Half Of Teachers Don’t Like Their Jobs

I wrote an article near the end of last school year titled, “Most Teachers Don’t Love Their Jobs.” I held off publishing it for a number of reasons, one of which is it’s never a good idea to write anything near the end of the school year and allow others to read it. Another reason was I wasn’t sure if I was right. This is true of almost everything I write, but in this instance, the self-doubt was particularly strong. And, also, I knew that such an article would not be received appreciatively. I even tested the waters — focus-grouped it, so to say –by asking the following question on Facebook: If teachers love their jobs, how can they be excited about not doing it for two months?

Responses were as expected, but perhaps that’s because those comments were in a public forum where colleagues, bosses, parents, and students might stumble across them.

I have reason to doubt at least half of those responses because I keep running across data that suggest my original hypothesis was, if not exactly true, then more true than we would like to admit or believe.

There are a lot of teachers who do not like their jobs.

WHAT TEACHERS SAY

Spend some time with teachers and you will likely come away believing that they really love what they do. Many of them will straight up tell you, “I love teaching.” Some come close enough: “I just can’t imagine doing anything else.” Others will acknowledge some frustration, but convey that, on the whole, they’re satisfied with their profession: “The administration (or parents, or paperwork, or lack of trust, or stupid laws, or stress) is awful, but I love the kids.” Some go further than mere love. For them, teaching is a “passion.” A few even elevate teaching to the level of the clergy. For them, it is a “calling.”

I have no doubt that there are some teachers reading this who really do love their jobs (and also no doubt that they will let me know in the comments). I have less doubt that most teachers have felt this way at some point in their careers. I’m also positive that there are moments (maybe even a fair number of them) when teachers love their jobs. And I’m sure that it’s true that many teachers really can’t imagine doing anything else. (I know I can’t. I’m pretty sure I’d fail miserably in literally every other profession.)

But the data suggest that at least half the teachers who claim to love their jobs just don’t.

THE DATA

According to a 2014 Gallup report, just 31% of the more than 7,000 teachers surveyed reported being “engaged” at work. That’s in line with the general American workforce, which self-reports engagement at 30%. So it doesn’t seem as if teaching is any more engaging than any other job, and it’s hard to imagine loving (or even liking) a job you don’t find engaging.

2015 AFT survey of over 30,000 teachers found that 89% of them “strongly agreed” that they were excited about their jobs when they started their careers, but by the time those teachers took the survey, just 15% still felt that way. The same survey found that 73% of teachers found their jobs “often stressful.” So teaching, at least for those who’ve done it for more than a few years, is unexciting and stressful. Not typical characteristics of things people love.

58% of respondents in the 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey, a poll administered to almost 5,000 teachers and school staff across the country, reported poor mental health for at least a week out of the previous month.

But the one that really got me was this graph, one of many produced by CEP in a report titled, “Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices.”

About half of the teachers surveyed agreed with the statement, “The stress and disappointments involved in teaching at this school aren’t really worth it,” and they would leave the profession altogether if they could get a higher-paying job.

Think about that.

Assuming this is a representative sample (it claims to be), half of America’s teachers think exactly the opposite of what almost every teacher claims, that in spite of the challenges and frustrations, teaching is worth it. Half our teachers are telling us that, actually, it isn’t.

And while at first blush it shouldn’t be surprising that anyone would leave one job for a higher-paying one, in the case of teachers we’re talking about people who already made the choice to forego higher salaries when they decided to become teachers in the first place. What the graph really says is, “This job is nothing like I thought it would be.”

But perhaps you don’t believe them. After all, we all know plenty of educators who like to complain and most teachers keep on teaching. It’s actions that matter because people’s words are often self-soothing stories they tell themselves. Actions are tangible and measurable. As Emerson supposedly said, “What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.” So what do teachers’ actions reveal about how they feel about their jobs?

WHAT TEACHERS DO

Chad Aldeman spends his days (and probably his nights) studying and writing about pension plans. Because the plans involve billions of dollars, states make careful assumptions based on what teachers do, not what they say. According to Aldeman, “States’ own assumptions show that, on average, more than half of teachers do not receive any employer pension benefits because they leave before they are eligible. Just one in five stays on the job long enough to receive full benefits at retirement.” So in spite of a strong financial incentive to stick it out, four out of every five teachers, a fair number of whom undoubtedly claimed to be passionate about teaching while they were doing it, don’t make it to full retirement age.

If teachers love teaching, not many of them love it for long.

The few that do stick around get out at pretty much the first opportunity. Aldeman writes, “Out of 100 teachers who are still teaching at 55 years old, the median state assumes that 65 will retire by their 60th birthday, and only 8 will remain teaching until they reach age 65. That is sooner than U.S. averages for all workers.”

That’s not exactly the behavior of people who see their job as a calling.

Source

WHY IT MATTERS

So why does it matter? Where’s the harm in teachers lying about how much they enjoy their work?

First, the truth, even when it tastes bitter, is more important than a lie.

Second, current teachers owe the truth to aspiring teachers so that young people can make informed career decisions. Half of teachers should not suddenly realize, once they start doing the job, that it’s nothing like they thought it was going to be and they should have gone for the money instead of whatever ideal they thought they were choosing. The gap between the expectations young people have about teaching and the realities of the job probably explain a lot of early career attrition.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, policy and societal expectations are based on a belief that teachers love what they do; that because teachers derive pleasure from their jobs, it’s okay to treat them differently than professionals who don’t.

If you love your job, goes the thinking, then why should we pay you more money?

If teaching is your passion, then surely you wouldn’t mind doing more of it?

If your job is a calling, then what wouldn’t you agree to if it means helping your students and fulfilling your mission in life?

Saying you love your job might easily be interpreted by exploitative people as an invitation to further exploit you. At the very least, it sends the message that nothing needs to change. That everything is okay, and even if it isn’t, we still think it’s “worth it.”

Let’s start being more honest about our work. Teaching is rewarding, but it is also damn hard. It’s draining, frustrating, and stressful, and those lows are occasionally ameliorated by moments of joy, relief, and success. It’s meaningful work, made more meaningful by its challenges.

But it’s exhausting and things could and should be better.

As a nation, we should want more than half of our teachers to love their work and we should start asking why they don’t. The only way change will ever happen is if teachers share the realities of teaching, stop sugar-coating their frustrations with assurances that they love it anyway, and offer suggestions on how to make things better.

Teachers might not deserve to love their jobs any more than anyone else does. But parents deserve to send their children to schools full of teachers who want to be there, and students deserve to learn from someone who doesn’t regret her career choice. Only by being honest about the job will the conditions of it ever change.

__________________________

I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

The Teacher’s Guide to Changing Careers

At the end of Dan’s last article, “I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back,” he wrote:

When I made my departure official and announced it to the world, I was humbled by the response of kind words and expressions of sadness for losing what I had to offer the classroom. But I was also alarmed by the number of responses I received from teachers asking how I managed to do it. I received texts, emails, and phone calls from teachers all over the national network I had been a part of declaring that they wanted out, too…I began receiving messages from friends of friends and even a few strangers. I had somehow become the exodus guru. I still receive these messages with the most recent just last week from a woman I once met at a conference who found me on LinkedIn and wondered if I could give her friend some advice.

This article, the third and final part in this series, is Dan’s advice.

Dan Laird

Since I was employed by the same district where I completed my internship, I never really experienced the whole job search process. I earned my place, but I certainly was lucky to be interning in a school with an opening. I now found myself looking for a job with no experience looking for a job. Obviously, I knew the basics, but I was now swimming in unfamiliar waters, waters that had expanded thanks to the internet.

Step 1: Update the Ol’ Resumé

Since the last entry on my most recent résumé from 1999 was for being a delivery driver for Pizza Hut, I had some work to do. And since that résumé was stored on a 5 ¼” floppy disk, I found it best to simply start over rather than see if the Smithsonian offered computer time. Because I was keeping my options open, I realized that I would be tweaking my résumé and cover letter again and again to match the job for which I was applying. After all, I highly doubt that the folks hiring for the copywriting position I pursued were interested in my proficiency with Google Classroom. To handle the task of juggling multiple résumés, I paid for a monthly subscription to the résumé building site, MyPerfectRésumé. It allowed me to save multiple drafts and focus on the content without the hassle of the formatting. (Helpful hint: I also discovered that if you pay for a month or two then attempt to cancel, the site will offer you a full year for the price of one month.)

Every time I applied for a job, I made a folder on my computer for that application, résumé, and cover letter. In the modern tech age, it is easy to apply for jobs at a rapid-fire pace. Despite that, some companies will respond as if it is the only job you pursued, and, believe it or not, their initial correspondence may offer very little indication as to which job posting they are referring. If you are casting a wide net, it can be very easy to lose track of your applications and nothing is more of a turn off for potential employers than confusing one opening for another. Also, by keeping a file for each application, I could easily find the closest résumé version for adaptation that best fit the next job posting.

Step 2: Finally Learn About LinkedIn

Despite being the butt of jokes for years, LinkedIn proved to have a place in the job search world. It turns out that employers may want to do their homework on you and this gives them a social media source to learn more about your professional accomplishments without having to sort through New Year’s Eve photos, your angry comments about being a cursed Detroit Lions fan, or hilarious cat memes. (Sidenote: You might want to check the privacy settings on your Facebook account). Since I was determined to go all out on this venture, I  paid for the premium subscription during my job hunt which allowed me to see who was reviewing my profile. I was pleasantly surprised to find views from companies to which I was applying.

In addition, many job search sites allow you to attach your LinkedIn profile to applications. Some even convert your LinkedIn profile information into the application itself. Since the résumé needs to be short, sweet, and right to the point, the LinkedIn profile allows you to really draw attention to work you want to emphasize.

Step 3: Find Your Source for Jobs

Job search sites seem like a dime a dozen. It’s important that you do your homework and monitor your success rate so you know what works best for you. Check to see if the site allows you to apply on its page or if it redirects you to other sites. Remember that companies pay to post their jobs on these sites. If the site you picked isn’t taking the application directly, it probably isn’t being used by the company who posted the job, which means your application may be dead in the water and lost to the internet.

Most of my success came from Indeed.com. In fact, that is where I found my current job. Indeed provides a very quick application process. If you have your résumé and cover letter ready to go, you can send it with the click of a button. A nice way to tell if a company has invested its money with Indeed is to see if it has added on to the application process. Companies can use a default application or they can add their own questions to the process. If you see these extra questions, you know that the company has prioritized this hiring source in its budget. If you do see short response questions on an application, always save your responses in a separate document so you don’t lose them once you submit your application. If you apply for another similar position, you may find a similar question.

