Sunday, August 7, 2011

50/50: What Accounts for Whether or Not Teachers Last Five Years?

This fall will mark my fifth year teaching high school science. I have taught biology, chemistry, physics, and physical science at all different grade and ability levels. Additionally, this past year I became an adjunct faculty member at the college of education for Saginaw Valley State University. I have taught courses in learning theory, middle and secondary pedagogy, and educational philosophy.

Regularly, I push my high school students to reflect on process. I expect them to enumerate the steps that bring them to a solution or to make their thinking visible in both linguistic and non-linguistic representations. My teacher education students and graduate students are held to a similar standard: I implore them to reflect on what they do for teaching and learning and how they do it all the time. The nature of the content of the education courses requires copious reflection and consideration for what is best practice in the education profession. Despite all of these expectations to reflect on what's best for the profession, less often is there focused reflection on what is best for the professional.

This summer, I have found myself reflecting on my own teaching more than ever. Maybe it is that I am entering a milestone year (when I started teaching, some wise mentor told me, "half of teachers leave the profession in their first five years.") It may just be that witnessing all the reflection my students do has rubbed off on me more than ever before. Regardless, I am happy to be entering the year where I have overcome the looming statistical intimidation, though I am not sure what it is that makes a difference for the other 50% of teachers. Sure, some just envisioned it in an unrealistic light or others did not get the proper preparation, but all things being equal: why do only half make it through five years?

I reflected a lot on this question and my thoughts eventually turned inward: what kept me from leaving? How did I get to be in the 50% that 'beat the odds?' After some careful consideration, I realized that my first year, like many others' first year, was a challenge full of adjustments that I did not see coming. Over time, I acclimated, adapted, and accommodated all that was required to be a successful professional. This helped me to be on my best game in every aspect of my career every day for my students. When I compared my experience to that of some stressed out contemporaries in the field, as well as some other noteworthy exemplars, I found that there was something I had figured out that allowed me to flourish. There was a piece of advice that made all the difference for me, which led to me figuring it out, that maybe those other 50% had not known. Someone told me (not the same mentor who gave me the statistics) that I should "strive to always be present in all that [I] do." It was a very nebulous adage at first, but it eventually became part of my professional and personal mantra.

In order to be present, you must be fully and completely conscious as well as conscientious to what is going on in the current time and place. This does not mean just being physically present but also mentally present. You have to focus on the immediate to be present and when you do, your attention and efforts can be concentrated then and there for the best use of your talents & energy.

If you are feeling like this interpretation of the advice is pretty tacit or obvious, it's because you're missing the implicit. The original focus of this advice for me was the instruction to be present. I didn't understand what this statement meant until I shifted to focus on the instruction of where/when to be present: in all that you do, be present. Being present in your career is necessary and will help you to be your best in what you do, but being present in all that you do will allow you to be balanced in your life. When you attend to giving your fullest presence to everything you do, you can develop all the areas of your life to their fullest and integrate those aspects of you to make the best you.

A balanced you can take on anything, and a balanced you will succeed in your career far more than an unbalanced you. This philosophy on life has helped me in my professional career and personal life. It keeps me in check, yet keeps me striving for my best. The principle of achieving and maintaining balance in my life has been paramount to my staying in the profession. Like the 5 Juggling Spheres inspirational story, I have identified five areas of my life in which I strive to maintain full presence.

Five Pillars of Professional Life Balance
For me, it has been presence in health, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual aspects of my life that have made be a balanced person and professional. This has been a developing work on my part, not a balance that I have always had, but the key to remaining pleasantly employed in the teaching career. If any one of these pillars of my life, as I fondly refer to them, gets less of my presence than the rest, I do not feel right. I feel out of balance when I do not have an equal footing in all the pillars of my life.

Now, as I enter my fifth rewarding year as a high school science teacher, and now college faculty member, I make it a point to tell my students about finding their own balance. It is above and beyond critical to have good health, developed intellect, a supportive social life, stable emotional wellness, and identified sense of spirituality. These pillars of balance may be associated with different specifics for different individuals, but their essence is the same. For all the new teachers out there, seek balance in your life by being present in all that you do and the career success you want should fall into place.


  1. My graduate teacher always said that good teachers have altitude. It is how to stay present, calm and aware of your surroundings.In a classroom it is how teachers model good behavior, acceptance of others and effective problem solving skills.

    Great post!

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