One of the undergrads I’m TAing is doing TFA next year. When she heard that I was writing my dissertation on teacher retention, she asked if we could meet for coffee to talk about what I knew. She’s nervous about her own experience on the job and wanted some tips.
I made this list for her, which I titled “How To Keep Teaching.” Please note that I myself did NOT keep teaching - I left after two years - so I’m by no means a personal expert on this. These tips are simply what research on personality and teacher job satisfaction has to say.
How To Keep Teaching
The following is a compilation and summary of research findings I’ve come across while reading for my dissertation on teacher retention. Nothing is ever set in stone in social science, but there’s some evidence that following these pieces of advice might make the difficult job of teaching a little bit easier and more satisfying.
(1) There aren’t a lot of formal ways teachers are rewarded for their work. You don’t really get raises or promotions or even a lot of respect from the outside world. Research shows that teachers who really focus on the everyday fulfillment they get from working with their students are more satisfied. So notice and celebrate when you build a solid relationship with one of your kids, when they learn something new, etc.
(2) Find ways to feel successful. Teaching is a never-ending job. There’s always something else you can do. The articles I’ve read are really clear about one thing – teachers who stick around tend to feel more successful than those who don’t. Make sure to celebrate small successes. Pay attention and feel proud when you do well, even if it seems like no big deal.
(3) On the same note, consider breaking the rules from time to time. Don’t get yourself into trouble, but teachers who are overly conscientious tend to struggle. Decide what your priorities are, do your best, and then let yourself off the hook. If that means filling out paperwork less carefully than you should or skipping a meeting here and there, do what you have to do to keep yourself relaxed and positive.
(4) Satisfice, don’t maximize. To “satisfice” means to use the first acceptable solution you find to a problem. To “maximize” means to keep searching until you find the best possible solution. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to do everything perfectly. There’s just not time when you work as a teacher. Decide what you can’t compromise on and what you can, and be okay when the unimportant stuff is good enough instead of perfect.
(5) Surround yourself with teachers you respect. You will not believe the support and peace of mind this brings you. Make sure you regularly talk to (a) newish teachers like yourself – they can empathize with what you’re going through and (b) more experienced teachers you really admire – they act as mentors and as inspiration.
(6) And finally, most importantly, in general, happier people tend to stay longer and feel more satisfied in teaching. Teachers who are happy and satisfied also tend to teach better, research shows! So keep yourself happy! Again, it’s a never-ending job, you can always think of something else to do – an improvement on your lesson plan, more one-on-one sessions with struggling students, etc. Remind yourself that you’re doing the right thing not only for yourself but for your students by setting boundaries, doing out-of-school activities you love, and leaving work at work when you can.