Benjamin D. Alvord is a history teacher at Clarke N. Johnsen in Tooele County School District. He has committed to a life in education after working for a decade in the corporate world and now has been teaching for 8 years. Find him @misteralvord. An original version of this piece appeared on Curio Learning.
I teach 8th Grade U.S. history, a subject that gets dicey with young teenagers who struggle with concepts like slavery and nativism. In light of this, I begin each year with the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, focusing on the phrase “A More Perfect Union.” As a former Language Arts teacher, I have to address the alarming grammatical error. Something cannot be “more perfect” in the same way it cannot be “very unique.” Something is either perfect or not. The discussion then moves to what is meant by that phrase. I direct the conversation to the idea that we, as a nation, have developed a culture of wanting to be “more perfect.”
I entered the teaching profession later in life. I worked for a decade in the corporate world, often feeling that within the first 6–12 months I had reached the ceiling in a particular job. Was I a perfect employee? Probably not, but I was as close as I was going to get. However, I haven’t experienced this feeling in my eight years in the teaching profession. This realization has caused me a lot of soul searching. Is teaching right for me? Can I be the teacher I want to be? Was this career change a mistake?
Media has not help to ease my concern about my ability to teach. Most movies depict great teachers, who reach even the most hard-headed of students, and conflicts are easily resolved. Books about pedagogy tend to oversimplify teaching and leave the impression that, using certain pedagogical methods, teachers can reach most any student. Anyone who has taught knows this is not true.
In reflecting on this struggle, it is easy to understand that one of the primary reasons teachers cite for leaving the profession is burnout. I discussed these feelings with some other teachers that I respect. Most teachers I spoke to (even those I consider master teachers) said they share these insecurities. In contemplating this, I realized there really will never be a perfect teacher. Instead, the best teachers are always striving to become “A More Perfect Teacher.”
Becoming “A More Perfect Teacher”
In the world of teaching, if you stop trying to improve, you will invariably negatively impact your students. Each year, teachers get a fresh start; for the sake of our students, we have to reinvent ourselves each year to meet the needs of new students. We have to seek ways to improve our craft. Never have we had so many ways to improve our teaching; Internet research, webinars, conferences, professional development courses, or simply reaching out to other teachers can improve our practice.
Data is perhaps the most effective way to make substantial improvements. Often we associate data with year end exams, but it is much more than that. Whether referencing assessment feedback, reading exit tickets, reviewing survey responses, or simply checking student faces for understanding, the data informs us-for better or worse. Data allows us to use our time wisely, discovering the best opportunities available to improve our practice.
Collaborating with other teachers is crucial. I have had the opportunity, in the past year, to be a part of the inaugural cohort of the Utah Teacher Fellows, a partnership of Hope Street Group and NNSTOY. This group of teacher leaders advocate for students and teachers. Working with like-minded teachers who share my frustrations and my passion has been very meaningful to me. Building a professional learning network is easy and rewarding. Partner with other teachers! Great teachers share their knowledge with others.
Teaching is a profession where there is often little or no recognition. You get evaluations once a year that don’t reflect, in any way, many of the extra things that you do to be a better teacher. In the state of Utah, evaluations are set up on a state level in such a way that most teachers are lumped into the same category of effectiveness. You have to take solace in the little things: a thank you from a student, an email from a parent, praise from a fellow teacher or administrator, or even just a high class average on an assessment. In response to the teacher shortage, districts have been seeking out ways to show teachers they are valued and retain them in the profession. Try not to roll your eyes at the small efforts made and take them for their intention even if the execution of the message isn’t always great.
It can be mentally draining to be part of a profession that requires so much upkeep to enhance your skills. One of the influences that helped me early in my career was the book Teacher Man by Frank McCourt. I often say that most books on pedagogy and professional development should start with the phrase “In a perfect world the following will work…” McCourt made it okay for me to not be perfect. In her review of the book for the MIT paper The Tech, W. Victoria Lee writes:
“Surely you are expecting a saccharine moment that often plagues school-related books and movies, namely the moment when an incorrigible pupil is converted by the mentor who teaches from the heart. No? Good for you, because there is none of that in “Teacher Man.” In fact, McCourt writes of being an unsuccessful teacher for at least half of his career.”
In coming to the realization that I am not perfect and it’s okay, I found the inspiration to strive to become “A More Perfect Teacher.”