I've been teaching for 24 years, and people often ask me how I managed to stay so long in a profession so beleaguered. I attribute my longevity to several elements: a passion for helping young people learn; a decent salary; opportunities for professional growth; a collegial school climate; and a strong feeling of safety. As it turns out, many of my veteran colleagues feel the same way.
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In order to set themselves up for continued success, new teachers must keep these factors in mind as they begin career planning. And school systems would do well to address some of the challenges teachers face in the classroom by providing more career advancement opportunities, improving school climates, and providing induction programs.
What Makes a Lifelong Teacher?
Some teachers spend their entire professional careers in the classroom, while others choose different career paths along the way. But the most recent National Teacher and Principal Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education shows some trends among the teachers who stay in the profession. They're largely women (77 percent of public school teachers are women), they're nearing middle age (the average teacher is 42 years old), and they've taught for about 14 years.
But these lifelong teachers also have several qualitative things in common. They conduct significant research about a district or school before accepting a position. They know what environments they work best in, and they seek out those environments. They know what they're worth, and they know how to root out opportunities to advance their careers. They're creative, ambitious, and committed to making the profession work for them by finding ways to navigate some of the challenges that come with the teaching profession.
The Teacher's Checklist
Here's what you can learn from these lifers and apply to your own teaching journey through career planning to ensure you have a long-lasting, healthy teaching experience.
1. Look for advancement opportunities. A 2018 Gallup poll found that the primary reason 60 percent of teachers gave for leaving their last job was the lack of career advancement or development. When choosing a school, look for one where you can grow. Seek ways to learn in your career; take advantage of professional development opportunities and teacher-leadership positions not directly related to becoming an administrator. You can join a committee to earn an extra stipend and help improve your school. Becoming a literacy or math coach allows you to help teachers improve pedagogy and create lessons while building your resume and potentially earning a higher salary. Presenting at conferences isn't usually paid work, but the networking opportunities are amazing. Finally, earning advanced degrees can help you have a purpose-driven career.
2. Know what you're worth. That same Gallup poll also revealed that 13 percent of teachers who voluntarily left teaching cited low pay as the reason why. According to The Balance Careers, teacher salary varies from state to state with teachers in New York earning an average of over $80,000 per year and teachers in Oklahoma earning a little more than $40,000 a year. Try to find work in a district where teachers are paid a fair living wage in accordance with the region's cost of living. Continue to move up on the pay scale by earning degrees and certifications. National Board Teaching Certification, for example, often allows you to teach in other states; in some districts—like mine—teachers are paid to earn board certification.
3. Choose the right climate. Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University, conducted a study that showed that improvements in school leadership, academic expectations, and teacher relationships reduced teacher turnover. I've seen the effect that school climate can have on teacher morale. Strong leadership, a collegial environment, and high expectations for students are essential. When career planning, examine the school climate in the district where you'd like to teach. When I first began teaching, I worked as a substitute at my school, and I was able to gauge school climate. I was looking for answers to questions like: Is there strong leadership and collaborative relationships among teachers? Do educators set high academic expectations for students? The answers to these questions can help you assess whether you'll find fulfillment in a particular school.
4. Assess the safety risks. School safety is important to teachers. When choosing a school, assess the measures has the school taken to ensure teacher and student safety. Is there an opportunity for you to help the school increase those measures? Increases in school safety correspond to increases in student achievement, so working in a safe school can help you love your job.
5. Learn about the union. Unions aid in teacher retention and protect teachers who advocate for their students. When you're hired at a public school, you will most likely be asked to join a union, but you don't have a legal obligation to do so. Because teacher unions protect teachers' rights, support professionalism, and act as a bulwark against administrative overreach, however, I'd strongly advise joining. Unions also provide professional development opportunities and a myriad of supports for new teachers.
6. Find a mentor. When I began teaching, there were no educator induction programs. I didn't have a mentor. I could've easily quit when faced with so many questions and challenges, but I was lucky that a few veteran teachers took me under their wings. Learning Policy Institute reports that new teachers who don't receive mentoring leave at a rate more than two times higher than those who do, so check to see if the school has a mentoring program. If your school has one, you will most definitely have a better first-year teaching experience. And if your school doesn't have one and you're a veteran teacher with strong leadership skills, you could work with the school to start a program of your own.
Further Reading: 5 Tips Guaranteed to Make You a Happy Teacher
Before you begin working in any school, add this checklist to your career planning. If you follow its steps, you'll set yourself up for a long, blissful, and healthy teaching career!