by Todd Fulginiti
Warning: this article is jaded and negative with heavy doses of resentment and burnout.
Further Warning: ignoring it may lead to your own heavy dose of resentment and burnout.
The “Journey” Begins
Today, everything is a “journey”. It’s irritating. There are life journeys, love journeys, faith journeys, career journeys, family journeys… The list never ends! But even though I might puke the next time I hear the word, I will admit that some things really are “journey-like”. And, as these things progress from one point to another, they pass through different stages.
The field of education is one of these “journey-like” things and as I’ve evolved and devolved through its stages, I’ve attempted to identify, label and describe them. Perhaps these phases are present in other careers as well, but since my experience is with public elementary school teaching, I’m writing from that perspective.
There are four stages of a teaching career, just like there are four stages of cancer. Not to say that a teaching career is like cancer, although it can consume and destroy you like cancer can.
Let’s begin our “journey” through The Four Stages of Teaching by examining four hypothetical journal entries- one from each of four hypothetical teachers, each inhabiting one of our four stages. If you can relate to any of these people, you’ve probably spent some time in their stage.
Stage 1: Rainbows, Unicorns, Touching The Future & Saving The World
Name: Jordan Mellancamp
Position: Third Grade Teacher
Experience: 2nd Year
I woke up before my alarm again! Even after being up late every night this week, I wake up each day feeling good and can’t wait to get back to school. So far it’s been a great year! I spend a lot of time each night making lesson plans and grading papers, but it’s totally worth it when I see the kids enjoying the lesson and nailing their assessments.
I”ll admit, teaching is a little tougher than I thought it would be, but I love it! Plus, for the second year in a row, I have my own room and my own class! No more subbing, no more sending job applications, no more interviews- just me and the kids.
Today should be great! I’m rolling out a new science unit with several centers and a few new projects. It took me a long time to plan and prepare this so I hope they like it and really engage themselves.
I do sometimes wish they would behave a little better with these types of activities, but they are kids after all. Plus, I know some of them come from difficult backgrounds. This year I have 1 that’s currently living out of the family car, 3 with a parent in jail, and a few more being shuffled back and forth between divorced parents. So I can understand why they sometimes act up in class.
But, if I can just get through and really connect with them, I can help them change their whole lives for the better. I’m sure I can make a difference for them. And when I think about what my “star students” can accomplish when they grow up….Wow! It’s so rewarding to see them reaching towards their potential, and knowing that I had a hand in getting them there. I’m lucky- there’s nothing else I’d rather do!
Stage 2: Human Shield: I’ll Protect You
Name: Dave Wagner
Position: Elementary Music Teacher
Experience: 8th Year
Finally, a chance to sit down and relax for a minute- I need it! This year has been the toughest of my career so far. The district’s new initiatives are well-intentioned but they just seem to create more work in our already tight schedule.
The job is relentless. There’s just not enough time to do everything. We’ve also had our budgets cut, which is a shame, especially when we see the district spend so much money on their pet projects. We could really use that money to directly impact our kids.
It’s not the students’ fault that things have gotten a bit rocky. They still deserve the best and I’m trying to give it to them. I’m spending a few hours planning almost every night because I gave up my prep period 3 days each week in order to teach instrument lessons that I otherwise couldn’t fit into the schedule (the district chose not to hire any additional, part-time staff again this year). Most days after school we have an ensemble rehearsal or practice for the school play, so the days are long and tiring. Since the budget cuts, I’m spending more money out of pocket to buy supplies.
But like I said, we have a bunch of great kids here and they deserve the best education I can give them. So I’ll do what needs to be done to make that happen no matter what obstacles get in the way. And I still love the job! Some of these kids are so talented and most show lots of potential. I’m proud of the progress they’ve made this year and we aren’t finished yet!
Despite some challenges, we’ve built a program that gives students many opportunities to participate, learn and grow- I just wish the district would make it a little easier for us to run it. But I’m sure the administration understands and appreciates all the extra efforts we’re making for the kids, after all most of them were teachers themselves at some point.
Stage 3: The Losing Battle- Idealism Dies
Name: Karen Lowery
Position: 4th Grade Teacher
Experience: 15th Year
For God’s sake shut up! We’ve been sitting here in this in-service session for two hours now and the speaker made his point in about fifteen minutes. I have other things I need to be doing right now in my room. Instead, I sit here typing on my laptop, trying to avoid being noticed by an administrator. You know they actually reprimand you for not paying attention at these stupid in-service sessions? Like we’re little kids!
This has been the worst week so far of a bad year. I don’t know what the administration is thinking most of the time. Each year there are more rules and procedures to follow, more paperwork and record keeping to do, and more stress put on both us teachers and the kids. I basically got scolded by my principal last week because I didn’t have my online grade book up to date. The work was graded but I had to prioritize uploading the new info versus adapting my new social studies lesson to meet the needs of the 7 kids in my class that have special education plans.
For the third year in a row I have a kid that, I believe, doesn’t belong in a regular classroom. He can’t handle the expectations. Every few days he loses it and goes into a rage, throwing things and screaming. The entire class has to leave the room while he finishes up. Not to mention the nearly constant, minor disruptions he causes every time he doesn’t want to do something he needs to do. The principal says he has a right to get an education too, like everybody else. But the problem is that the rest of the class is having their education degraded because we spend so much time trying to manage this kid. Last year we were able to have a student like this placed in a different school setting, but it took 6 months of documenting every issue, countless meeting of no consequence, and parental consent. The parents didn’t even show up to the meeting the first 4 times we invited them, I guess they had better things to do than to help us help their kid?
