What You Need at Each Stage of Your Career
Adapted from "Loving Your Job at Every Stage" by Dana Truby
What challenges, frustrations, and silver linings await you at each point in your teaching career? Take a closer look at three different stages in an educator's experience to get insight into what you can expect and what you'll need in the years ahead.
Stage One: The New Generation
When Veronica Rodriguez started college, she had a plan. Pre-med, or if not, pre-law. Then she took a part-time job as a volunteer in a 3rd-grade classroom, and her plans changed completely: “I fell in love with teaching,” she says. Like Veronica, if you are a new teacher (0–5 years experience), you are far more likely than your more experienced counterparts to have weighed a number of career options than to have considered yourself “born to teach.” You passed through those school doors with your eyes wide open. Still, it was a bit of a shock, wasn’t it?
As a new generation teacher, you are more likely to view teaching as one of several careers you will have over the course of your working life. A quarter of you entered teaching through alternative certification, such as Teach for America or second-career programs. You are likely to support merit pay (as long as it’s not tied to test scores). You enjoy collaboration, care about job flexibility, and embrace technology. (Kiss that whiteboard!)
The hardest part of your first couple of years, experts and new teachers agree, is classroom management. According to a study from Public Agenda, the top areas where new teachers need more help is “handling discipline” and “helping struggling students.” Here’s a big surprise: Only 9 percent say that new teachers need “more theory.”
What advice do fellow teachers and experts recommend? Ask for the help you need. Use that mentor. Or if your school’s mentoring program is not up to par, find help on your own. Choose a teacher in your school who speaks your language and then pick her brain. If that doesn’t work, troll the teacher blogs and find your workplace soulmate. They’re out there, and many of them are as funny as they are wise. Here's the good news: Your school needs you. They are lucky to have you, and as boomer teachers start retiring, they’re going to have to start showing it.
“My advice for new teachers? Relax a little bit. You have to find balance. I'm trying to find it right now. When I pick up a book that is not related to my teaching, I feel guilty. But I’m working on it.”
6th-grade science teacher
Stage Two: I Teach, Therefore I Am
Mid-career is often seen as the calmest part of the teaching journey, a time of uninterrupted flow. In reality, that's very unlikely! Experienced teachers may have it down day-to-day in the classroom, but, chances are, now that you’re an old hand, your school’s finding more and more for you to do. Signed up for the new curriculum committee and prospective parents’ night? Does the chess club have your name on it?
While the prep time of mid-career teachers (thankfully) declines, many of you find it quickly replaced with new responsibilities around the schoolhouse. At the same time, you may have a lot to do at home. It can be an incredible juggling act, and sometimes it’s hard to keep all those balls in the air.
As a mid-career teacher (6–20 years experience), you bring a tremendous amount to the party — experience, expertise, confidence, and, of course, sparkling personality. You know who you are as a teacher and what works for you. You carefully track which teaching strategies work best and which ones don’t. Already, you’ve seen trendy ideas in education come and go. (Remember diagramming sentences? Slide rules?) You do what works for your kids.
The challenge you face now is deciding what you want to do next. Should you revamp your teaching for those digital kids? Change grade level? Take on a new role as a mentor, staff developer, or administrator? Go back and get that master’s degree? Whatever you decide, it’s time for your second career as an educator. Only you can decide what that’s going to be.
This can be a time of stress, but also of great satisfaction and achievement. Your classroom library rocks, your salary is on the rise, and you’ve probably even outlasted an administrator or two or three. You’ve earned the right to get that grant and ask for that better classroom or choice assignment. Go for it.
“I’ve never considered leaving teaching, but I would like to do more mentoring. I'd like to see new teachers see themselves as professionals and demand that teaching be treated as a profession.”
Stage Three: At the Top of Your Game
Yes, you’re old school — but you’re certainly not old-fashioned. As a teacher with 21+ years of experience, you’ve seen a generation of your students hit adulthood (and at least a few follow in your footsteps). Because of your lifelong commitment to educating kids, you know there were standards, before there were “Standards” — after all, you helped to set them.
There’s a reason they call you a veteran. You’ve been through NCLB in all its incarnations, the whole-language wars, and the disastrous parent-teacher conferences of 1989. Not to mention the daily battle to keep 24 or more kids learning and on track.
Nearly a million of you veterans are planning to retire in the next decade. Yes, that’s right, the teachers we count on for nearly everything. Your challenge? Mentoring. Help those newbies out! They need you — your expertise, your wisdom, your pats on the back. Being a mentor is just one more way of leaving your mark, says Bonnie Shatun, a teacher in Burbank, California.
The other questions you wrestle with: When should I retire? And when I do, what am I going to do next? Retired teachers are an original bunch. They don’t sit around. You’ll meet them on the Appalachian Trail, on cruises to Alaska, and working in schools everywhere. (Some of you just can’t get enough.) Only you know when you are ready to retire. Education professor Michael Dougherty says “It’s when you get up and that bell doesn’t ring.” North Carolina teacher Peggy Wheeler thought she was ready after 34 years in the classroom. She went back after a week. “I missed the kids,” she says.
As a veteran teacher, you have so many reasons to feel proud and satisfied. You are at the top of the game and the top of the pay scale. Your influence is felt beyond your classroom, throughout your whole school. You will never know how many lives you’ve touched.
“I do work on the side, writing math questions for test prep books and Web sites. You have to, with the salary. I don’t consider myself a materialistic person, but I want nice things, just like everyone else...”
– Maggie Feurtado
8th-grade math teacher