Getting Your Sea Legs, or The Secrets of My (Wobbly, Five-Year) Success

I know, you want to help people.  Change lives!  Reach out to the disenfranchised!  Create educational equality in an unequal world! My goal was to do all that, and to make it through five years in teaching.  More than half of our new teachers in America quit before five years.  In schools with lots of poor kids, like mine, it’s probably much worse.  I promised myself that I would quit if I was burned out or losing my mind.  I didn’t.  I’m now just a few months from achieving my goal.

Teaching has challenged me mentally, emotionally, and physically.  Many times, I wanted to cry uncle and say the challenge was too much.  I limped through these times, half-blind or sullen or broken, and eventually felt energetic and optimistic again.  How can you help man the ship of education through its always-stormy seas?  How can you keep your balance and hold the vomiting to a minimum?  Well, here’s how I did, anyway.

1. Where you work is everything.  You won’t survive as a lone crusader at a dysfunctional school.  You can’t set the world on fire for learning if the kids set fire to it first.  Don’t try to be a hero.  You’ll do more good with five years at an okay school than with six months in crazytown.  My school has 80% poverty, but it’s a pretty happy, friendly, comfortable place.  Just because you want to work with kids who really need you doesn’t mean you have to get treated like shit, or feel unsafe.

2. Your coworkers are your salvation.  No one else understand what you are doing, and the kind of tired you are.  If your coworkers (teachers, but also janitors and cafeteria people and security guards and adminstrators) are assholes and you can’t talk to them, you are going to be miserable.  Once you’re there, invest in these people like they’re Apple in 1980.  You can’t do it alone.  No one can.  My coworkers taught me a lot of the rest of this stuff, and thank you, thank you again.

3. Devote yourself to a mentor you trust.  Teaching was my first “career” job, so it was my first experience with locating a Yoda.  I was lucky to have two wise mentors right from the start, one a fellow English teacher, and one a fellow freshman teacher.  I asked a million questions.  There was no question I was too proud to ask.  I revealed my mistakes and how bad things really were.  Otherwise, I couldn’t get help.  (This goes for family and friends, too, who have donated time and treasure to support me through some rough times.)

4. Take care of yourself. This isn’t a good time to skip meals or exercise.  I know, you’re so, so busy, and so, so tired, but you’re just going to feel worse if you don’t eat and sleep properly.  I’ve tried to get a massage once a month (a student massage at a place nearby is $30), and I really think those should be mandatory for teachers.  You have to exercise.  I have to go to church and meditate and do yoga and take long baths.  I can’t eat junk, or I will not have the energy to make it through the day.  Part of taking care of yourself is also attending parties, seeing friends, and keeping up your hobbies.  It’s better for you, and your students, long-term, to keep your sanity with a healthy lifestyle.

5. Don’t even think about teaching summer school after your first year.  I don’t care how poor you are.  Dig ditches.  Anything.  I would avoid summer school in the subsequent years, too, if you can swing it.  It’s a grand or three versus the risk of complete burn-out.  Dangerous.

6. Be patient with yourself.  There is no perfect teacher.  There is no perfect student.  You don’t know what effect you have on students.  It’s impossible to judge.  Life is too complicated.  You’ll never really know– for good or for ill.  All you can do is try your best and know you’re part of something positive in the world.  Be thankful you have a job that gives you a sense of purpose.  That has to be enough.

7. Take a day off. No one needs you that bad.  Get over yourself.  Let the kids go crazy with a sub and do nothing for one lousy day.  Take that day off, even if your pay is docked.  If you’re maintaining your healthy habits (and washing your hands), you can save your days off for mental health recovery, rather than physical health.  Get your head back on straight.  Sometimes when the kids think you’re being a bitch, you are, and you need a day off.

8. You’re not going to like this, but you can only control what you can control. See?  I told you it was rough.  The main thing that will waste your time and burn you out is obsessing and slaving away at problems you cannot fix.  Your time and energy are invaluable.  Think carefully before you take on an extra project.  Don’t do extra work to “save” a student who won’t work for you.  That’s not helping– that’s enabling.  Especially because students and administrators might not respect your time, you have to guard it carefully.  It’s more valuable than money.  Which you already knew, or you wouldn’t have taken this career path in the first place.

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