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.
_______________

 

 

 

Throwing Your Hands Up Will Not Make Things Better

The other day, I shared the first in a series of articles I wrote last winter on preventing teacher burnout. The end of the article included links to the rest of the series. There are articles on saying no, leaving soon after students do at the end of the day, leveraging technology to decrease your workload, getting paperwork done while students are working, and a number of other topics. I recognize that not every one of my suggestions will work for every teacher out there. Some of us have tyrannical principals. Others may be hamstrung by awful contracts. I’m sure there are many teachers whose students do not have one-to-one devices. I get that not everything I suggest teachers do can realistically be done.

But a comment left by a reader illustrated the kind of defeatist thinking I hear from too many teachers. She told me my solutions weren’t practical for most teachers. When I asked for specifics, she wrote:

Many times teachers don’t have the luxury of individuals having their own technology. After-hours activities are often mandatory, and when students are doing independent work the teachers need to monitor for behavior issues, students who need assistance, etc. Coming in early and staying late are often the only opportunities to clean the rooms. One janitor for an entire school doesn’t cut it, and reports, progress notes, lesson plans, IEPs, and state-guided binders all have to be done after hours.

All of that may indeed be true. But the sentiment behind the words strikes me as something along the lines of, “Well, I’ll never be able to get my life back and feel less overwhelmed because all of these obstacles are making it impossible.”

The solutions I offer in articles and books may not work for everyone. They might not even be possible for some teachers. But I know what definitely will not make your teaching life better: resignation. Throwing your hands up in the face of challenges that make it difficult for you to remain enthusiastic about your job, that prevent you from getting home to your family and having needed balance in your life, and that make it more likely you will become discouraged, frustrated, and burned out is not a solution.

The point of my advice is not that you do x,y, and z and everything will be hunky-dory. The point is that you do something to make things better.

If your students do not have one-to-one devices, most of you can still use technology to cut hours off your workweek. Take students to the lab. Check out the Chromebook cart. Rotate students through centers to take advantage of the six laptops you do have. Write a grant for more devices. Get on DonorsChoose.

If your contract requires you to attend after-hours activities, then go. But don’t go to the ones that aren’t required. And stop telling yourself events are mandatory when they aren’t. A principal “expecting” you to be there isn’t a requirement. The fact that the rest of the staff has been guilted into attending does not obligate you to follow suit. If you’re worried about fallout, then talk to some veteran teachers. Ask them how many teachers in the past five years have been fired for not attending after-school events. I’m confident you’ll find the number quite low.

As for getting work done while you students work, yes, you may have to deal with behavior issues. But some of those can be solved proactively. Sit the troublemakers at the table where you’ll be doing your work. Name some high-performing, early-finishing student mentors to help those who need it. Partner those who almost always need help (it’s not like you don’t know who they are) with those who like helping and are always asking you what they can do next. Most importantly, establish early on what independent work looks like and have procedures students can follow when stuck that don’t require your constant availability. And if none of the above works, try something else. You have the right to go home at night and not have a pile of paperwork to complete, but that will only happen if you do something to reduce the piles of paperwork you are taking home. So do it!

If you’ve been teaching more than five years and you’re staying after school for three hours every night, then do something different. That’s not tenable. If the room is filthy and your one janitor can’t get to it, then figure out why it’s filthy and make a change. Papers ending up on the floor? Collect them as soon as students finish. Pencils littering the linoleum? Pass them out at the start of class and collect them at the end. Stuff falling out of kids’ desks? Take everything out of their desks and have them retrieve needed items from a central storage area. Stop ten minutes earlier and have students clean.

If you’re swamped by lesson plans, progress reports, IEPs, and state-mandated paperwork, then start using other people’s lessons, ask yourself if anyone is really going to miss a progress report once in a while (and if they are, can you simplify them?), push your district to schedule IEPs during the day (and if they won’t, talk to your principal about maybe lightening your special education numbers next year since you got hammered this year), work on the stupid state-mandated nonsense while kids take stupid state-mandated tests (and don’t put much effort into them–do you really think anyone is going to spend much time reading it?)

