Don’t Quit: Tips for Surviving Teaching
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2016 Issue
By Meagan Gillmore
Abbi Easton has found her groove. She was “absolutely terrified” when she began teaching Grade 9 science and math at Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Fort McMurray, AB, three years ago. She’d heard stories; she knew teenagers “could eat [her] alive.”
The curriculum presented challenges. Math education had changed. She was learning, too. Easton loves technology, but a scavenger hunt where students used computer scanners around the school was an “epic fail,” she recalls.
While fairly comfortable discussing most topics, she had to consider how to appropriately teach sexual health. New to the school, she had to establish relationships with her colleagues. The other math teacher not only had more experience, but also an entirely different teaching style.
Now, Easton says she’s in a “sweet spot”: she knows she’s capable, but wants to innovate. She’s comfortable with the curriculum and can change lesson plans to keep all her classes on the same schedule. She and the other math teacher respect and learn from each other. It took a few years, but she’s finding her place in the school community.
It’s a typical experience for many new teachers. Except Easton began teaching Grade 9 after teaching Grade 1 for 12 years.
“The bottom line with kids is they want to feel successful,” she says, explaining the mindset that helped her with the transition. “They want you to look at them and for them to feel that you are proud of them… It doesn’t matter if you’re a six-year-old, fourteen-year-old, or a thirty-year-old. You want people around you to like you and to feel like you are making a good contribution to their life.”
In this way, teachers are just like their students. Many people enter education to benefit society. Professional realities, however, such as uncertain job markets, isolating and negative environments, and the difficulty of maintaining a work-life balance, can cause some teachers to update their resumés and look for other jobs as they’re completing end-of-year reports. Feeling appreciated is out of the question.
New teachers are especially susceptible to feeling disillusioned. “You get into the real teaching world, and you realize it’s not all peachy,” says Anne Edwards, a new career teacher in Barrie, ON. She “loved” teachers’ college and loves watching students learn, but admits she’s “talked about [quitting] many times.”
She’s not alone. Many leave the profession within five years. Several teachers’ unions offer conferences and training specifically targeted for early-career teachers. Some teachers spend years substituting or working short-term contracts, supplementing their income with seasonal work. When teachers can’t establish themselves in one school, they often don’t have the opportunity to build their confidence. This financial and emotional instability causes some to change careers before really beginning to teach.
Experienced teachers may feel overwhelmed. Curriculum and educational focuses are changing. More students speak several languages or have increasing behavioural and learning difficulties, and teachers have less resources to meet their needs. But there are strategies that can help all teachers meet these challenges.
Researchers often cite mentoring as key for early-career teachers to succeed. Traditionally, people understand mentoring as “we’re here to rescue these teachers,” explains Ching-Chiu Lin, a research fellow at the University of British Columbia who is studying mentorship. But the mentality requires that teachers in all professional stages need to learn together; mentoring is about establishing a “network,” she adds.
Easier said than done, however. Sometimes governments, unions, and universities work together to provide formal mentorship programs. These initiatives, no matter how effective, are subject to budget cuts that can drastically reduce their scope, or eliminate them altogether. Substitute teachers or those on long-term occasional contracts may not be eligible.
The profession itself may present the biggest difficulties. “It’s very easy for teachers to go into the classroom, close the door, and the only times they talk to their colleagues are at lunchtime and special occasions,” explains Rita Irwin, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies mentorship with Lin. “The teaching profession is not necessarily a profession where you gravitate towards working with other teachers.”
Researchers say establishing a school culture of trust is one of the most important factors in successful mentorship. Schools are often structured like “egg crates,” explains Benjamin Kutsyuruba, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, who has researched teacher induction and mentorship programs across Canada. Teachers work in isolation. For good mentorship to happen, that mindset needs to change.
Newer teachers often ask about mentorship programs in job interviews. But when hired, they may find interacting with colleagues one of the most challenging things in the job.
