Every teacher has heard this joke:
What are three reasons why teachers teach?
Answer: June, July, and August
There is no doubt that summer is an important time for teachers—it’s a time to recharge, to reconnect with family, and to have some fun. But that doesn’t mean that teachers stop working. In fact, many teachers continue some form of work during the summer, whether it’s summer school, designing lessons for the upcoming school year, or spending time catching up on professional reading through book studies. In fact, according to The Brookings Institute, “teachers work 21.5 hours per week during the summer.” That’s heavy--especially considering that these hours are entirely off the clock. And yet, clearly, as educators, we love learning just as much or more as our students do--it can be hard to turn it off.
During the summer, I like to engage in some “light” reading on pedagogy—I enjoy having time to reflect and chew on the ideas for a while, having a buffer of time available before anything would need to be put into practice. Some years, I'll join or help form a book group; other years, I’ll find a few books on my own that complement and drive my work in the coming year.
And who better to find a great set of books to pull from than other educators? So, seeking some fresh titles on current topics, I decided to ask the experts: teachers.
I put this question out to my teacher-friends, near and far: Teacher-friends, what is the most helpful book you’ve read for your personal professional development?
And I received tons of input—thank you to everyone who suggested a title! (We are such an awesome community, aren’t we?) I’ve taken the expansive list, and curated a top ten, just for you. I’ve tried to include either a review, a video of the author, or something else related to each title for you to look at as you make your choice. If you decide to go for it with any of these titles (or a pile of them, if you’re like me—I just bought two of these books and I’m considering a third!), please consider buying from a local, independent bookseller. Yes, it may take a week or so for them to get it, but meanwhile you can go hang out in the shade with your beverage of choice and decompress—you deserve it!
Here’s the curated list, straight from educators, just like you, who are always striving to get better at their practice:
As educators, it’s important to recognize that we all have different needs at different times--and each one of us is on our own path towards pedagogical growth. I’ve got a small pile of books on my nightstand that I intend to spend some time with this summer, and many of them are related to teaching--because I love the art of teaching. However, if you need to turn it off for a while, you should! One teacher unabashedly recommended The Professional Bartender’s Handbook.
But consider this: what if you found a teacher-friend to read a book with and then also learned how to make a few impressive cocktails to share during your book chat meetings? Sounds like a win-win to me.
Teacher-friends, enjoy your summer--you deserve it! And I hope that you’ll take what you need this summer to be ready to head back into the classroom with gusto this coming fall.
TeacherSays: Why We're Leaving
Recently, I saw a teacher’s post on Facebook that she was leaving. Oh no, not another great one, I thought to myself. And that’s what prompted a new question that I posed to my teacher-friends:
Teacher-friends, if you are seriously considering leaving teaching at the end of this school year, will you send me a PM and tell me what factors led to your decision? And for everyone: What are some things that are making you stay at your job next year? What makes it worthwhile to you, to continue?
Seeing teachers choose to move on is nothing new. This year, it is predicted that there will be a large uptick in resignations, but that has not yet materialized. Nationwide, recent polling done by CBS News estimates a potential 25% of teachers leaving the profession at the end of this year. In California, an EdSource poll predicts one in 10 teachers in their state will choose to either retire early or find another profession, and in Colorado, the Denver Post estimates that as many as 40% of teachers statewide are seriously considering leaving teaching for good.
Clearly, the estimates vary widely. Still, what I know for sure is this: in the 19 years I’ve been an educator, I’ve seen many, many good people go: there was Tim*, a second or third year teacher who was starting a family and left in October for a job that paid much better; Susan, who had a handful of years in and the loving devotion of her students, but decided she’d rather have family time and a career with better life-work balance; and June, a veteran teacher with about two decades in who felt unappreciated and undervalued.
These are just a few of the departed, who took their valuable experience and skills with them.
Every year, teachers walk out the school doors and don’t return. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
While low pay is a lingering factor for many teachers who choose to leave, it’s not the number one concern. Debbie, a teacher who’s been at it for at least a decade has decided to leave this year. “Every year teachers have to fight for every dollar we are paid. I have knocked on doors, I have stood on street corners with signs asking for fair wages for educators, manageable class sizes, adequate professional development, reasonable hours, and a work/personal life balance… I have purchased thousands of dollars in books…and school supplies,” she says. But that’s not the reason she’s leaving.
Another veteran teacher, Jenny, agreed about low pay being an issue: “I think about leaving teaching all the time. To be honest the lack of pay is really THE thing that always pulls at me…” While pay may be the larger reason for her, being that she is a single mom and sole breadwinner for her kids, it is not the only big reason.
Both veteran teachers said the same thing: it comes down to a lack of respect and support.
Why Teachers Are LeavingThere is no question that teacher burnout has been accelerated this year, like gas on a fire, however, it would be remiss for the pandemic alone to be scapegoated for teachers’ exits this year. In fact, as one teacher says, “I think the pandemic is being over-emphasized when people talk about how many teachers are leaving right now…for me, the problems are mostly systemic and have been a part of teaching for a long time…that’s not it at all,” Julie says, about her decision to leave at the end of this school year. “It’s just a question of whether the pros outweigh the cons for each of us, and for me they no longer do.” Earlier in the school year, Julie started making a pros and cons list. When she shared it with me, in early April, the list was ample.
While every job in every career path has frustrations and downsides, when it comes to teaching, there were three major reasons for leaving that emerged, with one that far surpassed the other two. Teachers who are leaving this year cited lack of respect from leadership as the biggest reason why they are calling it quits. Wanda, a veteran teacher of over twenty years says, “I was harassed and micromanaged… Admin didn’t care about the lack of time. Do it all. It’s all got to be done. [It’s] a toxic environment.” Connie is another teacher who has had enough. She says, “My boss made some sweeping assumptions about me yesterday during our evaluation. Been doing this for 13 years and I’m over it.” Apparently, she had sent in her resignation letter just two minutes before she saw my question on Facebook. “It’s the adults,” says Jim, a 27-year veteran teacher. “I am leaving teaching, not because of the kids, but because of the adults (who have never been in the classroom or haven’t been…in a while). …I believe I am a master teacher and to have some administrator step in…and evaluate me and what I do with kids makes me angry…” And Laura has this message to share: “…we are humans that want to be compensated for the many hats we wear in our positions, want to be treated with dignity and respect and don’t have the ability to be everything for everyone at our own expense…”
Lack of respect, it seems, while not the only reason why educators leave, is a noxious weed in many schools, causing many to give up the yard and move on.
The second reason why teachers leave is closely related: a lack of support. One teacher, Abra, says, “…after five years in a small rural district I put in my resignation… I went into debt because my cost of living was so high and I put 100K miles on my car to commute to a community that didn’t respect me or my fellow teachers.” Sadly, her perception of the community’s lack of respect and support was echoed by someone in a position of power. “I overheard a board member say teachers should expect to have a second job…I had 4 w2s that year.” But that wasn’t the ultimate reason why she decided to pack it in, once this year ends. Her school apparently took the saying ‘Students First’ to the max: “The icing on the cake was when I came down with Covid that I contracted from the school. I was encouraged not to get tested so the football season could be saved…[others] were told to lie about it, too.” Abra is leaving teaching to go wait tables, something she says pays twice as much and is far less stressful, in her view.
Another teacher, Nancy, who is planning to leave next year so that she can get her retirement, has felt a glaring lack of support not from her building leadership, but from her community. She says, “I have been shocked and hurt by the number of people in our community who have openly expressed that they think teachers should sacrifice their health and life so that their kids could go to school full time…” She goes on to say that she understands the need for in-person school for essential workers’ children, but she found that it wasn’t essential workers who were getting nasty. “the loudest and meanest people were stay-at-home and work-from-home folks who wanted their kids to be “normal”… I can’t forget the names of the people who were so mean and dismissive of teachers’ lives.” Something teachers realized this year is that while they were initially applauded for their work and efforts at the start of the pandemic, that goodwill quickly evaporated, and in its place, entitlement and some demanding parents descended.
Other teachers, like Sarah, say that it’s not the parents who are the problem — the parents are fine. For her, she says the “lack of support” is felt more locally than that. She feels let down “Not by the parents, but by people [in my school] that never set foot in the classroom.”
The third primary reason why teachers are deciding to leave is the ever-growing demands in the face of highly limited time. One teacher, Dana, says, “I have sacrificed my health and so much time with my family, and I am at a life stage where these things have become essential. They are more important than working 80 hours a week and not being valued.” When I asked Dana if there was any way she might change her mind, she said no. She had consulted with her family, her friends, and even her doctor — and they all said it was time for her to stop. Another school employee, Billie, also left for health reasons, and the root cause was the same as Dana’s: “I resigned a few years ago due to a health/mental health crisis that was essentially caused by a totally unmanageable workload and a lack of support at more than one building/program.”
And the demands on teachers’ time isn’t only seen through negative effects on their health — it takes a toll on an important reason teachers show up: to enjoy their students and have some fun through learning. Jim, who felt a lack of support, commented on this aspect, too: “As teachers we are asked to do more and more. Towards the end I was doing three jobs…We were so tied to the state standards it just wasn’t fun anymore…” Limiting the creativity and autonomy of teachers is problematic, as it can feel like a degradation of the art of teaching — and makes it sound like anyone can do it — a massive misconception of some of the general public.