We all have obstacles that make our jobs harder than they need to be. If your goal is to reduce the feeling that you’re overwhelmed and to gain back hours of your day to devote to things you want to do instead of things you feel like you have to do, then do what it takes to make that happen. Go around the obstacles. If that doesn’t work, go through them. But whatever you do, don’t stand there pointing at the thing in your path, telling others how it stubbornly refuses to move out of your way.

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My books, Exhausted and Leave School at School both offer suggestions for how to make your teacher life my manageable. Some of those suggestions will speak to you, some will not. If you find that my ideas aren’t cutting it and are in need of different ones, then give Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club a look. It’s comprehensive. Angela will talk you through every aspect of your teaching life as well as changes you can make at home. Sign up now, and you’ll start receiving the July materials, “The Self-Running Classroom,” including topics on designing your classroom for maximum productivity, planning procedures for a smooth first week, automating classroom routines, and establishing productive daily habits for you and your students.

 

The Total Time Transformation for Teachers

I started worrying about money when my daughter was born twelve years ago. Before that, I didn’t keep careful track of it. I usually had enough for what I wanted, so I didn’t bother to make a budget or record my expenses.  I never bounced a check and I didn’t abuse my credit cards, but I wasn’t getting ahead. I wasn’t saving anything.

My parents were able to pay for my college education. My wife was not as fortunate. Every month, I watched her pay off a little more of her student loans, but it seemed as if they would always be there. I didn’t want that for my daughter, so I opened a 529 account on the day she was born. Then I had to figure out how much to put into it so she could avoid borrowing money at what at the time seemed a very distant future.

It seemed less distant when I started playing with cost-of-college calculators.

I also wanted to save for retirement. I wanted to travel during the summer. I liked cruises and wanted to go on more. None of those things were going to happen if I kept doing what I was doing. I needed to change, but I didn’t know what changes to make. I had to learn.

I started with Dave Ramsey. His radio show was on every day when I drove home from school. I listened. Then I found his book, The Total Money Makeover, in a bargain bin. I bought and read it. That led to other books and resources. I learned how to make a budget, how to assign every dollar, how to track my expenses, what to spend on and where to scrimp, that I should never buy a new car, I should cut up my credit cards, and how I could save money on food by planning meals each week. I learned what to do differently, and now, 12 years later, I have a decent chunk of money set aside for my daughter’s college, a nice start to a nest egg that will supplement my pension in 12 years, and I’ve even gone on a few more cruises. 

What does this have to do with teachers transforming how they use their time?

I have no doubt that many teachers have done what I’ve done where it concerns their money.  They have monthly budgets. They watch their money closely with apps on their phones. They have automatic alerts set up to let them know of odd activity on their accounts. They check their credit scores. They sign up for services like Honey or Swagbucks so that they don’t squander a single cent. They cut coupons and follow their favorite brands on Twitter to learn about deals. They’ve bookmarked deal sites, receive emails from Groupon, and compare credit cards to find the best cashback offers. Like me, as they aged they underwent a total money makeover.

What many teachers haven’t done is a total time transformation, even though time is far more valuable than money. The same teachers who watch every penny waste countless minutes, not realizing that when time runs out it won’t matter how much money they’ve accumulated. Who among us won’t be willing to pay whatever it takes for just one more good hour with the ones we love?

Many teachers don’t like how they use their time. They know that if they don’t make changes, they will continue to spend too much of it on things that don’t the matter most to them. Each school year follows a predictable, undesirable pattern. They start out excited. They overcommit. They spend time on things they either don’t care much about or that have little impact on their students. They become frustrated, overwhelmed, and exhausted. They can’t wait for summer. When it finally hits, they take a deep breath. But then, instead of fixing the problem like they did with their wayward spending, they repeat the same mistakes. They never get the things they want.

Teachers who want more control over how they spend their time should follow the same process they did when they wanted more control over their money. 

Start with what you want. Do you want more time to spend with family? More time to exercise or devote to non-education interests? Do you want to feel less tired and more in control of your life? List those wants out.

Now, how will you get those things? What changes will you have to make to make them a reality? Will you need to leave work earlier? Stop staying yes so much? Find ways to reduce paperwork? Let go of teacher guilt? Stop comparing yourself to other teachers? Will you have to get more organized, prioritize differently, or decide to stop doing something you enjoy doing?

