Barbara Gottschalk’s teaching career spanned more than 40 years, five American states, and several overseas posts — not to mention multiple grade levels and subjects. Before retiring last year, she taught English language learners at Susick Elementary School in Troy, Michigan, north of Detroit. She previously held teaching positions in Florida, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, and in two different regions of Japan.
There were differences from place to place, to be sure. Michigan offered better pay, for example. Florida provided the chance to earn free endorsements in special education and teaching English as a second language. Japan had a high-stakes testing culture. But more noticeable, she said, were the similarities. “No matter where I taught or how poorly teachers were paid there, I had colleagues who were good teachers working hard,” she said.
For our special retirement edition of How I Teach (read more from the series here), Gottschalk, 66, discussed the dramatic ways the teaching profession changed during the course of her career, the “bullies” she encountered during her first year in the classroom, and how her time abroad impacted her view of American education.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to retire when you did?
My husband and I were planning on eventually moving, so my decision was probably less about leaving my work and more about wanting to get started on a new life in North Carolina.
Looking back, what made you start teaching?
I grew up on a farm in rural southwest Nebraska so I wasn’t exposed to many career options. Hard as it may be for lucky young girls today to understand, the only careers I considered when I went to college were teacher or nurse. I didn’t play sports in high school because the teams were only open to boys. I couldn’t try out for the University of Nebraska marching band because it wasn’t open to girls. It’s wonderful that girls have so many opportunities now!
A lot has changed for girls in the intervening years — and for teachers, too. How have expectations for teachers changed since you first entered the classroom?
I didn’t administer any high-stakes tests during my first year of teaching. It was nice if teachers attended some local high school basketball games, but we weren’t required to attend reading nights, Title I parent meetings, etc., the way I did later in my career.
In my first year, I didn’t miss days in the classroom getting professional development as I did in my final year of teaching, but I certainly could have used some professional development and mentoring as a young teacher. In my first years of teaching, I was able to choose the textbook I wanted to use to teach American history. In my last year of teaching, I had to use a highly scripted program.
What advice would you give to teachers who are just starting out in their careers?
Hang in there. I’m living proof a teacher can survive and even thrive after an awful first year. I had challenges in the classroom, but what bothered me most happened outside of school. New teachers weren’t anonymous in the small Nebraska town where I began my career, so it was easy for my students to make harassing phone calls, steal things from my mailbox, and vandalize my car.
I didn’t get the support I needed from my overwhelmed first-year principal, but I also should have reached out to other people for more help, too. Just a year ago as I was planning to retire, I received a Facebook message from one of my students from that first year, apologizing for the “bullies” in the school. I’m glad I didn’t let that awful first year drive me from the profession.
Even after you find your sea legs, the demands of the job can feel overwhelming. What are some things that helped you take care of yourself and avoid burnout?
I think I avoided burnout because I always did something different in the summers. I worked for a school district with a strong teachers union at the end of my career so I was paid well. Unlike many teachers in other states and districts, I didn’t have to take a second or third job in the summer. Teachers work incredibly hard during the school year; that’s why the breaks are so important.
How did your time overseas change your perception of education in America?
Just like a fish who doesn’t think much about water, I hadn’t thought much being an American until I left the states to teach in Japan. I heard so much about the bad effects of high-stakes testing from my Japanese students and colleagues. They admired how American students weren’t subjected to this kind of testing culture and they felt students in the U.S. were learning more creatively.
Years later, it’s ironic that the very thing the Japanese hate about their system — the emphasis on testing and test scores — seems to be what we in America have adopted.
You’ve been retired for about a year now. What’s one thing you don’t miss about teaching?
All the command and control from my school administration, the district administration, the state legislature, and the federal government. That pretty much covers everybody, doesn’t it?
And one thing you do?
I didn’t realize how much social interaction my work life provided. I miss having stories to tell my husband every night — the funny things students would say, the happenings going on in my colleagues’ lives, the latest outrageous thing the district administration was asking us to do.
What’s one thing you have time to do now that you didn’t have time for when you were teaching? Are you keeping your hand in education somehow?
I once read retirement described as “the chance to live ordinary life well.” I now have more time to savor that morning cup of coffee, do more hiking, and read more books. Retirement also gave me time to finish my second book, “Dispelling Misconceptions About English Language Learners: Research-Based Ways to Improve Instruction,” to be published in October.
I also have more time to follow education issues — for example, by reading Chalkbeat. For six weeks this past February and March, I was a test administrator for NAEP [a national academic assessment]. I enjoyed visiting many different schools in my new state of North Carolina.
If you had to do it all over again, would you choose a career in teaching? Do you feel hopeful about the future of teaching?
I’d have more career choices if I were graduating from high school in 2019 instead of 1970, but I’d still choose teaching. I’ve never had any doubts that what I was doing was important. That sustained me through the hard times.
In spite of all the shaming of teachers, the high cost of becoming a teacher, and the legislative attempts to tell us, the professionals, what to do, I’m still optimistic about the future of teaching. I worked with some great young teachers so the profession is going to be fine without me!
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