Step 4: Cast a Wide Net

One of the biggest misconceptions teachers have is that their qualifications lock them into a teaching role for life. It’s certainly what I thought. What else can you do with a history major and English minor? Curate a museum? Write the great American novel? Finding an open position with the former is about as likely as becoming a rock star and the latter isn’t exactly a financially sound decision for a 40-year-old with two children and a mortgage.

I learned to stop searching for jobs for which I thought I was qualified and instead to start searching for my qualifications. First, I searched for ALL jobs in my city and state. For years I had been telling my students that they may very well end up in jobs that haven’t been invented yet. Here was my chance to see what had been invented since I joined the workforce. Of course, there were jobs that sounded great for which I was nowhere near qualified. Still, those are options if you have a long-term plan that involves going back to school. So if you want out and can bear it a few more years, target one of these jobs and start taking classes now. But there were also opportunities for people like me looking to make an immediate evacuation. From there, I started looking for more jobs like the ones I stumbled upon. It was a domino effect of discovery. As it turns out, the world needs teachers in every corner of the workforce and not just for teaching STEAM.

Step 5: Don’t Wait. Keep Applying.

Just because a position is posted, it doesn’t mean that anyone is in any hurry to fill that position. Nothing proves this point more than positions for the state. When you check your state government website for job postings, you will most likely find more postings than you have time to look through. After applying for a few state positions, I started to get the feeling that even the state didn’t want to look through all of them. Rarely did I ever hear back from one of these applications. A few times I was told a position was filled. Once I was told that the state changed its mind and eliminated the position. Most of the time, I heard nothing. The downside to fast and furious job application technology is that most companies now have to sort through applications from people who only applied because they had nothing to lose.

Step 6: Know What You’re Getting Yourself Into

It’s a very exciting feeling to get called for an interview. While the interview is a great chance for the employer to get to know you, remember that it is also a good opportunity to learn more about the job for which you applied, sometimes without even asking a single question.

Not all job postings are specific. They may give you enough information to pique your interest, and hold back information that may cause you to look elsewhere. In addition, some job sites allow you to leave your résumé posted on a general “bulletin board” for any employer to see. This may lead to calls for interviews you didn’t expect, especially from insurance companies. Because I was keeping my options open, I attended some of these. A few of these interviews were located in bare offices that looked like they had been rented for the day. One interviewer mistakenly thought, ¨How would you like to live in Indiana?” was an enticing sales pitch. And one scheduled interview turned out to be a group interview with a dozen other candidates. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when asked what we were all looking for from this position, one applicant responded, “I want time to do my karate.” No offense to the karate kid, but I felt like I had a bit more to offer and was surprised we were up for the same position. It was clear that I was not invited there for my extensive résumé. Lower level employees were clearly mass-hired, disposable commodities.

Don’t be embarrassed about getting tricked by these “opportunities.” This process took me almost a year to get the hang of. As long as you’re not sacrificing something more important, you have nothing to lose by going to these interviews. Use the opportunity to brush up on your interview skills, learn to anticipate some typical questions, and, at the very least, give yourself an interesting story to tell. You never know when something might surprise you. In fact, before I took my current job, I was in the process of accepting a position with a financial company that happened to specialize in teacher 403b retirement funds. It was an unanticipated natural fit and the company was excited to have an actual former teacher on the team. I would probably be working there if my current job hadn’t made an offer right before I was to take my exams.

So, to recap:

  • You have value outside of the classroom.
  • Your qualifications do not lock you into a teaching job for life.
  • Learn about expectations for résumés outside of education. They’re different. Then update your résumé. I recommend subscribing to a résumé building website.
  • Set up or update your Linkedin account. Learn about best practices that will help attract interest from employers.
  • Investigate different job search sites and determine which works best for you.
  • Search for all jobs in your geographical area. You’ll learn about jobs you didn’t know existed. The discovery process will help you figure out which jobs fit your qualifications.
  • Don’t wait to hear back because many times you won’t. Just keep applying.
  • Keep your options open. Attend interviews. You’ll become more comfortable with them, become better prepared to answer common questions, and learn what companies are looking for.
  • Be patient but persistent. Keep looking, applying, and interviewing.
  • Forgive yourself. I made lots of mistakes, but this was a new experience. Recognize that it’s going to take you a while to get the hang of it.

Good luck!


Thanks for reading the series! Dan and I both appreciate your interest and we hope this has helped those of you thinking of making a change. For those who plan on persisting in the classroom for the next five or ten or fifteen years, I have a book called Leave School At School that will help you cut back on hours without sacrificing your impact with kids. In fact, because you’ll be more focused, better-rested, and less stressed, you’ll probably be a better teacher.

Previous articles in this series:

Part 1: Why I Quit Teaching After 17 Successful Years

Part 2: I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back


If you have questions for Dan, feel free to email him at dandanlaird@gmail.com

You can also follow him on Twitter: @dandanlaird

I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back

“I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back” is the second of a three-part series written by Dan Laird, a teacher of 17 years who left education to work in private industry. Part one, “Why I Quit Teaching After 17 Successful Years” can be read here. Part three, “The Teacher’s Guide to Changing Careers,” can be found here.

Dan Laird

It has been almost ten months since I started my new career giving me a chance to see the world from a set of non-teacher eyes. Each day, I’m happier I left. Each day, I want to lead everyone I left in the classroom on a revolt. The grass on the other side is greener. I’ve seen it.

