The Cycle that Keeps Many Teachers Stuck

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The career of teaching is unique in that it is one of the only jobs of which I know that allows you to complete a  full cycle, experience a period of rest and practically complete separation from the job, and then the start of a brand new cycle each year. If there is any job like that other than that of a college professor, I don’t know of it.

The school year in most parts of the country starts around August or September and ends in May or June, allowing students and teachers alike a full 6-8 weeks away before coming back and starting the cycle again.

The cycle that is embedded in the typical school calendar is part of what keeps teachers stuck–sometimes for years. They hang on from vacation to vacation. And certain specific emotions accompany each part of the year.

For example, at the beginning of the year, there is a certain sense of anticipation that is almost palpable. In fact, for a few weeks before the first day of school, the excitement mounts as school supplies appear on store shelves and preparation for the new year goes into high gear. Teachers and students alike enjoy the first day of school and the ensuing first few weeks. Eventually, however, the honeymoon period wears off as the routine of day-to-day school activities get under way.

In general, teachers are just as excited as the kids the first few weeks of school. If it is a “good year,” the teacher will count his or her blessings, and the year will proceed in without much incident.

If it is a “bad year,” however, that is another story. What constitutes a “bad year?” Teachers will know the answer to this question, but for those who haven’t experienced it, let me recount what a “bad year” was like for me back when I was starting my 2nd year of teaching.

There are 180 school days in the school year for my state not including teacher workdays and holidays. One hundred and eighty days of students.

I started my countdown on day #179.

I remember telling myself as I drove into my apartment complex after the 2nd day of school, “Only 178 more days.” That was 40 years ago…I remember it like it was yesterday.

Why was it a “bad year?” I didn’t have “bad” kids. In fact, on paper, they should have been a dream class! They were all bright with IQ’s hovering around 120, and they were all from nice, middle-class families. In fact, they were all in the band, so they had that in common. They were also incredibly poorly behaved with little or no impulse control, even for 6th graders.

I had a set of twins who were so similar that the only way I was able to tell them apart was the color of their tennis shoes. One of them forged his mom’s signature on a homework assignment…so I had to call Dad about that. Dad didn’t question that the twins were a handful. What he questioned was whether I had the experience I needed to manage them. (He was right to wonder given my relative inexperience.)

Another one of my students that year was like the Charlie Brown character, “Pig Pen.” He traveled with a cloud of chaos and clutter around him all of the time. His desk always looked like it had just exploded papers from who knows where. Maneuvering around his desk was impossible because his books, book bag, coat…and everything else he owned…was strewn in the aisles around him. He was a sweet kid, but I bet today wherever he is, he has left a trail of clutter in his wake. He could not seem to help himself.

I had another student who would occasionally sit on the floor and rock back and forth, hitting his head on the radiator. Nothing would console him when he was in one of these moods, and class would come to a screeching halt while I tried lamely to calm his ragged nerves over whatever the distress of the moment happened to be.

Another student…Richard…never stopped talking! He was extremely good-natured, likable, and entertaining…he is probably very successful today and a leader somewhere…but he was physically unable to restrain himself from talking…so I put him next to me at my desk so I could keep him close to me and away from his neighbors. It didn’t work.

I had yet another student in that class who was such a contrarian that if I had said the sky was blue, he would have wanted to argue that it was green instead.

The point is that this class never gelled into the highly functioning group I wanted them to be…the way the class I had the year before had or the way the group I had the year after did. There was always some drama going on with them, and teaching them English and Language Arts was more than a little challenging.

It didn’t help that the teacher they had before me went out on sick leave around the middle of October, and their long-term sub was too easy going and didn’t have the classroom management skills needed for the group. Neither did I given that I was still new and still learning. But that is what I mean by a “bad year.”

During a “bad year,” things just don’t as well as you might like. What keeps most teachers going is that for every “bad year” they might have, they will usually have a couple of “good years.” At least that was the case for me. I had a great group the year before and the year after. In all of my 33 years as a practitioner, I only had that one really “bad year.”

That doesn’t mean that the rest of my professional career was perfect, however. I was often frustrated with the low pay and the lack of respect I felt people had for my chosen profession. At one point, I even sought out a career counselor to investigate other types of work that I might do. Finding nothing suitable, I decided to go for my Master’s degree instead. If I was going to stay in education, I thought I should at least maximize my earnings.

Each year for the full 33 years of my career, I experienced the same cycle of excitement about the first of the year, sometimes feeling tired and frustrated as early as October and early November, hoping for a long weekend over the Thanksgiving break. I decided that you can do almost anything no matter how tired or sick or frustrated you are for the few weeks between Thanksgiving and the Winter Break. The New Year represented another fresh start, and then we would get into the slog of February and early March. I would start to look forward to Spring Break. Then, toward the end of my career, we started the testing season around the time of Spring Break. Testing season consumes all else. In my last school, the anxiety around the spring state tests was palpable. The school had been an at-risk school at one point, and each year, the fear was that the kids wouldn’t make the cut this year. I was there for eight years, and that fear never went away.

Once we got through the testing season, it was downhill to summer vacation. And that is the cycle that teachers typically experience.

This is also the cycle that I believe keeps teachers stuck in a profession that may or may not serve them any longer. Matthew Boomhower sums it all up pretty well in his blog post, “Emotional Stages of a Teacher’s Career.”

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The point is that when I talk with teachers who are feeling the painful symptoms of burnout by the time they are into year 9 (or 18)–they can relate to this cycle. It is the cycle that has kept them coming back year after year until they decide they just can’t do it anymore.

If you are suffering from those symptoms of burnout (and if you aren’t sure, you should down the free checklist of 7 signs of teacher burnout here), you should acknowledge them and consider if you can continue in the profession or if it is time to consider alternatives.

If you aren’t sure, you should check out my presentation on the 7 Signs of Teacher Burnout. You might find the information useful. I hope so.

So, if you can relate to this cycle, let me know. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Let me acknowledge that I know not all teachers feel the symptoms of burnout, and I am glad that is the case. Our students need and deserve teachers who want to work with them and be with them. I am concerned about the teacher who has hit the point of no return and is having such a miserable time of it that all he/she can think any more is “there must be more that I can do than this.”