Stuck“My non-teacher friends don’t get how complicated professionally or emotionally our jobs really are,” Wendy, a veteran teacher with more of a decade of experience says. She is one of many teachers who reached out to me, saying that they wish they could leave teaching, but they feel stuck. “I’m willing to leave teaching… it’s hard to find employers willing to take a chance on a teacher who has been in the classroom for the last 15 or so years…” A teacher’s years of experience often translate into — starting over, if a teacher chooses to leave the profession. Many teachers spoke of the constraints of the pay system, and how they feel locked in to a particular district after only a handful of years, as years of experience beyond five usually don’t follow the teacher to her new district. It can be even worse for teachers who change states — not only do they lose years on the salary scale, they lose Social Security, if they move to a state like Colorado, which has its own state-run retirement system.
Whether or not a teacher has lost years of experience or retirement through a move, once the end is approaching, it can be financially devastating to leave. One teacher, Martha, said, “If I could afford to [leave] I would, but I have to continue paying into Colorado PERA for another 9 years at least.” Another teacher, Tara, said, “I am staying solely because I am stuck: need benefits, good retirement, steady income, and similar work schedule to my daughter’s school schedule, being a single mom.”
If a teacher is burnt out and unhappy, it can have an effect not only on the teacher, but on students, as well. There’s a saying that goes, “If momma ain’t happy, then nobody’s happy,” and the same could be said for teachers and students. The teacher is the architect and engineer of a classroom’s atmosphere, and if the teacher isn’t emotionally invested, it can spell trouble for student engagement and learning.
Those Who Choose to StayIt’s not some miraculous formula that makes teachers happier and more satisfied at work. Based on my respondents’ input, the reasons for why teachers stay can be boiled down to five simple things:
Many teachers cited liking their principal as a major reason for staying — and though some might say that it’s easy enough to shut your door and ignore an ineffectual principal, that’s not always the case. Leadership matters — especially when times get tough. Having a supportive principal can mean that the bad times may feel more like bumps in the road, rather than bottomless sinkholes. “I have a great admin team, and honestly, this year hasn’t been that bad, even though we were remote for the first three quarters. I am thankful and grateful…” Molly says. George concurs, saying that the two powerfully magnetic qualities he has at his school are “Flexibility and compassion from the admin team. They understand when teachers are supported, they will do the best for kids, whatever the situation.” It seems that George’s admin follows the ‘momma’ rule. Other teachers acknowledge that a good principal is not always easy to find, something akin to kissing a bunch of frogs before finding your prince. Andie says, “My school community is truly great. My principal and admin believes in me, which is a VERY rare find, and I don’t want to give that up yet.” Fortunately, some ‘princes’ are not only in fairytales.
Teachers also commented on how important school culture is. Rhonda says, “It has been a rough year for everyone by after 27 years of teaching and 4 different schools — I have found my dream job: students, colleagues, admin and could be luckier (even though we are one of the lowest paid counties and one of the wealthiest counties in the US). Gotta love the politics of education!” After a few jumps between schools, Rhonda has found her happy place, despite the low pay. And she’s not the only one who says the feel of the school outweighs compensation. For many teachers, while extra pay would be much appreciated, it’s the way they are treated that has the greatest impact on whether or not they stay.
I was once at a school where I heard a counselor say, “When you leave a job, you’re not leaving because of the job. You’re leaving because of the people.” Though I overheard this from a distance while waiting for an end-of-year staff meeting to get started, it struck a chord with me. And I believe it’s true: if a teacher has friends in the building, she is more likely to stick it out.
One teacher, Sylvia, who was about to resign, turned to her friends at work to talk about her decision. As close as she was to closing the door, they helped her decide to stay. “I had a conversation with my colleague friends…and they reminded me I am a good teacher…I couldn’t step away from the fact that when I am in the class with students, I really enjoy it.” Friends can help when a teacher needs a shoulder to cry on, but they are also there to cheer you on when you need it — and in months like October or February — or the entirety of a pandemic year — friends are a must. Sylvia is not 100% sure if she’s staying forever, but for next year, she’s made up her mind. “I am going to teach again next year, and I told myself to re-evaluate after Christmas if I want to stay in teaching or not at that point,” she says. Without her teacher-friends, she surely would have left at the end of this year.
And then, of course, there’s the kids. Becky says, “On my 19th year of teaching and I love it! …I have a drawer filled with notes [of encouragement and gratitude from students] and whenever I get down, I read them. Plus just seeing the excitement on their faces lately has done a lot…” Despite the ups and downs, Becky has coping strategies in place for the tough times. Teaching is definitely not an easy job, but one teacher says it best for many who responded: “As always, I stay for the kids!”
So How Do We Make This a Reality for More Teachers?
Teaching has become a more complex job than ever, and it has become much more difficult in recent years, pandemic or not. But there are some solutions to make teachers want to stay — and while none of them are easy, quick fixes, if they were followed, they could have a big impact.
It all follows this aphorism, said by Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
A lot of the following solutions rest with the principal — as we know, when teachers feel respected and supported by their principal and administration, they are more likely to stay. Here are some systemic solutions to help teachers stay:
Looking AheadWill there be a mass exodus this year? I would guess probably not, but it’s never good when experienced professionals leave, no matter the numbers. There are a great many teachers who are passionate about the work they do, driven by purpose, receiving respect and support from their administration, camaraderie from friends, and more. But for those who do choose to leave, I thank you. We all should thank you for your service to our kids. And there are resources out there for you — on Facebook, a couple of groups called “Life After Teaching” exist in which teachers, past and present, offer empathy and solutions towards a successful exit. My wish is that everyone who leaves the profession can leave well, like my teacher-friend, who also happened to be my second grade teacher 34 years ago. He says, “I will be retiring this June after a total of 37 years. I think it’s a good time as I’m leaving before burning out. The last two years have been tough… It’s been a great career and I would do it all over again!”
Life’s too short to be desperately unhappy (if that’s what you are). Or, see what you can do to make it better for you, whether that’s a grade level switch, a building change, a change in role, or — if nothing else works — an entirely new career. If you can, see if it’s possible to take a year of leave (likely unpaid) to see if you are fulfilled in other ways or if you miss it. But don’t do nothing — don’t remain unhappy. There is always a choice and you always have options; it just may not be easy, at first.
If you’re on the fence and unsure of what to do, you can make lists, like Julie, you can talk with friends and colleagues like Sylvia, or you can go with your gut. Kyla says she has found a new path “teaching online on Outschool during my evenings and weekends… It’s amazing, and so different than what we experienced as a school district with distance learning.”
Whatever you do, don’t do nothing — either find your way to make it work or find your way to the exit, towards your next adventure. You deserve to be happy — and like I said before, If the teacher ain’t happy, ain’t nobody (in the classroom) happy.
I hope you find your way towards happiness and fulfillment, whatever that may look like. And as always, thank you for your service.
*As always, all teachers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
Teacher Says: Acing the Interview
It’s funny how 30 minutes can determine your life’s path for years to come. But that’s the power of the interview: you have 30 minutes with a committee to answer their questions, and based on how you answer, you will either be selected as the candidate they want, or you will get a “thank you for your time.”
Most people dread interviews the way they dread going to a repeat dentist visit to have a cavity drilled. But instead of approaching the interview with fear and trepidation, try to think of each interview as a learning experience; you can grow enormously by reflecting on the process and thinking carefully about that 30 minutes, and if you’re lucky enough to get good feedback on your performance, you can use it to get that next job that you really want.
You should prepare--especially if it’s for a job you really want. But you also have to keep in mind that there are certain factors that you have zero control over, and you can’t take it so hard if you don’t get it. Many fledgling teachers are told that the committee was looking for someone more experienced. How do you overcome lack of experience? You can’t. The only thing that will jump that hurdle is if, when you present yourself as a newbie candidate, that you demonstrate enthusiasm and a keen desire to learn and grow--and someone decides to take a chance on you.
In addition, there’s an even biggest factor you have no control over: prior connections. If other candidates know someone on the committee, say their best friend works at the school and happens to be on the interview committee, I’d say that that’s a tough obstacle to overcome. Even worse is when there’s an internal candidate--someone who’s already had the opportunity to build relationships, who has insights into the department or school that you’d be hard pressed to match. But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed before it even begins. You got the interview, you’ve shown up, you’re ready--of course there’s a chance. But you shouldn’t take that opportunity lightly; make the most of it so that regardless of the result, you can be proud of yourself.
You have to prepare. There’s no way around it. Think about it this way: if you’re not willing or able to prepare for the interview, do you really want the job at all? It’s important to be able to visualize yourself in the school, working with that team--and you have to be realistic and look closely at yourself in the mirror: is this what you really want? If you do, then prepare. If you don’t, you might as well rescind the offer to interview and spend that 30 minutes elsewhere--no good comes from wasting the time of the committee, or your own time, either.
