by Terry Heick
Surviving as a teacher isn’t easy.
Between the sheer work load, diversity of tasks, brutal pace, and seemingly divergent initiatives pulling you in a thousand directions, education can break even the most noble spirits. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Below are ten tips to keep you ticking when things get tough.
1. Confucius say, Be like tree
Trees are survivors. For you to do the same, you’ll have to know when to stand strong, and when to bend in the wind.
2. Learn to weather the storm
Things change in education constantly. District pushes, higher ed policy, content shifts, technological trends, etc. The more flexible you are, the better you’ll be able to sustain the frequent and often challenging storms that blow through your classroom.
3. Embrace that it’s not about you
This is easy to give lip-service to, but not always easy to sustain. At the end of the day, no matter what you do and how incredible you are, things will fail, people will falter, and efforts will fall short. You’ll have to implement asinine, half-baked ideas in your classroom not because they work, but because someone told you to. Realize that you’re not a savior, but an employee paid to do a job. It’s not your classroom, but a learning space owned by your local government or similar organization that you are currently in charge of. It sounds cold, but this perspective can come in handy.
4. Seek out easy data sources
Data matters in education. Big time. The sources you use must offer data that doesn’t require Hans Rosling to interpret, is relevant to chosen standards, and is fresh. This is a tremendous burden if poorly planned. When the district dumps ACT scores or local testing results on your desk and asks you to “use it,” you need to already have better data that’s more accessible, more relevant, and already implemented.
If you have to move mountains to extract and implement data you’re going to fail.
5. Be weird
Be yourself, not “a teacher.” Stand out. Have a brand. Be memorable, but more importantly make your lessons and content memorable.
Make trying new things a habit. Step out of your comfort zone early and often. Experiment with new assessments, new technologies, new seating arrangements. Don’t be afraid to fail. That’s not a license to be unreliable and scatter-brained, but if you’re like every teacher you ever had, and every other teacher in the school, your class–and your content–will be as forgettable as yesterday’s school lunch.
6. Know when to shut up and smile
This is a lesson many potentially great teachers could’ve used many times over. In seeking to make things better with even the best thinking, you can often muddy the waters and make things worse. That doesn’t mean you were wrong, or that you don’t change, but you have to know when to make that change visible, and when to shut up and smile.
7. Know who to go to for what
In any large organization, you have to know who to go to for what. Whether you need new resources, your iPad fixed, or a new TPS report, if you know who to go to for what, you’ll get things done faster, and with less stress. (Hint: Whoever answers the phone at your school is likely the best resource in the building. Second best? The custodians.)
8. Never, ever lose sight of your purpose
And in the incredible crush of “stuff” you have to do, this can be easy to do. Hang a picture on your wall—or a poster, a quote—something that symbolizes why you got involved in teaching. And whenever things get confusing, revisit it. (And when this happens on a daily basis, revisit steps 1-7.)
9. Don’t be afraid to seek out new schools or departments
Teachers can be too quick to give up on a school, district, or community that is in a state of flux and needs great leadership and effort. But they can also stay too long. It’s not always easy to know when it’s time to go, but there are many teachers that might’ve thrived in a specialized setting, but gave up on education because they did not—or could not—find the “right fit.” If you love learning, there is a place in education for you–you just have to find that niche.
10. Love your content as much as your students
This one might be a bit controversial, because after all it’s not about Robert Frost, Harriet Tubman, or Copernicus, it’s about all the students.
Only it’s not.
Whether you view your job as taskmaster, inspirer of lifelong learning, or somewhere in between, your job is to bring learners to content. To make it accessible, incredible, digestible, and unforgettable. The formula for learning is, crudely, equal parts content and learner. Take your eye off either and things get unbalanced quickly.
To survive as a teacher, you have to constantly find ways to make content fresh, exciting, and literally life-altering. There are times when the demand of teaching will be too much, and you can find comfort in the content–which is likely something you’ve always had a special interest or talent in. Never withdraw completely into that content, or you’ll lose the students, but don’t forget that all the relationships, technology, and instructional design are there to bring learners to content in pursuit of personal growth.
And that’s teaching in a nutshell. The artful and thoughtful marriage of learner and content.