a different school, different grade level, and different subject. (From 3rd grade inclusive at a charter school to middle school Spanish at a private school.)

I know that in order to keep teaching, I need to make a radical change, and I have your blog and community to thank for keeping me hopeful rather than just going back to working at a ski resort. So, thanks, and know that your work is as vital as any other teacher’s work.

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4 Angela Watson June 10, 2014 at 10:03 am

Wow, wow, wow. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to share that encouragement, Elicia. It means more than you know. I feel honored to have played a role in helping you search out the teaching position that is right for you, and I’m glad to have helped you find some places online you can turn to as you contemplate your next change. :)

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5 Amy kuti June 10, 2014 at 6:40 am

I am glad to see that you are questioning yourself. About being out of the classroom. I don’t think it would be a bad idea to go back in for a full year every 5-6 years. I’ve been teaching 15 years and the changes in kids and education happens quite often. Would you ever consider doing that just to keep your ideas more real?love your blog!

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6 Angela Watson June 10, 2014 at 10:18 am

Amy…such a good suggestion. Theoretically, I do think that everyone who is out of the classroom should go back in every few years. I think that would keep instructional coaches, educational consultants, etc. current and also help re-inspire their work as teacher trainers, since teacher training can get stale after awhile, too. I know of several school districts who make this a requirement for their teacher-leaders and ed coaches: it’s a regular cycle that everyone knows will take place and they prepare accordingly. I think that’s amazing!

The practicalities of this process, of course, are much more complicated, especially for those of who don’t work in a district who supports this or for a school system at all (I do instructional coaching as a freelance contractor.) I’m not sure any district would hire me as a teacher knowing that I would only resign in 10 months, especially when there is a shortage of positions and so many incredible teachers out there who are looking for a longterm commitment to the school and community.

I also don’t know what would happen to all of my other commitments: I would essentially be a first year teacher trying to learn a new district, school, set of standards, curriculum, etc. I would not be able to maintain the blog, keep writing books, fulfill my speaking engagements I have booked for the coming year, continue working part-time as a content creator for BrainPOP, etc.
It would be a complete change in lifestyle as well as income–if I let all of my other revenue streams go for a year in order to teach, there’s no guarantee I’d be able to get them back after that year was up. As a consultant, I don’t have a dependable income, and never know what I’m going to earn from month to month, so it’s important that I’m always producing new things and finding new opportunities–taking a year off from that every five years could be something that my career never really rebounds from.

Or I suppose the opposite could happen, and the process could take my work as a consultant to the next level…I really can’t say, since this is a hypothetical…but if the right classroom-based opportunity came up, I would be open to it.

Is this an arrangement you’ve been able to work out in your own career? Or something you’ve considered trying? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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7 Linda Kardamis June 10, 2014 at 7:11 am

Thanks so much for sharing this! I’ve been out of the classroom for 2 years now and it already feels like a long time….I’m staying home while my kids are young and have absolutely loved the opportunity to write about teaching – but I had/have the same fear as you – Will I be out of touch and/or run out of ideas? It’s so encouraging to hear your perspective. I am really enjoying supporting teachers and getting to “meet” so many through my writing. I am very excited to see what God will do in the future – Thanks for being an example and for sharing all the tips you do!

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8 Angela Watson June 10, 2014 at 10:19 am

Linda, I appreciate that very much! Our paths are very similar and I see such a servant’s heart in you as you support teachers. The advice you give is always from the heart and therefore I don’t think it can be outdated or irrelevant.

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9 Melissa Morrice June 11, 2014 at 10:29 pm

Dear Angela,
As a classroom teacher, I have never felt more understood or encouraged than when I found your blogs, books, and posts. I have never felt like you are telling us what to do or that you have lost touch. I have sometimes wondered if you might possibly have some secret window into my classroom because your material is always exactly what I need at exactly the right time! I do not take lightly the sacrifice you made of giving up your own classroom to help so many more. I thank God for the courage you had to follow your heart. Thank you for what you do. Melissa

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10 Angela Watson June 12, 2014 at 9:02 am

Melissa, that is so, so kind of you. Your words mean more to me than you could possibly know! Thank you. :)

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11 Jennifer Gonzalez June 12, 2014 at 7:33 am

Hey Angela,

It’s such a relief to know others feel this way, too. I struggle with this a lot, as I have not been a full-time classroom teacher for 9 years now. I had 4 years in the interim as a teacher trainer at the university level, so I hold onto that to feel validated, but still. It definitely gives me “fraud fear” all the time.

So here’s what has helped me get over it (kind of): For one thing, it’s the fact that I wouldn’t be able to do ANY of what I’m doing now if I was a teacher. Unfortunately, there are a lot of us out there who would make outstanding teachers, if we could just do it on a part-time basis. If I had a group of kids I met with every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I would stay fresh with my skills and still be able to do all the research and writing I do now to help teachers. But like you said in your reply to Amy, districts don’t generally seek anything but committed full-time teachers. When I taught English full-time, I worked a minimum of 2 hours every night at home, and anywhere from 5-15 hours over the weekend on planning and grading (and I still felt like I could be doing more). That leaves no time for anything else.

It also helps to consider parallels in other professions: You know how there are bands and musicians who have a period of time when they’re really productive, touring a lot and making a lot of albums, and then they kind of disappear? Most of them don’t really disappear — they go into producing of some kind. Same with lots of actors who ultimately go into directing. Salespeople who become regional managers. Physical therapists who stop taking on their own patients to supervise other therapists. Athletes who become coaches. Every profession needs leaders, and those leaders should have experience in the field — the only way that can happen is if practitioners stop practicing and start growing the next generation. If there’s a way to keep your skills sharp by periodically getting back in the field, then that’s ideal — and probably something we should all make a reality by working with districts and state governments. But the experience we DO have is still there, and if we are regularly interacting with practicing teachers and paying attention to the realities of their work, our “experience” continues, informed by the wisdom we gained when we were in the field ourselves.

One more thing: Not teaching gives me the freedom to speak freely. If I were still in the classroom, I wouldn’t be able to write about half the stuff I write about in my blog, because I would worry that my colleagues would read it and think it was about them, that parents would accuse me of writing about their child, or my admins would disapprove.

Ack. I woke up early to work on my own stuff! I need to get back to work. Thanks for writing about this, Angela. You’re definitely not alone!

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12 Angela Watson June 12, 2014 at 8:58 am

Wow, Jennifer, thank you SO much for taking the time out of your own work to share that. I love your point about being able to speak freely when you’re out of the classroom–that was a struggle I had forgotten about. I also really like your point about musicians, etc. “disappearing” when really they are producing. Great stuff.

Your idea of teaching part time really, really resonated with me. I would LOVE to teach two mornings a week. Oh my gosh. PERFECT. I would enjoy that so much.

I sometimes do instructional coaching at Jewish day schools and generally the teachers there teach only half days: the Judaic teachers work from something like 9-12:30 and the general studies teachers work from 1-4. And, school ends at 1 pm every Friday to prepare for the Sabbath! There are many other factors why the teachers in yeshivas tend to be enjoy their work, in my experience, but I can’t help but think that teaching half day is a HUGE part of that. It allows them so much more time to lesson plan, grade, run errands, and care for their own families.

Of course, their salaries reflect the shorter work day…but since we’re talking about an ideal teaching situation here…half days would be amazing. I would be a much better teacher if I only had to plan lessons for a few hours a day, and I know I would be more patient and energetic with the kids, too. The most demanding part of teaching for me was having to be “on” from 8-2, and I think that burns a lot of teachers out.

Again, thanks so much for sharing that…so much for me to reflect on…

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