I asked my teacher-friends what advice they would give to job-seekers. They had some great insights to share.
First, you have to get the interview. In order to do that, there’s a few key steps--and yes, you should spend some time here. If you haven’t updated your resume in a while, do it. Take a look at the descriptors for various positions you’ve held or skills you’ve acquired--do they seem to match up well with the position you’re interested in getting? Tailor your word choice to make sure that it has a positive connotation--if you sound negative on paper, they may assume you’ll be a negative Nancy in person, and no one needs another one of those. Once you’ve tailored the written chunks of your resume, think on the appearance of the document, as well as the length. One teacher says, “Resumes and references matter. No clip art on a resume, and keep it relevant and to one page.” One page may suffice if you are especially concise or if you are short on experience, but to many teachers, one page may seem somewhat stringent. Another teacher has this to say on length: “One page is ideal. Two? Ok... more than that? NO! Learn some formatting skills and make stuff fit.” To interject here, I myself struggle with the length of the resume, as I have worked in a number of very different schools with different experiences to share. I agree with a limit of two pages, whenever possible.
Some other resume considerations should be obvious, such as this piece of advice from one teacher: “Spell check!” All teachers should be knowledgeable about basic spelling and grammar skills--make sure to take the time to inspect your document carefully.
You should always have the basics on your resume: name, certifications, education history, and career history. A red flag is when references are absent. Not only should you list at least three strong references, but one teacher says, “Make sure your references will speak highly of you.” Yes, that can be tricky, especially if you weren’t really wanting to share with your principal that you’re looking for a new job, but you shouldn’t make it a surprise for them if they get a call for a reference check--that’s just not nice or professional, on your part. You can include past employers, too. But the bottom line is that not only do you want to look good on paper, you want to sound good from your evaluator’s perspective, too. One teacher says, “I’ve interviewed so many candidates that nail the interview but have poor references.” What a shame to do well and then toss it all away over someone who doesn’t support you! Our past actions, as viewed through the lens of an evaluator’s eyes, are often considered more important than the words we share while gathered around the table with the committee.
Some might ask, can I have a colleague speak for me, instead of my principal? My advice would be this: have a letter from your colleague that shows evidence of your collaborative and cooperative spirit, but have your boss as your reference.
For some positions, a cover letter is required. Don’t skip this step--and remember to tailor each letter to each position you apply to. Your letter should be no longer than one page. And make sure to cover the bases: a brief introduction of who you are and the position you’re seeking, a paragraph about your fit with the school or position you’re applying to, and a paragraph to close--restating or emphasizing your goals and beliefs--make your interest clear. In order to do this right, one teacher says, “Be prepared to know the school, the mission, the achievement data. In other words, do your homework.”
A little research on a school can go a long way--and it can also help you determine if this is the right place for you. “Always know the makeup of the school you are interviewing for,” one teacher says. “My school was one of the most diverse, ethnically and socioeconomically in my mostly white and affluent district. So many candidates came in totally assuming that they were going to be working in a mostly white school. We quickly showed them the door.” Sadly, not everyone wants to work with all students--but you have to know yourself: each school is different and presents different opportunities and challenges--if it doesn’t seem like a fit from the start, pass on applying in the first place. This same teacher goes on: “You have to want to teach all the kids. It will make your journey so much more enriching, humbling, and exciting.”
Beyond the resume (required) and cover letter (possibly optional), there are a few other things you can do, if it feels comfortable to you. One teacher suggests to “[r]each out personally to the school instead of just submitting through HR.” That can be a good thing to do--but if you send an email, keep it relatively short, cordial, and demonstrate enthusiasm for the position--and don’t expect a reply. Be aware that in some situations, it might actually be best to reach out personally to the department chair, if there is one, or possibly an assistant principal--the head boss is usually swimming in emails and meetings, not to mention putting out the little fires that pop up on a daily basis.
Once everything is submitted and out of your hands, you wait. One teacher advises, “Find the teacher effectiveness rubric for the district they are applying for, read through and try to find examples or (better yet) artifacts that show proficiency in those areas.” If you get a call for the interview, it’s time to reflect--doing a bit of mental rehearsing can be a boon, and it can give you a lot to pull from if the right question pops up. You can try to anticipate the questions, based on what seems important to the school. In addition, reflect on your experiences. One teacher says, “Beforehand, think of the 3 best teacher moments of your career...could be success with a struggling student, getting services for a student who needed it, working with a family, etc.” Recalling these sorts of moments can be self-assuring of your talents and skills, but they can also be useful later on. She adds, “When you see the interview questions, decide where these stories fit best.”
Make sure to have a few questions in mind that you’d like to ask the committee. What would you like to know more about, that would demonstrate your high interest in the position? If you know someone who works at the school, you can also reach out to them--usually, teachers are proud of their school and will be glad to talk with you about what they are looking for and what it’s like there. And it’s also your opportunity to gain insight from a trusted perspective: what are the school’s issues? What is the culture like? What are the best things about working there? One teacher suggests, “I feel like every candidate should ask the prospective employer to elaborate on how the organization handled the COVID situation with their organization and employees, and to expand upon what adaptability and resiliency means to them.” While you could do this during the interview, my instinct would be to ask this of a current employee/contact before you interview. That way, you can get a sense of whether teachers feel valued there, or if there’s something lurking beneath the surface that you might want to avoid.
Artifacts and anecdotes are useful not only in an interview, but they also can help during any future performance reviews. One time, I was about to have a difficult conversation with a district-level supervisor who didn’t know me at all. A coach-friend gave me the advice of assembling a folder with my most recent work--things I was proud of that showed what I could do--and to bring it with me. During the meeting, I had the folder by my side, and I never once opened it, but I was able to recall its contents during the meeting, which was a huge confidence boost for me and helped the meeting go smoothly.
A former evaluator of mine, Ron Schumacher, has a unique approach to offer job seekers. Ron is now an elementary school principal in Aurora, CO, and he also runs a consulting business on the side, with one of the offered services being career and interview counseling for education professionals--teachers through administrators. It’s not a quick fix, but a tried-and-true process, and he swears by the results. He says his approach has worked for all but one of his clients. In a very distilled synopsis, this is how it works: keep a journal, look back for themes that emerge, select a dominant theme, and with a mentor, “craft a simple statement that captures the theme.” Next comes practice with a mentor, “to answer all questions with their theme at the heart of the answer, drilling down from a global perspective, to an example of practice, then to a student story.” It’s a process that takes time, but it can have a huge payoff in the result of capturing the position of your dreams.
On the day of the interview, eat. Drink water. Dress well, yet comfortably. If you are wearing shoes that nip at the back of your Achilles tendons or a blouse that stretches uncomfortably in the arms, then for God’s sake, don’t wear those things. Bring a water bottle with you. There’s nothing worse than going into a coughing fit during an interview or having your mouth turn into a desert. Arrive early, but not too much so. If it’s a Zoom interview, check your equipment and your mic before you’re set to enter the room. Additionally, if you're interviewing online, check your lighting and remove or minimize distractions. Yes, we’re all human, and these days interruptions of kids or barking dogs can be common, but if this is important to you, you’ll figure out a way to shove them out of the house or get them to be quiet while you’re on camera.
Oftentimes, you’ll get the questions ahead of time. This is a lovely gesture that not all schools do, but if they offer it to you, use this opportunity. It might be that you get to see the questions 15 minutes in advance. If you do, take notes on them. Skim through and jot down a few words and phrases meant to trigger connections, anecdotes, and more that you could pull from once the interview begins.
Once you are ushered in, either in-person or on Zoom, listen carefully as introductions are made. Jot down the names of those in attendance, if you can. And remember to breathe--a good deep breath or two with a slow exhale can help to clear your mind and keep you from going into overdrive.
The first question of the interview sounds like a softball, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. It usually is: “Tell us about yourself and what led you to apply for this position.” One teacher says, “When they ask ‘Tell us about yourself,’ the interview committee does not want to hear about your recent divorce (true story) or any other deeply personal information. Think about your personality traits, characteristics, how you were as a primary or secondary student and how that has transformed or transferred to your adult professional life.” Another suggestion for the kick-off, is to demonstrate a connection or share a compliment of the school: “If you can, identify a student who attends or their parents ask them what they like about the school. Be very clear and be able to articulate why you want to work there and what you bring to the table.” And don’t spend too long on the first question--after all, you’ve only got 30 minutes.
As you answer each question, be cognizant of time. One teacher says, “Use all of the time you are given to ‘sell yourself.’ If you have a 30 minute interview, talk for 30 minutes. Also, don’t be afraid to revisit a previous question if you remember something you forgot to mention earlier.” Another recommends that you “[g]ive specific examples so the interviewing team can imagine you in that role.” Many teachers agree that examples are powerful. “I've always leaned toward candidates who ‘show’ me who they are. It makes their answers seem more honest and relevant.”
