Last month, I closed the lesson plan book on a decade of teaching at my current school.
Calling it a decrescendo would be generous. It wasn’t really a whimper or a whisper. It was actually just a click. I moused over the “Leave Meeting” button, let Zoom know I was sure, and that was that. But I suppose that’s what happens when you wrap up 10 weeks of remote learning in the midst of a pandemic.
When I think about how many people–out of necessity or strategy or both–job hob, I realize what a unique perspective I have. I spent 10 years working inside the same four walls. I’ve been doing a lot of teaching–14,800 hours work, give or take. I’ve also been doing a lot of learning.
Here’s a very small sliver of what teaching for 10 years in the same school taught me:
10. It’s OK to look back.
This isn’t the first school district I taught in. If you asked me when I first started teaching, I thought I found the school where I would spend my entire career. I couldn’t love the students or the school more than I did when I took my first job. When I made the decision to leave (RIF me once, shame on you. RIF me twice, shame on me — or something like that), I really wondered if I would regret my choice.
It’s really hard to make a comparison between anything in education. Each day in the same content area in the same classroom is so dramatically different. Comparing two teaching assignments isn’t comparing apples to oranges. It’s comparing apples to astronauts.
What I do know is that I learned a lot from my first few years as a teacher, and I pull from that all the time. It’s OK to look back. It can help support you where you are and push you forward.
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9. Flexibility matters.
I am a pretty big fan of comfort zones. You’d think as someone who spent an entire decade working in the same building that would mean I would get to spend a lot time in one. Not the case.
I’ve changed grade levels three times, and I’ve changed content areas four times. Plus, I’m had the opportunity to teach gifted programs and special education programs at both levels, and be a part of the dual language program (I taught the English side – my Duolingo streak isn’t that impressive). I’ve also taught in five different classrooms with five different teams of teachers.
Moving around the building as much as I have has caused some frustration, I won’t lie. But mostly, it’s given me the opportunity to work with so many amazing teachers and teach a lot of really remarkable students. And it’s forced me outside my comfort zone.
8. I see the benefit of a union.
Unions in general are flawed, some deeply. Ours isn’t perfect either. However, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the power of collective bargaining in my building.
When the pandemic struck, I started to hear so many rumblings of people calling for workers to join forces to support one another. It made me so thankful for what we already have. Our union president was fearless navigating remote learning, pushing back on tentative plans when teachers shared their levels of overwhelm. Having a voice matters, and it’s hard to be heard as an individual above all the fray.
7. There will be bad days.
Spending a decade in one place doesn’t mean that life is full of rainbows and butterflies. In fact, I don’t think the rainbows and butterflies are constant in any classroom. But if you stick around a school long enough, you’ll see the good and the bad.
My experience is that the positive always eventually outweighs the negative, but sometimes it’s hard to believe you’ll muscle through. It could be conflict with colleagues, or it could be difficult students. More likely, though, it stems from some of the chronic issues that plague education. I understand why some teachers feel defeated, and I even understand why some teachers leave. I’m so glad I stayed. Even during the days, the weeks, and the months when I wondered if I would or should or could, I’m so glad I stayed.
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6. HR isn’t your friend.
There’s no great story here. Sorry to disappoint. I served one detention in my entire life, and it was for having a cell phone in my possession but not on. So, no, my HR story isn’t going to be anything saucy, either.
My maternity leave was really difficult for me. I thought having access to both a dedicated leave specialist and a payroll specialist would make things really seamless. I thought wrong.
It isn’t that I believe anyone in Human Resources is out to get me. It’s simply that school districts are running a business and HR is part of that. There’s something about teaching that really influences the way you see yourself, your coworkers, and your students. So to be relegated to a name on a bunch of forms was a wake-up call. To see yourself as part of the overall bottom line is enlightening–and a little bit depressed.
That being said, I was courteous and unrelenting. It all worked out, but it definitely was a peek behind the curtain, so-to-speak.
5. Focus on finding a way to earn more.
You don’t have to be a math teacher, but you do need to run the numbers that impact your life. Every school and every school district are different. That’s why it’s critical that you look hard at the opportunities that you’re presented with and figure out what things cost and what you can earn.
Doubling my teacher salary was a slow process. I have two Master’s degrees, I’ve completed two other graduation programs, and I’m National Board Certified. I still don’t earn six figures, but I’m hopeful I’ll get there one day.
It seems silly–almost profane–to focus about money as a teacher. But it is crucial.
Earning more money has let me do two really powerful things: I can tolerate more, and I don’t have to. I funnel at least $1000 into my classroom and my students each year. Making more money allows me to do that. It lets me bypass a lot of frustration. Like, for instance, the one year when I was told the week before we were starting a new unit that there weren’t enough books in the book repository for me to teach with a class set. I ordered 11 used copies online. For the past two years, I fed one of my students breakfast every morning since he first didn’t qualify for the breakfast program and then struggled with getting to school early enough anyway. Because I earn more money, I can do things like that. I also know that I have enough money set aside, I could walk away if I really wanted or needed to. It’s a powerful combination.
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4. Know why you show up each day.
I’m positive this is true for any profession. But one of the most important things I learned very early on in my career is that so much of your work and your world is out of your control. I had two perfect school years on paper (in reality? not so much!), and I was RIFed both times.
I know I’m headed into another few decades where there will be plenty of frustrations and things I don’t agree with. The pendulum swings in education. Sometimes, the pace is glacial. Sometimes, the pace is break neck. But it’s always moving. For me, the one constant is the love of my kids. I show up for my students. I know that even the most difficult students are still the highlight of my career. My classroom is my solace, and I hope it feels that way for my students, too.
3. Your coworkers are special.
Some of my very best friends are my coworkers. Said another way, some of my coworkers are my very best friends.
I know this isn’t true of every profession, and I know this isn’t always true in education, either. One of the best parts of being in a building for a long amount of time is that you really get to know your colleagues and your administration.
Not every coworker is someone I consider to be a friend, but I’m friendly with everyone. I respect the hell out of virtually all teachers. It’s true that coworkers come and go. There are moves and transfers and retirements. In the past decade, two of my coworkers have also passed away. While there are definite repercussions and heartache that stem from thinking that your employer is your family, I can say without hesitation that my coworkers make me a better teacher and a better person.
2. Your community is too.
One of the most remarkable things about staying in the same place for so long is that I’ve become part of the school community. Families request me (and I’m sure families request NOT to have me!). I’ve taught siblings years apart. Students now come back and tell me about high school and college and work beyond school.
When I first started out in this building, I would watch teachers interact with families at open house night and parent-teacher conferences like they were catching up with old friends. It’s really powerful to feel threaded into the fabric of a community.
1. It’s more than OK to love your job.
Now that some of the exhaustion of the school year is receding, I can say without hesitation that I love teaching. There’s so much wisdom about choosing careers based on the trajectory you want to take. Worry about your passions later, or work them on the side.
For me, I chose the exact opposite. Because I did the work I love, I spent a lot of time supplementing my income. Initially, I did it because I more or less had to. Now, I do it because I also happen to love my side gigs. But because I wake up excited to see my kids and excited to teach, I feel so fortunate. I know not everyone loves what they do, and I don’t take the path I’ve chosen for granted at all.
So Tell Me…What’s the longest you’ve ever stayed in one place? What lessons have you learned at work lately?