I want to talk about the emails that I get on an almost-daily basis from veteran teachers who are completely overwhelmed at how the job they signed up for 20, 30, or 40 years ago is nothing like the job they are being required to do today. These are teachers who entered the field because they love kids, and they love teaching. They’ve done what they believed was an outstanding job for a decade or more, before suddenly finding the criteria for competency shifting, the bar raising, and a whole host of new skill sets needed, from teaching with technology to dealing with students whose brains have been rewired by constant media stimulation.
After years of successfully teaching kids to read, write, add, and subtract, they’re suddenly told they are ineffective. And because this is their life’s work, that proclamation hits them like a slap in the face. It affects them to the core of their being.
I want to amplify the voices of teachers who are experiencing this, let them know they’re not alone or the only ones facing this, and hopefully talk about what can be done. My hope is that this is an episode that will be useful to you even if you’re not facing this situation yourself, because every teacher works with at least one colleague who is in a similar place. You might be listening to this and actually feeling frustrated with these teachers, believing that they are not pulling their weight and aren’t changing with the times. So I hope this episode will do something to strengthen the relationships between you and your colleagues as well.
I’m going to start by sharing an email I got recently:
My 35-year teaching career seems to be coming to an end. I have always been a learner, and into everything. I have a masters in brain based learning, am reading and ESOL endorsed, and I am National Board Certified. NONE of that seems valued these days. These last few years have included many awful changes in curriculum, with loads of micromanagement to make sure we are doing what we are supposed to do and when we are supposed to be doing it. With the rigid curriculum, it’s hard to build meaningful bonds with students.
I’ve been having serious health problems recently which have made it even harder for me to focus and be energetic for the kids. So here I am, unable to do all the cool things with my students that make me “me,” and things that I haven’t yet done but wanted to do. My passive aggressiveness has kicked in, and I just backed away from everything with big disinterest, making myself look ineffective and uncaring. I feel like a failure. A failure–after 35 years of blood, sweat, and tears! I think I am going to have to retire, but I will miss being a teacher (the old style of what teaching used to be about.)
If you are that teacher–someone who changed children’s lives year after year and are suddenly finding this career to be unrecognizable from what you signed up for–I want you to know these 9 things.
(Special thanks to my amazing principal friend Amber Teamann for talking through these issues with me and helping me identify practical strategies to share.)
Want to listen instead of read? Play or download the audio below:
1) Burnout and cynicism are a natural result of repeated disappointment and perceived failure.
Being told you’re ineffective and feeling like you cannot possibly be successful at a job can trigger the kind of passive-aggressiveness and lack of effort this teacher described. But a cynical teacher is not a teacher who doesn’t care; she’s a teacher who cares a lot but has been repeatedly disappointed. She’s done what she feels is her absolute best and been told it’s not good enough, over and over again.
Shutting down is just what happens sometimes in those situations with teachers, just like it happens with kids. If a student does his or her best to follow the rules or do the homework or whatever is being required and feels like every time it just results in having the bar raised higher and higher, the student often gives up. That does not mean the child doesn’t want to learn or doesn’t care about being successful, even though it could appear like that on a surface level.
Underneath, most kids–like most teachers–want to succeed. They’re simply discouraged from putting forth what feels like a Herculean effort to them and having it be received by others as Not Good Enough.
2) These are not unusual situations: there are ten of thousands of teachers who would once have been considered good or effective, and are now being told that they are not.
Please do not feel like you are the only one feeling like this, and not understanding what happened to the job you thought you were signing up to do. Expectations for teachers have climbed dramatically in recent years. I’d argue that EVERY teacher is struggling to keep up with the new expectations.
And I’d argue that students are also struggling to keep up. Look at what we expect of our 5-year-olds these days, compared to what was expected of them 20 years ago. If a child enters school not already knowing colors, shapes, letters, and how to write his or her name (plus a whole host of other self-regulation, emotional, and interpersonal skills), she or he will behind before the first day of school even begins.
We are expecting more of kids, and we are expecting more of teachers. This is a fact. You are not imagining things or going crazy.
3) Feeling like your job requirements have changed to the point where they’re almost unrecognizable would be confusing and disheartening for just about anyone.
Change that we do not initiate ourselves is often scary and very difficult. It’s normal to feel bewildered by what’s going on, especially if you don’t have a strong personal learning network that is talking about these changes and sharing strategies for how to adjust. Sometimes it’s helpful just to hear someone say, “I get it, this is difficult work, and you’re not alone,” so if no one else has told you that yet, you’re hearing it from me here today.
4) The whole world is changing quickly, and just about everyone is struggling to figure out the new rules and adapt in many different areas of life.
This is a phenomenon that’s not specific to schools. Almost everyone’s career is changing due to technology, the global economy, and a whole host of other factors. Look at doctors, and how the amount of paperwork they do and liability insurance they need has increased exponentially. They often spend more time documenting the care they give and avoiding lawsuits than actually giving care. Sounds familiar, right?
But doctors have to keep changing with the times, too. They can’t just keep trying to make house calls and give people opioids like they did in the 1800s. Imagine if a doctor said, “I’m just going to close my door and practice medicine however I think is best.” They can’t do that, and neither can we as teachers.
The world is changing, our professions are changing, and we have to keep growing and adapting.
None of us is feeling like we have everything mastered that we need to, or like we have any idea what things will be like for us a few years from now. The world feels like a less stable and predictable place in many ways. And I say that not to be a messenger of gloom and doom, but to reassure you that what you are experiencing is a small piece of much larger shifts in our society. Knowing that can make it easier to understand what’s happening and why.
5) Just because you can’t do All The Things well doesn’t mean that you’re a failure…because NO teacher is able to keep up with everything.
We are all struggling to manage the amount of information we now have and get everything done that’s necessary. I assure you that the young idealistic teachers who are praised by their administrators are also struggling in their own way.
I don’t know ANY teachers who feel like, “Yep, I’ve got this whole teaching thing on lock, I know all the latest tech tools and have integrated them seamlessly into my instruction, I have empowered kids to fully take ownership of their learning to the point where they’ll all on task and engaged in their work 100% of the time, and I’m ready to see if Michelle Pfeiffer is available to play my role in Dangerous Minds 2.”
(Which by the way, if we never have another Teacher Savior movie like that again, it would do us ALL some good.) Teaching is a difficult and demanding job, for everyone.
6) Younger or newer teachers may be able to do things well that you struggle with, but there are still areas where you shine.
For example, you might be exceptionally talented at explaining difficult concepts to kids, or have a huge bank of experiences to draw from when deciding what’s going to reach a child in a difficult situation. I know it took me about 6 years of teaching third grade before I felt like I really had a solid method of getting my class to understand how to round numbers and estimate. It took years of trial and error, experimentation, observing children, and probing their thinking for me to finally find the magic formula that worked for my teaching style–that special way to explain and have kids practice that would make that light bulb come on for 90% of the class.
This sort of skill level may not be specifically addressed on a teacher evaluation form and is extremely hard to evaluate, especially when it’s based on just an hour or so spent observing in the teacher’s classroom. But it’s just one example of an area where veteran teachers may outshine their newer counterparts without anyone, sometimes even the veteran teacher him or herself, even realizing it. Pay attention to your special strengths and skills, and don’t overlook them.
7) You cannot allow anyone else’s opinion or standards to determine your self-worth.
Your self-worth and value as a human being and educator is not determined by the scores on a test you didn’t even take yourself. Your true value can never be determined by a checklist or form. The district or state measurement of what constitutes effectiveness is simply one set of standards and one very limited measure of success.
I realize that it’s an important measure, as your livelihood depends on it, but you cannot let it impact how you feel about yourself as a person. You are more than a test score, you are more than an evaluation score, and you have value simply because you are alive on this planet.
If no one else is telling you that, you need to seek those teachings out on a regular basis so that you can reframe your thinking and redefine your self-worth. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
8) You cannot allow anyone else’s opinion or standards to determine whether you retire or stay in the classroom.
Once you get to the point where your evaluation leaves just two options (adapt and move toward the style of teaching your district requires, or exit gracefully through retirement), I want to empower you to remember that your life choices are YOURS.