Whatever you need to do to get what you want, chances are you don’t really know how to do those things. If you did, you’d already be doing them. You need resources that will show you how to do the things you want to do, preferably produced by people who have done those very things you aspire to.

Fortunately, those resources exist. I recommend starting with the following:

Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club 

My last two books, Exhausted and Leave School At School

The Well-Balanced Teacher

These courses from Learners Edge

The New Brunswick School-Based Wellness Program’s website

 

Start there. Learn. Think differently. Try something new. Then, each June or July, once school is out and you’ve recuperated and can start thinking a little further into the future than what you’re going to teach next week, sit down, just like people do with their finances, review your goals, see if your plan is working, recalculate as necessary, and update to be sure you’re still on track to get you where you want to be.

Time is not money. You can earn more money. So devote more effort to tracking and protecting your time than you do to monitoring and saving your money and you will end up using it more wisely.

 

 

 

Teachers’ Extra Hours Are Different

hours

For something that should be relatively easy to calculate, there is a lot of debate about just how many hours teachers work. Read the comments on nearly any online article about teaching and you will be met with vigorous disagreement on the matter. Make the claim that teachers should be paid more, and you can be sure that someone will point out our seven-hour days, summer vacations, and breaks for the holidays. Argue that teachers are overpaid, and you will be besieged by outraged educators who will tell you just how many hours they spend on the job each week, how even their breaks are actually just more work, and how, when they’re dead and buried, they’ll still find a way to grade papers.

The data isn’t particularly helpful, either. Like most topics people enjoy arguing about, you can find a study to support damn near any conclusion you want:

The NEA reports that teachers work an average of 50 hours per week.

The NUT teachers’ union, in a survey of 3,000 of its members who were age 35 or younger, found that 74% worked 51 hours or more each week.

A 2012 report from Scholastic and the Gates Foundation put the average at 53 hours per week.

Teachers self-reported working a mean of 43.7 hours on the Census Bureau’s Current Population survey.

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employing time-use surveys, found that the average teacher works about 40 hours per week.

But whether teachers are working five hours beyond their contractual time or fifteen, what’s almost always left out of this debate is the fact that teachers’ extra hours are different.

When a police officer works extra hours, she gets paid extra money. Same for nurses and nearly every hourly employee in the country. You’ll never see headlines like these about teachers:

Detroit police overtime pay up 136% over 5 years

Overtime allowed several East St. Louis police officers to earn more than $100K in 2017

5 Lansing bus drivers made more than $100K in 2016

Outcry over firefighters making up to $400,000

 

There is no overtime pay in education.

Hard-working teachers also have no hope of being promoted. To what job would they be promoted? There’s no going to the principal, explaining how many hours you dedicate to the job and how your efforts have resulted in greater student achievement, and then asking for a raise. Teachers who work extra hours do so with the full knowledge that it will not lead to a better, higher-paying job.

No matter how great a teacher you are, how much you improve test scores, how loved you are by parents and students, how respected you are by your boss and colleagues, and how much your contributions improve the performance of your school, you will not receive a year-end bonus check. There are no bonuses for hitting targets in education. Teachers who work extra hours to be successful with students will get nothing but satisfaction for their efforts.

Unlike small business owners, who are well-known for their long hours, teachers have no hope that their sacrifices today will lead to a brighter tomorrow. There’s no slaving away for ten years as you build your classroom practice with the hope that, eventually, it will all pay off in the end. Teachers start over every year. No one cares how effective you were if you no longer are. Extra hours early in your career don’t lead to riches later in your career.

This is how teachers’ extra hours are different: In literally every other field, the person who puts in extra work expects to benefit financially. Only in education do we expect people to work more hours solely for the benefit of others. And that’s why whenever I read something that questions how many hours teachers actually work I want to scream.

Even teachers who donate a single hour of their time can claim the moral high ground over every other professional because teachers’ extra hours are altruistic.

Every time you see a teacher leave work thirty minutes after her paid day has ended, or take work home on the weekend, or check papers at her kid’s soccer game, you are seeing a person who is acting selflessly.

No one will pay her for her time.
No one will promote her.
No one will slip her a bonus check at Christmastime.
Most of the time, no one will even thank her.