Some questions may be difficult, especially if you don’t have a ton of experience with the situation they present. A tip I got from a friend several years ago was this: if you get asked something you’re unsure of, say, “That’s a really great question,” and take a moment to pause--grab your water bottle, and have a sip to buy yourself a bit of time so that you can reflect. If you’re still not sure, ask them if they can clarify the question. In addition, one teacher says, “If the panel is asking questions that make you wonder about something, ask. It is way better to know what you are getting yourself into before you take a job.” And above all, be honest: if it’s something you’ve never heard of, it’s better to react with curiosity and interest rather than try to fake your way through. So much of teaching is improv and growth; if we had to know everything before we walked in the door, not a single teacher would be standing in a classroom today. A teacher adds, “Keep in mind that the questions they ask lead you towards what they are looking for.”
I have always told my high school students: make sure that it’s mutual--don’t accept an offer unless you’re sure that both sides are inclined. These days, with so many interviews being held online, it can be difficult to read the room, but I would argue that it’s one of the most important parts of the process. Of course, if one committee member appears to be afflicted by resting bitch face, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should run away--but if you see key members of the committee with their arms crossed or leaning away rather than leaning in, you should be concerned. Trust me--I’ve seen it, and it’s the one time I should have turned the job offer down. Listen with your ears and eyes--and also important--listen to your gut. If you have butterflies, that’s natural. If you have a sense of doom or an urge to run to the bathroom to throw up, that’s your body trying to tell you something--and you’d better listen.
Towards the conclusion of the interview, make sure to ask questions, if you are given the opportunity. Ron Schumacher has one of the all-time best-ever questions to share: “Is there anything I said or omitted during this interview that has left you with the impression that I am not the best candidate for this position? If so, I am happy to clarify or expand my answers.” This is very clever, not only because it shows that he cares deeply about the position and the committee’s impressions, but it also shows him as humble--and it opens up the door for a more free conversation to take place.
While the interview may seem interminable at times, time flies. Rather than show artifacts or distribute information to the committee, to make a great final impression, you could try one teacher’s approach: “I directed the committee to my professional website link that could give them a more in-depth look at my work.” That way, during deliberations, if they have any questions or need more information, they’ve got it right in front of them online.
Once it’s all over, and you’re safely back in your car or staring at the log-off screen, it’s time to reflect. But don’t engage in shoulda, coulda, or woulda. Instead, review the list of committee members, and take a few minutes to write brief thank you emails. If you’ve forgotten names, you can review the school’s website or call to ask the principal’s secretary for names. One teacher says she recommends “ thanking them for their time and bringing up parts of the convo you enjoyed.”
As you reflect, do a gut check--how do you feel about how it went? Does it feel like a place you would want to be? Teaching is no longer an entirely independent endeavor--these days, you can’t just go to your classroom and close the door. One teacher offers a sage piece of advice: “Don’t be afraid to say no thanks if you get that feeling that you won’t fit in with the staff or school.” And another offers a warning: “I’d say watch out for the schools that are ill-prepared for you. If they don’t give you questions a bit before the interview, don’t offer some water, and seem intent on not making you somewhat comfortable (breaking the ice) think hard if you're offered the job. You are also interviewing them. If you are able to discern hostilities amongst them....run!” However, if there are no red flags, then be patient, and hope for the desired outcome, knowing that you did your best.
If you get a call and are offered the job, congratulations! Best of luck to you and may the position be the right fit you were seeking. But if you don’t get the call, do your best to solicit some feedback--after a few days, you can (and should!) reach out, to find out if they went with another candidate. Also, seek growth-producing feedback. After all, they may have insights or observations to share with you that can help you later on. As much as it might hurt, don’t just say, “Okay, thank you,” and hang up--take this opportunity to ask for feedback--ask what you could have done differently, or what you should emphasize or deemphasize in future interviews. It may help you to revise your approach for the next one.
The interview process can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be painful. If you are truly a growth-mindset educator, you will welcome the opportunity to share your ideas and skills with the committee. And remember: the one you don’t get is great practice for the one that’s right for you. In time, with patience, and a little pixie dust, you’ll land where you’re supposed to be.
There’s a bunch of things you don’t go into teaching for: the barrage of emails that bark for replies, grading and entering grades, hallway or bus loop duty, chaperoning a school function in the evening, and of course--one of the worst: proctoring. But there’s one thing that is considered worst of the worst for most teachers because it hits you where it hurts: the angry-parent-nasty-gram--the email or voicemail message that says, “Teacher, you suck,” and then goes on to tell you exactly what you suck at and how badly, in their opinion.
I got one of those last week, after a relatively quiet spell on the parent front. And even though I’ve been teaching since 2001, it shook me a little.
I’ve been on the receiving end of a few nasty-grams since I started teaching (and there’s a few I deserved that never landed, thank goodness--phew, got away with that one!). Here are some of the more memorable occasions:
And then, I got an email this week--I had just closed up my office hours and was getting back into the knee-deep swamp of my online grading queue, when a nasty-gram popped up. A parent had taken my feedback from her daughter’s rough draft essay and gone line by line, writing a paragraph per phrase, deriding my feedback from top-to-bottom. She accused me of being careless, hurtful, and causing great emotional distress for her daughter. She cc’d my boss.
I was shocked--why was I being attacked? What was this all about? I took a deep breath, trying not to let the “you suck” message sink in, but there I went, slowly being swallowed up by a swirl of her disparaging words and my own reactionary emotions: sadness, anger, hurt, and self-doubt.
As teachers, we all have these moments. Conflict is, unfortunately, part of the job. Mostly, it remains minor--tiny classroom skirmishes and redirections that end before they even begin. But sometimes, these little conflicts flare up, sometimes catching fire to the forest.
So, what can a teacher do to get through the unpleasantness of the conflict and move on in a productive way? I decided to ask my teacher-friends. Here is what they had to say:
Several teachers say, wait--don’t respond just yet. “24 hour rule. Wait 24 hours before you respond,” one teacher says.
Another says, “4 hour rule and I have a colleague not directly involved with the activity/reason read the email. This way I ensure I’m not replying out of anger.” Sharing with a colleague in addition to giving a bit of time can be helpful, to gain not only perspective, but empathy from a friend. We’ve all been there, right?
2. Treat Yourself Afterwards or Go to Your Happy Place
Other teachers look for a way to cool off after an attack: “I received a nasty message last week. The things I was accused of really hurt and were completely unfair. I just told myself that today this parent needed a punching bag and today I was that punching bag. She doesn’t know me and most likely it wasn’t even me that made her so angry, I was just the place where that anger landed. When this happened, I focused on being as professional and polite as possible and fortunately my administration was there to support me. I then had a nice cocktail and let it go. It truly does suck though.”
For some it’s a cocktail, for others it’s something stronger: “Keep your response focused on facts: student behavior, curriculum, and objectives. Thank them for any other feedback. Go home. Pour a tumbler of bourbon. Think about anything else.”
And other teachers keep a pick-me-up file for days and situations that aren’t going so well. One teacher suggests, “Keep letters and emails from parents who love you (I know you have a lot) and read those when the negative parents get on your nerves.” It can’t hurt to read through some praise after taking a hard knock.
3. Keep it Short
Thank goodness for the mainstream spread of mindfulness. One teacher’s advice is this: “Take a deep breath. When I was younger I used to get worked up and anxious. My first principal was awesome and told me to never respond to an email if I couldn’t reply in 6 sentences or less, or if it was emotionally charged…” and others agree: “1) Always wait at least a few hours and respond only after I have control of my emotions.
2) Keep the response brief. Overly explaining looks defensive. Plus, I don’t have time for that.
3) offer a phone call if they aren’t satisfied or want more information.” There’s a lot of wisdom, especially in point #2--a teacher’s time is already so short. Don’t give it away so easily to your emotions or innate need to defend yourself.
4. Some Say: Call, Instead
“When responding to these messages I tend to try to do it via phone/in person rather than email since so much of tone is inferred in email…” This is very true--much can be said in an email when we read between the lines, not so much in our words themselves, but with the tone that oozes from them. Another teacher agrees, saying “Sometimes talking over the phone or in person can diffuse the situation better than emailing back.”
But if the phone call doesn’t go well?
Some teachers are armed with good sentence-starters that can work for just about any conflict: “I’m sorry you feel that way given the information from your perspective. My perspective is....”
Another offers this advice: “Always sandwich critique between a positive of their kid. Say that you hear their concern. Most just want an audience.”
And then if it gets really ugly? “I have hung up on plenty of phone calls where I have stated “we need to stay in the realm of facts and truth,” and the parent has wanted to make attacks, excuses or accusations,” one teacher says.
I second that, another teacher says: “I know a lot of people are saying to make a phone call, but if it's particularly nasty, I prefer to keep everything in writing. I'm always polite and encourage the parent to ask any further questions. Stick to the facts. Don't type when angry. And if the child is older, check in with them about the problem. If the parent continues to be nasty, I forward all of the email correspondence to my admin and let them deal with it.”
5. CYA, As they Say
Document, document, document, many teachers say. One teacher’s approach, after a conflict-based phone call is to “send a follow-up reply to their email, ‘It was so nice speaking to you on the phone today! To recap, we discussed XYZ and will make these changes for the future (or whatever is pertinent). Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any further questions or concerns. Have a great evening!’ CC admin if needed.”
