Career Advice for a Young, Indecisive Teacher
August 12, 2016 10:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm a young teacher struggling to determine my future career and life path. Is having self doubt in spite of outward success normal? How can I go about being more decisive about my future? Boring details to follow!

In most respects, I think I should feel fortunate with where I am at in life: I'm 25 years old and earn approximately $65,000 Canadian as the History department head at a high school located in my prairie hometown of less than 20,000 people. I am tenured (entering my fourth year), competent, and passionate about my work, have a solid group of friends, and travel frequently (including three major trips that have included 8 different countries in the last year alone). I am living on my own rent free at a house my parents own, but paying utilities, property taxes, and insurance, and have put in a significant amount of money and labour into renovations in lieu of rent. Because of this, I have been able to save over $50,000 (mostly in a tax free savings account), have absolutely no debt, and own my own car. This might not need said, but I have also have excellent benefits and a strong pension plan because of my career. Lastly, I've just started seeing someone after three years of being single following a long-term relationship. Outwardly, this all sounds great, right?

In other regards, I am frustrated at times. As most teachers can probably relate, my workload is intense and extracurriculars only add to that. Living in a small community is less difficult for me than many people, but I still sometimes feel jealous of those living in big cities in terms of lifestyle and sometimes fantasize about living in other places. My girlfriend lives in a larger center two hours away, and I worry this may cause difficulties down the line, but I have found the dating scene in the town where I live poor to say the least. The community itself is also much less progressive than I am, which can be frustrating personally and politically, though I am used to it because I grew up here. It's also probably worth mentioning that I used to have severe issues with anxiety and panic while in university that no longer seem to be an issue at all. However, maintaining my mental health improvements is important.

Having said all that, I seem to oscillate frequently in regards to what I want to do going forward. I'm currently taking online courses to complete my Bachelor of Arts degree, paid fully by my employer, but this will take several years to actually complete (each degree I earn will increase my salary). Similarly, I could follow the same path for a Masters of Education degree, or request a year off with pay to work towards it (my colleague recently received 80% of his salary for a year-long paid educational leave in exchange for two years return service). I'm still unsure however - I have long been penned as a prospective administrator, but worry about if that's what I want. At other times, I have considered applying to work elsewhere in Canada (the job market varies, however), teach abroad, or even considered alternate career paths (law school, etc). My employer also offers paid sabbaticals after five years of service (backpacking for a year sounds amazing), but I have no idea whether I would be accepted. Thankfully, I am not a spontaneous decision-maker, so these are all just speculative, but I feel like I have no effective method to sort or curate through the options. Sometimes, I feel like I'm just pushing my decision-making forward by saying "one more year" and continuing with the status quo.

My question, at its root then, is how can I go about weighing all these options and making a decision? I often seem paralyzed by choice, and as a long-time lurker at this site, have appreciated the clarity with which outside commentators seem to possess towards others - even just hearing whether I should be more appreciative of what I have, or if my anxieties are normal would be appreciated. If you read this all - thanks for your time!
posted by Fastest Pokemon to Work & Money (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Two questions:
1. If your workload were to be reduced, would you be satisfied to stay where you are?
2. If you stopped your current BA, would you be able to easily pick it back up at a later date?

I'm a teacher (History too, actually!) and I can definitely offer some help with workload. I teach English as well as History and I don't take work home. Ever. But my tips won't help if that's not the real problem.

I'm dealing with an MA program I took a break from right now, and it's a nightmare, so that's why I'm asking about your BA program.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:26 AM on August 12, 2016

Response by poster: 1. A reduced workload would be nice, but I don't think it's the primary issue for me. Between getting extra prep time as department head and finally teaching the same courses two years in a row (History and English, incidentally), I suspect it will be better next year especially considering each year has gotten better than the last. I'd love the tips though.

2. The BA could start and stop at anytime. I am eventually planning on completing the 8 or so courses needed to complete the degree online in a piecemeal, go at your own pace kind of way.

posted by Fastest Pokemon at 11:45 AM on August 12, 2016

You seem to be in a very good position at the moment. Congrats!
Your saying that you are considering different career paths is what struck me. What is it about your current career that you don't like? Given the difficulty in getting decent jobs these days, going to e.g. law school, and giving up your current well-paying job seems risky to me. So is there something about teaching that is going against the grain for you?
posted by storybored at 12:53 PM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is having self doubt in spite of outward success normal?

this is know as impostor syndrome (and as it happens my very successful partner is in a panel right now discussing it at some meeting here in chile!) (i think she's there as an example because she is not an expert on this).
posted by andrewcooke at 1:24 PM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sometimes, I feel like I'm just pushing my decision-making forward by saying "one more year" and continuing with the status quo.