Instead, they’ll hop on the Internet and explain how selfish and greedy teachers are for those pensions they’ll earn after working countless hours at no taxpayer expense over their 30-year career.

And if the ignorant carping weren’t bad enough, teachers who go the extra mile are often punished by their employers. In every other field, going above and beyond is rewarded. In education, doing more leads to more work. If you work hard to become an expert classroom manager, you can expect to get the toughest students. If you’re competent and conscientious, you get asked to lead school initiatives (usually with little extra pay). If you’re dedicated and hard-working, you’ll be expected to attend after-school events (again, without pay).

With the exception of positions like coaching or department chair (which tend to pay peanuts), every hour — no, every minute — of time that teachers work beyond their contracts is given with absolutely zero expectation of it personally benefiting them.*

Teaching is the only line of work where this is true, and that’s why teachers extra hours are different.

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*Except in that warm fuzzy feeling kind of way we always expect should be enough for teachers, since they’re working with kids and the job is so meaningful and all that hoo-hah. Odd that we don’t feel like that’s enough for pediatricians.

Related Articles:

How Teachers Can Give Themselves a Raise

American Teachers Should Work Less

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

 

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Are Work Emails Adding to Your Exhaustion?

One of the more interesting things I read in the past year was in the book, The Happiness Equation, by Neil Pasricha. Neil tells a story about working for a powerful and well-respected CEO who never replied to his emails. When Pasricha finally worked up the courage to ask the CEO why, he was told:

“Neil, there’s a problem with email. After you send one, the responsibility of it goes away from you and becomes the responsibility of the other person. It’s a hot potato. An email is work given to you by somebody else.”

I remember that last line every time I check my email at work:

An email is work given to you by somebody else.

Take a look at your last ten work emails and see if it’s true. Here are my five most recent:

1. A parent wanting more information about a playground incident her son reported.
2. An office request that I send a Remind message to parents about the upcoming school carnival.
3. An email informing teachers that the office has two fundraiser packets without names on them and requesting that we try to identify the students based on the names on the order forms.
4. A parent asking how her son did in class today.
5. A reminder about schedule changes due to the third graders’ concert rehearsal.

Four of the five require something of me, and that can lead to exhaustion.

How?

As I write about in my book, Exhausted, each day we wake up with a full tank of willpower. As we exercise self-control and make decisions, that willpower is depleted, and along with it, our glucose levels. Additionally, high-intensity emotions like anger and negative thoughts like worry also drain us of energy. Each time you check your email, you risk the very strong likelihood that one of the following will happen:

1. You read something that requires action, and you know you already have too much to do and not enough time to do it. This stresses you out. Stress fatigues the body.

2. You read something that upsets or annoys you, and must then use willpower to not swear or slam your fist down or fire off a strongly-worded rebuttal. Using this kind of self-regulation burns glucose, one of our major sources of energy.

3. You read something that requires you to make a decision, and making decisions depletes your willpower.

Each of the above uses up some of the limited energy you have in a day. Combined with all the other times teachers use willpower, make decisions, regulate their emotions, and experience anxiety, emails can contribute to your exhaustion.

So what do you do?

Check your email less often. I used to carry my phone around in my pocket and check it 20 times a day in the classroom. If I saw the notification light blinking, I’d check to see what it was and I’d read every email that arrived within minutes. I took pride in always knowing what was going on, of being on top of things.

But now I only check it three times a day. Knowing that each email is likely to lead to stress, the need to self-regulate, or require a decision from me, I seek to minimize the damage to my energy levels while I still have to get through most of my teaching day.

I check email once before school, once during lunch, and once before students leave (in case a parent is relaying an end-of-day message about where their kid needs to go after school). Then, when school is over, I go through and read those emails I delayed action on and delete any I don’t need to keep.

Checking your email at designated times is just one way to be more intentional with technology so you can be more productive and reserve your limited stores of energy. Angela Watson has many others and she’s sharing them right now. Angela is currently offering a 21-Day Intentional Connectivity Challenge that can help you establish new habits around your devices.

Read more and sign up here:

Angela Watson’s 21-Day Intentional Connectivity Challenge