6. And Some Don’t Reply At All...
If you choose not to respond, it doesn’t mean you don’t care--a reply just may not be warranted at that time. “The best advice I ever received from a principal was to only respond if there is a question present. Then only respond with the pertinent information. This of course does not include rhetorical questions like "how dare you?" one teacher says.
7. ...Because Sometimes, There’s It’s Not About You
It’s not easy to not take it personally when a conflict arises and things get heated. But one teacher takes a different tack: “I get curious. Follow up with questions. I find it becomes less personal when I approach it as a 'problem' we can solve together. There was a moment of clarity in year twelve where a student lashed out at me and I immediately went to the pain this kid must be in. It was as if I had leaped forward in my capacity for empathy. Maybe all those years built to it.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year.” That’s not to say that every irate parent you encounter is experiencing a bout, but it does warrant a teacher taking a moment to step outside of herself, and perhaps, even consider what it’s like to walk in the parent’s shoes. One former preschool teacher says, “...[O]n dealing with difficult people in general - read anything by Brene Brown and realize... it's not about you. Also keep in mind that nasty people only affect you for a short time - they have to live with themselves and their crappy attitude 24/7.” And we also have to stop and think: if a parent is willing to launch a tirade or epithet of nastiness on a teacher they hardly know...what are they like at home? Sometimes standing down or working to smooth things over will make a child’s already-difficult home life a little bit easier. To put the student first, one teacher says, “I try to rise above and kill ‘em with kindness. Just remember the student and do what's necessary to keep things civil.”
And just because someone’s angry doesn’t necessarily mean they are mentally unstable. One teacher says, “They are in “mama bear” state of mind and often fire off an email before they think about it.” Adding to that thought, another teacher says, “Take a deep breath; remember the parent’s comments are usually motivated by loving that child more than everything else; be kind and professional; don’t reply if no reply is sought (like if their aim appears to be to complain and they don’t actually ask a question).”
8. But That Doesn’t Mean You Should Just Take It, Either
“I also never let someone pressure me into an apology unless I’ve made an actual mistake that would warrant that,” one teacher says. “I often will just keep it factual and restate a specific policy or an account of events. Don’t even acknowledge personal attacks.” Another concurrs: “[S]tand your ground and stick up for yourself. Of course, not in a nasty sort of way, but more often than not, we teachers don’t deserve those accusatory emails and a parent should not think it’s right to send them.”
9. But What If You Are Wrong?
In the case of my most recent nasty-gram, I was in the wrong. Of course, the mistake was made without malice: I was scoring a student’s electronic essay revision worksheet, and I just didn’t scroll far enough to realize that she had made some of the corrections I was seeking.
When it’s an honest mistake, here’s what one teacher has a short response that fits the bill: “Thank you so much for bringing that to my attention, I have just fixed it! Have a wonderful day and I appreciate your support!"
But, when you are attacked verbally, it can leave a scar: “I’m gonna apologize for the mistake and think less of them as a parent for their response.” It’s hard to get over that hurt sometimes, even if you’re a super teacher.
10. A Useful Acronym
As teachers, we get bombarded with acronyms to the point where it should almost be a drinking game. But here’s one that’s actually useful, if you find yourself in a conflict with a parent: “I always remember QTIP. Quit taking it personally. I don't let comments, complaints get to me. Parents generally know very little about what you do in the classroom, so their anger is not a condemnation of your ability.” Amen to that--most parents are merely running to the defense of their child, usually from a place of love. And your hurt likely comes from this: you love the student, too--not in the same way, of course, but as teachers, we care. We care a lot more than we’d like to admit. And that’s why it hurts so much when someone attacks us about the job we put so much love, effort, and time into.
This Saturday morning, as my husband and I were clearing out the shed in our backyard, our daughter called our attention to our five month-old Sharpei, Lucy, who was lying on her side in the grass, one eye swollen shut. We went into panic mode trying to figure out what was going on--could she see? Had she poked herself with that stick she’d been carrying around? Had she been stung? Was her eye going to be okay? I picked up the phone and called the vet’s office, which happens to be open from 9-2 on Saturdays. “Please,” I said, “Is there any way I could bring her by for someone to take a look at her eye?” The receptionist told me, no, they were fully booked. “But her eye!” I said, my voice getting shrill. “What should we do about her eye?” The receptionist handed me off to a vet tech who suggested I apply warm compresses. I asked again, “But can’t I just bring her in for a minute for you to take a look?” No, the tech said, we are booked. So I muttered something unintelligible and hung up. A few minutes later, after trying a compress, I called back. “Can I please just bring her by for a minute? She’s hurt!” No, the receptionist told me, but there is an emergency vet’s office 20 minutes away. I hung up and threw the phone down and went back to my dog. Minutes later, Lucy was zipped off to the emergency vet.
Later that evening, with an ointment prescription in hand and Lucy trotting around like a bull with a Queen Elizabeth collar ringed around her head, I had a thought: in a moment of passion, seeking to protect and care for my dog, I had become the angry parent. I smiled to myself.
Sometimes we need a little criticism to bring our failings or shortcomings to our attention. While not every angry parent email is legit, there are some that contain some truth--and those warrant some self-examination on our part.
In response to my recent parent situation, one teacher’s response made me stop in my tracks: “By your own admission, you made a mistake. Why the impulse to make this situation about the parent's reaction? We teachers are not perfect, and parents are entitled to their emotions. Maybe apologize sincerely and without qualification, and move on?” And she is right--I did make a mistake. But what about having some manners?
Sometimes it’s hard to be the bigger person. And being a teacher, so much more is expected of you.
During a conflict, it’s worth it to consider:
Am I in any way at fault here?
What is their perspective in this situation?
How might I have handled the situation that caused this problem differently, if I could?
How can I make this right?
And, the biggest one of all: What can I learn from this?
For me, I’m working on giving parents a little more grace.
Conflict arises because someone cares. I don’t despise the receptionist or the vet tech; I was in a panic trying to help my dog, whom I love dearly. The same goes for the vast majority of parents: they growl and snarl and bare their teeth not because they hate you, but because they love their child.
Conflict is hard, but it’s part of life and teaching. And as one teacher says, “As a mom AND a teacher, I like to think that we are all on the same side, and that we all want what is best for kids.”
A few side notes: Several teachers reached out to me to check on me and see if I was okay--and that shows it all right there--teachers have gigantic hearts and are incredibly caring--about their students and others, too.
One teacher also recommends a book for further reading, should you be interested in further exploration of this topic. It’s called BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, available on Amazon for Kindle.
Many parents, administrators, and teachers have been quick to write off remote learning, hoping to get back to “normal” as soon as possible.
But that hasn’t been the experience of all teachers. For some, the experience of teaching remotely has been rewarding, engaging, and stimulating--for them and for their students.
“There’s a lot of talk out there that students can’t learn remotely. And it’s false.” --Mike, a six-year veteran teacher, working 100% remotely this year
With all of the flak that remote learning has gotten, I wondered: Have teachers received adequate training or been able to share and swap best practices for remote learning, to make it more successful? Or have teachers been rather isolated, told to jump in the lake but not given a life vest or swimming lessons?
For some teachers who were already tech-savvy and working fluidly in 1-1 classroom environments, the transition was fairly easy. For others, who leaned more on traditional in-person techniques, the switch to remote was jarring and hasn’t improved much.
I decided to reach out to two of my favorite teacher friends in the whole wide world who happen to be teaching 100% remotely this year. These two educators are folks I have worked with in different settings and at different points in my career--and they are both incredible at what they do. I reached out to them to see if they would impart some of their learning with me, so that I could pass it along to you, my teacher friends.
The following is what two of our awesome colleagues had to share.
One teacher I interviewed, I’ll call him Mike, is a middle school teacher. He has taught for six years now (including this one), and this year was the first time he’s ever taught in an entirely remote environment, aside from last spring when the pandemic hit. When I asked him what the highlight of his career has been, he replied: “transitioning to remote teaching.”
The other teacher I interviewed, let’s call her Jane, teaches high school. She has 17 years of experience, with 15 in the classroom, and she considers herself a jack-of-all-contents. The best part of teaching for her are the “communities of kids you connect with.” During our discussion, she recalled some past groups of students with whom she shared little inside jokes.
For both of these teachers, relationships are a huge part of why they teach.
That might sound like a strange statement, as some have branded remote learning as an isolating and socially stunting situation, but both of these teachers made it a priority to build strong relationships at the outset of the school year and have continued to work to keep that momentum going.
Mike likes to start off every class the same way: on a topic entirely unrelated to his content area. He provides the students with “Would you rathers” and gleans responses from each of his students in class that day before moving on. “Sometimes it takes 20 minutes,” he says, “but I feel it’s worth it, [even] with the time devoted to it.”
Jane does something quite similar--she begins class by asking students to rate how they are doing that day, on a scale of one to five. Then she follows up with a silly question, such as “If animals could talk, which one would be the rudest”? Or “”Which TV show have you binged-watched?” She makes sure to mentally note any students who respond with a one or two, and connects with them privately after class to make sure they’re okay.
