When I begin professional development work with teachers, I often ask what inspires or enables them to do the hard work they do. Their responses almost always fall within one of the same four categories: commitment to their students, connections with their colleagues, coaching from leaders that encourage their growth, and caring support from their own families. In my experience, those four things are what we as teachers are most thankful for.
The number one thing that teachers are thankful for is their students. The old adage is that the only other job, besides teaching, where one has to make so many complex and important decisions each day, is that of an air traffic controller. People outside of the field of education may be surprised at how often teachers go above and beyond to give their students every opportunity to be successful, from paying for books and supplies out of their own pockets, to spending long hours on nights and weekends grading papers and getting plans just right. The great teachers I know don’t do this extra work because there is someone external who is holding them accountable; they do it because they feel accountable to their students. They love working with young people and helping them achieve their goals. Teachers get to witness their extra effort pay off in life-changing ways, as students learn new things and grow before their eyes. In return, teachers draw an endless source of energy and enthusiasm from interacting with their students.
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Teachers also give thanks for their connections with fellow teachers. I was recently part of a professional development session where there was a pair of special education teachers who had worked together for the past 17 years. This is a rarity, since many teachers often move from one school to another. Seeing these colleagues interact was a treat — they practically finished each other’s sentences. They laughed about the changing educational trends, but the one constant was their work together. It’s these connections, and the commitment they have for one another, that keep teachers coming back year after year. The job of teaching is too hard to do alone; having that built-in support group can make all the difference.
Leaders Who Support Our Growth and Development
Teachers are grateful for coaching from leaders who encourage growth. Much as students can often point to that one teacher who made a difference in their lives, I am struck by how often teachers can point to that one administrator who believed in them and saw potential, or pushed them to take on a leadership position that made all the difference in their careers. Schools cannot sustain success without a commitment to teacher development, and teachers are thankful for leaders who see their primary role as developing teachers, not merely evaluating them.
In my own career, I was fortunate enough to be mentored for a short time by such a leader. I taught in an alternative school program for students who were behind on their credits or returning to school after having dropped out. I was mentored by the director of our AVID program. In retrospect, my teaching at that point in my career still left much to be desired. The director had a growth mindset and actively sought out ways to build on my strengths. She visited my classroom, where she would give me feedback that both encouraged me and gave me clear steps to improve my practice. She invited me to visit her classroom, so that I could learn by watching her in action. She connected me with other teachers she knew so I could keep learning. When I started making progress, she empowered me to lead PD at the district level. She set me up to see myself as someone with ideas worth sharing, and that is truly something to be thankful for.
Our Own Families
Behind every great teacher is a support system of friends and family that have shared the joy and tears, the long hours grading, and the late nights at conferences. Family support is what enables teachers to be at their best for their students. Families understand that teachers don’t really get the summers “off.” And unlike other professional jobs, where excellence is rewarded financially, families of great teachers may have had to make tough choices about their own family priorities to stretch a teacher’s salary to meet their needs.
Another unique aspect of teaching is that it tends to run in families. My mother was a teacher and educator. As a child, I remember my mom coming home and having a different story to tell each day. She told us about the lives of her students and she made me think that there was never a dull moment for teachers. It sounded so exciting! My mom’s uncle was a teacher, too. When I decided to become a teacher, she shared a story that he passed down to her: “If you want to be a teacher, you have to remember what they taught you in Girl Scouts: ‘Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you’.” This advice about the highs and lows inherent in teaching is an example of how families of teachers pass down wisdom to one another, and share in the joys and hardships of one of the most challenging and rewarding careers. The support of one’s family, whether they are teachers themselves or not, fills us with a sense of gratitude at Thanksgiving and all year round.
I have personally been trying to take a moment each day to give thanks, especially when things become a bit hectic. As I see how much there is to be thankful for, I gain a sense of perspective and purpose.
Ryan McCarty is a coach with Achievement Network, a nonprofit organization that helps school leaders support teaching that is grounded in standards, data, and the best practices of schools across the country. He partners with schools in Massachusetts. Prior to that, he was a literacy coordinator, instructional coach, and teacher in Chicago, IL. All views are his own. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanP_McCarty.