Halfway through my second year of teaching, I found myself questioning whether or not this was a viable career for me. Despite the hours I put in at school and at home, my professional progress felt much slower than I wanted. I often wondered if I could do more for my kids if I left the classroom to work to influence policy in a non-teacher role. With hiring for the next school year underway, I had a very important decision to make about my future in the teaching profession.
If you’re an early career educator and my story resonates with you, know you’re not alone. Teaching has a steep learning curve and requires years to master. Many early career teachers find they continue to struggle with the basics even into their second year and as a result many decide to leave the profession entirely. We’ve reached the point nationally where 40 and 50 percent of early career teachers quit teaching within their first five years. This is a universal fact regardless of where they teach or whether or not they come through a traditional or alternative certification program and therefore an important issue that must be addressed.
Before making my decision, I decided to ask the advice of my trusted friends and colleagues who had taught longer than I. While everyone one of them encouraged me to continue in the profession, I was also encouraged by how much agreement I found in their collective wisdom. Together they presented me with three strong arguments that I think need to be carefully considered by any early career educator, who, like me, is trying to decide if teaching is the right career for them.
1. They reminded me that it takes time for every teacher to develop his or her style that makes teaching exciting and fulfilling for them personally. Teaching is a deeply personal experience and everyone has to find the strategies and techniques that work best for them. For some this comes immediately and effortlessly. But for many others it requires personal reflection and professional support over a longer period of time. I acknowledge that I hadn’t fully developed my own personal style and that I was more on the later end of the spectrum. They all pointed out to me that if I left before my style fully matured, I would never know how enjoyable and rewarding teaching could truly become.
2. Several of my colleagues challenged the notion that I had to leave the classroom to be an advocate for my kids. During our conversations, I repeatedly heard that the time has never been better for teachers to seek out advocacy and leadership roles outside their schools. Both school districts and non-profits are continually expanding opportunities for teachers to engage in the policy process on behalf of their kids. Some of my colleagues had been able to take advantage of these opportunities by writing policy briefs for the local school district, testifying before the state committee on education, and, in one instance, having the chance in their third year of teaching to meet Secretary of Education Arne Duncan!
3. They advised me that just as every teacher has to find their own personal style of teaching, some of us need to find the style of school that fits us best. The culture of every work environment varies based on who is in charge and the culture they develop. Education is no different. “Teaching” means many different things in many different settings, and it may be an entirely different experience depending on where you teach. If I didn’t feel that my current school culture was a good fit for me, they advised me to explore different schools to find the environment that was the best fit for my own personal and professional working style.
After these crucial conversations, I decided to heed their advice continue in the teaching profession. And I am so glad I did. I’ve seen tremendous growth in my capabilities and my enjoyment as a teacher as I’ve worked hard to develop my own personal teaching style. I’ve also started taking advantage of the opportunities available for me to advocate on behalf of my students while remaining a classroom teacher by blogging, volunteering my time through local non-profits like Stand for Children and participating in a fellowship offered by Teach Plus here in Memphis. And in my new school I’ve learned so much about what it takes to build not just a great classroom, but what it takes to build a great school culture for teachers and students alike!
If I am to be fully honest, I’m still growing. I’m still not certain where I’ll be professionally 10 or 15 years down the road. But with the advice of my colleagues and another first day of school under my belt, I’m excited to see if I have what it takes to fully develop and mature as a member of this most important of American professions!
By Jon Alfuth
This piece also appeared on Teacher Pop on January 22nd, 2014
Photo Credit: The Examiner