Let’s “yada yada yada” our way through the obvious reasons why: the pay is better, the benefits are better, my retirement savings now grow three times as fast, I have an hour for lunch which gives me enough time to eat at home if I’d like, I can use the bathroom at any time without needing to find someone to sit at my desk while I’m gone, and my office building is modern and doesn’t smell like a gym locker. But you already expected that.

The real reason I will never go back to education is the culture. I discovered that teachers have been conditioned to believe that everything must be harder than it actually has to be. We are trained to think that the reasonable is unreasonable, that anything we are afforded should be considered a favor, that guilt should accompany permission for the most basic accommodations.

As it turns out, the professional world does not operate like it does inside the walls of a school. In the first month of my new job, three events solidified my departure from education as one of the best events that ever happened to me:

1.  Part of my job description includes the creation of digital interactive tutorials and the monitoring of the company’s learning management system. As if being paid to be creative every day isn’t monumental enough, that isn’t the most incredible part. When I asked my manager if I would have access to the designing software at home to continue working when needed, her response was, “The short answer is ‘yes,’ but we don’t expect you to take work home.” She went on to tell me that the company feels family is important and that an employee shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other. Now this doesn’t mean that I don’t have deadlines or that I still haven’t brought my laptop home from time to time. But I find that I accomplish more at work because I’m allowed to do my job uninterrupted, unlike teaching, where classroom instruction is the least respected part of the job.

As teachers, there is an expectation that large parts of your required duties are to be performed on your own personal time. Not only are you expected to teach during classroom hours, you are expected to give up your lunch and planning hour if a student requests it. The request never seems unreasonable to anyone other than the teacher. Saying “no” is a guaranteed PR nightmare because, once again, not being willing to sacrifice on command clearly means you don’t care about kids.

As teachers lose their planning time, their 25 minutes to shovel down a microwave meal, and their early mornings and afternoons in order to spend more time working with students, the other half of the job awaits them during their personal time, their time with family, their time to unwind. There is no such thing as “off duty” when you are a teacher. What you do to go above and beyond as a teacher quickly becomes the norm, which means you then have to figure out a new way to go above and beyond.

First, it was important to have your grades prepared for report cards at the end of the trimester, then it was important to have your grades prepared for progress reports in the middle of the trimester, then we were required to send grade notices home to give parents a heads up regarding what they will be seeing on the progress report. Now all of a sudden, you’re unable to work on long-term projects because you won’t have a grade in time for the next update and we all know that if you don’t have grades, then clearly it’s because you’re lazy.

The same thing happens with parent communication. You update a website regularly with daily class information and downloadable materials? How am I supposed to know when it’s updated each day? Oh, you’ve added a class Twitter account to announce updates to the website? But I prefer text messages. Oh, you have a website, a Twitter account, and a Remind texting account? Well, we didn’t have time to check it. Can you just send home everything my child is missing?

My work hours are a little longer now. Instead of 8 to 3, I work 8 to 5. But I wouldn’t say that my work day is longer. As a teacher, 8 am was the time work started but it wasn’t the time I started working. I was usually at school by 7 am at the latest (earlier if I didn’t have to take my kids to school or daycare) in order to get everything ready. And when 3 pm rolled around, I was packing multiple hours worth of work into my bag to take to my other office, also known as my dining room table.

At my new job, an 8 am start means I leave my house at 7:40. And at 5 pm, my bag returns home as light as it left. Again, this doesn’t mean that my new colleagues and I aren’t working hard, or that we don’t bust our asses to go above and beyond expectations, or that we don’t still take work home with us. In fact, right now my work hours are a blur because of the extra time being put in to plan the company’s annual national conference in Orlando. (Did I mention my job includes an all-expenses-paid trip to Florida?) But in the world outside education, we sacrifice our time when needed as opposed to being expected to sacrifice our time as a matter of course.

2.  In the year before I left teaching, my daughter started pre-school, so I enrolled her in the district where I taught. Of course, this meant that I dropped her off and picked her up from school. This created a problem when I had a staff meeting after school. The problem wasn’t picking her up. It was where to take her during my meeting. I asked if she could just sit at my desk since the meeting was in my room fully expecting a “no problem.” Instead, I was made to feel like the request was unreasonable, that an institution for teaching children was no place for a child. Instead, I had to find a student to babysit her in another room. Perhaps it was for the best. Who knows what could have happened had my 4-year-old daughter been privy to Homecoming planning details and SAT data.

When I started my new job, I was faced with a similarly difficult situation when our after-school care provider called in sick. My now five-year-old daughter couldn’t just stay at school for another two hours and she certainly wasn’t going to walk home by herself. I expected an awkward conversation with my manager. Instead, my manager and my team were practically giddy with excitement. They told me that I could work from home for the rest of the afternoon but that they would love it if I brought my daughter back to work with me.

“Are you serious?” I asked cautiously, as if this were a setup for being so gullible. I assumed the answer was “yes” since they immediately began planning activities for her. When I returned with my daughter, she was greeted by everyone with coloring pages, candy, and even a toy car with the company logo on it from the president of the company. Now my daughter always wants to know when she can come back to work with me. In that moment, I learned that respect for people’s lives outside of work exists. Way too often in teaching, teachers are treated as if caring for their own families means they are neglecting their students and that their job is putting everyone else’s children ahead of their own. It doesn’t have to be like that.

