What I Forgot When I Left the Classroom (Part One)

For one year, I was a specialist-coach. I had a fancy title. And, while I enjoyed my job, I went back to the classroom again. During that period as a coach, I mistakenly believed that I knew what it was like to be a teacher. After all, I still taught lessons - often two or three a day. I spent hours in the classroom.  If anything, I looked better as a teacher than I had when I was still a teacher.

I didn't feel myself getting out of touch. After all, I wasn't rusty. I was still passionate. I remained energetic - perhaps more so than ever - when I taught. And I had memories, vivid memories, of my classroom experience. I was still a teacher-coach.

However, I forgot what it was like to be a teacher. I forgot how draining it can feel at the end of a day. I forgot what it was like to plan a lesson on the fly, instead of having hours to perfect it. I forgot how much time is spent on parent interaction, updating data charts, doing fluency data on the computer and maintaining the technology.

I forgot how powerless it feels to cry over a child's story. I also forgot what it means to lose my patience with the same child and feel like a failure for my lack of empathy. I forgot what it was like when people arrive with clipboards, taking notes that I will never see for purposes I will never truly understand. I forgot the agony of needing to use the restroom and knowing that I wouldn't have a break for another two hours. I forgot that prepping for a sub takes hours and how it feels to deal with the aftermath of a bad sub-student combination.

I forgot about dealing with the newest trends tossed at us as the silver bullet. Try this seating configuration. Update data walls. Fill out the Galileo Score Growth Quadrants. The whole district is using them now. Where is your anchor chart? Yeah, it's now a tight in our district. Read up on the new holistic rubric. Oh, and two of your students got in a fight after school and we need you be a part of the discipline meeting.

I'm not sure how it happened. Perhaps it had to do with having my own office space. Maybe it began when I was able to use the restroom at will. Or maybe it had to do with sitting through the meetings where we all talked about the ideal "first best instruction" without reminding ourselves about the limitations teachers face. Or perhaps it happened when I walked into a classroom with a clipboard, comparing the ideals of "first best instruction" to the reality of a worn-out group of teachers trying their hardest to make it.

Or maybe it happened when I thought about teaching as an idea rather than a reality.

I love teaching. I'm glad I moved back into my role as a teacher. I love what I do. I look forward to going back to work tomorrow. What I do feels meaningful. But here's what I forgot in less than a year of coaching: teaching is hard, really hard. It is fast-paced. It is draining. It is filled with uncertainties that I simply didn't face as a coach. As a specialist, I specialized. I got to work within my strengths. As a teacher, I am constantly reminded of my failures.

I recognize that coaches and specialists deal with their own set of challenges. I don't mean to minimize this. Instead, I'm suggesting that it is easy when you move away from the classroom to forget just how hard a profession it is.  It is easy to toss out platitudes and feel-good advice when you aren't in a classroom. However, it is much harder to be a teacher.

Note: there is a much more positive part two
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John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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16 comments:

  1. A very powerful reminder for those of us not in the classroom anymore ... Thank you!

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  2. Ah...thank you. I try really hard to see the pe teacher, music teacher, reading specialist, nurse, secretary and even principal's point of view, but every once in a while I would like to hear from them...You have it hard!

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    1. I think sometimes it helps for someone to just say it to a teacher: this is a hard gig. Even when you love it, it's still hard.

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  3. I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels drained at the end of each day...each and every single day!

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    1. Someone once said that you wouldn't feel drained after the third year. I still feel drained. I love it, but I'm drained at the end of the day.

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  4. It is as if you have read my mind! I was a coach for two years, and in June I asked to go back into the classroom, (back to the "front line"). It is not really that I forgot how hard it was, I remembered that it was really difficult and all-consuming, but what I forgot was the why - why it is so hard. I forgot about the disruptions, the frustrations, and how emotionally draining it is. I don't regret my decision to return to the classroom for one minute. To me, teaching is "real" and coaching is not. I appreciate the role of the coach, I think it is a very necessary role, but I think that it is something you can't do indefinitely because otherwise you lose touch with reality. You forget all of the things that a teacher has to put up with and deal with. You forget the reality of teaching. I wake up every morning excited to go to work, eagerly looking forward to the surprises my students have in store for me; I never got excited to go to work when I was coaching. I've been on both sides of the fence, and I can honestly say that teaching is much more difficult than coaching - but it is also much more rewarding! Also, since I've been back in the class, I feel that as a former coach, I have to do the job "right" - more pressure than ever!

