I realized giving a 30 minute talk the other day that there is no way to condense all my my thoughts about teaching in 30 minutes. But I can try to devote several paragraphs to each concept. Let’s see how that goes.
This is geared to teachers who are struggling, those considering teaching, and in reality, it applies to any career.
I was miserable teaching. I enjoyed my college classes learning how to work with wood, metal, plastics, ceramics, drafting, small engines. I loved learning. I thought my love of learning would translate into a love of teaching. Or maybe a love of watching others learn. But not all students were as excited about learning what I had to teach. many had other ideas of why they were in my class, and oftentimes it wasn’t to learn. I was miserable. So were many of the kids. For a few years.
Why did I stay? Surely I could have found another job paying as little, and maybe more than I was making. Why did I, and why do you persevere with anything that is unpleasant? It could be a relationship, a job, and more. I think the answer is 1. Hope and 2. Purpose.
As long as we have hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that there is a chance it will all work out in the end, then we stay. Sometimes we come to the conclusion it is hopeless. Then we leave. Break up. Resign. Who hasn’t poured their heart and soul into a relationship (or a job), only to realize it will never get better. That necessary ingredient, the salve, the potion, the agreement, the understanding on one person’s part is lacking, and probably will never be there. Careers are like a relationship in so many ways. Even when you are going through the rough stuff, if there is hope and purpose, you can make it through. But when there is no longer any hope of achieving your purpose, then it is time to bale. The challenge is knowing when to stay and when to go.
When I started teaching, I really was unqualified. I had marginal teaching skills, classroom management skills, and the minimal amount of working knowledge of the curriculum. College only gets your foot in the door. Despite my lack of qualifications, they hired me. Either there were so few applicants, but even if there were many, they still offered me the job, so I reminded myself when overwhelmed and convinced of imminent failure, I was the best person for the job.
I have learned that a sense of purpose or meaning is one of the five critical things needed ro a well lived life. As a good Catholic until age 13, and then as a Jesus freak from the age of 17-20, I absorbed, embraced, and cultivated the belief that “I am here for a reason.” I didn’t and still don’t know the specifics, but if I accept the notion that I’m here for a purpose, and that everything happens for a reason, or has some benefit, then it changes my perspective. Instead of being a victim, any event can be reinterpreted as a gift, or an opportunity to learn, grow and prepare for bigger and better things ahead. Every setback, every failure is an opportunity to assess could can be done differently next time.
The early years of teaching are overwhelming. There is no way to get around it. Way too much to learn, to do, and for many, at least me, the constant fear that the administration will see what is clear to me, I’m in way over my head. The feelings of imminent doom stirred up my anxiety to the point where I went on drugs to control it as well as my depression. the image of me digging ditches the rest of my life was a regular occurrence. One of the main reasons I stayed was purpose. I was there not only for my benefit but for the benefit of some others, the students.
I was pretty convinced, that I was there for a reason. There were a few things I could teach and teach well, and what I didn’t, I could learn. I told myself “You will get through this. It does get easier. It is worth it. ”
My desperation for help led me to a professional organization of peers. I found in them a support group and a resource of information. They agreed that the early years were the hardest. Some said it took three years before it got easier. My experience is five years, but I’m a slow learner.
The moral of the story? Find something that you believe deeply that gives you purpose and meaning. Accept the fact that is is going to be really challenging but those challenges will teach you what you need to know before it gets easier. You will know when it is time to go on or when it is time to quit. Whether you leave to find something new, or someone new, I hope you feel as though you gave it your best shot.
After 27 years of teaching, filled with both mistakes, missteps, growth and at times small victories, I can say, that my purpose was fulfilled. I learned. I grew. I am a better person for it. As for the students I taught. Some learned. Some grew. I accept that I didn’t reach them all, but like the little boy that was putting star fish back in the water that were washed ashore by the tide, it mattered to the ones that he did save.