It was the “hardest part,” says Meagan Noronha, who recently finished her first long-term teaching position covering a maternity leave at a private school in Brantford, ON. She’d volunteered at the school before teaching there, but, once hired, usually stayed clear of the staffroom. She wanted to be friendly, but needed recess breaks for classroom organizing or lesson planning. When she was in the staffroom, she didn’t always know how to relate to her older colleagues.
Some colleagues may be good to avoid. Doris Morales, a teacher in Las Vegas, remembers listening to teachers “attack” each other at staff meetings when she was a young teacher. “It was such a negative, toxic level that I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know if I want to be miserable like this,’” she remembers. “As a young teacher [you think], ‘I don’t know if I want to end up angry and yelling at people over printer paper.’” This inspired Morales to write her book How to Survive Your First Five Years of Teaching.
Teachers’ experiences at the beginning can impact every part of the rest of their career, says Kimberley McKay, who works with new teachers through the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association. Everyone gets disillusioned. Teachers need to remind each other that teaching is difficult, and there are many factors they can’t control. But they shouldn’t dwell on the negatives.
“If you get in the disillusionment phase, generally you can find a little club of disillusioned people who are always willing to accept new members,” McKay says, “and they’d be happy to make you a lifetime member.”
Mentorship works. Despite Noronha’s difficulties socializing in the staffroom, she quickly credits supportive teachers, whether those she knows personally or those whose blogs and Instagram accounts she follows, with helping her through her first year. “If I didn’t have strong teacher connections,” she says, “I don’t know where I’d be.”
Teachers often have many mentors, says Kutsyuruba. In formal programs, teachers and mentors may work in different schools. In some rural communities, mentors may not even be teachers. Having mentors who aren’t directly involved with education has benefits. It reminds teachers of the world outside of school walls, and activities not related to schoolwork.
Teachers of all ages struggle with establishing a good work-life balance. New teachers experience this more acutely. They spend more time preparing lessons because they don’t have as many resources to use. Some begin teaching with plans to go home at set times, but the reality of the job may make that nearly impossible.
They’re often asked to lead extracurricular activities. They want to contribute to the school community and be seen as team players, so they may find it hard to refuse. Added responsibilities can increase their stress.
Experienced teachers should encourage younger colleagues to be realistic about how much they can handle. “Sometimes you need to have that heart-to-heart with them to say, ‘You’ve taken on too many extracurricular activities, and, in fact, it’s the extracurricular time that’s putting you hugely out of balance,’” McKay explains.
This is the downside of the reason many people become educators. “We enter the profession because we love kids and we want to help kids and we want to do everything we can to make kids be successful,” says Lynn Hemming, who recently retired after more than 30 years of teaching in Alberta. “I think we’re very good at caring for others. We’re not very good at caring for ourselves.”
Parents can be especially hard to please. “Too many beginning teachers become devastated over one critical parent,” Hemming notes. It helps to remember what she calls the 10 percent rule. On average, 10 percent of people will always be unhappy with something. Teachers should listen to the complaints, but “write off” the unreasonable ones, she suggests. If there are many complaints, then they should consider how they might change what they’re doing.
Teachers can also help build positive relationships with parents. When Hemming needed to call a parent to discuss a difficult situation with a student, she’d begin by saying she needed the parent’s help. “At its very best,” she says, “teaching is a partnership with parents.”
Hemming also had a personal rule that every time she had to call a parent about a challenging student, she would call another parent to tell them something positive about their child. Watching children succeed makes teaching worth the long days and seemingly endless frustrations. Teachers need to remind each other, and themselves, of that.
Five years into her career, Hemming started keeping scrapbooks of encouraging comments she received. It started with cards and letters. Now, it includes Facebook comments. She has five scrapbooks. She doesn’t show them to anyone else.
“After thirty-three years of teaching, I still love kids, and I still love the job,” she says, even though she considered quitting during her first year. She plans on supply teaching and tutoring during retirement.
“I get a chance to touch the future,” she adds. “What [other] kind of profession can you say [does] that? I believe I’ve impacted the future, and I believe that every teacher does.”
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto.