Finding Joy When Teaching Seems Impossible

Dec 01, 2022

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- the hard work of teaching- arises, 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. We wish 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 that 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, the fact is that this job can be difficult and causes too many talented professionals to leave it.

The Key to Surviving and Thriving

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 looking out the window to see nothing but snow and gray 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 yet another test that only measures a small portion of their ability.

Sound familiar?

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 replied, “No thanks, Mr. Muir. I’m almost finished writing this chapter of my book! I can’t wait for you to read it!” And then 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- and overjoyed- 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 a sudden, the snow outside looked beautiful. The gray 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, etc., 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 if you can remember them, let them let them transform you and shape your mindset, are usually why you keep being one.

Finding the Mountaintops From the Valley

So here’s the challenge: how can you find the joy that is often woven into the mundane? Find those little moments that demonstrate growth is happening. Sometimes in education we can get so consumed by final learning outcomes; the test scores, graduations, or project showcases can be the dominant means of showing concrete success. But here’s the truth: a first grader finishing a page on their number role is a concrete success. Getting all 30 high school students to take out a book during silent reading is concrete. That kid who never says anything in class raising his hand for the first time is evidence of growth.

When we notice these moments, and truly reflect on the fact that students are growing, we can realize that the work of the valley is not in vain. We can know that despite the challenges, the work of a teacher is purposeful. And that can help you experience joy when being a teacher sometimes feels impossible.

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