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Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Games, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | March 19, 2012

When I'm Happiest


File5971332208838By Mark

Everyone has probably heard about, or actually read, the New York Times website article that discussed the supposed downward spiral of teacher morale. It highlighted how teachers working in struggling schools had the lowest morale, and the teachers with greater satisfaction tended to have "more opportunities for professional development, more time to prepare their lessons and greater parental involvement in their schools."

Travis recently shared his one cent about how morale can easily crumble in our present atmosphere. Tamara shared some thought provoking questions, too. And Tom found himself indigo and then entered stage five.  

In my meetings and phone calls and emails and faxes (yep, faxes) with legislators the last few weeks, I've found myself repeating the phrase that I feel like I have "a target on my back and the blame for all society's ills on my shoulders." In quiet moments in the car or after my kids are in bed, I too have thought about what other jobs I could apply for.

But the next day, I walk into my classroom, close the door on it all, turn to face them and breathe a sigh of relief.

It is so easy to let the broader dialogue about evil, whiny, failing teachers bring me down. Then I have moments like I had this week, reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my little freshmen. During my 4th period, it is not uncommon for former students of mine to sneak in and sit in the back of the room (their lunch period is during my 4th period). Sometimes they just listen, sometimes they work quietly on the computers at the back of the room, and occasionally they chime in.

The class and I were engaged in the kind of discussion about the novel that, to an outsider, might have seemed messy and unfocused. We were using a modified socratic model: no raised hands, speak when moved but listen to one another, ask questions, use the text. Occasionally, I'd have to rein them back in with a "slow down, listen to one another."

We've been practicing all year about levels of questions--begin with clarifying and defining questions, them move up the pyramid to build on that foundation to ask probing, analyzing, and evaluating questions. I sat at the front of the room, saying almost nothing, while kids addressed the whole group, posing questions and offering answers.

Then it happened. Katie asked a question I'd been waiting for. Alex offered an answer, and then I jumped in with a follow-up question, to which the entire class answered with a chorus of "Oh-h-h!" and burst into frenzied chatter amongst themselves to recount the epiphany that had just exploded in the room.

My former students, sitting at the back of the class, looked at me, smiled and nodded. Everyone knew what had just happened.

True, it's a little unlike me to consider the glass half full. But, like any data, it is all about how you look at it ("81% of teachers are satisfied with teaching"). It's easy to make data say whatever we want it to say: if we want to see it, we'll find it.

When there is only so much we have control over, sometimes we need to just focus on what we have control over.


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I beginning to think that the best approach might be to always be the best teacher you can be, but to only "fight" for short periods of time.

I never get burned out teaching, but after awhile, working on advocacy, teacher leadership and ed policy can become thankless and even demoralizing. So I back off for a few months and then pick back up.

I know I "should" want to keep up the fight. And I will, even though it feels futile.

Mark, it's a blessing and curse, isn't it? Mainly a blessing, to be part of a profession where we work with young people and help them develop the skills and dispositions to read and write and find a place in their lives for language and literature, and to find a place in language and literature for their lives. But we care so much about, and see so plainly what needs to happen to make it better for all of our kids, that we know we must stand up, speak out, and take on these essential but sometimes demoralizing battles. We cannot refrain, must not hide out. Keep up the good fight.

Mark-thank you for the fresh, positive perspective! Exactly what I needed to read this morning.

Mark, I am so with you on this one. When I think about ed policy, etc., I get angry, frustrated and depressed. Even writing about, which used to be fun, brings me down.

On the other hand, when I'm with my students I'm having a blast; it's just as much fun as it ever was and I feel more effective now than ever.

I don't think I'm burning out because I love my day job. But the politics, policy and the target on my back? I'm sick of it.

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