You need to make your own decision about whether this career is working for you, or if it’s time to exit the classroom. Do not wait until someone forces you out: take charge of your own professional development, take charge of your own life, and make the decision based on what is best for you and your students.
Do the hard work of honest self-reflection and ask,
Is this how I want to spend the next few years of my life? Am I willing to rise to the challenge of adapting, or is my heart simply not in this anymore? Am I doing my students a disservice by staying around? Am I truly able to teach them the way they need to be taught in this new era? Is the level of education kids are getting in my class comparable to what they’d get if they were assigned to a colleague? Would I want my own child to be in my class? Am I willing and capable of meeting the current expectations of the job?
Be honest and check to see if there is a place deep down in your soul that says, “I don’t know, I don’t really think so, I think this job is taking a tremendous toll on my physical and mental health, and I’m really not sure if it’s fair to my students. I need to take care of myself and give the kids an opportunity to learn from someone who is going to teach them the way they deserve to be taught.”
If that’s the case, I encourage you to trust your gut instincts here. Come to terms with them, and once you’ve had a chance to work out a plan, take action on them. Do not be the teacher everyone knows should have retired a decade ago. Take charge of your life. This may not have been what you envisioned for yourself, it may not have been the original plan, but you can make a new plan now.
If you feel like you CAN rise to the challenge, if you still have a little bit more left in you to give, if you feel like you can do right by your students, then remember…
9) Effective teaching is a continuum on which every teacher is slowly moving forward, and if you choose to demonstrate a willingness to learn and grow, things can improve for you immediately.
I feel like growth mindset is a bit of an overused term at this point, but that’s the heart of it: choose to believe that you are capable of improvement, you are able to learn to do better and do things differently, and you can push through challenges and succeed.
If you’re going to stick around, you must be willing to move forward and adapt, even if it’s through slow baby steps. Your administration is not expecting perfection: in general, a principal simply wants to see growth. She or he wants to see that you are not openly resistant to any new changes that come down to the pike, and that are you willing to have a good attitude and make an effort.
Of course, not every change and adaptation you’re asked to make will be a positive one. We don’t have to pretend that a district’s move toward overemphasis on testing is something wonderful we should aspire to align ourselves with. You can (and should) still question what’s best for kids. Work with your colleagues to fight back against teaching requirements that don’t put student needs first. If your district is forcing you to adhere to practices that are killing students’ love of learning and your love of teaching, decide whether you want to fight for what’s best for kids from within a teaching position, or resign and work to create change from the outside.
Maybe there’s still a place for you in teaching, but in a different school with different expectations. These aren’t easy choices, but they ARE your choices to make.
So, speak up against requirements that aren’t good for kids, but be careful not to lump every new change into the same basket and resist it from a place of pride in being “old school.” Displaying a true openness to learning new things–not just saying it or doing it one time with a sour look on your face, but a true change at the heart level–can completely transform your experience as a teacher. It can get colleagues who previously gave up on helping you to decide they’re willing to show you once more how they do a new requirement. It can get a principal who seemed to criticize your every move to ease up a bit and recognize growth. It can get students who fought you on every instruction you gave to feel on some level, wait a second, something is different about my teacher now, the hardness and rigidity is gone, she’s a little more patient, and little more willing to go with the flow and experiment and take risks.
Don’t look at your district’s standards for effective teaching as some impossible end goal that you’ll never reach. Instead, focus on taking the first step forward on the continuum. After that, take the next step. One step at a time. The whole staircase doesn’t have to be illuminated here–you don’t have to see the entire path ahead of you. All you need to see is the next right step. One right choice now. And in the next moment, another right choice.
Remember why you entered this profession to begin with. Those motivators are still there, even if it’s harder to connect with the kids now or be creative or free, and to find teachable moments seems impossible at times. You are not choosing to learn and adapt and grow for the sake of your principal or district or evaluation or job security. You’re doing it because it’s your choice. You love the core of this job. You love the kids. And you want to do right by them. You refuse to live another day miserable and overwhelmed and feeling like you’re not good enough. Today is the day you take that first step forward.