The following is variation of a post I wrote for my other site, The New Teacher Academy.
The school year is wrought with peaks and valleys. In August, when students are just returning and all of the hope and excitement of a new year is at hand, it’s easy for teachers to feel like they are starting on a peak. This time at the summit can last a while, as minds and bodies are fresh and full of energy. Our classrooms are new and clean. We have strategies from summer PD we are excited to try out. The school year is a blank slate, and we are eager to see how it all unfolds.
However, as the year progresses and discipline issues, failed lessons, parent struggles, testing, winter weather, administrator observations, endless staff meetings, etc. arise, the mountain peak of the first part of the school year can be hard to see from the valley floor.
Of course we wish teaching was always gratifying; always full of moments of brilliance; our classrooms always looked like they could be featured on Pinterest; that our students would stand on their desks and recite poetry like they did on The Dead Poet’s Society; that we could leave each day tired but satisfied with the work we put in- but that’s not what teaching really is.
This work is often spent in the valleys. It can be messy, tiring, dull, painful, uninspired, and plain exhausting. It’s in the valley teachers begin to question if they are cut out for this line of work. We think things like:
“The teachers down the hallway don’t have trouble getting students to turn in their work. But I do”
“I just can’t keep up with all of this grading.”
“I don’t get paid enough to feel this kind of stress.”
“I wonder what else I could do with my college degree.”
And it’s in the valley that around 16% of teachers are leaving the classroom every year. Call it teacher burnout, job dissatisfaction, overstress, or whatever you want- this job can be difficult and causes too many talented professionals to leave it.
However, experienced teachers know that growth only really happens in the valley, and while the mountaintops are beautiful, trees and flowers do not grow up there. Surviving and thriving as a teacher strongly depends on the ability to learn and grow when times are difficult, and having the patience for the moments that make it all worth it.
I remember a dreary February day when I had the unsavory task of giving my students an SAT practice test. I stood in silence for 3 hours as my students filled out bubble sheets while looked out the window to see nothing but snow and grey skies. I remember thinking that this is not what I signed up for. This isn’t why I went to college to become a teacher. I became a teacher to inspire students and help them discover their dynamic and creative selves. I felt like a babysitter trapped between four walls, watching my students practice taking a stupid test for a dumb system.
When the students finally finished the practice exam, I let them stand up and stretch a bit. However, one student named Jackson kept working at his desk. I said, “Jackson, you’ve been sitting for 3 hours. Why don’t you get up and move around a bit?”
Jackson said, “No thanks, Mr. Muir. I’m almost finished writing this chapter of my book! I can’t wait for you to read it!” And turned back to his notebook and kept writing.
A little background on Jackson: He was a kid who had very little interest in school and zero enthusiasm for English class. That’s why I was shocked to find him writing for pleasure after taking a 3 hour exam. For me, it was a shot of adrenaline. It defined why I became a teacher. In the midst of this system that can at times hamper creativity and inspiration, Jackson was clearly inspired. At some point in the school year, something I said or did helped give Jackson the push he needed to find this gift of his.
All of sudden, the snow outside looked beautiful. The grey sky made a soft background for the brick walls of our school building. The students in my class were laughing and talking with each other, in a community formed by my classroom. I watched Jackson keep writing and felt like I made some type of impact on his life.
I was standing on a mountaintop.
Of course I’ve stood on taller ones since- graduations, visits from past students, college acceptance letters- but this one was high enough to make me okay with going back into the valley. Moments like this are why you become a teacher, and are usually why you keep being one.