3.  I’m not going to lie and tell you that a part of me doesn’t feel guilty about leaving. Public education is currently waging a huge battle for its survival and I walked away. Despite the way teachers are perceived and disrespected in a social context, it’s a little bit easier to stand up tall and declare you are a teacher when someone asks what you do for a living than it is with a job title that requires explaining. However, I don’t regret leaving for a single moment and I have the rest of my teaching colleagues to thank for it.

When I made my departure official and announced it to the world, I was humbled by the response of kind words and expressions of sadness for losing what I had to offer the classroom. But I was also alarmed by the number of responses I received from teachers asking how I managed to do it. I received texts, emails, and phone calls from teachers all over the national network I had been a part of declaring that they wanted out, too. These messages weren’t coming from young teachers who decided they couldn’t hack it for the long haul. These were established teachers, leaders in their field, authors of respected educational research. Many, like me, could even see the finish line of a retirement from education within the next decade but decided that it wasn’t worth it. The requests for information started spreading. I began receiving messages from friends of friends and even a few strangers. I had somehow become the exodus guru. I still receive these messages, with the most recent just last week from a woman I once met at a conference who found me on LinkedIn and wondered if I could give her friend some advice.

With so many wanting out, my guilty feelings quickly subsided. However, I’m left with a fear for our education system. In my state of Michigan alone, enrollment in college teacher programs has declined drastically to the point where schools are hard pressed to find someone who will even be a substitute. For the last decade, teachers in my state have seen repeated attacks on their paychecks, their credibility, their voice, and the profession in general. We’ve reached an era where parents don’t have to dissuade their children from becoming teachers. Their kids no longer see any appeal. Pretty soon, the fight for public education might have to come from the outside because there will be no one left to throw punches on the inside.

I will continue to be one of those fighters on the outside, but I will also enjoy a well-deserved life outside of the trenches. Instead of phone calls to parents or stacks of papers to grade, my evenings are filled with time to play with my daughters. I use some of my new extra income to pay for those subscription home meal delivery kits and I’m learning to cook. I take a Florida vacation in the middle of winter at a time of my own choosing. I go to bed at a decent hour and have time to read a book before I go to sleep. It truly is amazing how stress-free my life has become. Part of me is pretty sure that my grey hair is getting its color back. While that might be a slight exaggeration, I do truly believe that I have drastically increased my odds of seeing my future grandkids grow up.

Whatever you decide to do with your future, whether it is holding strong in the trenches or seeking a more peaceful life, remember the most important point that I’ve gathered through this whole experience: You have worth outside of the classroom. In my case, I found a job that respects my professional accomplishments as a teacher more than those who employed me as one. You have not locked yourself into a career you can’t get out of. There are options. You just have to discover what they are. You may use this discovery to begin planning your exit. Or you may use this discovery to strengthen your resolve to fight for what is right in your school because now you know your school needs you more than you need it. For the sake of my children, one of which started kindergarten this year, I hope there are enough of you that choose the latter. But if you choose the former, I seriously doubt you’ll regret it.

_________________

In part three of this series, Dan shares the lessons he learned when he quit teaching and started searching for a new job. You can read it here.

You can also follow Dan on Twitter at @DanDanLaird and if you’d like to contact him directly his email is dandanlaird@gmail.com

Why I Quit Teaching After 17 Successful Years

This article is the first in a three-part series written by Dan Laird, a teacher of 17 years who quit at the top of his game and found success in private industry. In part one, Dan explains what led to his decision to give up on teaching. In part two, you will read why Dan will never go back now that’s he seen “the other side.” In part three, Dan will offer hard-won advice to any teacher who is looking for a job outside of education. 

Dan Laird

When I first decided to become a teacher back in the 20th century, my parents tried to talk me out of it. It wasn’t because they looked down on the profession. My mom is a retired teacher. My sister is a teacher. And some of my cousins are teachers. It’s in the genes. While I will also certainly make an attempt to talk my children out of becoming teachers, my parents’ reasoning was simple: There were more opportunities for success elsewhere.

Today, however, the reasons for avoiding the teaching profession are more serious. The pay has become a stagnant system of scratching and clawing for an occasional measly half-percent off-schedule “raise.” In many years, not taking a pay cut is considered a success. But there is a bigger issue. Teaching is demoralizing. The strain of unrealistic demands has made it even more exhausting than it already was. Sacrifice is now the expectation and that expectation is typically rewarded with criticism and a demand for more.

The Beatings Will Continue

When Detroit teachers walked out of their classrooms in 2016 to protest the atrocious working conditions that included everything from overcrowded classrooms to mold and mushrooms growing on the walls and floor, I read comments on social media demanding that these teachers be fired and that they “knew what they were getting into when they took the job.” Of course, there were also comments criticizing teachers for hurting kids by denying them an education and arguing that these teachers needed to go through the proper channels to effect change. These conditions were not new in 2016. Where were the commendations for using the “proper channels” in previous years?

The crisis in Detroit and subsequent ones like the lack of heat in Baltimore this winter demonstrate two things: Drastic measures are sometimes needed to draw attention to the most basic of educational needs and drastic measures make it uncomfortably difficult for others to ignore the problem. Education professionals suffer when they don’t advocate for their students, but they suffer even more when they do. A friend of mine has a toy plaque with a pirate skull that says, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” I can’t think of a more appropriate motto for the teaching profession.