But "one more year" hugely increases your options, as being able to take a sabbatical means you could travel or complete a larger chunk of your degree or try something else for a while in order to get a better feel for what you want to do. If it were me, I'd put in another year and work toward a sabbatical.
posted by lazuli at 4:19 PM on August 12, 2016

I agree that if you can hang in until you can take sabbatical you're in a much better position. Then you could travel for part of the time and use the rest to explore other career paths. Having a secure job to come back to will let you be far less worried about money during that time.

I would also HATE to lose good teachers from the classroom; it seems that most of us are pushed into non-teaching roles eventually because we feel this need to MOVE UP the ladder. But I've resisted that in my 13 years, and I'm so glad I did because now I'm a freaking rock star instructionally. Like, I can turn class on a dime, manage challenging behaviour, get all students working, etc. Are there things I still need to work on? HELLZ YES. But I will continue to work on it for the rest of my career, which will hopefully be in a classroom.

I also love what andrewcooke said about imposter syndrome. I haven't met a teacher yet who doesn't feel that way for most of their career. Hell, I feel that way sometimes. It's part of being reflective, I think, and it's helpful to have people around you who can talk to you when those feelings start to bubble up. Most good teachers really understand feeling like an imposter, and hopefully can share some of their experience.

As to how I, an English and History teacher, don't work at home...warning: this ended up being REALLY long. Apologies...I hope it's useful!

1. Lesson planning: overview. I design my week with daily routines to start class. Each routine covers an essential skill or content area.

Last year (6th grade), I did:
Membean Monday (vocab program),
Typing Tuesday/Tuesday Newsday/EQuesday (TT was first quarter, then TN, where I gave them a short article to read & practice skills with for second quarter, finishing with EQ, which was a writing prompt based on AskMe questions. Students talk about their answers and choose a best one from the sample answers on the actual thread),
Explosion Wednesday (tech/design project/challenges, like learning how to make a visually appealing poster, PPT, etc. Sometimes this was just taking an assignment and making it visual, like note-taking),
Random Video Thursday & Thankful Thursday (random video was a way of bringing in current events or other important topics, or practicing skills like summarising, supporting claims with evidence, explaining tone/POV, etc. Thankful Thursday was where I gave every student a post-it note and asked them to write a thank you to someone else in class. I used the time to write notes to students, and kept track to make sure I got to everyone)
Finishing Friday (time to finish anything that needs finishing, or to read, or do seeker assignments)

Those routines created structure so students ALWAYS knew what to do when we started class, and it gave me time to take attendance, check in with students, check email, etc. But most of all, it gave me time to grade. See how most of those routines are something I ask students to do with limited direction from me? That's intentional. With the exception of Thursdays, I had at least 10 minutes to grade work every single class period. Now, I had students for about 100 minutes, so YMMV on how much time these routines take. But building in structure allows students to feel safe and you to get some of that work graded/entered, or some of those hundreds of emails answered, etc.

By design, those routines are also really easy to grade. For Membean, I could pull up weekly reports that showed me how much time students had done, and how well they were progressing. For Tuesday Newsday and EQuesday, I would go over sample responses after they finished and students would assess themselves and revise their work RIGHT THEN. For ExWed, I would always have students do a gallery walk, and I'd note which ones were unfinished and which were the most awesome. Then I'd enter that information into the gradebook IMMEDIATELY. I'd recheck only the ones that were unfinished. The Thursday and Friday activities aren't even graded.

But you see how much time something like that would save? It gives you back a tremendous amount of time.

2. Lesson planning: daily. I think of each class period in 10-15 minute chunks. That means I have a certain number of chunks to fill each day. Routines/reviewing agenda takes two chunks. Then we do something active, usually starting whole class and moving to group/individual work. After that, I plan something that students can work on independently. Then switch gears and do something totally different. End class with a formative assessment. In between each chunk, students HAVE to get up and move around. It's required. All people - kids and adults - need to move frequently during the learning process.

But those chunks make lesson planning FAR less stressful. They also do something important: any time students are working independently, I'm grading. Last year, the longest it took me to return an assignment to students was two weeks. Most assignments were turned around within days, sometimes hours.

3. Repetition, repetition, repetition. I use a method of instruction that gives students lots of reps on important skills, and are easy to grade. Here's one: Flash Research Project. Here's a student example. One of the main problems with the traditional model of instruction is that it assumes that hearing something once, then practicing it a few times (at best) leads to genuine mastery. But it doesn't. Students never really master it, so they are relearning the same things every year.

The FRP is designed to build mastery over time. I have students find a research question based on either the content we've studied or a text (usually a video). Then they find three good sources, one good image (with citation link), and finally synthesise what they learned into a paragraph. Those are all SUPER important skills to have. So the first time we do a FRP, I am only really checking the question. Is it a good research question? Too big, or too small? Etc. That's the ONLY thing I give feedback on. After students are getting that down, I start looking at their selection of websites. Are they credible? Are they linked appropriately? Are they academic enough? Etc. Then we move on to the image/image citation. Finally, I grade the paragraph. But that only happens on the 8th or 9th repetition.

So these are all done on a Google Draw document, and submitted through Google Classroom. One of my secrets is that if you're in Google Drive and you have it in thumbnail view, you can actually scan the whole class to see which ones look the least finished and only open those. This works especially well when you've done lots of repetitions. And it works well for any posters or visual note-taking you assign.

Typically, I can grade a class set of something like this in under 20 minutes. Those 20 minutes are usually built into class time so I can have them do the FRP, then do something individually where they won't need much help so I can grade them all, then I have them go back immediately and revise what needs revising. While they do that, I conference with the students who either need additional help, or who have demonstrated mastery already.

When grading doesn't pile up, and students are repeating a skill to mastery, everyone wins. Any skill can be isolated into one of these assignments. I do this with parts of speech, kinds of sentences, narrative writing, explaining specific detail, summarising, building timelines, etc. One essential piece of this is having alternative texts - funny pictures (google "times when it's okay to say the F word" and do an image search), short videos (Simon's Cat is GREAT for this), interesting documentaries (I love Levison Wood, the vlogbrothers Thoughts from Places videos, the Good Stuff, Veritasium, How to Adult, etc.), and I've even used vines/instagram/GIFs. By making the "text" different each time, and by making it more fun, students don't have a problem with the repetition.

4. What happens when I'm done? Set VERY CLEAR parameters for what students can do when they finish their work early. For my students, the options are usually: train with Membean, read something, help others, or do revisions or Seeker projects (what I call extra credit). Students never need ask what to do when they are done. Everyone knows.

5. Teaching Writing Without Losing Your Freaking Mind. I actually do read every single word every student writes all year. For most students, that's about 40k words, but it's a lot more in some cases. The way I do that is that I have a laser-like focus. I only care about the ONE or MAYBE TWO things I am assessing. I also don't assess anything I haven't taught. So let's say I'm assessing use of specific details. If a student makes a grammar/spelling error then I DON'T DO ANYTHING. I am ONLY checking that one thing.

When students are writing a multiple draft essay, I always have them lead with ideas. Most teachers focus WAY too much on structure. I focus on making sure the student has based their idea on specific details in the text. Often, English teachers push students to come up with a thesis first, rather than asking them to look carefully at the text for evidence, and then seeing where evidence pushes towards a claim. In early drafts, it's all about ideas, and I never even mention grammar/spelling errors. Remember, this is a multiple draft essay. If you check all their mistakes in the early drafts, it won't necessarily be the mistakes in the final version. In fact, I generally don't do any grammar/spelling checks; that's what peer and self assessment is for! My job is to help students develop good ideas, strong claims based on evidence, and express it with enough structure to make it make sense but that still has an authentic voice.

6. The person who does the work does the learning. I used to find all these cool resources for my students - I'd spend tons of time searching, and then vetting and loading them up for students to access. By the time I'd done that, I understood the topic pretty well! But my students weren't getting the same experience.

So now, instead of giving a lecture about the innovations in early Sumerian culture, I ask students to create a presentation as a group that demonstrates 10 of those inventions. Then they are getting graphic design and technology skills alongside the content. They are also practicing skills they mastered in the FRPs - finding credible sources, synthesising, linking images, etc.

While they are building those slides, I start grading. Once they've been working for about 10 minutes, I start doing my first check. I go through the group slide decks and start offering feedback. That way, they've had time to get something done, but they haven't gone so far down the wrong path that they can't start over. I also do this feedback through Google Drive so the feedback will remain there (good for parents to see too!), and the student remembers all the things they need to fix. Verbally telling them is far less effective. It also pushes students to work together and collaborate meaningfully. That is SO important.

Also, group work = less grading. There are lots of benefits to group work, but it will save you a bunch of time grading. And if you are doing frequent check-ins (every 10 minutes or so), the end product will require less grading, because you're really only checking revisions and what they did after your final check.

7. Stop giving homework. It has been proven to be very ineffective, and is most often a waste of a student's time. Most traditional English teachers actually take the two most difficult skills - reading and writing - and ask students to do them in an isolated non-ideal environment. That's CRAZY. It creates problems with plagiarism and by high school, creates students adept at institutionalised lying.

When students do all of the writing and reading in class, you can be there to support them. Their peers can support them. And even with frequent check-ins, it gives you time to grade. You also can do writing conferences this way without wasting the time of the rest of the class.

