10 Lessons from 10 Years of Teaching at the Same School

10 Lessons from Teaching for 10 Years in the Same SchoolLast 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.

RELATED POST: That Time I Got Fired…Twice 

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.

RELATED POST: To The Teacher Whose Broken Bookcase Post Went Viral

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. 

RELATED POST: Teacher Talk: I Doubled My Salary

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?

7 Comments

  1. Christy

    I really enjoyed your perspective on this. I am finishing up my 20th year as a teacher and I spent 13 years in “one” place. (The first building closed and we moved into a new one.) As a non-classroom teacher I got to see the children grow up from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 8, having them in a class of mine for most of those years. (I teach a variety of subjects to different classes, providing prep time to homeroom teachers.) For a variety of reasons I moved on recently, and have enjoyed the experience of meeting new people and new children. I still have great friends at the other school, so a bit of the best of both worlds.
    I am heavily involved in my union here in Ontario, so I agree 100% with your thoughts on that.
    I have 11 more years to go so we will see what they bring. I actually completed my Doctorate in Education 3 years ago, so some changes may come with that.
    Enjoy your summer!

    • Congrats on the Doctorate! That is a BIG deal 😀 It’s always so fun to hear how different teachers have made their journey through education. Your students and coworkers are lucky to have your perspective! I hope you have a great summer, too!

  2. My average is 4-5 years in one place, and I’ve held four different jobs in the past 20 years if you don’t count the multiple tutoring gigs. I never thought I’d want to be a long timer at any job but it’s not bad if all the pieces fit.

    One of my best friends is a teacher and their stories always remind me how glad I am to have taken a different path because they are amazing at a job I couldn’t hack for a day. I’m so grateful for great teachers like you who care!

    I have no idea what the COVID lined future holds for teaching and education but I sure do hope there’s something better on the horizon than what we’ve been seeing.

  3. I’ve been in the same place for about 30 years. For the most part, I’ve really enjoyed my work and have found it to be fulfilling and occasionally even fun. I’ve loved my colleagues and have enjoyed seeing them develop and watching their families grow and flourish. All in all, it’s been very good. Not perfect, but very good.

    As I grew in my firm, I took on leadership roles and helped grow our business financially and geographically. During those years, the most difficult, and important, lesson I learned was that there is often more than one “best” way to accomplish a goal. Early on I would chafe when my ideas were not accepted and used, but the more I saw others’ ideas succeed, the more I had to acknowledge that sometimes, there is more than one good road to where you are going. Learning to not just accept, but to celebrate others’ successes, even when those accomplishments came at the sacrifice of my own ideas, was a powerful lesson and one that has made my work life much richer.

  4. I’ve been at my current employer for 14 and in that time I’ve changed roles. I went back to school while working at a school and have been teaching for the past 9 years. When I first started I never thought I would last this long.

    The best part of teaching is that although the curriculum never seems to change the kids do so you never really know what to expect from one day to the next. I love being kept on my toes and although I have a daily plan it may go out the window based on a classroom conversation.

    It is very rewarding to see kids grow and mature through the 3 years they are in high school. And I always enjoy when they come back to visit.

    Not sure what next school year holds but 🤞 we are back in person teaching and that it’s safe to do so.

  5. I’ve stayed at my current job for over ten years now and realized that your love for the job and having a great support system at your work is what I have gone through with them. I lucky to be have enjoyed those fortunes.
    You are a really caring teacher because you have co-workers who really like and respect you. And with your old students coming to talk to you when they’re in high school shows even more what a great and caring teacher and person you are.

  6. The longest I’ve been at the same school was five and a half years… and I was so sad to leave because I started to see the benefits of staying put long term, which you summarize well here. Especially that community thing. However, an amazing opportunity in ed leadership opened up, and (shockingly) they wanted to hire me for it, so here we are!

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