Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tough Teacher/Tips for Aspiring Teachers

Ever since I read this article last year proclaiming that between forty and fifty percent of teachers quit within five years, I have been haunted by that statistic. The primary reason teachers leave: overall dissatisfaction with the field. I think anyone who has any amount of teaching experience can relate to that feeling of dissatisfaction.

But I'm not in the business of reiterating the negatives of our field. I'm in the business of helping other teachers in whatever way I can - through crazy anecdotes, my trial-and-error classroom experiments, printables for better organization, and profanity-laden enthusiasm.

This year, I crossed the five-year finish line and it felt so good.

As a matter of fact, it felt so good that I think I'm gonna run this race again. I'm going to try for another five.

And because it felt so good to say that I made it to the five-year mark, I want other teachers to know what that feels like.

Like, I think this is what those crazy-ass Tough Mudders and Spartan Racers and Warrior Dashers feel like when they finish a race. Sure, they've literally dragged themselves through the mud. And yeah, they might be bleeding in various places. They might ache for days in body parts they didn't know were capable of aching. They might lose shoes in mud pits and get splinters under their nails and fall into patches of thorns and have to leap over some goddamn fire to get to the finish line. But when they finish? It feels so good. And then they drink beer in celebration and then it really feels so good. And then they find other crazy-ass mofos and they talk about how great it all was, and the crazy things they did, and their insane tactics for climbing over this wall or crossing that pit or avoiding thirty burpees from the evil jackasses who are running the show and they all feel so damn good that they start recruiting other people and they say, "This was the hardest damn thing I've ever done in my life and YOU HAVE TO DO THIS because it feels so good to finish!"

Oh, yeah, did I mention these crazy-ass people PAY for this torture?

I'm seeing a ridiculous number of similarities here between obstacle racing and teaching. Do we not drag ourselves through the mud (figuratively, of course... usually...) to obtain our goal? Don't we sometimes get hung up in a brier patch along the way? There's blood and tears (or is that just me?). Sometimes there are some evil jackasses running the show (hint: they're kids). We deal with obstacle after obstacle every day of the year and I'm not sure there is a more perfect simile out there for that last little bit of the year than leaping over some goddamn fire to get to the finish line. But then, those of us who make it, those of us who cross the finish line, what do we do? I'll tell you what I did the last teacher-day of the year. After grades were in and room was clean-ish and I'd wiped some of the mud out of my eyes, I went out with a dozen or so other teachers, and we talked about how good it felt to be at the end of the year, and then we drank beer* and the finish line was even better. We talked about how great it was all-in-all and the ridiculous things we did that school year and the crazy obstacles we had to deal with and we're going to do it all over again.

Original Tough Mudder logo found here.

*In the spirit of transparency, I should confess that I don't really drink beer unless that's the only option and I really need a drink, if you know what I mean. I drank Angry Orchard Hard Cider, which is thebomb.com.

Here's the thing, kids: I'm a crazy-ass teacher and I really want other people to experience teaching because it is the hardest damn thing I've ever done in my life and YOU HAVE TO DO THIS because it feels so good. I recently chatted with Joe from the career resource site TheLadders and we both agreed that there is a great deal of comfort to be had from hearing other people's stories and advice when journeying into a new career. So I have some tips for anyone who might be looking into starting their career as a teacher.

Disclaimer first: teaching is not just a career... it is a calling. I truly believe that. True teachers are drawn to this field. It's the only path that just makes sense. Someone who is not really meant to be a teacher likely won't be helped by any advice that I (or anyone else) have to to offer. So I think the first thing you must do is to decide if this is really what you want to do. You can't half-ass this shit; you have to want it with your whole ass. Wait, what?

Advice for College Students Going Into Education

1. Get to know who you want to work with.
Which teacher are you at heart?
A. Pre-school/early childhood teacher
B. Elementary teacher
C. Middle school teacher
D. Secondary teacher
E. Post-secondary teacher
If you don't know, find out now. Spend time in all of these classrooms, not as a student, but as an observer. I was very fortunate in my first year of college to have an education class that required us to spend fifteen hours in an elementary school and in a secondary setting. I always thought I would be better suited to the older crowd of students, but this experience solidified that for me.

2. Don't go in with rose-colored lenses; experience the world outside of your hometown. Some of us aren't lucky enough to get to teach in our top choice school, which might be in our hometown. Prepare yourself to teach in a completely different environment. I'm a small town girl who went to a private elementary school and a rural public high school. I had absolutely no idea what it would be like to teach in an urban setting until I started my education classes. Again, my university required us to go to schools outside of our comfort zone and I'm so glad they did. If your university lets you choose to observe and do your practicum anywhere you like, choose outside of your comfort zone.