The Height of My Career

I resigned from my teaching position in 2017 after 17 years. To provide some perspective, I spent all 17 years (plus an additional full year as an intern) in the same district. I was invested in the school. I put down roots. Leaving the teaching profession meant leaving much more than just a job. My colleagues were my family. An entire generation of parents in the community sent every one of their children to my classroom at some point. I was even starting to see the children of students from my internship year.

My connection to the community wasn’t the only reason it was difficult. I was at the height of my career. I had just co-authored the book Real Writing: Modernizing the Old School Essay with Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. I was presenting my work at national conferences in cities like Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. And I was collaborating on educational initiatives with teachers across the country through my work with the National Writing Project. I even earned my administration endorsement the year before I left. I was invested in advancing in my profession all the way to the end.

This isn’t a story about one man hating his job for years until he finally had enough. There was no gradual decline. Quite the contrary. I loved teaching and spent countless hours advocating for it. I spent over half of my career as a building representative, vice-president, or president of my local education association. I marched. I picketed. I protested. I voted!

The Least Trusted Source

While I did love my time in the classroom — the connections, the light bulb moments of discovery — my workplace was becoming a constant reminder of what was happening to the teaching profession. New restrictions, meritless legislation, evaluation tools that hadn’t been properly evaluated themselves, mandated standardized tests that were thrown away or redesigned year after year while their results were nevertheless used to compare one year’s performance to the next, a demand from politicians and parents to “make our kids better, but don’t you dare tell them what to do.”

Somehow, the professional became the least trusted source, and the growing trend for outsiders in showing they cared about education had become to point a finger. I think it’s fair to say that the emotional drain had surpassed the physical one. Something had to change. My change was to become selfish and walk away. I quit.

A New Job

I dipped my toes in the waters of a career outside of teaching when I created my own professional development consulting business. I formed an LLC, created a website, ordered business cards, and even hired a former student to create the logo for me. I sent promotional materials to just about every school in Michigan. It seemed like a logical fit. I’d get to continue in the world of education using all of the knowledge and experience I had gained in almost two decades of teaching. More importantly, I could enjoy focusing on instruction. No more grading papers past midnight, no more parent/teacher conferences, no more battles about sound educational practices with school board members who’d barely earned their high school diplomas, no more spineless administrators who pretended to be uninformed so they could avoid making difficult decisions. The thought of it was exhilarating.

But since making this my primary source of income wasn’t exactly the soundest financial decision, I started looking at job postings that could supplement the venture. Unfortunately for the business, it wasn’t long after all of the momentum started to build that I was offered a job as a Training and Development Specialist for a privately operated company that had nothing to do with education.

I accepted and within one month I discovered every reason why I will never return to teaching again.

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Part 2: I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back

Part 3: The Teacher’s Guide to Changing Careers

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Have you also walked away from teaching?

Or maybe you left the corporate world to become a teacher?

I’d love to hear from you. Comment on this or subsequent articles in this series and I may get in touch with you for a book I’m writing. Thanks!

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I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

There is one thing every teacher can and should do if they want to be less tired and use their time at work more efficiently:

Quit working shortly after the kids have left. Go home.

There are many reasons teachers stay late at school. Some feel a sense of pride at being one of the last to leave. They believe their late nights reflect greater dedication to their students. They enjoy their reputation as a hard worker. Others feel guilty when they leave quickly. They keep working out of a misguided sense of obligation. They worry what others will think of them, fearing they’ll be thought of as lazy and apathetic. Many teachers act as if they have no choice in the matter. They’re on committees, run after-school clubs, or just have so much to do that they have to stay after work to get it done.

No matter the reason, all believe that staying late after school makes them a better teacher. But they are wrong.

Quitting, for lack of a better word, is good.

Quit for Your Health

I was jogging the other day when my back started to hurt. I tried to keep going, but it got worse. So I quit running and my back instantly felt better.

Restaurants have gone crazy with the size of their nachos.

I mean, will you look at this thing?

I get full about halfway through. So I quit eating them.

Smart people quit when their body tells them to. No one feels bad about it. But when it comes to work, we suddenly start believing we’re Superman and that no matter how tired we are we can and should just keep going.

Teaching is a unique job. One of the reasons it’s so exhausting is that we have to be “on” all day. To do the job properly, you need to be well-rested. You need to be enthusiastic and observant. Going home will help.

No matter when I get home, I want to maximize the time I have for myself.  On nights when I’m home by five o’clock, I’ve got six hours to do whatever I want. That’s a nice balance. Ten hours for preparing for work, commuting, and working, six for my personal life, and eight hours of sleep. Because I value my personal time, any day I get home late leads to a late night and a lack of sleep.

Getting home earlier also means you can eat earlier. Your body will have longer to digest dinner before you go to bed, and eating early gives the food enough time to settle so you can exercise without discomfort.

Quit to Be a Better Teacher

A lot of teachers stay after school because they have work to do, but they’ve chosen the worst possible time to get it done. By the end of the day your willpower is exhausted. Willpower is limited, and once it’s gone only eating and sleep can restore it. Willpower is what you need to make yourself check papers, read essays, plan lessons, and respond tactfully to emails. A lack of willpower means your after-school efforts are going to be inefficient. You’ll be more easily distracted, more tempted to check Facebook or gossip with colleagues, and more likely to head to the lounge to eat whatever you can find because your body needs fuel.