To start the year, Mike made sure to familiarize students with the tools they’d be using to ease any jitters, and he also had each student present a little slideshow about themselves so that students could feel that they knew who else was with them in the ‘room.’ Jane set the tone with a few basic expectations, with the main one being super simple: “Don’t be a dick.” Of course, she didn’t say it quite that way, but students have not violated this cardinal rule. She also had students get to know each other, to get comfortable with each other by first sharing more about herself than she ever has before. “I definitely took more time to give kids my bio: Where am I from? What was my road to teaching? My things I like to do, pictures of my cat and my husband. They want to know these things.” Then she had them each share about themselves, via FlipGrid, responding to a short set of questions, providing their names, hobbies, pets, pronouns. The culmination of the activity was when students viewed each other’s short videos, leaving supportive comments for each other, to make connections within the group.
Early on in the year, both Mike and Jane arrived at the same decision: they would ask for cameras on, but wouldn’t enforce it. As Jane notes, “I didn’t fight the camera battle...it was something that I realized--I’ve only got one screen [and] I can’t see them [all], anyway.” Mike feels the same way: “I ask that they’re on, but I don’t police it. I know that cameras can make [students] self-conscious.” He adds, “Some of them don’t want others to see their [home] environment, and I don’t want that to be a barrier.” He also mentioned that some students got way too caught up in their appearance and were constantly doing their hair. “I will ask them, and I will remind them, but I will not [force them],” he says.
“A huge problem in our profession is that many teachers are perfectionists and control freaks.” --Jane, 17-year veteran teacher, currently on remote assignment
Engagement--or the continued criticism of the lack thereof with remote learning--has been a positive this year for both Jane and Mike. Jane says, “In some ways, I get more participation from students in remote learning than I did in-person. Is everyone participating? No, but they wouldn’t, anyway.” It seems many people forget that while a student who attends in person may be physically present, that doesn’t mean the student is mentally present. Mike has seen an interesting pattern: “It’s weird, but the typical bell curve you see is almost inverted--there’s hardly anyone in the middle.” He talked about how it can be incredibly hard to get students who are “ghosting” him to re-engage. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve called on a student who’s ‘there’ who doesn’t respond,” he says. However, when he tried out something new one day, a jigsaw in groups with students partnered up together in breakout rooms to create a Jamboard as a team, the engagement was through the roof: “I had 95% engagement,” he says.
One of the major challenges this year for both teachers has been students who are hesitant to speak up--either during whole class time or during breakout rooms. Jane notes, “they hate breakout rooms with a fiery passion.” But some of their students have warmed to breakout rooms, and Mike likes to use them for individual students, where they each get their own ‘room.’ Students like this approach, Mike says, because “they can call me in when they have questions without anyone else knowing.”
Allowing students to remain anonymous in some ways leads to better participation, in both teachers’ experiences. All of their students are big fans of PearDeck, a tool that both teachers use regularly in their live lessons. “I’ve taught freshmen through seniors and everyone loves PearDeck--everyone can guess with no fear of anyone knowing who guessed what,” Jane says.
Other programs that both teachers use frequently are EdPuzzle and Jamboard. In Mike’s view, Jamboard is great for collaborative thinking “because they can just jot their ideas down.” For Jane, it took her a little while to warm up to EdPuzzle--she had attended a training a few years back, but it seemed more complicated, so she had left it alone. This year, she’s changed her mind: “it does take some time, but it’s worth it.” Her tip for learning new programs to use with students: “Just open it up and start goofing around with it. You click around and you figure it out.”
Both teachers noted that they have not received any substantive training to help with remote learning this year. So Mike decided to go it alone and find his own PD. “Over the summer, I attended an online development, sponsored by PearDeck.” He found the experience to be valuable, as he uses the program on a nearly daily basis. Jane thinks PD from the district could help--if it’s useful. “People are stuck doing something a certain way,” she says, “and there’s not a lot of support to help them do it better.” It doesn’t help that teachers who teach remotely are often deeper in isolation from their peers--or at least, one would think.
Something that has been helpful for Mike, to make sure that working remotely doesn’t overtake his personal life, has been leaning on colleagues who share ideas and lessons. He says, “I rely so much more on my colleagues in terms of planning materials [this year. Last year,] I used to stay super late until I’d get stuff done.” To make sure he keeps a good work-life balance, he adheres to a strict rule: “Once four o’clock hits, I’m just done.”
Jane has also made some key discoveries about how to keep her work from seeping into her personal life. “It took me a long, long time to get away from grading everything,” she says. She began using an exit ticket through Google Forms at the end of each class period as closure, which also gives students immediate feedback on their progress. “Kids really like it because it’s a little five-point quiz...If you get everything right, you get to pat yourself on the back.” She also notes, “if you craft your exit ticket well, they get the feedback they need.” She also admitted that sometimes she will give 100% across the board on a minor assignment--she thinks it’s important to “give yourself permission” to do that every once in a while, to save time. “When I ask kids what they like [about our class],” Jane says, “they say they like the exit tickets--no one says they liked the detailed feedback!”
Another way that Jane has simplified the process for herself and for students is to give each student just one document per day--nothing else--to keep it simple and streamlined. It’s all there: “all the links, all the everything--and then they turn it in [at the end of class].”
Something that works great for Mike is something every in-person teacher wishes for: the mute button. “Behavior management is a million times better,” he says. Jane agrees that her time has become much more efficient, with far less policing of off-task behaviors than in years past. “[Remote learning] is a lot more efficient,” she says, “not a lot of wasting time. I can get through what I normally would get through in 90 minutes [when in-person] in 60 minutes [now that she’s remote].” That allows students extra processing time and extra time to linger and ask questions during the last few minutes of class. And those who are done? They can leave, rather than having to stick around. “It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to get people to stop talking,” Jane says.
Both teachers were emphatic that remote learning can, and does, work. In Jane’s situation, it has allowed her more freedom to decide how she uses her time. “One of the things that people value most is if they have autonomy,” she says. “If they have autonomy, their happiness at work increases exponentially.” She is beside herself when it comes to teachers who say they can’t wait to return to ‘normal.’ “I see a lot of times on Facebook, ‘I can’t wait to get back to normal.’ And I’m like, no guys!” Teaching remotely, Jane gets a lot of flexibility in how she structures her days, and it doesn’t mean that she’s working less--she just gets to decide more about when she works. “It’s been great for me,” she says, “but it’s also great for students.” Mike is adamant about remote learning’s power for many students: “I have seen [that] for some kids, this is the best environment, by far. It’s not for all kids, and some kids are struggling this year,” he admits. “But the idea that kids can’t learn remotely is not true.”
If you would like to share your best practices for remote learning, to possibly be featured in a follow-up post, please reach out at: teachersaysemail.gmail.com
Is now the right time to open schools at the secondary level? I didn’t know how to feel about it. So I decided to ask the experts--the ones who would know best. I decided to ask a handful of my teacher-mom friends, some of the smartest women I know.
Meet Annie, Beth, Carrie, Donna, Ellie, and Frances. Each woman is (or has been) an educator in a public school--their total experience combined adds up to 109 years in schools. Each one is a mom of school-aged children. Each one is a smart, thoughtful, caring, well-educated woman, whom I would trust to give me carefully weighed answers based on facts and data. Each one is (or was) a teacher to admire, both in pedagogical prowess and building strong relationships with students. And each one faces the inevitable reopening of public secondary schools in the Denver Metro area, the earliest on March 22 and the latest on April 5.
So what did they have to say?
The Current Situation: Hybrid and “Chromebook Zombies”
All of the teacher-moms agree that hybrid learning, in its current mostly-synchronous iteration, is a poor substitute for full time in-person learning. Absolutely no one said that the current situation is what’s best for kids. But all four women who are in the classroom are doing their best to make it work.
But does hybrid have to be so awful? Not necessarily. The synchronous decision for students’ at home days was done “purely for optics,” according to Donna. If at-home days had been asynchronous, used as front-loading, reading, and preparing for the next class, it could have been much different. Parents, most school districts surmised, wanted to ensure that eyes are kept on their secondary students, creating more accountability and structure for their time at home. But all of this non-stop screentime comes with consequences. Frances, who has a middle-schooler said of her daughter, “She’s turning into a Chromebook Zombie.”
But as with most compromises, no one is happy. But some teacher-moms, like Donna, feel that it’s the best option we’ve got. “[T]he kids, the teachers, the staff in the building all seem to understand in an unspoken way that this is the best [alternative, with hybrid] we’ve got” (Donna).
It would seem that professional development and time spent on equipping teachers with best-practice techniques for managing hybrid and remote learning would have been the priority. But it was not. Beth’s district did not have any trainings for teachers on best-practices with remote or hybrid instruction, and so she, like so many other teachers, has had to figure out how to navigate this new way of teaching on her own. Beth remarked, “The district has optional trainings, but [teachers] may not realize they don’t know enough or that they could do it better.” Another factor could be the already-existing boa-constrictor-like squeeze on time, as it is. Regardless, Beth’s district has not made teacher training a priority and so many teachers have floundered or are, in Beth’s words, “just trying to get through it, thinking things will go back to normal next year.”
