5 Tips to help you keep your passion for teaching
Guest post by a fellow educator who I’ve had the pleasure to meet and spend time with, Melanie Williams.
Melanie impressed me the day I met her, in Toyko Japan of all places. We were on a Japan Memorial Fulbright and spent the next three weeks traveling together, learning, and growing as humans and educators. Since then, she’s inspired me both as a mother and as a teacher. I certainly look up to her and view her as a model of good teaching, good parenting, and quality self-care. Her blog (www.simplestepstoahealthylife.com) is a wealth of information about a balanced lifestyle.
Today Melanie shares her knowledge about how to keep that fire for teaching that we all start out with, burning after years, and even decades, in the classroom.
I’ve been in the classroom for 29 years. That’s a long time. Especially considering that when I first started teaching, I thought anyone with over 20 years should probably get out, with a few rare exceptions. I was so green!
Little did I know! In my naive state, I assumed that anyone who had been in the classroom that long was most likely past his/her prime. Yet here I am now, with quite a few more years, still in the classroom.
Not only that, I’m still in the classroom and LOVING it! I still have a passion for teaching.
So, what does it take to stay in the classroom without burning out, keep the passion that drew us into the field, and keep up with this younger generation?
First, let me start by saying that during my first year of teaching, I was ready to quit by Winter break.
I didn’t think I could go back. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and not sure how to reign in the 8th graders who had been entrusted to me. I was teaching in a middle school in Great Falls, Montana, to a very eclectic population. We had Malmstrom Air Force Base which brought students who had lived all over the world. Great Falls was the last place they wanted to be. We also had the largest urban Native American population not living on a reservation. These students came from a very different cultural background than the Air Force kids. The diversity was rich!
The Air Force kids would reminisce about how much better Germany was or other bases they had lived on. I even remember crying when one student told me he hated Montana. Being a native to a state that I was very proud of, that was hard.
The Native American students had different struggles. I recall the most prevalent being that the middle school child or children were often the ones called on to care for younger siblings when no one else could. I had several who were on a first name basis with the truancy officer. Their core values and cultural ties were strong and I remember feeling a special bond with them as they shared many of their feelings with me in their journals. The internal tug-of-war I felt as I navigated the emotions of these two very diverse populations was real.
But here I was, a first year teacher, teaching English, U.S. History, and math. I was a travelling teacher with no classroom of my own. I taught math in the library, and the other two in various classrooms. Technology hadn’t been introduced as a teaching tool and was not available to teachers as a resource. Everything was pencil paper, chalkboards and chalk, overhead projectors, and a text book.
I was nine years older than my students and 10 years or more younger than my teaching team. Where did I fit in? How could I teach students closer in age to me than I was to my colleagues. It wasn’t an easy year, but I will forever be grateful for the lessons learned that year, my mentors, and the many small tips and hints that helped me navigate and survive that first year and the many years since.
Upon reflection, there are five notable tips that have kept me inspired to persevere in a profession I still love:
1- A spunky mentor
I’ve been lucky enough to have several notable mentors. My first year, when I was struggling to stay afloat, I leaned heavily on a more experienced and exceptional educator named Jane Larson. I admired her in so many ways. Although she was a veteran in the classroom, she was always looking for new and better ways to teach her content. She kept students interested by staying apprised of current trends.
She had a no-nonsense approach, and remained unflappable in the classroom, but her lessons were engaging and meaningful to students. I’m not sure how she felt about our visits, but I remember going into her classroom almost every day during our prep and acting like a sponge. I wanted to soak in everything she told me. I was so inspired by her. I can only imagine now that she may have wanted that time to get work done, but I was relentless in my quest to learn from her. I appreciate her sharing that time with me to this day. I don’t think I ever told her at that time, but she is a lot of the reason I am still in the classroom.
The next year, I had an incredible opportunity to work under a grant that introduced this new and foreboding idea of “inclusion.” It was 1992. Crazy, I know! Students with learning disabilities hadn’t been mainstreamed in the general education class for some time. My mentor that year was Drew Uecker.
What a crazy ride it was, but the fun we had, the learning that ensued with both students and teachers, and the impact that year had on my teaching has driven my core teaching values since. It was an amazing year of intense inclusion training, intervention and differentiation (although those two words didn’t even exist yet in the education world), presenting at a national conference (only slightly intimidating as a second year teacher) and a team of kids who were rock stars! It inspired me to continue with this idea of including all kids, regardless of ability, into the general education classroom and do what I could to meet their needs.
Since that year, over 27 years ago, I have never treated my students the same. They are all unique, wonderful, individuals with diverse needs. I love the challenge of learning how best to meet those needs and never tire of seeing the spark in their eyes when they experience success. That challenge fuels me every year as new students with differing needs enter my classroom.
