Whatever your views on the pandemic, masks, or vaccines, we can all agree this school year started out rough. The one thing we can stand united on is our fatigue and stress. But here you are and here am I, almost 20 years in the classroom. What’s kept me here so long?
With last year’s level of crazy, I assumed this year HAD to be better. While the flow and structure of the school day may be inching in that direction, the aftermath of last year’s turmoil is no joke.
I get it that the stress, workload, student behaviors, and academic performance has you at a breaking point. You were at a May level of distress when it was only November.
I’ve heard of teachers that are walking out, ready to quit/quitting because this - all of this - is too much. And before I go any further, everyone needs to do what is best for themselves.
Want to listen to this message instead of read? You can hear the audio version in my podcast or click the Mp3 below.
But maybe dropping everything right now in the middle of the year - or at the end - and quitting isn’t an option for you, or something you would even consider. The reality is we aren’t going back to a pre-pandemic normal. Not now or possibly ever. This is where we are at, what we are, and what we need to be a voice for going forward.
And I feel I need to divulge - I feel bad that, this year, I’m actually having the best year in over a decade. That’s not to discredit anyone’s feelings and experiences this year, it’s just my truth. But a lot of that is because of the changes I have made personally and professionally over the past few years. Next year is a milestone of me of sorts - it’s the big 2-0, 20 years in the classroom. It’s been a twisting, turning ride, that’s for sure. And I’m still here, far removed from where I started - because I still love teaching and love the kids.
But what got me - and you - here, won’t keep you here, especially in today’s teaching climate.
Things change, and you change, too. And with that, I want to share with you the things I have changed over the years - what I’ve done since COMPLETELY burning out in the 2015-16 school year, to stay in the teaching profession.
#1: Your personal life and your school life are two separate lives. Keep it that way.
The first change I made was separating my personal identity and my teacher identity. My life, especially during 2014 when I was a state teacher of the year, was oversaturated with being a teacher. Teaching, working in a school is its own ecosystem. The workload, relationships, and student. Needs can and will at some point overwhelm your life.
I got to a point where I didn’t know who I was outside of being a teacher. It took several years (all while still teaching full time) of soul searching, taking care of my health, and assessing my interests and goals outside of being a teacher to get to a place where I turn off Erin the teacher and turn on Erin off duty. It’s not that I’m not a good person or change my character out of the classroom - but it’s giving myself permission to fully use my heart and brain to attend to the people, plans, and goals other than what’s teaching /work related.
#2: Leave your school work at school - whatever it takes.
Change number two was that I stopped taking work home that I didn’t want or need to do. Sounds insane, right? What teacher doesn’t take work home? But it goes back to teacher identity and deciding what kind of life I wanted for myself and my family. In order to make this happen, I have to maximize the time I had during the school day. I had to look at what I was prioritizing. It also meant cutting out some of the extra things I did in order to keep up with the growing list of requirements/ documentation that is demanded of teachers, but in the end it was worth my peace. It also meant my students got a more present, happy teacher that wasn’t as fatigued or resentful because of staying up too late and getting very little time to live life.
#3: Grade only what is necessary to document student learning.
The third change I made was what and how much I graded. I graded way too much in my early days in the classroom. While you more than likely have requirements as to how many grades you need to take and what standards you cover, you do have some control over what and how much you assess. Sometimes we get caught up what everyone else is doing, what we think looks good and shows students are learning/ working, and holding students accountable. Automating, streamlining, and reprioritizing my grading kept me from throwing in the towel.
#4: Stop comparing yourself to other teachers.
The fourth change? Quit comparing and playing what I call the “one-up” game. I spent so many wasted moments feeling inadequate because of how someone else’s classroom was organized, what another teacher had boasted regarding their students’ test scores, or how much better another class behaved in the hallway - the list goes on. Teaching can feel like a competition - if you let it. If you allow the numbers or data collection to take center stage in how you rate your effectiveness as a teacher. You have to make a conscious effort not to ride the comparison carousel and/or the brag bus - because it’s time you lose focusing on your students’ growth and needs, and improving your own style and contributions to the classroom.
#5: If you aren't happy or thriving in your current teaching position, get out.
The fifth change was the biggest and took the longest time to realize. The fifth change was admitting that I wasn’t happy and doing something about it.
I got into a rut. I knew the answer to getting out of that rut but feared doing something new. I needed a change. I had outgrown certain commitments, routines, people - my professional life needed an overhaul. What I was doing was no longer where I could serve best and grow. I had changed. You’re supposed to overtime. Not just professionally either - life events tend to have that affect on you, too.
You’re allowed to change. But don’t stay stuck and unhappy out of fear of the unknown.
For myself, that change meant going from teaching fifth grade to teaching art. Getting certified to teach a new content area, taking courses and classes to learn how to teach art effectively, and going through 17 years of grades 3-5 materials to make room for elementary art supplies. It didn’t make sense to anyone except for me, but on the other side of that change it was what I needed for this next stage of my personal and professional life.
It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone. And it more than likely will make someone unhappy. Once you break free from the court of public opinion, you’ll see that it was possibly the best thing you ever did.
Those are the five changes I made to make it almost 20 years in teaching. To recap, those changes were:
Wherever you are in your teaching career, you deserve to have the guidance and confidence to approach the post-pandemic era of teaching in a way that allows you to enjoy your job without losing your way.