So You Say You Want To Teach, Eh?

I think it is safe to say that most adults in the professional world fantasize about making a radical career change at one point or another.  Teachers might actually be the winners in the category of career-changing fantasies, but today’s post is about the opposite.  I want to talk about professionals who actually leave their careers to become teachers.

It’s not uncommon.  Teaching definitely has its perceived advantages.  Parents who work late hours in the office, for example, might see a career in teaching as an opportunity to share a work schedule with the kids and have more flexibility at home. A career in teaching allows adults who aren’t parents to interact in a positive way with youth.  Perhaps most importantly, teaching makes one feel as though one is doing his or her part to make a difference in the world by shaping the lives of future generations.  Plus, there are the summers.

The last thing I ever want to do (and I promise this post is not an effort to do this) is to convince someone not to enter the teaching profession.  So I am not going to color the rest of this post with horrible descriptions of the awful teaching life and stories of people who became teachers and immediately regretted it and went back to their old jobs before the school year even ended.  Go ahead and Google those, I’m sure they’re out there.  

I love that people quit their old careers to become teachers and I hope people continue to do it.  We need enthusiastic, experienced professionals in the world of teaching.

By the time most folks have made the official decision to leave work and embark on a teaching career, they have consulted a teacher friend who has laid down the facts: It’s not easy, in fact it’s really hard; there is a lot of work to be done at home for which you are seemingly not compensated; some days are intensely demanding and stressful, others are absolutely impossible; you have to deal with not just difficult children at times, but also difficult parents; there is never enough time to do what you really want to do; you will hate Sundays for the rest of your life; some common side effects include but are not limited to weight gain, nausea and accelerated graying of the hair, etc.  

Anyone new to the profession probably knows teaching will be a challenge.  Once someone has made the decision, he or she has heard all the warnings and seen all the eye-rolls and puzzled expressions and responded to all the “Are you sure you really want to do that?” questions.

Rather than add to the warnings, I’d like to offer a few suggestions to new teachers entering the field fresh out of their former career.  

The first suggestion I offer is to ask questions a lot.  In fact, whether you teach math, reading, science, social studies or even the arts, a huge part of your job is to ask questions. We all benefit from our newest colleagues asking questions, as it helps us to reflect on things we don’t often otherwise reflect on.  And I’d hold off on otherwise good questions like, “How do I plan for five hour-long lessons a day with only one hour of planning time?”  or, “Why are there always meetings during my one hour of planning time?”  in favor of more growth-oriented, positive mindset type questions like, “What can I/we do to inspire our students to love their learning?”

What can we do to inspire the children at our schools to love their learning?  I mean really love their learning??

That is one of the more sobering realizations we all have upon entering the profession; not all children love their learning.  In fact, from kindergarten on upward, the love seems to get more sparse.  Most of us can think back to high school and remember a class or two we loved, but it is not often more than that.  The same could be said of middle school, but then so many of us became self-obsessed, anxiety-plagued hormone factories at that stage of life, even if we did have a tremendous love of learning, we might not admit it.  It’s not that there aren’t great teachers making learning come alive in schools everywhere, and others with good intentions.  It’s just that for so many, school is boring.

People leave their professions because they no longer harbor a love for the work they do, or maybe because they long for a change that might spark their enthusiasm and re-ignite their work ethic.  A person new to the teaching world, but experienced in another field, is looking to love what they do, to love their work.  And new teachers really want their students to love their learning.  Those of us who have been in the classroom for five, ten, or twenty or more years are immersed in our own professional culture, and we definitely benefit from the perspective of an outsider actually searching for that love of learning.  For example, as an experienced teacher, I might be under the impression that my students “love” their new curriculum, or their new iPads, or their shiny, new desks.  But that “love” might not be seen through from the eyes and ears of a newly hired, novice educator.  Do the students really love their learning, or are they merely tolerating it?  

If they don’t love their curriculum, or their learning tools, or their learning environment, what can we do with the curriculum, learning tools or learning environment to inspire our students to love their learning? What can we do with our own professional environment to inspire ourselves to love our own work and learning?  

Those are questions new teachers might want to ask themselves as they begin to firmly establish themselves into a teaching career.  If that is you,you should be that change we need in schools. Bring your professional experience, the respect you received as a professional, and the love you once had for your professional work into not just your own teaching career, but also the teaching profession as a whole.

As for the rest of us, we need to encourage more successful and energetic professionals to get into teaching.  I am also of the opinion we need to train the heck out of these folks– Train them better in pedagogy, academic content, classroom management.  But maybe we start by encouraging new teachers to flex their muscles when they get here, share their wisdom, ideas, and enthusiasm.  And when they speak, we should listen.


James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.