Happiness in Education

An old friend of mine, 40 years ago to be exact, recently wrote me on LinkedIn:

I want to thank you for the many positive messages you send on LinkedIn to educators with whom you have worked or otherwise encountered. How do you do it? You’ve been an educator for nearly 30 years now, and you still seem so energized. Is it because you’ve been able to carve out a niche for yourself on a “meta” level as a consultant? I burned out entirely as a classroom teacher after 20+ years and my wife is limping (metaphorically) towards early retirement (which will be 30+ years in the classroom by then). The pressures upon classroom teachers – societal, political, administrative, social – have become so heavy, particularly in the last 10-15 years. How do you stay so positive?

PS, 14June22

On the one hand I feel most flattered and appreciate that I am making a difference. It is true I have been in education for 30 years having started a year after graduating from UCSC with no intention of becoming a teacher. After a year of soul searching and considering different career options (pre-internet) that met my simple criteria of: 1) Contributing to society, 2) Requiring creative thinking; 3) Not 9-5pm, I settled on trying out teaching. My mom encouraged me to check out a job fair sponsored by MECHA, a Mexican-American education organization, one I had not heard of perhaps because I was new to education and not Mexican American? At the time, 1991 school districts were desperate for math, science and special education teachers. In school I loved math though had not studied it at Uni but thought I could help kids love the subject matter from my own positive experience. LAUSD encouraged me to collect 24 credits in math so that they could hire me on an emergency secondary math credential. Inglewood and Montebello offered to hire me as a substitute teacher on a 30 day permit.

So it began- I took 4 or 5 math classes across three universities and colleges and started to substitute. My first classroom assignment was a 4th grade class in Inglewood- I was with them for a week and fell in love. After I learned there were no plans I quickly created my own- had the students in 5 groups, assigned them each an article to read as a team, assigned the students roles in their groups and taught them socratic discussion techniques. The kids by day three were sharing what they had learned with the others and debating their key topics. For math we had a play with fractions using mandarins (aka tangerines in the ’90s) and experienced PE where I taught the girls how to play softball while the boys played basketball. Other teachers were impressed as they had never seen this class go out and a bit shocked that I returned each day to teach them. Unfortunately their permanent teacher had discipline challenges with the students and probably taught very differently.

After a year of substitute teaching in a wide variety of settings, grade levels…, studying math and preparing for the math teacher exam I applied for a full time teaching position in Pasadena. It was during the summer and close to the beginning of the school year so the school was desperate. Principal Fran Powell interviewed me on Sept 1, called me that evening and offered me the job. Told me to report to the district office first thing the next morning to do all the paperwork then return to the school to set up my classroom, school started the next day. I remember being so excited to have my own classroom and stayed as late as possible to set it up just right; the custodian had to throw me out when he was locking up. The next day I met my 5 classes, three 7th grade math and two 8th grade science- mostly second language learners.

The first year of teaching zipped by. Simultaneously I was taking teacher preparation courses twice a week at CSU Dominguez Hills, a 40 minute+ drive after school. Though I faced lots of challenges my first year of teaching I fell in love with the work and the ability to craft a story with curriculum and work with kids and spark their curiosity. Principal Powell gave me lots of support and offered a variety of amazing professional development opportunities. In this first teaching assignment I learned the power of networking, tapping the local museums to expand my students’ experiences, jumping on training opportunities offered by JPL, the science center and from the school district. Probably it was this beginning that I quickly learned to be an advocate and connector.

Fast forward after 30 years in different educational settings I think it is my appreciations for these different opportunities that keep me optimistic and energized to keep going. Sure reading the current headlines related to the ordeals teachers/schools are contending with especially in the US, post pandemic brings me great unease and frustration. Just recently I read an article where an esteemed educator was hired to be a diversity specialist and was driven out of not only the district she was hired for but also the nearby district due to parental pressures premised on mis-information and fake facts. Previously the headlines with the school shootings and knowing that part of every year’s safety training includes what to do in an active shooter situation really saddens me. It feels that the US perspective is to take this in stride and it is done because that is what needs to be done.

Only in war-torn countries or those under continual threat practice active shooter or terrorist attack emergency procedures. In my five years in the UK and 10 months in Portugal these considerations never surfaced. As I traveled to Ecuador, Colombia, Dominican Republic, India, and Greece this last year never did we see evidence of these kinds of drills in the schools we visited. I wish that the US would realize that life in education does not have to be like this and that with an education that promotes global thinking, caring for others, kindness, joy, problem solving, curiosity and respect we would need less training/ attention in preparing for violence.

