‘If you love helping kids, do it!’ This retiring Colorado teacher has advice for the next generation

Large class sizes, constant meetings, and the all-consuming nature of the job eventually took their toll on Melinda Elkind.

But the third-grade teacher, who retired this year after 33 years in the classroom, said she would do it all over again.

“I loved being a teacher and know I chose the right career,” she said. “I will definitely miss the classroom.”

But Elkind, 61, who worked in the Aurora school district, east of Denver, isn’t leaving it all behind. She’s already tutoring and hopes to substitute teach as well.

In the Q&A below — part of our special “How I Teach” series on retiring teachers — Elkind talks about how teaching nearly every elementary grade level kept things interesting, why she worries about increasing academic expectations, and how visiting a large family in a small home changed her perspective.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to retire now — and how are you feeling about leaving the classroom?

I wanted to do 35 years and ended at 33 years. Part of the reason was that the demands and meetings seemed endless — hours spent writing plans, standards, and collecting data. Class sizes of 30 to 32 kids were daunting. Getting around to each child, building relationships, communicating with all parents (regardless of what language they speak), it all took its toll on me. I will definitely miss the classroom but am tutoring and planning on subbing.

How have the expectations for teachers changed since you first entered the classroom?

Teachers had more say in what and how they taught when I started in 1980. For example, early in my career, teachers decided how to pace lessons depending on how the class was progressing. Now, we seem to be more limited and need to be “on the same page” as all other classes in our grade level and follow pacing guides very closely.

In my first 12 years, I taught in the same school but my principal recognized my flexibility, so I taught different grades every year. This kept me on my toes as I couldn’t just use the same plans each year. I taught first grade through fifth grade, and it was really fun!

We had 45 minutes of planning time each day and 30 minutes for lunch. I know many people think it has changed a lot, but it really hasn’t. I think the difference is the demands on teachers with collecting data and following standards so vigorously. We always had standards, but now they are deconstructed into kid-friendly objectives so students understand what they are learning. The standards that we used to want our third graders to understand are now expected of second graders, so kids need to know more at a younger age.

What advice would you give to teachers who are just starting out in their careers?

They need to realize this is an 80-hour-a-week job and during summer you still work, just without the kids there. The first thing all teachers need is to build relationships and let everyone understand we are working together. The team is the child, the parent, the administration, and the teacher. We need to listen to everyone — really listen. If you love helping kids, all kids, regardless of their backgrounds and abilities, do it!

Who and what helped you persist during difficult times?

Other teachers. You need to make friends with them and have their backs and they have yours. My family was also always there for me to listen and offer advice. Lastly, but probably most importantly, are the students. Sit with those who you are having difficulties with — have lunch together or meet them at recess — and talk. What is going on? How can we fix this?

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Once I went on a home visit for a graduate class I took at Regis University in Denver. I had the family’s son in a sixth-grade classroom and was supposed to interview his parents about their hopes and dreams for him.

They were from Mexico and had no indoor plumbing or air conditioning where they were from. From my perspective, they had very little in Aurora, a two-bedroom apartment occupied by five kids and two parents, but to them, this was wonderful. They kept their tiny apartment extremely tidy. Three girls shared the bedroom, the baby was in the parents’ room, and the son was on the couch in the living room. They came from dirt floors and no furniture, so to them, this was luxury.

When I asked what their hopes and dreams were for their son, they said for him to be kind and respectful to his teachers. I expected more, like attend college, have a good career. However, success and luxury look so different depending on your background. His parents had only been able to go to school until they were 10 or 11 years old, so they had very different perspectives than me. The tie that keeps us all together is love and kindness. They truly loved all their children.

Tell us about your post-retirement plans, and what you’ll have time to do now that you didn’t have time to do before.

I started tutoring and love it. It really helps kids feel confident when they go to school and know how to do what the teacher expects. Even though we tell our kids to ask if they need help, they often don’t in a classroom. In individual or small-group tutoring, they can’t hide! I also hope to substitute teach.

What are some things that helped you take care of yourself and avoid burnout amid the demands of your job?

Exercise classes are super important — yoga, barre, etc. Walking my dog, hiking, and nature are all important. Also, having fun with my class. Sometimes when we had a particularly rough day or things were not going the way a student expected, instead of punishment I take time to get laughter going in the classroom: play funny videos, tell jokes, or share personal stories.

What’s one thing you won’t miss about your job once you retire?

Sticking to such a strict schedule! And too many meetings.

And one thing you will miss?

Of course, the students and other teachers.

If you had it to do all over again, would you choose a career in teaching? Do you feel hopeful about the future of teaching?

Yes, yes yes! I loved being a teacher and know I chose the right career. I never went to “work,” I always went to school. Currently, I am worried about the future of teaching. We need to be sure students are enjoying learning and getting the help they need. We are setting such high expectations for them at younger ages and they are not developmentally ready.

Parents need to step up and support teachers in front of their children. Otherwise, children feel they don’t need to do what the teacher is asking because mom or dad doesn’t like the teacher. Take up differences without the children present, to show a united front.