I recently met a teacher who had just finished his first year on the job somewhere in the northeast USA. He had just sat through my session on “Jedi Mind Tricks for Avoiding Burnout,” and he came up to me and said, “I get it, but I still don't feel any better.” We kept talking, and he described a first year that had been a thankless one. This thanklessness was boggling his mind and heart because he had literally given that year of his life to the work — there had been no constraints on the hours he put in, and there may have even been a cot in his back office for the days on which he didn't go home.
Some things in particular had really stung him, too:
- Seeing his colleagues' work praised, while his was not;
- Hearing his students speak about some other teacher as their favorite, not him;
- Watching as the end-of-the-year staff awards went to other people, while he didn't even receive a mention.
And finally, there was this: prior to teaching, he'd achieved a lot. He'd been successful in school, in athletics, in the professional work. Friends and former professors and family were shocked when he had announced that he wanted to teach. He was too much of an achiever to aim “so low.”
In so many ways, I saw an earlier me in him — and a present me, too. That drive to prove himself, to receive external affirmation for what he's doing in the classroom, to be seen as remarkably good at this work: those demons are regulars around here. So just to be clear, I wasn't sitting there thinking, “Oh man, you gotta get past this.” Rather, it was more of a “Yes — my internal battles look something like this, too.” I was impressed that at so early a point in his career he was conscious of the need to win these kinds of inner wars — not simply to surrender through excuses and self-justification, but to break through.
The thing that finally moved our conversation was when we stumbled on this idea. The awards, praises, and “favorite teacher” comments are cheap prizes. We did not get into teaching for these things. Even the public's valuation of the profession — it's a cheap prize. We didn't get into teaching because it's a widely praised profession. And part of that is because public opinion and this year's eval rubric are fickle, here today and changed tomorrow. Like shifting sand dunes, they have impermanence woven into them.
But compare these rewards to the things really at stake each day:
- On any given school day, we may teach things that shift life trajectories;
- In a given week, we'll give our students a flesh and blood model of how to be in the world, of how to work with both excellence and kindness, perseverance and playfulness.
- Over a school year, who knows that we could be 1% of the reasons why our students go on to lead flourishing lives?
These don't get tied to merit pay, and they probably won't show up on the end of year test. But they're why we got in; we have to hold to them, even as we pursue the student achievement results our stakeholders desire.
So whether you feel snubbed because Mr. Smith's unit got some shine and yours didn't, or because once again you didn't get the teacher of the year, or because you heard the students chatting about their “favorite teacher” and you're not her — whatever it is, I'd caution you to stop and ask yourself, did you really get into teaching for that? Were you really motivated by the hope that your name would be in lights? So that a group of teenagers could call you their favorite teacher? So that you could get a plaque to hang on your wall?
It's these conversations with ourselves, these moments of hard internal interrogation, that keep us on the road to becoming the teachers we always hoped we'd be and staying sane in the process. This is part of the inner work of teaching.
Challenge the cheap prizes.