Teaching is about more than curriculum and lesson planning. It’s about more than tests and grades. It’s about helping kids discover themselves and the world around them. The work of a teacher, at its core, is to model and reflect back what it means to live. Teaching, as human work, is to show the beauty and complexity of the human experience in our society.
Part of being a strong teacher is encouraging kids to explore, inspiring them to dream big, and modeling for them what it looks like to bring passion to learning and experiencing the world. But pursuing dreams and passions requires time and space, and teaching leaves me barely any room to breathe. With my days long and rigid, this profession hasn’t given me the space to be a balanced, whole human. Teaching has consumed me.
Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching and I do not believe teachers should have to leave the classroom to feel whole. Closing in on a decade into classroom teaching, some of my dreams from childhood are calling back to me and I’m choosing to lean into them, rather than ignoring them for a profession I’ve settled into.
Becoming a teacher was the first dream I had as a kid. I had a preschool teacher who was magic and I wanted to be just like her. Like all kids, I was constantly asked the question Michelle Obama loathes: What do you want to be when you grow up? And even though I eventually became a teacher, my answer morphed over time. Teaching wasn’t my only dream.
At 10 years old, my world opened up. I had my first job. I made $100 bringing to life the legacy of Coleman A. Young in a sold out stage play in my hometown of Detroit. This gave me a taste of what it felt like to be a professional actor, or in my mind, a Disney Channel star. Over the next few years, I performed in community and school productions, and I fell in love with making magic in the theater.
Throughout my childhood, I dreamt about being a playwright, a radio personality, a novelist and a culinary star. At times, I imagined myself as a hard-hitting journalist or a professional beekeeper.
Reflecting back on my time as a student, the teachers I remember most are the ones whose passions were multidimensional — the ones who shared about their successes outside of the classroom. My middle school choir teacher recorded and released an acclaimed gospel album. My high school English teacher starred in commercials and made a name for herself as a voice actor. Seeing them not only as talented teachers, but as full human beings with passions and gifts, made me want to pursue teaching even more. “You can pursue more than one path,” I told myself.
Because of them, I fought hard to merge my passions with teaching over the years.
In 2017, while teaching fifth grade language arts and social studies, I took my love of radio and started a podcast on teaching and education. In 2021, while teaching sixth grade humanities, I united my love of writing and teaching and penned a memoir about my experiences teaching. In 2022, I began traveling across the country, keynoting education conferences, inspiring teachers to see themselves as humans first. I worked hard to carve out time for these passions after school, on the weekends and occasionally during a planning period — but it stretched me thin.
Now, things are quiescent. I’m feeling uninspired. I want to grow, I want to dream, I want to feel whole. Unfortunately, teaching is an inflexible career path that makes it difficult to do.
An Inflexible Profession With Limited Growth Pathways
Teaching is an inflexible profession and the most difficult obstacle for me is time. While remote and hybrid work is trending upward, my role requires me to be in the school building eight hours, five days a week, every day. And those are just teaching hours. Sometimes I bring home papers to grade or spend my evening talking to parents. Teaching is always on my mind, it is difficult to “turn it off.” Between instructional time, grading papers, communicating with parents and facilitating restorative justice circles, there’s little time to even catch my breath.
To make matters worse, there aren’t a lot of career development options. I’m an English teacher and in my profession, there is one growth path: become an administrator. That growth path never really appealed to me. I wanted to stay close to the ground, spending my time with students and working alongside teachers. I deeply value creativity and in my experience, administration does not leave much room to create. Despite my hesitance, I recently took on a leadership role at my school for a few reasons. I wanted to help shape a culture where every voice matters, I wanted to flatten the hierarchy and, of course, like many professionals, I wanted to try something new. I wanted to grow.
It’s been worthwhile, being able to advocate for students, set up systems for support, and shape my school’s culture and policies in a post-COVID shutdown world. But having a dual role has exacerbated some of the already difficult challenges of being a teacher, primarily the time crunch. While I technically teach less, my day is spent nonstop problem solving, even into the evening and the weekends. Student conflicts. Parent concerns. Societal woes seeping into our building. I have struggled to create boundaries in my work and to give time to myself, to affirm my own humanity.
It turns out, I’m not alone. A 2022 survey administered by Education Week found that teachers generally work “about 54 hours a week — with just under half of that time devoted to directly teaching students.” As a teacher and a dean, I clock a few more hours for administrative tasks. Often, I find it hard to find time to eat, let alone find time to chase childhood dreams. Teaching is a never-ending job. And ever since the COVID shutdown, it feels like being a “good teacher” requires more than before, leaving even less time. As fulfilling as it was being a teacher and the host of a podcast; a teacher and a writer; a teacher and a speaker, it was unsustainable.
It’s probably not surprising that I’m feeling overwhelmed; burnout continues to be a prevalent issue in the field. And it’s not just the teaching profession — plenty of other careers have long hours or limited pathways for development. But while burnout is not unique to teaching, it’s deeply problematic for teachers and students because our job demands that we bring creativity and enthusiasm to our practice each day and our students count on us being present for them.
Teachers Need to Live
To be the best teacher I can be for my students, I need time and space to live. To make sure I don’t outgrow this profession, I need an opportunity to be reinspired.
To keep teachers in the profession for the long haul, systems will have to reimagine teacher career pathways. Without a change in the way the profession is structured, to free up more time for teachers to be inspired, to deepen their own learning and to gain new experiences to bring back to the classroom, it may be difficult to hold on to teachers for long periods of time.