I’m starting my fifth year of teaching. Will it ever get easier?

Set professional and personal goals. Find a mentor. Make a date with yourself to follow one of your passions.

A teacher jumping over obstacles while running in a hurdle race.
This teacher seeks guidance in dealing with all the obstacles in the classroom. (Source: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images | Photo Illustration: Lauren Bryant / Chalkbeat)

Dr. Kem,

Teaching has always been my calling. The classroom is my domain, where I feel the most me — I feel so fulfilled. I love kids and interacting with them. I love science. Teaching is a perfect fit for me.

But four years into my career, I didn’t expect the constant drastic shifts. I’ve already taught at three different schools, and navigating new schools in a short period in the middle of the pandemic has created a feeling of instability.

Teachers have always worn 10,000 hats: we’re teachers, coaches, therapists, mentors, college counselors, in-school parents, etc. It’s a lot for one person to handle. I’m a structured person. I aim for perfection, and there are a lot of things that I can’t control. There is no space to really sit down and process these feelings — I just have to get through it.

While things may go perfectly one day, I still have to be ready for anything the following day. Teachers always have to have Plan A through Plan E ready every single day, but all of them could still fail and we have to adapt in real time.

It feels like there is no stability as students and teachers still get sick and have to stay home. When I had COVID at the beginning of the school year, I still taught virtually. There was an inherent feeling that I wasn’t doing my best if I wasn’t present.

While people often equate teachers with superheroes, we’re human and we need help. I need more resources for myself as a teacher. But, too often, administrators and parents make it seem like advocating for better treatment (for both students and teachers) equals complaining.

A school fails when teachers, parents, and admin don’t collaborate. Instead, I wish we could create a space where everyone feels welcome, heard, and seen.

Dr. Kem, how can I adapt to this job that requires making multiple plans and wearing different hats? How do I support my own mental health needs to adjust for the instability in teaching right now? — Instability in Ed

[Are you a teacher? Submit your question for our advice column here.]

Dear Instability in Ed,

Congratulations are in order. In the spring of 2022, you completed your fourth year of teaching. Under the current circumstances, you have accomplished something great. 

Ten years from now, you will look back on these times and say those were the good ole days. You will talk with colleagues and reminisce about when you first started virtual teaching and how challenging it was switching from one plan to another. 

I have learned from years of being a teacher that if something is not working right, give us time and resources, and we will fix it — it’s clear from your letter you have that ability, too.

Though my first four years of teaching were challenging, I remember them as my glory days. So much happened I could barely keep up, and I was the world’s best actress in front of students all day. 

My mother died on the first day of my first full-time sixth grade teaching assignment. I had no time to mourn her loss or help my own children process the loss of their grandmother because, as a single mom, I had to get to work. I felt there was no way I would survive that year, especially without my mom. 

I was wrong. 

My co-workers became my support system. Looking back, I realize that I learned so much that year about who I was as a person, how amazing teachers are, and what the students meant to me. 

Three years later, I felt instability and a sense of loss again when our school closed, and all of our positions were eliminated. I loved many of the people I worked with who helped me through those first years of teaching.

I eventually found a new job, moved, and even started planning my wedding – all while operating as an utterly confused middle school teacher. 

As chaotic as my life was, I would not change any of it. It is in the instability where teachers find their footing. I realized not knowing what I was doing was making me better at my job.

I know working as an educator can be hard for people who crave perfection as you do. In people management (and that’s ultimately what we do with our students), too many variables cannot be controlled. Instability is the nature of our work. 

Here’s what I would tell my younger self – pandemic or not – to help me maintain my sanity in the early years and beyond:

- Set annual personal and professional goals. I live in the same town where I grew up, yet I use my GPS for most of my destinations. Why? Because I like knowing where I am going and when I will arrive. I am re-routed if there is a detour, and I can see my route from multiple points of view. 

Being a teacher and having a personal life are the same way. You own your route and your point of view. 

Work with a mentor to maintain control of your professional life. Find someone to help you set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals each school year. Most districts assign mentors or you can connect with someone who smiles at you in a staff meeting. Oftentimes, you’ll instantly know they are the “one.”

The saying goes, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Around October, when it feels like you are failing because you are one unit behind, your mentor can help identify your route and decide where to detour. 

- Make sure your skills as a teacher are matched with the grade you teach. Teachers often are placed in a grade that does not match their skill set. I aimed in college to teach first grade but I was placed with older students. But, teaching middle school made me miserable. I felt out of place trying to provide the type of structure middle schoolers needed. I found my happy place with 12th graders. Helping students transition to adulthood worked for my creative nature. 

I have found that improper placement can cause teaching frustration. Administrators will often place teachers according to building needs and not necessarily that teacher’s skill set. That is why it’s crucial to set personal and professional goals. Take note of the things you do and don’t enjoy with the grade level you teach. If you want to switch grade levels, obtain proper credentials. Plan properly to move forward in your career.

- Find something every day that energizes you. We become overwhelmed with semester grades, parent-teacher conferences, required contacts, committee meetings, and clubs. Losing your identity as a teacher can lead to teacher burnout. Think of what energizes you and is personally fulfilling. If roller skating is it, skate. If dancing is it, dance. Find your “thing” and add it to your calendar. Set a date and commit to yourself.

- Put something on your calendar that you can look forward to. I have a secret tip that only those closest to me know. I survive every semester because I have a trip planned. I am a travel junkie. I love going to new places and experiencing new things. Last year, I took 11 trips. And, no, I do not advise you do the same! You have to plan for retirement, and travel is an expensive habit. 

But what can you do that’s affordable and that every time you look at your calendar, you look forward to it? Whatever that is, it will keep you going.

- Listen to your body’s signals. Fatigue is a sign. Hunger is a sign. Thirst is a sign. I teach 85-minute blocks per day. My body is always asking for something. 

On my best days, I listen. I drink water. I go to the bathroom even if I have to ask another teacher to watch my class. I do not skip lunch. I also eat with other adults. Even if the lounge is full of Negative Nancys, you need a break from your room and students all day.

A new teacher’s workload is so demanding that it can be hard to imagine looking back on the beginning of your career with fondness.

I hope sharing my experience and advice proves that though our work as teachers has always been challenging, it will get easier and you will find yourself getting better at managing the chaos.

Dr. Kem Smith is Chalkbeat’s first advice columnist. She is a full-time 12th-grade English teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. Submit your question to Dr. Kem via this submission form, and subscribe to How I Teach to receive her column in your inbox.

If you have a rebuttal or additional advice you’d like to share with Instability in Ed, please email afterthebell@chalkbeat.org

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