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    1. I think that's it. The difficulty and the excitement are both much more intense.

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  5. Having left the classroom almost 10 years ago, I've gone through a number of changes in attitudes. The first few years after i left I was given the luxury of time and with it excitement about new possibilities. This excitement often translated into arrogance and befuddlement as to why teachers wouldn't immediately embrace all the awesome ideas I was sharing with them. Then as I began to look at education, I also started questioning why teachers hadn't changed their practices. It's been the last few years that I've become a strong advocate for teachers and have been careful in my presentations to make teachers leave feeling encouraged. While I know they need to be challenged too, we all do, I think they get enough of that and I think teachers are in need of support. Largely having a wife who comes home tired, drained and frustrated with all the extra crap that comes along with the profession, I've decided to focus on letting teachers know how awesome they are. Which is mostly true and as a consultant/presenter, it's not my place to worry about those few that suck.

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    1. I think you bring up some great points about encouraging teachers, Dean. Most of the teachers in our schools I know are doing their best to engage students in meaningful learning. If I understand your perspective correctly, you feel teachers can be simultaneously encouraged and challenged. That's an idea I find to be true from my observation as a central office guy.

      Teaching *is* much more challenging than it seems through the lens of any outsider (coach, consultant, administrator, etc.). Somebody's job is to worry about the few teachers who do need a lot of support. There's a good chance the person charged with this task is one of those outsiders, a coach and/or administrator. Is this a flaw of our system or a reality that's not so bad after all?

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    2. Dean, I tried to avoid the arrogance, but I think that's what I felt. And I think it came from wanting to have an impact and genuinely thinking I had the answers. For what it's worth, I also had moments when I really connected with teachers, when I listened and when I was able to keep the teacher perspective. I appreciate the fact that you avoid teacher-bashing and that you advocate for the profession.

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    3. Matt, I agree that someone has to do it. It's why I'm careful not to slam coaches. They matter. I left coaching, because I knew that I belonged in the classroom. But I was careful not to say "coaching is easier" or "coaching is less important." Teachers can be just as arrogant as coaches - perhaps more so at times. I think coaching works. I saw that last year in working with a few struggling teachers (though most of the teachers I worked with were not struggling).

      I think the critical piece is what we believe about how a person becomes a better teacher. A humble, empathetic coach will ask critical thinking questions and guide reflection. The reality is that there are bad teachers and they do need help. Working with them is not always easy. There are paradigm shifts and attitude changes that need to happen. They get defensive.

      But ultimately, coaching can work.

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  6. Nice post. The line about constantly being reminded of my failures reminds me of being a parent as well.

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  7. Was it your cell phone? I always leave my cell phone in the classroom.

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  8. Thanks for posting this, John. When we met in San Diego, we were on opposite career arcs--you back to the classroom and me out of it, into a new role as coach. It's been a challenging job so far, and a huge part of it has to do with what you're talking about here--that teaching is hard, and admins and coaches and specialists must remember that.

    It was about 3 weeks into this job that I had the sinking realization that I had forgotten what it's like. I tried to push the thought out of my head, but words were coming out of my mouth--feedback for teachers, suggestions, etc.--that clearly reflected that I was forgetting. 3 weeks! Since then, I've done my best to remind myself daily.

    You captured the sentiment far more effectively than I can in your post, but what I'm saying is thanks for the reminder. As always, keep doing what you're doing, both in the classroom and on your blog.

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  9. This was so fun to read. I moved out of the classroom twice in my 20 year career. The first time was early in my career and I can honestly say the excitement of the new job, the perks and the political and physical climate made it fulfilling and no, I did not miss teaching. This was also when i was in my late 20's and sans children of my own. The second time I left was last year to pursue an admin. tract. I felt like maybe I could create more opportunities for teachers and bring a teacher voice to the table. Maybe this was my next calling...It was almost immediate that I realized I was in the wrong place. I missed teaching and I felt like a hypocrite. I felt a serious lack of blood flow through my body from the endless meetings and looming tasks I simply didn't want to do. I don't think the admin. gig is easy either and I am sure coaching has challenges as well but in the end, you have to choose to be the hammer or the nail. I mistakenly thought I could have more impact as an administrator but soon realized the KIND of impact I crave is the thrill I get from teaching. I just wish we had a professional voice. You shouldn't have to be a coach or administrator to get that in my opinion. Thanks for sharing your story!

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