So here's the good news: a lot of teachers have experienced rich, rewarding careers in education, and a lot of teachers are even doing that right now in the midst of all the topsy turvy. On most days, I count myself among this group.
BUT with that good news stated, let's place a hard reality in the open: many folks don't consistently experience the rich rewards of teaching. I see at least two career bottlenecks on the path to a flourishing career in teaching.
First, there's the Competency Bottleneck. It's just true that becoming competent at the fundamentals of teaching — self-management, classroom management, student motivation, understanding what kids are like and how they learn — is time-consuming and hard. Even if you had a system where every person was adequately prepared prior to their first teaching job and then adequately onboarded upon arrival to that first job, it'd still take a couple years to get to what performance researchers Posner & Fitts call the autonomous stage. And obviously, in the US we don't have a system like that — the quality of both teacher preparation and new teacher mentoring programs vary wildly.
But at any rate, the core question of the Competency Bottleneck is simply this: “How do I do this job well without going crazy?”
If you get through that one, you eventually experience a Demoralization Bottleneck. This is the moment(s) where, as your competency increases, you gain additional bandwidth for and sensitivity to seeing the ways in which the system is broken. You start seeing issues. When I asked colleagues on Twitter to share what demoralizes them, they said things like this:
- Policies (e.g., “accountability” via high stakes testing, hoop jumps required for maintaining certification, too much or too little decision-making power being placed in local school boards, secondary school start times that contradict CDC guidance, mandatory seat time requirements)
- Parents (e.g., enabling, helicoptering, lawnmowing)
- Leaders (e.g., neomania, lack of leadership skill, lack of systems skill, lack of teaching knowledge)
- Colleagues (e.g., negative attitudes, gossip, apathy)
- Pay (e.g., pay scales based on experience and master's degrees, no meaningful opportunity for pay advancement outside of becoming an administrator)
- Curriculum (e.g., individual teachers having too much autonomy or too little autonomy over vertical and horizontal curricula choices)
- And yes, even students (e.g., unpreparedness, apathy, entitlement, mental health struggles)
So look — that's an unpleasant list. I even cringed writing it. I could feel my insides tightening. I don't want to focus on the negatives, I want to focus on what I can do, what I can control.
But the thing is, these are real experiences of people who are good at this job. And a lot of times, we feel guilty for even seeing these things — like we're bad teachers for noticing that some things are broken.
And I guess the point of this article is that no, you're not a bad teacher for noticing really hard stuff about this work. You're probably someone who has a wrestling match every now and then with the ol' Demoralization Bottleneck. Being honest about that is part of the path to getting through it.
So let's end back on some good news. The reality is that there are thousands of smart, passionate, wise career educators who this very day have passed through both bottlenecks. Real people like you and me are in this work and flourishing, despite its problems. And real people like you and me are actually doing things about the problems that they see — problems at all levels of the work.
For some people, it might've been easy to get through — but for most of us, it's not. It's inner work, it's strategy, and it's action wisely taken to improve the things we think we have a shot at improving. And you know what? I think there's a way for it to even be fun. I think it can be a life-enriching process of finding a way to be in the education world but not be crushed by the ways in which it is very surely broken.
I'm working on a course where we explore this work together — the waitlist sign-up is here.