8. End of Class: Formative Assessment. I like to use Kahoot ( every single day. My students are always disappointed if we don't Kahoot together. I either build a short quiz that goes over exactly what we covered in class (4-7 questions), or I take one from the millions that have already been created. For the history content, I create a Kahoot at the start of the unit with all the important information. Students take it for the first time when we start the unit (though I've actually done it before starting too). Yes, they don't usually know anything, but it then makes a pretty good pre-assessment. We then take it 2-4 times a week for the entire unit. A week before the students do the final project/writing task, we take it as a final exam. By then, all students pretty much get an A. And more importantly, students have enough content knowledge to do the higher-level thinking skills required in the project/writing task.

9. Put good systems in place. One of the most important ones for me is where students access their work. Absent students or students who missed part of class can find my daily slide deck in the same place every day. It's also available for parents and other teachers. That means that students who miss class do not even have to ask, and parents don't have to ask how to help their child; they know EXACTLY where to find the information. Here's an example. Those are then added to a playlist and embedded on my website.

Another system is for back to school night. At the beginning of the year, students have homework...but it's for their parents. They watch a short video, then fill out a google form survey telling me about their child. From those responses, I start contacting parents who have expressed a difficulty or anxiety about their child. By back to school night, I've contacted close to every parents. That lets me really get in depth with them while we are face to face. It is a preventative measure that saves a TON of time later, and gives students strong support from day one.

10. Consider using more video in your class. Not only does it give you time to grade, but it also (as long as it's engaging) levels the playing field for students. I love reading, and still use written texts in my class, but I want the most important skills to be based on videos so students with special needs, English language issues, etc. are able to access it.

YouTube is a teacher's wonderland. You can find lots of stuff there. But I steer clear of the boring long History documentaries. Instead, I find things like Veritasium's pyramid video, or Vi Hart's Hexaflexagon videos, or the Gregory Brothers Major to Minor videos. Those are fun, and can be used to practice lots of skills, as well as build content knowledge.


Apparently I just wrote a novel. My apologies for the length. I really hope something in there will help you (or other teachers reading this). If there's anything you want to know more about, or you want to see more examples, send me an email (it's in my profile). I always love to talk to other teachers, or teachers-to-be. :-)
posted by guster4lovers at 6:14 PM on August 12, 2016 [19 favorites]

None of the teachers I know enjoy much "lifestyle" during the school year, except on weekends. And not every weekend, because they're often grading (I think because they don't have guster4lovers' bag of tricks!). But if you do have energy for that, a two hour drive isn't that big of a deal, you could get a hotel room or BnB two weekends a month, and meet people there.

I don't think department head at 25, without a BA, would happen in Toronto these days, or probably anywhere in Southern Ontario. Even getting a full-time job teaching isn't a peach... I know that getting an in with a school board is very difficult here, and political; people sub and do contracts for years, some are just shut out. If you were interested in coming here, your experience would be a bonus, but you might still have a hard time finding an in (especially without the BA). But it's worth making some inquiries (if you're interested in Toronto or other competitive places).

I'd say, finish the BA, for sure, take the year off to do your masters, re-evaluate conditions at that time - the options may be totally different by then.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:25 PM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I could be wrong, but my impression was that the OP was getting a second BA, rather than a first BA.

I found this on a page outlining what teachers need to do to enter the profession:
You must have completed four years (120 credits) of post-secondary studies and a degree or its equivalent. Within these studies, we will look for coursework that meets our academic requirements and teacher education requirements.

If that is NOT the case, I'd say for SURE that you should finish your BA.
posted by guster4lovers at 12:09 AM on August 13, 2016

I'm going to guess that the OP is from one of those provinces (i.e. Alberta) where a B.Ed can be a first degree that doesn't require previous university-level study, unlike in Ontario, where it's either a second-entry degree or completed in a concurrent program alongside another bachelor's degree with a major or minors in "teachable" subjects. This would explain how they've been teaching since 21.
posted by blerghamot at 4:30 AM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

That's what I thought, too. (I think you're in a kind of great situation career-wise right now, OP - if you can make the setting work for a while, you'd have so many feathers in your cap at the end of a few years. You've got summers to travel, you've got a city not too far away... there are worse possibilities! For decision making - I think it's good to go with the current sometimes, if it's taking you good places.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:26 AM on August 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the thoughtful responses everyone.

To respond directly to a few commentors:

storybored: Honestly, I really do like my job. I have a great deal of autonomy, deal with no standardized testing, and am well-compensated. I think it is more a case of nagging musings about what my life would be like in different circumstances, which is probably a normal feeling.

guster4lovers: I know it wasn't the question I asked, but your tips are invaluable and much appreciated!

blerghamot: That's correct. The only degree I currently have is a Bachelor of Education.

cotton dress sock: I appreciate your reassurance. Sometimes an outside voice like yours can reaffirm my gut instinct against my anxieties.

Any other comments are welcome, but everything that has been said so far has been of great benefit.
posted by Fastest Pokemon at 2:24 PM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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