At the end of my final day as a fourth-grade teacher, I stood in my empty classroom and sobbed. The official line was that I was leaving teaching midway through my fifth year so that I could pursue a career as an author—but that was a lie. The real reason I was leaving was because I couldn’t hack being a teacher.
To survive as a teacher, you need many skills.
You need to be dedicated. I was dedicated.
You need to be hard-working. I was hard-working.
You need to care about children. I cared about every student in my class.
You need to have self-confidence. I had…well, I had very little of that.
Being a teacher consists of making hundreds of on-the-spot decisions every day. Should I call on Kendra who hasn’t raised her hand yet this morning? Should I skip science so we can continue the discussion we’re having in social studies? Should I let James visit the boys’ room or is this just another of his attempts to get out of math? Even in the unlikely event that 90% of my decisions were right, I was still making plenty of decisions every day that were wrong, such as my decision not to let James visit the boys’ room which resulted in him wetting his pants in class. That’s all I could see—the many decisions I was making that were wrong. I felt like a failure and I couldn’t continue.
Teaching doesn’t provide instant validation. When you successfully teach a child how to reduce a fraction, your principal doesn’t meet you in the hall, thank you, then shake your hand and offer you a raise. When you teach a particularly good phonics lesson, your students don’t stand up and applaud. It’s up to you to recognize all the successful things you’re doing every day. More importantly, it’s up to you to recognize all the ways in which you keep trying, even when you make mistakes.
Because I couldn’t see my successes, I quit. Quitting meant abandoning my dream of making a positive difference in the lives of children, something I desperately wanted to do. I was crying because I felt I was discarding that dream.
Post-teaching I followed through with my official line and pursued a career as an author. After my first book was published, my former principal asked me to return to talk to the students about writing. I hesitated. I was no expert. I didn’t know any more about writing than when I had been in the classroom. On the other hand, I needed the money. Being an author was even less profitable than being a teacher, so I agreed.
That’s when a miracle occurred. As I spoke to the students about revising and using vivid language, their eyes lit up with interest. I had the undivided attention of every child, something that seldom happened in my classroom. They even applauded when I was done. What was going on? I knew I wasn’t telling them anything different from what their own teacher had been saying all year.
Then it dawned on me: The students were captivated precisely because I wasn’t their teacher. I was somebody new. And in their eyes, I was an expert, because I had published a book.
So, here’s a tip: If you’re feeling discouraged and need a dose of appreciation, switch classes with one of your colleagues, even for an hour. Teach these new students a lesson on your favorite subject: writing poetry, tying a fishing lure, building model airplanes. The students will be enthralled and you’ll be viewed as an expert. You’ll also get a dose of the respect you so deeply deserve.
That visit led to a second one at another school, then to other visits across the state, and eventually across the country, and as far away as Moscow and Beijing. And when I finished a day of school presentations, the principal often met me in the hall, thanked me, then shook my hand and gave me my honorarium check.
Say, maybe I could get used to this.
As I visited more schools, I became more appreciative of those four and a half years in the classroom. Along with teaching me how to handle a squirrely class of kids on a day when recess had been canceled, they taught me to value the educators doing the difficult heavy lifting of daily teaching. And with each new book I write, the experience of those years whispers in my ear. I could never have written See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog if I hadn’t sat alongside a beginning reader struggling to navigate complex sentences. My one-word picture book Moo! is basically a punctuation lesson. And my upcoming 100 Mighty Dragons All Named Broccoli is a number puzzle, which was my favorite way to teach math, by making up games.
It wasn’t until hundreds of schools after that first author visit that I realized something: I hadn’t left teaching after all. True, I wasn’t teaching in the way I had envisioned when I earned my license, but I was still teaching. I know because parents tell me that after discovering my books, their reluctant readers now think reading is fun. I know because educators tell me that after my presentations, they’ve never seen their classes so motivated to write. And I know because students send me letters proudly describing all the books they plan to create.
To all the educators who have been in the classroom longer than my four and a half years, thank you for the experience and knowledge you bring to your students day after day. Your resilience deserves a standing ovation.
To all the educators who are beginning their careers, hang in there. The first years are tough, but the educational field needs your enthusiasm and fresh ideas.
And to anyone who decides that being a classroom teacher isn’t the right fit for them, don’t despair. Like me, I hope you’ll find your own path to being an educator. There’s nothing better in the world than making a positive difference in the life of a child.