2- Journal both the good and the bad
While working with Drew, I made the comment that some days were a lot harder than others and I wondered why that was and what to do about it. He suggested I keep a journal or even just a calendar and mark which days were harder. After a period of time, a pattern would most likely emerge. I did that and it was insightful.
I know that one of the hardest times for me is from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Now, I plan accordingly. I teach the most engaging lessons during that time as well as lessons I enjoy. Notice I didn’t use the word rigor. This is a time of year when rigor will bring frustration and disappointment. But it doesn’t mean learning needs to be put on the back burner. There is still plenty that can be taught and learned during this time, but clothed in a more creative and interactive environment.
I also learned that when I teach writing, the days are always more tiring and the students more moody. Writing is a very personal thing. It’s not objective. We put our heart out there for the world to see, and often, get shot down. It’s no wonder we sometimes see the worst in our students during this time.
They feel very vulnerable! Helping them through this without them feeling attacked is tricky. It takes energy. But it can be done. I now know these days are harder than the rest. I go in with that in mind, and maintain the mantra to be patient in dealing with their vulnerability.
3. Change it up!
In my one of my many visits with Jane Larson during that first year of teaching, I asked her what kept her excited about teaching. She said when she first started, she made it a goal to be teaching new things every five years. This didn’t mean that she taught a new content area, but rather, she changed the activities while staying true to the standards. And she didn’t do it all at once. Each year, she would re-design a unit.
Although I haven’t done this within a content area, I have changed what and whom I’ve taught about every three to six years. I’ve taught everything from middle school ELA to middle school social studies. I’ve taught elementary art and elementary P.E. I was the gifted and talented coordinator for our gifted population. I’ve taught in self-contained classrooms in both third and fourth grades. I’m back in middle school where I started and loving it. I honestly don’t think I would have survived middle school all these years, but after teaching in other areas, it has made me appreciate middle school students even more. I’m grateful for all those experiences, even the ones for which I was probably not the best fit. I learned from each and every one.
4- Always remain a student/learner
It’s easy to become impatient with our students when WE get what they should be learning and can’t’ figure out why THEY don’t get it. That’s why it is so important to continually put ourselves in the learner role. Whether it’s continuing our education in the teaching profession, taking a pottery class, or, as I recently foraged, learning to create a web-site. It’s easy to forget how difficult it can be to be given a lot of information and then left to sort through it.
Sometimes when we teach, we become frustrated and think, “I already told them how to do that. Why are they asking again?” But when we are in the role of the learner, we are reminded how hard it is to make meaning of all the information, bring order to it, and remember all the little how-to’s along the way.
The best example I can think of to help explain this is one I heard years ago: When we are driving in good conditions and the roadway is clear, we can listen to music, chat with our kids or whomever might be in the car, or think about other things. Our brain is operating in Unconscious Competence mode. But what happens when the road conditions change? When they become icey or visibility is reduced? What do we do? We turn down the radio, we ask (or yell at) everyone in the car to be quiet, we put both hands on the wheel, and our entire mental focus turns to driving.
Our brain has just reverted to the Conscious Incompetence stage. We often teach from Unconscious Competence mode, but need to remain cognizant of the fact that most of our students are in Conscious Incompetence mode or even, Unconscious Incompetence mode.
5- Connect with your colleagues
We were drawn into this field because of our love of kids and our love for the teaching/learning connection. But how many times did we stop and think about how important our relationships with our colleagues would be? When we first start teaching, most of our time and energy is consumed in the teaching role; learning our standards, designing lesson plans, managing our classrooms, and finding balance in our life. We don’t have a lot left to give to our colleagues.
However, over time, we find out that the students move on, while our colleagues remain by our side. Investing time and energy into our peer relationships becomes vital. These are the people who will be there when we feel defeated, share our joys when we achieve great accomplishments, encourage us in a new education endeavor, or act as a sounding board when we have a new idea.
My former students have moved on, some to incredible levels, and some to unfortunate demises. But my colleagues are still, by and large, by my side. Take the time to connect with them! We are in a unique profession where it is easy to become an island. Unless the atmosphere outside the classroom is toxic, it is critical to get out and connect with others!
Teaching is an art with creative problem solving and cleverness interwoven into what we do every day.
It’s a passion of the heart as we read our student’s emotions and respond appropriately in a way that will hopefully encourage them to put their best feet forward. And it’s a science of knowing how and when learning takes place. What causes connections to form and how we bring that to our classroom. There is no other profession like it and no place I would rather be. Teaching rocks!
Melanie Williams, M.Ed Curriculum and Instruction; ACE Certified Middle School ELA Professional Educator: https://www.simplestepstoahealthylife.com
You can contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org