Parkinson’s Law is also working against you. It states that work will expand to fill the available time. I wrote and published my first two books, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss and Happy Teacher in two months each. I was able to do that because that’s how long I gave myself to complete them. Because of the topic of my next book, I planned an October release. I started working on it in May. The book is taking me longer because I gave myself more time to do it, so many days I don’t write much and on some days I don’t work on it at all (I write long blog posts like this one instead).

This is Parkinson’s Law at work, and it will strike you as you sit at your desk after school. Instead of working until you complete a certain amount of work, give yourself 30 minutes. You’ll be more focused, your work will be of better quality, you’ll cut out any distractions or cute but unnecessary extras, and you’ll get it finished. Give yourself less time, and you’ll get more done.

Quit to Be a Better Person

Psychologists discovered something they call the morning morality effect. Basically, you’re a better person in the morning. Your body needs glucose for pretty much everything, including willpower and decision-making. Since teachers expend a lot of willpower and make a ton of decisions, we burn through glucose pretty fast. When it runs out we’re tired, cranky, impatient, have stronger cravings for sweets and other junk food, and we experience stronger emotions. All of which lead to bad decisions. The morning morality effect explains why you’re more likely to ruin your diet at night than in the morning, and why people are more likely to commit immoral acts like lying, cheating, and stealing in the afternoon. School is not a place you want to be when you’re more likely to make bad decisions. Go home.

Quit Because Science Says To

Many teachers reading this will still stay after school because they believe it’s the only way to be effective at their jobs. They’ve fallen victim to the culture of overwork. So a fair question to ask is:  Do longer hours make you more productive?

The research is clear. More work doesn’t equal more output. In one study, managers couldn’t tell the difference between employees who worked 80-hour weeks and those who just pretended to (which actually sounds worse). Numerous studies have shown that overwork leads to stress that causes health issues, sleep deprivation, depression, heart disease, memory loss, and greater alcoholic intake. Researchers have also found that working too much impairs your abilities to communicate, make judgments, read others’ nonverbal language, and modulate your emotions.

Also, your cat will miss you.

So go home. Eat dinner. Hit the gym. Kiss your spouse. Watch Netflix. Play Uno with your kids. Leave work at work. Detach. Live your life. And when you’re tempted to choose more work over all those things, remember this Arianna Huffington quote:

“Have you noticed that when we die, our eulogies celebrate our lives very differently from the way society defines success?”

You can read more here: Stop Working More Than 40 Hours a Week.

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Related Content:

Why American Teachers Should Work Less

Stop Complaining About Your Teacher Salary If You’re Working for Free

Why Teachers Are So Tired

American Teachers Should Work Less

A Facebook friend of mine (and former Superintendent) posted an infographic yesterday that compared the number of hours worked by an American teacher to the number of hours worked by other professionals. Here it is:

I took some issue with the 53 hours listed for teachers and said that the difference between those hours and the 40 listed for other professionals is that teachers aren’t required to work 53 hours. In fact, we’re required to work fewer hours than almost every other full-time employee.

Lunch is not typically counted in the 40 hours for other professionals, so we should subtract it for teachers. My teaching day goes from 9:00 to 4:00 with a half-hour lunch, so that means I’m required to work 6.5 hours per day. Multiply that by five for 32.5 hours a week. So the infographic above suggests that teachers work an extra 20.5 hours a week, or about four per day, which seems high. But okay, throw in weekends and maybe.

The response to my suggestion, as I’m sure you can guess because some of you are mentally shouting a similar response at me right now, was that those extra hours may not be required, but teachers have to work them to do the job the “right” way.

And that’s the problem.

If the only way a teacher can effectively do his or her job is to work an extra, unpaid 20 hours every week, then there is something seriously wrong with the system. 

And the only way to fix such a system is for teachers, lots and  lots of them, to stop working so many extra hours.

Of course, making that suggestion sets one up to be criticized as lazy, cynical, lacking dedication, not being in it for the kids, et cetera et cetera.

Which is a huge problem. 

American teachers spend more time in the classroom than any other nation’s teachers.  So don’t tell me it’s necessary; other countries manage to educate their kids. All that time spent teaching means we have to do the other parts of our job at some other time.

Society’s expectations — including those of fellow teachers — that we should be expected to donate an extra 10-20 hours per week or risk being labeled lazy or ineffective, perpetuates the problem. It puts zero pressure on government to reform things. And it matters because unrealistic work expectations lead to burnout. We have good teachers exiting the profession at alarming rates and we have great students never even considering the job in the first place.

Teaching has the highest burnout rate of any public service job in America.  There are many reasons for it: loss of autonomy, bureaucratic nonsense, student misbehavior, bad bosses. But undoubtedly the stress of the job due to absurd workloads and the expectation that teachers give freely of their time is a huge factor.  Many who quit simply say they were always exhausted.

Now you might be one of those teachers for whom the job is your passion. You bring high energy to your classroom every day. You attend every training you can. You look forward to professional development sessions. You spend your free time designing engaging units and interacting with other teachers on social media. You read professional journals. You coach, volunteer, and always go the extra mile for your students and their families.

Good for you. I mean that sincerely. The country is lucky to have teachers like you.

But the data is clear: you are the exception.

And you don’t design a system based on exceptions.

When you do, the thing falls apart, which is what is happening in schools across our country right now.

The belief that teachers have “answered a calling,” as if we were somehow spoken to from some God of Teachers, is damaging. It’s this idea that we’re selfless martyrs who only exist to serve our students that has led to society’s unrealistic expectations for how we should do our jobs.

