Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Languishing Teacher, Part One

*This is the first in a two-part post.  This week we'll talk about staying fresh and energized over the course of a teaching career, and next week I'll share some ideas on how to actually do it.

Some months ago, I had a lunch meeting with my editor at ASCD to pitch an idea to her.  I wanted to know what she thought about a book that considered different paths teachers might take when they are beginning to feel restless and unfulfilled.

“The worst thing—for everyone—is a teacher who is bored, or frustrated, or hating their job,” I told her, recounting a few examples of times I’ve tried to rejuvenate a teacher who has stopped loving the work.  “It’s impossible,” I lamented.  “Once someone begins to hate teaching, there is no repairing it.  I’d like to write a book chock-full of ideas for teachers to avoid falling in that trap.  To help them keep things fresh and stay professionally fulfilled.”

“What would you call it?”  

“I’d call it The Restless Teacher:  What to Do to Bring Spark and Sass Back to your Classroom.” 

“Who is your target audience?”

“Teachers,” I said.

“Not just teachers,” she lifted an eyebrow and took a sip of her iced tea.  “Languishing teachers.”  And then, “Are those the types that buy books about teaching?”

She’s a good editor.  She always asks the right questions.  And she had a point, there.

In the end, we dropped the idea as a book topic, but I’ve never really let it go.  I feel strongly—super-duper strongly—about this.  I hate seeing a teacher’s enthusiasm and zeal fade away.  But it can happen, far too easily; a teacher grows jaded and tired, doesn’t see a way to change anything, and is then trapped in a career that lasts for many miserable years.

Most teachers are aware of this trap, and know how easy it is to fall in and be unable to get out.  That's why many of them get to a pivotal point in their careers and begin to look around, as if by instinct, and begin to wonder what else they can do with themselves.  They undoubtedly still love teaching—or, at least, still believe in it—but they sense themselves languishing with an off-kilter kind of restlessness.  They hear a itty-bitty little question bubbling up inside of themselves:  What can I do next?

Why does this question come up?  There are a lot of reasons.
Teaching is wearisome.  Being a teacher can be a long, slow energy suck, what with all the scrutiny and lambasting and relentless criticism.  It’s a lot like that analogy about the frogs in the boiling water.  It’s only gotten worse over time, as entire communities can be connected to social media posts spreading anger and venom about public schools and implying blame toward teachers.  And when one teacher does something heinous—most notably, violating a student somehow—the rest of us seem to get lumped into their actions and, inevitably, become defensive and over-compensatory as we go about our daily work.   Teaching has grown into a customer-service job in a lot of ways, and that’s not what most of us thought we’d be doing when we signed up for this gig.  We thought we’d be teaching, not teaching and then defending ourselves for doing so.


Teachers are optimistic and, therefore, vulnerable.
By nature, teachers approach things from a positive place.  They invest their time with an eye to the future, which means their lives are invested in hope.  They dream with and for their students.  They think in trajectories.

Which is why I hate it when a teacher’s optimism starts to wilt and die.  The smile fades.  They begin calling off sick ten, twenty times in a year.  They count days (until the next break) and they count years (until they can retire).  I hate seeing this because I don't want teachers to ever feel a sense of dread about their work.  I want them to always stay optimistic and hopeful.  


A teaching career is long, long, loooooonng.  It offers so many twists and uneven bits along the way.  And along with it comes the stuff of life—marriage and babies and divorce and death.  To assume one will spend almost four decades doing the same thing, in the same way, in the same place—?  Well, that would be crazy.  And, too, it would be irresponsible.  Because in the length of a teaching career, so many things change—things that shift the whole spirit and system of teaching.  Like, say, iPhones and clouds and online learning management systems.  No one could have ever imagined the changes we’d see in the last decade, not to mention a whole career.


Teachers can’t quit.  Really, they can’t.  I’ve heard it said that in some careers, you can get sick of your job and, just like that, update a resume on LinkedIn and move along to something else.  Teaching is trickier; after a few years, we are so invested—financially and emotionally—we would lose too much if we walked away.  So by the time we get good enough at teaching to hunger for something else, it’s too late.  By then we’ve got a couple kids to put through college, a mortgage to pay, and retirement to consider.

And anyway...

We don't want to quit.  Teaching is a calling.  We are where we’re supposed to be.  We’re stuck.  So… we need to be happy-stuck instead of miserable-stuck.


There are options.   Quitting may not be an option, but it’s okay—there are other options.  Teachers can avoid seeping over to the side of negativity and make career shifts that will keep--and maybe even increase— their professional joy, excitement, and satisfaction.  There’s union work, and leadership, and counseling, and support teaching.  And lots more.

One day in my seventh year of teaching, I was standing at the whiteboard with a blue Expo, working through conjugation of verbs.  I looked out at my class—all those students, those loving, lovable, loved students—and I thought, This is still wonderful.  But, I thought.  But. I can.not.teach.conjucation.one.more.time.  I thought, I don’t want to start hating this.  And that’s when I knew it was time to move on and try something new.   

I’m glad I did, because I still get up every single day and I’m grateful I get to go do what I do.  It’s worlds away from what I started doing—but it happened because I knew not to let myself sink into staleness.  I want others to feel that same fortune.    

This weekend, I'm going to take it one step further with Part 2 of this blog post— I won’t just write about being restless; I’ll write about avoiding restlessness.  It will include some specific ideas for the languishing teacher.

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