While school operations may be far from normal, some students have continued living their lives on the outside as normal. “I know students are seeing each other outside of school. They are not getting infected from my classroom,” Carrie, a high school teacher said.
But will relatively low infection rates within schools continue, if all students return?
Is it Time? What Science Suggests
The CDC’s recommendations for schools had remained much the same throughout the pandemic: six feet of social distancing, frequent handwashing, mandatory masks except for when eating and drinking, improved ventilation and open doors and windows (when possible), and students all facing the same direction are still best practice for schools.
However, just days ago, the CDC changed the guidelines. Now, the recommended distance is three feet. The CDC’s justification is this: “Three studies, published in today’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)...build on evidence that physical distancing of at least 3 feet between students can safely be adopted in classroom settings where mask use is universal and other prevention measures are taken.”
In some cases, such as communities where transmission of the virus is high, the CDC has maintained that classrooms be set up with six feet of separation with one-way traffic patterns, which is--if schools move to 100% in-person--entirely impossible.
What about earlier fears about teenagers catching and spreading COVID-19 in ways similar to adults? Are teenagers less at risk than was thought March when most schools first closed?
According to the most recent report released jointly by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, of the 3,168,274 child cases throughout the United States and its territories, “[c]hildren were 0.00%-0.19% of all COVID-19 deaths, and 10 states reported zero child deaths.” This is good news. It still doesn’t say what the age ranges of the infected children were (Infants? Elementary school-aged? Teenagers?) as the data wasn’t collected that way, it seems. But nonetheless, for many parents, this is the rainbow they’d been waiting for for almost a year now.
During the winter of 2020-2021, there has been just one child death reported throughout the entire United States due to the flu, according to reporting by The Washington Post. It would seem that the mitigation strategies, including masks and distancing, set in place to prevent COVID-19 infection, have had a startlingly positive effect on beating child flu deaths into near oblivion this year.
If mitigation strategies, such as universal masking and social distancing in classrooms are working, this is a cause for celebration. But will just masking be enough with the 100% return of students in-person?
The teacher-moms I spoke to are well aware of the conundrums they face when secondary schools resume at 100% in person. “[W]e still can’t make class look like it did, pre-COVID. Everyone is still going to be on a screen. We can do fewer hands-on activities because I can’t sanitize everything quickly enough to turn it around for the next big group” (Donna). Beth noted that due to increased class sizes and an inability to socially distance in the average classroom, “Schools [currently] close for [deep cleanings] with quarantining [when there are a handful of cases]--there will likely be more of that.” She also noted, in regard to her daughter’s experience, “Cohorting at the high school level is impossible.” And Beth also said what all of the women I interviewed knew to be true: “[We] won’t be able to keep the six feet of distancing with everyone back. Other protocols won’t be able to be followed, either.”
Emily wondered, “What will the protocol be if someone gets sick?”
It is possible that quarantining and temporary school closures for deep-cleaning may rise with a 100% return. Donna, speaking for her son’s experience and for that of her students’ said, “I don’t want to see kids quarantined over and over again, getting less time in the building than before.”
Beth, speaking not out of fear but merely being pragmatic, cautioned that it will take some time to figure things out before students can come back. “All furniture has to go back in the rooms, and we have to figure out where kids are eating, when hand-washing times will be, and [time is needed to allow for] schedule changes that will occur” [when parents shift either from in-person to remote or remote to in-person],” she said.
Despite these challenges, schools are in a race to get ready for reopening.
What Teacher-Moms Think
The teacher-moms I interviewed are gearing up for the impending return to 100%. Frances said that, “The safety of it makes me nervous but the mental health of [her daughter] and the rest of our family overpowers any concern.” She added, “The last 10 months have been the worst family dynamics we have ever had and I am very concerned for all of our mental health.”
Carrie is looking forward to returning to 100% in-person. “I miss my students desperately,” she said.
Donna is not enthusiastic about her district’s decision. “Going back to 100% in-person...feels like the choice [of hybrid] that I really carefully considered [for her own son] is being taken away from us.” She also discussed the reality that some students will choose to stay 100% remote, which in her district, means Zooming in and watching from home. “One of my biggest worries is what happens to [remote students]... If my classroom population increases...my eyeballs will be on my in-person class more. I worry that my remote students will be getting even less of my attention and I don’t know how to fix that” (Donna).
Beth and her husband “think school [this] year should finish as-is. At earliest,” she said, “we should go back in April so that all [teachers] who want the vaccine can get it.”
While Annie is “excited for the kids to come back,” she is also concerned. As a mom of a high schooler, Annie thinks students could still get sick if they come to school in larger numbers, as they are not vaccinated. While she believes it’s not likely they will get seriously ill, she realizes that they still could. Despite this clear-headed awareness, “I would rather have the kids come back now,” Annie said.
Emily would prefer to remain hybrid for the rest of the year. “Why change another thing?” she said, in reference to the many changes teachers and students have had to adjust to this year. “I would like to wait until more of the country has been vaccinated.” But she also “sympathizes and empathizes” with parents. She can’t imagine, if her own five children were younger and all spread out through the grade levels, doing remote learning of any sort would be very hard. “Logistically, I get it,” she said, about parents’ challenges at home. “It’s tough.”
And so, out of the educator-moms I spoke to, four said yes; two of them resoundingly so, with the other two far more tentative. Two said, continuing with hybrid would be their preference. For the record, no one said they wanted to have students return to 100% remote learning.
Teachers, Parents, and District Leadership: “I wish we could all be on the same team”
The clock is ticking and by April 5, nearly all public middle and high schools throughout the Denver Metro area will be fully in-person. While all of these caring educators enjoy seeing their students in the classroom, many of them spoke to the chasm they feel has grown between educators and parents.
Donna said, “I wish the public knew that a lot of us teachers are parents and [we] get it. But we can’t be irresponsible. And we can’t wish away the reality that we are still dealing with a pandemic.” Annie feels that teachers have been lumped together and perceived as callous. “Parents might think that teachers don’t want the kids to come back, but it’s not true.” Emily feels the parent perception of teachers’ workload falls far short of the reality this year. “Non-educators are not seeing the amount of blood, sweat, and tears,” she said.
In addition to a disconnect with many parents, teachers have felt sidelined by their districts, as well. “[Forces] outside of the building are making this harder than it has to be,” Donna said. “Teachers, kids, and support staff have great ideas and suggestions, if anyone in charge would just listen. We live this day to day, and yet, we seem to have no agency.” Annie agreed that district leadership has been lackluster, at best. “District communication has been poor, and it shows a lack of trust in staff [members] with messages being sent out to staff and parents simultaneously.” Emily also felt a disconnect between the district she is associated with and its teachers and staff. “Why can’t we follow a proven method?” she wondered aloud, commenting on his dislike for the soon-to-be phased out synchronous version of hybrid learning that has been the model in so many schools. Many of the teacher-moms I expressed a lack of support from all sides.
“I wish we could all be on the same team,” Donna said. “I feel like I work for the world’s most hated profession these days.”
While it is nearly time to return 100%, the time for healing strained relationships has yet to arrive and may be a long time coming. Meanwhile, with the 100% return to the classroom, teachers will have to cross their fingers, adjust their masks, and hope for the best.
Teacher Says: Hours Worked
Recently, a group of teachers at Mandalay Middle, a school in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, declared that they would only work contract hours. It was a form of protest, meant to highlight the lack of teacher say in decision-making by higher ups on issues like working conditions under COVID-19 and in support of bargaining.
Pictures on Facebook showed a group of 15-20 teachers standing outside of the school entrance, waiting in the cold for the official start of the school day, before heading inside.
But it begs the question: How is working only the hours you are being paid to work a form of protest? Shouldn’t working the hours you’re paid for be the expectation?
But there’s this: Is it possible to be an effective teacher and only work contract hours, or are the expectations too much to be dealt with during the hours of a normal work day? Do teachers need to behave as martyrs, sacrificing all aspects of personal time and self for a job?
And then I wondered: just how many hours ARE teachers working this year, compared to the pre-COVID days?
So I asked the experts: the teachers.
I got my sampling of answers from questions posted in teacher groups on Facebook. Some of these teachers are friends or former colleagues, and some I don’t know at all--they hail from all parts of the country, all grade levels, K-12, mostly public, with a few private and charter schools, too. Can this be counted as official data? Probably not. But 200 or so teachers responded to my question, “How many hours do you ACTUALLY work, before and during COVID?” And there were notable trends that emerged. For the sake of their privacy, all names that follow are pseudonyms.
Teachers are spending, on average, 10 hours more per week because of COVID. And it appears that for most, the hours they worked, pre-COVID, were already beyond contract hours of 40 hours per week.
Here’s a snapshot of what I learned:
Tom worked 43 hours a week before COVID as a math teacher. Now he works 55-56 hours per week, from 7am until 4:30 each day, with an additional eight hours on Saturday and five more on Sunday. He has a wife and school-aged children of his own.