I attended a retirement luncheon a few years ago where a number of the district’s teachers were honored for their years of service. The entire district’s teaching staff was invited to the event and a principal said a few words for each of the retirees.

One teacher’s principal spoke in laudatory terms about how the teacher’s car was always the first one in the parking lot in the morning and the last one to leave at night. She admired the woman’s dedication.

I thought it was the saddest thing. I vowed then and there that no one would ever say the same thing about me. I have a life to live outside of work. A family. Hobbies. Friends to hang out with. As the famous saying goes, no one on their deathbed ever said they’d wished they’d worked more.

That principal’s message, that old industrial-era American reverence for slavish devotion to one’s job, is a damaging one, especially to young teachers. Here is the ideal, it says. This is what you should strive for. Here is what we want from you: Nothing less than large portions of your best years.

I guess if I owned a business, I’d want 20 free hours every week from my employees, too. And it would be even better if I could somehow establish that expectation as part of my company’s culture. And better still if that culture could spread across the entire industry.

Why, if workers felt like the only way they could be any good at their jobs was to donate 20 hours of work every week, and if their colleagues criticized them when they didn’t,  I could ask them to work late, or come in early, or work on special projects, or…hell, I could ask them to do damn near anything and not have to pay them for all that extra work.

What a deal.

Why Teachers Are So Tired

Are you tired after teaching?

Better question: When was the last time you weren’t tired after teaching?

If you’re like most teachers I know, including me and my wife, being tired at the end of the day is a way of life. We’ve become so used to it that it’s hard to imagine how it could be any different.

Our non-teacher friends have a hard time understanding how we could be so exhausted. After all, we’re not building houses, or working under tight deadlines, or competing with co-workers to sell the most widgets, or working in some ultra-competitive office with an unreasonable boss breathing down our necks. We work with kids! We work seven-hour days! We have a lot of control over our own schedules. We have summer vacation!  Some teachers have these thoughts themselves and wonder what’s wrong with them. How in the world can we be so tired?

There are three reasons.

Decision Fatigue and Willpower

Psychologist Roy Baumeister coined the term “ego depletion” after he found that humans have a limited supply of willpower.  He compares willpower to a muscle, which can strengthen but also wear out with use. Ego depletion has a general effect, meaning that using self-control in one area of your life erodes your ability to self-regulate in other parts of your life. Baumeister found that exerting self-control results in a significant drop in blood-sugar levels.  Low blood sugar leads to physical fatigue, which is why you’re so tired, even though the heaviest thing you lifted was a textbook.

As a teacher, think of how often you use willpower.  We censor ourselves all day.  We hold back a sarcastic remark, walk away from a lazy student when we what we really want to do is lecture her, keep our honest thoughts about the principal’s latest idea to ourselves, respond professionally to a disrespectful email from a parent, work with a student when we want to do anything but, plan the next day when we’d rather check Facebook, hold it in when we’d like to drop an F-bomb. Teachers use willpower constantly.

But here’s the real kicker: making decisions uses willpower.  Researchers call this decision fatigue. The more decisions you make over the course of the day, the more willpower you use. There’s strong research that shows criminals are far better off going before a parole board early in the day than near the end of the day. Similarly, there is research that suggests the student’s paper that gets graded first gets a fairer score than the one graded last. After a day of making decisions, we don’t have the energy left to make good ones.

It’s estimated that teachers make about 1,500 decisions every school day. When you combine those decisions with all the necessary self-regulation involved with teaching kids, it’s no wonder our willpower is gone by five o’clock. We are exhausted.

High-intensity emotions

A second reason teachers are tired is the effect of high-intensity emotions. High-intensity emotions like anger, frustration, excitement, and elation are physiologically taxing. Positive emotions arouse the same physiological response as negative ones: our heart rate increases, our sweat glands activate, and we startle easily. Since it activates our body’s stress response, high-intensity emotions–whether positive or negative–wear us out.

Teachers are instructed to be enthusiastic in their lessons. Many teachers believe that to be their most effective, they must be energetic. They have to bring it! That might be true, but just know that your excitement, combined with your moments of anger, frustration, and even elation, will tire you out.

Worry

Not surprisingly, worrying is linked to fatigue. When we worry, we imagine and anticipate negative events. Our stress levels elevate and our bodies activate their fight-or-flight responses. Our hearts beat faster, we sweat, and our immune systems prepare to fend off threats. As a result, we get physically tired.

Teachers worry for all sorts of reasons:

  • students aren’t learning
  • behavior problems
  • a lesson is bombing
  • there’s a sub tomorrow
  • a parent is angry
  • the principal is coming for an observation
  • the copy machine is down and what am I going to do now?
  • my colleague is mad at me
  • I showed a movie and a character said “hell” and now the kids might go home and tell mom and dad and they’ll call the principal and I never even filled out the stupid form I’m supposed to fill out for the movie and…I’m sure you can think of many more.

So that’s why we’re tired all the time: we make a ton of decisions, we cycle between high-intensity emotions, and we worry too much.

There’s a lot more to it, and there are steps you can take to be less tired. I write about them in my books, Exhausted and Leave School At School. Check them out on Amazon.

What do you do to feel less tired at the end of the day? Leave your ideas in the comments so other teachers may benefit!

Related Content:

Fewer Decisions = More Energy

How Teachers Can Use Less Willpower

Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm

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