I started my 15th year of teaching. For a decade and a half, I’ve been writing and reading alongside middle schoolers. It’s hard to believe. So hard, in fact, that I actually wrote out every year I taught, counted and recounted, just to really check.
Then I spent some time thinking about all the things I’ve learned along the way. So many lessons in education and in life can only be learned the hard way. But there are also so many things that I wish I heard, or maybe I did hear them and I wish I understood them sooner.
While this list definitely doesn’t cover it all, here’s my best take at what a veteran teacher thinks all new teachers should know.
If you’re a teacher and you’re reading this, you could make more money doing something else. You know that. You’ve been trained since student teaching to not think about that, but you know it in your heart. Or in your bank account.
This is definitely true for many teachers who are starting out.
It’s also true for veteran teachers. Imagine another career that someone works at for 15 years with not one but three advanced degrees, a bilingual endorsement, and a national certification…and pulls in $70k. (Hello, nice to meet you!) Expertise and age are both rewarded in education, but not nearly as handsomely as they are in many other professions.
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But you can make more
This is one of those things that varies widely and really depends on where you work and what you teach. But in general, the faster you can move on your salary schedule or pay scale, the happier you’ll be.
I earned three advanced degrees in the first six years of my career. I got my National Board certification while I finished my last Master’s and grew a small human (for the first time). It was miserable at times, but every year since then, I go to work knowing that I make the absolute most amount of money possible for someone in my district with my years of experience.
I doubled my income in under a decade, and it is honestly a life changing amount of money. It wasn’t easy, and it definitely wasn’t fun to try to cash flow all that continuing education. But the payoff is worth it (and it’s so much more affordable if your school district allows a wide variety of continuing education coursework!).
Your 403b probably sucks
When I first started teaching, I wasn’t clear on what a 403b was. But I knew it probably sucked.
In recent years, people have gotten much more vocal about how predatory teachers’ investment options are. And it’s true. There’s a lot being said about it and some things being done about it. There are also lots of groups–like 403bwise!–that will help you make sense of this.
Like all investments, the key is to make sure you understand what you’re investing in and you ask about the fees. And if someone is trying to wine and dine you, know that there are likely hidden fees paying for all that schmoozing.
Open a 403b anyway
Here’s the part that is missing in that conversation about 403bs and those obnoxiously high fees.
By not investing, you’re not seeing any growth. For so long, I was sidelined by the hype and hysteria that I never even bothered to actually look at what our options were. But when I did, I realized that there were some insurance products (not for me but you do you!) but there were also some decent options.
If you really don’t see anything reasonable, connect with a few people in your district to see if you can persuade HR or your business office or whoever the point person is to use another vendor.
Because if you don’t invest at all, you don’t gain anything.
Put your money where it really matters
I’ll be honest. My classroom used to be a lot cuter. But I’ve been bounced around buildings, grade levels, and rooms enough times to realize where my money has the biggest impact.
Faux shiplap might make your reading corner really cute, but new and interesting books are what kids actually need to read. TeacherTok is a time and money suck. If you have extra time and you have extra funds, design the classroom of your TikTok dreams.
But know that you don’t have to.
In fact, there’s plenty of research that shows there’s such a thing as too much classroom décor.
Instead of trying to do it all at once, pick one or two areas that you think will really benefit your students and start there.
You don’t have to pay for it all yourself
There are plenty of ways to get free and cheap books for your classroom library.
One of the most fulfilling things that I’ve ever done is grant writing. But the grant writing process can be long–and sometimes frustrating. One thing that I only recently understood is the real joy of letting others who want to help actually do so.
In our district, we aren’t allowed to participate in Donors Choose or similar programs, but we can accept gifts from family and friends. So this year, when friends asked to buy some books for my classroom, I actually obliged.
I couldn’t believe that they purchased every title from my wish list. I’ve long felt that I should be able to take care of my own students (and I do!), but I realize just how silly that is. Because having a whole shelf of brand new books to share with students at the start of the year has been so energizing and exciting.
Some really amazing Twitter friends bought me a ton of books to add to my classroom library.— Penny (@picksuppennies) August 21, 2022
On the *first* day of school, one student shared their affirmed name with me in private and another told me he thought this might be the year he actually reads a book.
Books matter. 💙
You might not do this for life
Most teachers leave the profession long before retirement. That’s been true for much of my career and certainly these last few years are underscoring just how true that is.
I don’t point this out to scare anyone away. Instead, I’ll simply say that it’s important to know that reality. It’s a reminder to put on your own parachute. And it’s also helpful when you’re looking at numbers and making decisions.
For instance, I know that the notion of a pension is really appealing. But if the vast majority of teachers won’t be collecting them, don’t let that handcuff you to a decision you don’t want to make.
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Even if you do, teaching is not your life
Teaching is a job. In my very humble opinion, it is one of the very best jobs and quite frankly, one of the only ones I’ve ever been able to imagine myself doing.
It can take on a big part of your life, but it’s not your whole life.
For the longest time, I thought the best teachers were the people who were consumed by our career. They were teachers, and teachers only. You know, the Stand and Deliver kind. The Freedom Writers kind. Definitely not the Bad Teachers kind.
I now know that the best teachers are actually the ones who keep some distance and honor boundaries.
15 years into my career with two kids and a husband and a whole bunch of hobbies and side hustles, and I still have to fight the urge to make teaching my singular identity. But I know that I am better in my classroom when there is more to me than just those four walls.
Final Thoughts on 15 Years of Teaching
It’s hard to believe I’m nearing the halfway point in my career. It’s even harder to believe that I’ve been a teacher longer than my students have been alive.
These 15 years have been the most challenging parts of my life. Teaching tested me in ways that I never imagined. It’s burned me and broken my heart. But it’s also made me better and unlocked parts of the world that I truly believe you can only experience through someone else.
This career isn’t for the faint of heart. I don’t actually know where I’ll be in 15 more years, but I am determined to make year 15 one to remember.
Teacher friends, I see you. You’ve got this. Even when you think you don’t, you do.
So Tell Me…Can you imagine doing the same job for 15 years? If you’ve had the same career for a long time, what have you learned?