Jim works a whopping 83 hours per week teaching science, working from 7am until 3:30 during each school day, and from 6pm until 11pm each night. The rest of the time occurs on the weekend. Pre-COVID, he worked 65 hours a week, he figures.
Francesca works 9-10 hours each day at her high school, teaching English, with another 2-3 hours on the weekend. Her work time has not changed much, and she attributes this to a highly supportive administration, that has allowed teachers as many hours as possible for personal work and planning time.
Jane works from 6:30am until 3pm each school day, also teaching high school English, with another two hours per night at home. On weekends, she tries to limit her work time to eight hours.
One teacher, Mike, after reviewing the comments from one thread, had this to say: “I feel bad for a lot of people on here. Hours of work at home daily? I get that, if it’s your first year or you’ve got new subjects. I get needing to grade too, but don’t you get planning periods? Are these mostly first year teachers?”
None of the four teachers whose hours I just shared with you are first year teachers. In fact, all of them have made it well past the five year fight-or-flight moment, where so many teachers leave the force. Each one has worked as a teacher for more than 10 years. I know these four teachers personally, and all of them are excellent teachers, well-seasoned veterans, who are proud of their craft.
So what’s going on here? How are these crazy hours possible?
In a year where so much was new, so much was still expected. Tamara, a middle school teacher with 25 years of experience, said, “I’ve primarily been teaching on a hybrid model this year. The prep work is crushing.” She said she worked about 42 hours a week last year--this year? 56 hours per week.
So there’s that: this year has been one of total change for many teachers. There are new tech tools and programs to learn, not to mention new modes of teaching, including remote, hybrid, and the juggling act that is teaching online students while simultaneously teaching students in-person. To say it’s a challenge is an understatement. And sometimes a lesson that a veteran teacher has used in the past, with manipulatives or perhaps done through cooperative learning in pairs or groups of four, has to be entirely upended and digitized, which is not a quick process. The saying “When you know better, do better” coined by Maya Angelou can cause great stress for veteran teachers this year, who may know better, but also know that to do it will take a lot of time they just don’t have.
There’s also the new load of digital communication, through email, chat, and office hours. Rather than being able to answer a student’s question in five seconds, a teacher now has an inbox chock-full of emails that demand a response--and that can be overwhelming and a total time-suck.
These days, with everything going online, it’s not so easy to turn it off when the work day should be over. Brenda said, “I’m constantly responding to student emails... there’s really no “off” switch. I know I could turn off notifications but then I would never keep up with the constant need to individualize everything I teach... it seems like part of meeting the emotional needs of students is letting them know they’re not alone.”
But it’s not only students who are suffering this year. Teachers are feeling it, too, in a variety of ways.
One teacher of 27 years, Paul, said, “[My wife] decided to be a teacher when she was 7. It is all she has ever wanted to do. Now she wants to get out of this abusive situation as soon as possible.” He explained that she’s been working more than 80 hours per week. Of the hours and efforts this year, he said, “It’s killing her.” In his view, it’s all been a ploy. “It is apparent that we have been playing the social benefit game where we do what is necessary to create the greatest good for society. It is apparent that the district, the state, and the federal powers that be have been playing the capitalist game where they extract as much labor as possible while giving as little as possible.”
Imagine being towards the end of your career and feeling this way about your life’s work. It’s incredibly hard to hear.
It’s not all gloom and doom, though. Some people hit the wall. And instead of continually ramming into it, they instead put the car in park.
A trend that was quite apparent was that many teachers, in the face of an impossible task and many asks this year, refused to work beyond contract.
Those teachers also seem much happier.
One middle school English teacher, Sarah, said, “[My hours are] 6:30-3 most days. Contract is 7-3. I rarely grade on the weekends or after work anymore, but I do grade during my lunch. I used to kill myself working 60 hours a week. Last year, I decided my family is more important than getting an essay or project graded super quickly.”
Brittany said her contract hours are from 7:30am-3:30pm. Her former reality of actual hours: “pre-covid - 6:30-5:30 plus about 10 weekend hours.” But now: “pandemic hours - contract hours only. However, I had a baby. I promised myself that once my husband and I had a kid, family would always come first.”
And some other respondents also spoke up, saying that they had changed their workaholic ways a few years prior to the pandemic, citing the desire to “avoid burnout” and life balance (said by Tim, a former workaholic, who routinely put in 60-70 hours per week at his high school English job).
Tanya, a veteran teacher, said, “I had to prioritize my own mental health, raise my own children and be a present wife- a partner. Loving teaching does not mean that you have to divorce yourself from everything and anyone else. It took me a long time to realize that this job is how I make a living and a PART of my life, not my whole life. I am much happier because of this.”
But in a career like teaching where so many go into it as a calling and not for the money (who does?), it can be hard to draw that line in the sand between personal time and work.
But still, those who said they refused to work beyond contract hours were in the minority.
Many community members point to summers off as the reason why teachers should expect, perhaps, to spend a few extra hours at work during the school year.
In March of 2008, a study called “Teachers’ Work Patterns” was published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The findings in this report were based on the American Time Use Survey, and while some of the results align with common thoughts on teacher time, such as teachers working less in June, July, and August, other findings diverge from the norm.
Something that will come as no surprise to most teachers is the finding that “Fifty-one percent of teachers worked on an average Sunday, compared with 30 percent of other full-time professionals” (Krantz-Kent 53), a statistic that aligns with my own inquiry. However, aside from that, the report seemed to suggest that teachers work less than most other professions, on average, and spend more time on “household activities—such as housework, cooking, lawn care, or financial and other household management” (Krantz-Kent 58). Still, the report did acknowledge that teachers tend to hold a second job more often than other professionals, with 17% of all teachers polled responding that they had a second form of income from other work (Krantz-Kent 58).
So, I wondered, were my results a fluke? Were the people who responded mostly workaholics in the minority? Do teachers work more than other professions or not?
According to the Brookings Report, “During the school year, [West’s] calculations [based on the ATUS] show that teachers work 39.8 hours per week while nonteachers work 41.5 hours. During the summer, teachers do work noticeably fewer hours. West reports that teachers work 21.5 hours per week during the summer” (Startz).
But there’s an issue right there: teachers are not paid to work during the summer. These are in fact, unpaid hours.
One teacher’s solution to not putting in overtime during the school year is to plan it all out during the summer. Anita said, “I have two small kids. I teach with systems and structures so that units are often repeated throughout the year. Lots of student choice so I’m not always writing curriculum. And I work through the summer so that most of my planning is done for the year by the time school starts in September.”
But here’s the rub: over the summer, she is putting in three hours a day, which is unpaid time.
Another teacher, Rebecca, said: “One thing that I also want to point out is that people always complain that teachers ‘get the summers off’. We don’t. We are per diem salaried employees who are only contracted for around 185 days. Most teachers pay is spread out over 12 months, but we aren’t being paid when we are ‘off.’”
That raises another question--should teachers be working for free, then, during their personal time? Or should they hold to contract hours? Or is it possible that teachers are working harder, not smarter?
A synopsis of a report published in Scholastic called Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation appears to entirely upend the findings of the ATUS. This report attests that teachers spend, on average, 90 minutes extra per day beyond contract time, plus an additional 95 minutes at home, “grading, preparing classroom activities, and doing other job-related tasks.” 10,000 teachers across all 50 states were polled, which makes these figures appear more salient.
Some of the teachers who responded to my question offered a few tips on what they do to try to make it work. Through experience, they have learned some ways to streamline their use of time, and to cut down on their extracurricular work hours. They reached out and offered ideas and advice to try to help because that’s what teachers do.
Here’s the thing, teacher friends: no one wants to lose you. There are rumors flying around that anywhere from 20% to 30% of existing teachers plan on either quitting or retiring at the end of this year.
That’s terrible news for your students. Think of all of your talents and years of experience gone to waste. No one can do it like you can—and you know it. Ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you: you can’t just get any bum off the street and throw them in a classroom and expect them to survive. Trust me, I’ve seen first-year inexperienced teachers locked in their own closet by their students on day one and a former cop crying after school because he was almost done showing a movie and he didn't know what to do next. Not everyone can do what we do.
While there’s no doubt that this phase, this year of teaching has to been one of the hardest ever, that doesn’t mean you have to kill yourself. Here are a few tips on how to save yourself some time, straight from the experts: teachers.
Clearly, the amount of hours worked by teachers has expanded this year like a waistline during a pandemic. And no, these ideas above won’t make it so your work hours fit neatly into a 7-3 box, tied up with a ribbon. But it’s a start. And we all know that ultimately, you’re no good to your students if you burn out or if you leave the profession because you can’t strike a balance between work and life. As Tanya said, teaching is a part of her life, not her whole life.
Don’t let your teaching job consume you. Instead of holding to “When you know better, do better,” think to yourself: “I am how I spend my time” and try to make some changes. Draw the line where you can between work and your personal life so that you will be happier--as a teacher, and as a human being.
Cindy Shapiro is long-time teacher living in Colorado. She is the founder of Teacher Says, a budding podcast and website designed with the idea in mind of listening to and raising up teachers' voices. She has two school-aged children. Her book, For the Love of (Remote) Teaching is available on Amazon for Kindle.