What continues to fascinate me in education is the fact that how I was taught to teach continues to be valuable and supportive to training the next generation for unknown careers. Meanwhile the curriculum content swings from open books to very narrow perspectives and gets politicized so much in the US that teachers feel their hands are tied. I wish teachers would feel empowered to do what they have been trained to do and nurture their students’ learning and find joy in working collaboratively on interdisciplinary, multi-level/age projects. Teachers need to embrace the global community that they are part of and work together to share their knowledge, their skills, their resources. The online space is saturated with resource, and many facebook groups/ LinkedIn groups exist as well. It is critical for teachers to stand together with leaders and work to keep the focus of education on what students’ needs are, FULL STOP.

Perhaps because of my ethos- students’ needs first is what drives my decisions I am able to apply a bit of teflon and not get bogged down in the political debates and rants. I look at the desired outcomes for my learners and then with great flexibility and creativity design the road map to facilitate my students towards achieving these goals. Sometimes the goals are set by me and sometimes external forces set them i.e. exam boards, state testing, AP testing and so forth. This leads to another critical piece- knowing what is in my control.

Keeping focus on what is in my control and not dwelling on what is not in my control is another strategy that I apply to stay positive. The world in education is big with LOTS of players- the best is the connection between teacher and learners followed by connections between teachers, their colleagues and leaders. When these relationships are predicated on common values, expectations and mission there is nothing that can stop a school/teacher from achieving. Groups may try to be an obstacle or put up a fight; but we as teachers need to stand tall, be focused and empowered to call out injustices. Once you have raised your voice it is important to know where and how to back off.

In my third year of teaching I learned this lesson. I was teaching in a program that I did not believe in nor chose to be in that assignment. In my second year of teaching the principal “promoted me” to a position I originally turned down: it was to be a pre-academy math/science teaching post working with two other teachers and a group of 90 students, most who were the lowest performing. When I turned down this position I shared that I did not believe that three female teachers working with many of the most needy students and putting them all together is sound practice. In the classes the students moved together all day and never had opportunities of seeing other students modeling more scholarly behavior. This was a new program and the principal thought if she assigned me to it then it would secure my position. Needless to say the first math/science teacher who created this program had a heart attack in the first week of school.

The principal ‘promoted me’ in the third week of school, reassigned all of my beloved students and I picked the pre-academy schedule. This second year was HELL. Nonetheless I got through it with the support of my team members and other teachers but by the third month of my third year under a new principal I could not see the end and knew something had to change. At the same time I was doing some research for my Masters in Education and called up my own junior high to learn about how it was going and if they are still integrating the arts. While on the call with the arts coordinator I quietly asked if they had any openings. As it turned out she said YES- my old history teacher, Mr. Kaiser, was retiring and they were looking to hire a new teacher for January. She asked if I wanted to come down and meet the principal. Feeling a bit low I decided to take a day off and visit my old school.

I remember walking in through the front doors of 32nd St and feeling a bit of comfort in the familiarity. Kids were walking in the hallway looking at other students’ art work, the office had a couple of students waiting to talk with the counselor. There was a great hum and respect between the students, office staff and teachers. Dr. Pruitt, the principal greeted me with a big smile and invited me in to her office for an interview. Halfway through, Billy Burke, my dance teacher from when I was a student at this school, popped his head in and told Dr. Pruitt- “hire her, she is golden.” This immediate connection reinstated my confidence and without hesitation Dr. Pruitt responded, “I know.” Within a week I received the formal offer and so appreciated Dr. Pruitt’s creativity to get me onboard as soon as possible. She made me an offer for math, since at the time the district was hiring only math teachers and not history teachers, plus that is what my credential was in. Meanwhile when I started in January I was teaching 8th grade history in my old history classroom. Changing positions mid-year was a survival tactic and one that sustained a positive outlook.

Too often teachers feel stuck and trapped which is most unfortunate. This too is a US issue as our health benefits are tied to our employment. In other countries health services and care are part of government services and not connected to one’s workplace.

So looking back over my 30 year career and looking forward to another 30 (I hope) I offer the following:

  1. Stay true to your values
  2. Know what is in YOUR control and take control
  3. When you feel under valued- walk (especially NOW teachers are in high demand)
  4. Nurture your passion
  5. Have fun and help others find joy in learning
  6. Pick your battles and being willing to lose humbly
  7. Reflect and consider your impact- how many lives did you improve. (Sometimes I dream of my army making this world a better place. I love hearing about former students and their progress. My army exceeds 5,000 and hope that it continues to grow…)

Please do add your comments to this blog and share how you stay positive and find joy!

Published by marasimmons

A passionate educator turned world traveler embarking on a nomadic lifestyle with my family. Learning to appreciate a life where we have the privilege of choosing our destiny and embracing it.

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