3. If you are going into secondary, take as many classes as you can in your field. Then, take electives that will be useful in your field. It seems that many of us who choose secondary education actually choose it because we love our content area first and the students second. You will probably have a passion for a particular part of your content. For me, it's British literature, while I tend to steer clear of American literature. I think it's important to have exposure to the content area as a whole (I was required to take British literature, American literature, and world literature classes), so take as many classes as you can. But then, as electives, I took British literature classes that would lend to my knowledge of the subject. (My Arthurian literature class was amazing and I have no regrets about taking three Shakespeare classes.)

4. Start getting organized NOW. If you are a member of any institution worth its salt, you will be inundated with resources. Keep them and organize them. DO NOT just throw all of this stuff in a folder or a file box and forget about it. There will come a time (after the honeymoon period, of course) where you won't actually want to "reinvent the wheel" with all of your lessons. Fortunately, chances are pretty good that someone has already done at least the ground work for you. Figure out how you are going to keep all of these resources organized and at hand.

5. Talk to other teachers - veterans, newbies, and wannabes. Network with other teachers. Hunt up some of your favorite teachers from when you were a little whippersnapper to figure out what it was that made them so awesome and what you can steal from them. Talk to new teachers to figure out the mistakes they are making (I promise they are making them, and you will too) and hopefully learn from those. Talk to the fellow wannabes in your class to figure what's making everyone tick. Always have someone you can talk to about education.

Advice for College Graduates Seeking Their First Teaching Position

1. Show 'em what you got. While interviewing for my current teaching position, the principal informed me that this would likely only be a one-year job because the position would probably be getting cut, to which I replied that I only needed one year (to show them that they needed me there). Make yourself absolutely necessary. Show your interviewers everything that you can bring to the table. There is a line between cocky and confident. Walk that line.

2. Be prepared to take a job that you may not love. My first teaching job was at a school forty miles away. I had a lot of different classes to prep for. I was in a community that I was not familiar with at all. My first year teaching was a shit show, but I learned a lot about the craft and I learned a lot about myself as a teacher. I'm a firm believer in the adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." You may find yourself in a situation that is less than ideal, but you will learn and you will be better for it.

3. Be willing to take on an extracurricular activity (or two). Oh yeah, and LOVE THE HELL OUT OF IT. Administrators just aren't in the business of hiring someone who plans to clock in at 8:00 and clock out at 3:00 without showing their faces outside of their classrooms. Honestly, though, you knew that going in, right? One of my absolute FAVORITE things about being a teacher is getting to do the extracurricular stuff! That's the fun in being a student, and it's a lot of the fun of being a teacher. Honestly, I live for drama club! Sometimes that is the only thing that gets me through the regular school day. I always advise my seniors-bound-for-college to take one "sanity" class a semester to keep things fun and interesting. You will need a fun extracurricular activity to save your sanity!

Advice for Making It to the Finish Line
(Be that the five-year line, the ten, or longer!)

  • Rekindle the romance by attending professional development opportunities (especially those that are specifically geared towards people like you). We often leave these sessions feeling much more enthusiastic than we did before.
  • If you haven't done it yet, take on an extracurricular activity and LOVE THE HELL OUT OF IT. (See above.)
  • Find the joy in your work and focus on that. Get the hell away from the negativity. Don't read those articles online that bitch about teaching and don't talk to the naysayers in your building. Seek positivity! Along with that...
  • ...stop along the way to smell the roses. (I'm a criminal when it comes to using cliches and I don't even care.) Have you ever had a really awesome classroom experience and then thought to yourself afterwards, "Oh my God, I get paid to do this!" Those moments will give you the boost you need to get through the rest of the day.
  • There are students that need you. You are indeed making an impact. Never has this been more obvious to me than this year. This teaching gig may feel thankless at first, but then something amazing will happen and you will discover how appreciated you really are. My senior drama club members made this very clear to me this year with a scrapbook full of heartfelt letters that left me in a puddle of my own tears. On the really tough days, think of those kids, the ones who make it all worth it, and stick through it. If you can't do the job for you that day, do it for your kids.

So what about you all? What positive/uplifting advice do you have for someone who is planning to become a teacher?


4 comments:

  1. Very interesting blog, Stephanie! I'm a first year graduate student pursuing an alternative master's in secondary ELA. Like you, I hope to teach high school English one day! I look forward to reading your future posts. Take care!

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  2. I LOVE this !! Thank you for the positivity!!

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  3. I have to second the advice to college students to go outside your comfort zone. My college required us to complete field experiences every January and a lot of my peers just went back to their local schools that they attended. I decided, my first year, to move in with my aunt in a different state for a month. The next year I went to a huge, diverse suburban school (I'm from a tiny rural school district)... And this school hired me for a long term sub position after I graduated! My final field period was at a large urban district with high levels of poverty and gang activity. But I loved having all the different experiences and my interviewers noticed!

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  4. I think what has kept me really positive throughout my teaching career so far (24 years) is that I see myself as a lifelong learner. I'm always thirsty for new knowledge and new ways to do things to help me become an even better teacher. This is such a complex job, with ever-changing goal posts, that there absolutely no time to get bored. I love that it requires total commitment - but gives so much back in return.

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