Last month, two of my students were arguing in class, during what was supposed to be silent reading time. They had been warned a few minutes earlier but didn’t listen, so I reprimanded them pretty sternly and gave them a consequence in accordance with our classroom behavior plan. After school I get an email from the principal asking me to come see him about the incident. One of the kids apparently cried to mom as soon as he got home, and mom is now furious that I reprimanded her son in front of the class because it embarrassed him. So I go meet the principal and he basically tells me that I should have been more lenient, and also should have asked the students to see me in the hallway to discuss their behavior, rather than calling them out in front of the class (which in my opinion is less effective and more time consuming). He also suggested that we set up a meeting between him, the students, and I where he could help us mend our relationship. Are you kidding me?
Our school culture is going down the toilet. Teachers are expected to handle discipline matters in their own room as much as possible, but the administration often doesn’t support us. When we send repeat offenders to the office, they’re basically given a warning and sent back to class with no consequence. When they return, they just keep causing problems, which has a negative effect on the whole class. As teachers, we used to advocate for the students with extra needs, but nowadays it’s often the regular kids that need the advocating.
We talk a lot about student accountability, but it seems as though the teachers are the only ones being held accountable for anything. And, when we try to explain why we don’t agree with policies or initiatives, we’re made to feel like we don’t have the authority to question administrators and are being disrespectful. We’re in the classroom everyday trying to teach a room full of kids with diverse educational needs, all the while dealing with all sorts of baggage and nonsense behaviors and still, for the most part, are doing a good job. I think we’ve earned the right to have our opinions heard and respected.
I don’t remember it being like this when I first started teaching. I’m tired. I feel demoralized and under appreciated. There are so many great kids here, but I’m running out of energy for them. The other things are just too draining and unavoidable. I’ve been out sick 12 days so far this year. My family is worried about me and suggested I get some counseling, which I have. We’re only part way through the year and I’m just not sure I can make it. If it weren’t for the star students and the nice paycheck, I’d be out of here.
Stage 4: Yeah, Whatever: Living Paycheck To Paycheck
Name: Bill Tomlinson
Position: 6th Grade Teacher
Experience: 23rd Year
Ah, here we go again! A little earlier than usual today. The screaming doesn’t usually start until later. But most days, there is a screaming student somewhere in the building. Yesterday one of teachers was bitten and kicked trying to calm a student down while they were “in crisis mode.” No thanks. I’m not going to take a beating trying to help a kid who’s flipping out. Been there, done that, regretted it.
I’ve got a few minutes left of my lunch period, just enough to finish up this journal entry and check the Teacher’s Pension System retirement calculator one more time. I’ve decided to leave teaching as soon as it’s financially viable. My passion for the job is gone. There are still many things I like about teaching, and there are so many really great young people to work with and to inspire. But my frustration, disappointment and fatigue outweigh those things.
I’m not mad about it anymore. I’m also not fighting to make things better anymore. I’ve totally adopted the “I just work here” mentality. I do the best I can in the classroom each day while I’m at school. I don’t take any work home and I try my best not to think about any school-related matters after hours. Sometimes things go well, other times I fall behind on planning or grading papers or jumping through the hoops of some new district-wide initiative. No matter what, I do my best not to react to the non-sense, take a few deep breaths, and just get through the day.
It’s quite a sense of detachment from what I felt during the rest of my career, but this is the way it has to be in order for me to stay healthy and still teach effectively while I’m here. Some of the older teachers tell me they’ve been in a similar mode for several years and it prolonged their career. I’m not sure I can do that though. Some days it’s hard to stay detached.
I look back on the early days of my career and can’t imagine recapturing all the energy and passion I poured into the job. All the special projects, all the “over-the-top” lessons, the powerful student connections… All of that stuff was so important back then, but now the most important thing is to keep the paychecks rolling in each week until I can afford to retire in a few years.
So there you have it. A journey through The Four Stages of Teaching via fictional eye-witness accounts of fictional but not unrealistic teaching careers.
In many ways, these stages of teaching mirror the stages of a broken relationship. And that’s alright because my relationship with the field of education is broken. I had a crush on teaching, which grew into a fiery passion once I got to know it. I was blissfully in love with the job, forgetting both that ignorance is bliss and also that bliss is ignorance. Along the way we failed to understand each other, trust was breached, respect was lost, and I felt used and unwanted. The relationship became toxic and needed to end, but it took a few years to make it happen.
Colleagues and I used to joke about these four stages from time to time. It helped us to better understand and cope with whatever situation we were dealing with. The jokes were therapeutic because they reminded us to heed their truths.
In reality, most people don’t progress through the stages in strict chronological order. After passing through Stage 1, most teachers float in and out of the other three, constantly flirting with the danger of overstaying in Stage 2. An overdose there leads to the pain of Stage 3, from which you either recover or move into an extended Stage 4 visit. It’s a dangerous game no matter what.
So to all of you on your own personal, teaching “journey” (yep, the word did actually make me gag that time), be mindful and self aware. Notice what stage you’re in and how long you’ve been there. Do what you must to avoid getting stuck. Do right by your students but do equally right by your self. And most importantly, make the world better by teaching your students not to call everything a “journey”.
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