While researching my book, Happy Teacher, I came across the work of Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology. Nobody has contributed more to the science of happiness. One simple exercise Seligman recommends to those wanting to improve their outlook on life is what he calls “Three Blessings.” He writes in his book Flourish:
“We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well.”
This is especially good advice for teachers, who are regularly faced with negative events, stress, and anxiety. Because of our tendency to focus on problems and deficits, we can easily start to view our jobs as a burden. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, many of us are stressed and exhausted and we wonder how we’re ever going to make it through the rest of the year.
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to step back and force ourselves to acknowledge the things we should be thankful for. The Three Blessings exercise is really simple. You just write down three positive things in your life. Since many teachers start to view their jobs negatively around this time of year, it might be beneficial for you to take a moment this Thanksgiving break and write down the things you appreciate about your job. Here are some to consider:
No blowing smoke here. A lot of teachers, when you ask them about their jobs, will start their answers with, “I really like the students,” and then go on to complain about the things that make the job annoying.
- “The kids are great, but administration doesn’t support us.”
- “I love my students, but I’m working 10 hours a day. I’m beat!”
- “The best part of my day is when I’m in my room with my students. It’s everything else that sucks.”
- I love teaching the kids. I just wish government would butt out.”
Students can make or break your day. The reality is that the lion’s share of our day is spent with students. If you happen to have a great class, then you probably enjoy your job. If you have three or four kids who are really challenging, you’re probably stressed out and tired. If you have more than that, you’re probably on Indeed.com every night. All of that extra, outside-the-classroom stuff matters, but so do the kids sitting in front of you every day.
Too often, we tend to focus on those who are struggling. Poke your head into a teachers’ lounge and it is these students who are being talked about. Attend a staff meeting, and it’s the behavior of these students that is being discussed. In fact, at our last staff meeting, the principal shared the number of office referrals and suspensions we’ve had this year in the building. It was a high number, but the great majority of them came from 12 students, which represents less than 5% of the student population.
So here is one thing teachers can be thankful for: Most of our students, the vast majority in most schools, are doing their best. Most listen. Most follow the rules. Most get along with others. Most are respectful. Most try hard. The next time you get frustrated with your class, stop and count. How many are doing what they’re supposed to be and how many aren’t? Chances are you’ll find most of them are doing the right thing. It’s important to remind ourselves of that and be thankful for it.
I read this piece from the Atlantic this morning as I prepared to write this article. It includes some depressing information:
“While public-school teachers made $30 less per week (adjusted for inflation) in 2015 than in 1996, around $1,092 from $1,122, wages for college graduates rose from $1,292 to $1,416. Where other college-educated workers used to make just slightly more per week than teachers, they now earn significantly more.
“There are only five states where teachers make within 10 percent of what other college graduates earn, and there is not a single state where teachers earn the same or more than other people with four-year degrees.”
So if you want to feel underpaid and unappreciated, you’ve certainly got some numbers to support that point of view.
But I’d rather feel good about how much I’m paid, so I look at different numbers.
In America, most of us are rich. The median per-capita household income worldwide is about $3,000. If you have just $3,210 in assets, you are wealthier than half the world’s population. You’re better off than 3.5 billion people!
According to the National Education Association, the average first-year teacher in the United States earns $36,141. If you’re a woman–and three-quarters of teachers in the United States are–then that income puts you in the 67th percentile for all female earners in the US. If you’re a male first-year teacher earning the average, your income places you in the 48th percentile of all males. Regardless of your gender, the average first-year American teacher makes more money than 57% of all US workers. Open a phone book (if you can find one). Pick two people. Odds are you make more than one of them.
According to Glassdoor, the average US teacher salary is $47,760. That figure puts the average teacher in the top 0.35% of the richest people in the world. That’s right, teachers are one-percenters. Actually, we’re more like one-third of one-percenters. In other words, if you want to be rich, you can stop wishing. Because compared to almost everyone in the entire world, you already are.
Regardless of how much the people I went to college with now make, or how much other professionals with similar education levels make, or whether my pay has remained largely unchanged for five years, I make enough to live a comfortable life. I can afford the things I need, plus a lot of stuff I don’t. I’m thankful for that.
THE TIME OFF
I am never ashamed to tell people that one reason I became a teacher is because of the time off. To the best of my knowledge, I’m only getting one life to live and I want to spend as much of it as possible doing things I want to do. The more time I spend at work, the less time I have to pursue other interests. Teaching is one of the very few professions that offers a middle-class income and lots of free time, if you choose to take advantage of it.
So I am thankful that I have nine days off for Thanksgiving break and two weeks at Christmas and one week in April and two months in the summer. That allows me to spend time with my family, write, exercise, travel, read, and live a complete, well-rounded life. I’m thankful that I’m not going to spend the best years of my life in a cubicle. I’m thankful that I get to “retire” every summer. I’m thankful that I’m a teacher.
There. I feel better already.