Built To Last: How to Have a Long Teaching Career

About 8 percent of teachers leave the profession every year. That doesn’t sound like much, but with a workforce of over 3 million, it represents about 250,000 teachers. Less than one-third of those teachers retire. Speaking of retirement, on average, states assume that only half of teachers will qualify for any pension benefits and only one-fourth will reach full retirement age. It’s hard to last in teaching, which is why I asked some retired teachers how they did it.

The teachers:

Robin Klein taught for 42 years in upstate New York and suburban New Jersey. She presented at literacy conferences throughout her career and has been published in Booklinks magazine.

Debra Longnecker taught high school English for 38 years, retiring in 2014. She continues to teach grad classes and tutor at her local high school. She also raised two children who are now teachers.

Margaret Mason recently retired from a long teaching career in Australia.

Terry Weber, Carolyn Viereckl, and Sandra Lawrence also contributed.

What did you do early in your career to make it more likely that you would persevere for the number of years you did?

Robin:  Early in my career, I surrounded myself with positive colleagues who were supportive and did not compete. We became social friends as well as colleagues. I educated myself professionally by attending conferences and reading books in my field so that I would keep abreast of the latest trends and research in education from the beginning. I was also fortunate to have a mentor who was able to encourage me as well as provide positive suggestions for my growth.

Debra: I wanted to be a teacher all of my life, but friends were going into other fields, and I wondered if I’d chosen the wrong career. After gaining tenure, I took a “one year leave of absence” to pursue a job opportunity in sales. I got the thrill of having a company car and an expense account out of my system and returned to teaching the following year. Doing this gave me an appreciation for the teaching profession and all it offered me. I never questioned my decision again. I never complained about the long hours, hard work, or low pay. Taking that year off allowed me to compare jobs and know that I was where I should be and wanted to be.

Margaret:  I took a break of about 8 years while our children were young. I had always thought I would become a stay-at-home Mum once the children started to arrive. Frankly, I did not enjoy my first few years of teaching. New teachers were always given the lowest level classes and there was not a lot of help from Admin. Teaching science for an external exam to a roomful of some 30 completely non-academic boys was not much fun for a beginning teacher. Many of them have become well-respected tradesmen here – they were ‘hands-on’ and science at that time was very academic.

However, best laid plans…… My husband found it difficult to get employment and he suggested that I return to teaching (youngest was not quite 2) and he would become a stay-at-home Dad. This was in about 1977 – so we were almost pioneers in ‘role reversal’! Back at school, the 8 years off and kiddies of my own had allowed me to mature and to ‘learn’ some strategies. In that time, external exams had been abandoned here – so there was not as much pressure to teach for those ‘be all and end all’ exams.  Life in the classroom allowed for a little more relaxing with the kiddies.
Sandra: I did not do anything early in my career to make it more likely that I would persevere for 32 years. In my later years, I made sure to surround myself with coworkers who shared the same ideals and could laugh at the same things.
What are three pieces of advice you offer to young teachers hoping to make a career of teaching?
Terry: If I had to pick one thing that has kept me in for so long it would be changing up all the time. I am always looking for new units to teach so that my teaching doesn’t get stale
Carolyn: My advice is try to overlook as much of the baloney as you can. Focus on staying current–attend classes, go to workshops, keep learning and growing. You never know when taking the time to know and love a student will make a difference in their lives forever.
Robin:

1.      Find positive people, especially veterans, who can mentor you and give you advice and support.

2.      If your state/district has a union, join it. They should also provide mentorship (we have a New Teacher Orientation as part of our union opportunities) where you can talk to veterans and get further support and advice if needed. It is also a great place to meet colleagues, including those from other disciplines/buildings in the district.

3.      Find a balance. This is very difficult, and I admit that even after 42 years of teaching, the lack of balance was part of my personal decision to retire a couple of years earlier than I planned. You need to find/make time for your family and friends as well as activities that you enjoy doing—working out, reading, going to movies or restaurants etc. If you do not find this balance, you will run the risk of burning out.

 

Debra:

1.  Don’t be stubborn. If you stand rigid, you’ll break. If you bend, you’ll survive. No one will remember you bending. No one will forget you breaking.
 2.  Every day is a new day – a clean slate. It’s not, really, but you have to tell everyone that… including yourself.
 3.  If you aren’t happy, leave the profession. You’re doing more harm than good.

 

Margaret:

  1. It will all be worth it. Many of the kiddies (even the little horrors) will become good friends in future years. It is very rewarding to see them grow up and take their place in the community – and admit that you helped put them on their pathway. One lass I taught when she was about 14 – just after her Mum had died from breast cancer – I used to have ‘yelling matches’ in the classroom. I see her occasionally in the supermarket and we always exchange hugs.
  2. If it all becomes too much, take some time out. Explore the world, work in a different area and then re-assess. (My daughter has done this. She had several turnings on her career path before training to teach. After a couple of years at one school, she found the culture at it just too much to take, so decided to teach overseas. She taught in both Ethiopia and Libya. Her experiences there were not all that wonderful – largely due to incompetent principals (We decided many of them got to be principals in international schools because they weren’t good enough for promotion in their own country!). She took a few years break from teaching – but has now returned to it at a regional school.
  3. Don’t be afraid to show some emotion. Kids are not as tough as they like to make out, and they might just realise you are actually human too!

What is something you wish you would have been told when you were just starting out?

Sandra: I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career that being in charge of your own classroom is nothing like the student teaching experience. There was no such thing as a mentor when I started and it was tough not knowing who I could confide some of those insecurities in.

Robin: The number of hours this job will take is staggering these days. I never thought it was a 9-3 job with summers off ever, but now, with the advent of email, I feel like I was on call 24-7, including the summers. And, despite all the hours you will put in, there are times when you will not reach every student. You can strive for that, which I did, but you have to accept that there will be things you cannot change, because you are not living that student’s life outside of school.

Debra: I wish I had been told that a teacher wears many hats, including that of social worker, prison guard, clergy, police officer, drill sergeant, nurse, day care worker, entertainer, and parent. I’m sure I’ve left some out. I wish I’d been given practical experience in how to serve in each of those capacities. (Kind of like juggling with a candle and a chain saw at the same time, I think.)

Any other wisdom to share?

Margaret:

  1. Don’t be afraid to seek help from those higher up the ladder. They are paid extra so they can take on the responsibility of helping you!
  2. Network with other teachers to get ideas and share resources. It is so much easier now with the Internet than when I was teaching.

Debra:

-For what it’s worth, I found that 98% of all job aggravation came from sources other than the students. It usually came from administration, colleagues, parents, and the government.
    -A teacher’s job is to encourage the desire for life-long learning.
    -School is, for most students, an oasis. Let them know that this is probably the worst time of life (it was for me) and that they will make it through. But we are in it together, if they’ll have me.
    -We should not have to “jump through hoops,” but if we do have to, we can. Easily.
    -We are the most important profession in the world. Remind everyone. Remind yourself. Every morning.
Robin:  Please do not give up. We need you in the field to nurture and facilitate these students on their educational journey. It is challenging, and at times exhausting. The rewards of helping our children succeed are truly priceless. You will often go unrecognized for your efforts, but a piece of you will live behind as these students advance through school. Also, embrace the new technology. It will help make your lessons engaging and it is a way to reach many students.
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