It’s Real

“I’m struggling.” I’ve said these two words more times than I can count in the past week. On one hand, it’s a relief to openly express my feelings and frustrations, and on the other, I feel guilty for complaining about something so wonderful.

With just over a week remaining until the end of the school year, I should be feeling like I’m in a state of euphoria. I should be counting down the final hours of the school year, celebrating my successes and the academic gains of my students, and looking forward to basking in sun, family and the awesomeness that is summertime.

And yet, I’m struggling.

As a career international teacher, I’ve never been directly confronted with issues such as budget cuts, incentive pay, lack of professional development, or students with extreme special needs. I’ve had it pretty darn good.

But there is something missing.

Next week marks the end of my 11th year in an elementary school classroom. When I began college, I remember learning that the average person in today’s workforce will change careers about 5-7 times. “Of course”, I remember thinking, “why would anyone do the same thing for forty-plus years?” I made the decision right then and there that I would be an elementary teacher for 5-10 years, tops, before making the move to something new.

And here I am.

It’s not for lack of trying, mind you. I’ve expressed my interest in teaching middle school on multiple occasions, and have attempted to make internal moves, to no avail. Like an actor who is typecast, I can’t seem to “break into” other roles within a school. Despite my credentials and strong desire to teach more focused content, I am viewed as an elementary school teacher, and always cast as such.

Not that being an elementary teacher is a bad thing. To be clear, I would not have stayed in this role for 11 years if I was miserable or somehow disliked this age group. On the contrary, I love working with young children, and would relish in the opportunity to continue working with them in a different setting or context. I just don’t want to teach science. Ever. Again. Science isn’t to blame, of course. My passions just lie elsewhere.

Educators in middle and upper grades have the great blessing of being able to teach the subject of their passion, be it math or chemistry or literature. Elementary teachers, however, typically teach all of the core subject areas, whether or not they have substantial interest, desire, or content knowledge in a certain area. Spending the day with a homeroom teacher, stable classroom community, and set routine may be more developmentally appropriate for younger learners, according to research. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to witness and be part of the bonds and communities that have been formed in my classrooms over the years. But I also believe that some of the same factors that benefit young students may contribute to teachers being stretched too thin and feeling burned out more quickly. I wouldn’t be sharing these feelings on a public platform if I thought I was alone. I know I’m not.

There are plenty of statistics sharing the startling rates of teachers leaving the profession, and it makes sense in a place like the US, where the education system is in need of a major overhaul. But for overseas educators, life is grand. We earn competitive salaries, get our housing provided, receive countless professional development opportunities, work with incredible colleagues and students, and get to travel the world. What’s not to like?

Nothing, you might think. This gal’s got it made.

We’ve all worked with those people who just don’t seem to like kids (why did they become teachers in the first place?), or who are unhappy no matter what. But burnout affects even those of us who are truly passionate about working with children, and who generally greet life with a smile. I love my school and the young people with whom I spend my days. They make me smile constantly. We learn, we laugh, and we help each other. And yet, there’s a part of me that is not feeling fulfilled.

The struggle is real.

Perhaps this is one of the few drawbacks of being a lifelong learner. I have too many interests, and I’m not done navigating their positions in my life just yet. I’m not ready to settle on one thing, even if there’s still so much to learn about that thing. Let’s face it, nobody’s ever really at the top of their game in the field of education, because the game is always changing. Still, I feel that there are so many options out there for me to explore. Maybe that means that someone will finally offer me the chance to help middle school students cultivate a passion for words and find their written voice. Or maybe I will go back to school for another degree that will make me more marketable in a different realm of international education, taking me outside of the classroom entirely. But then again, maybe now is the time I start that business on the beach I’ve been talking about for years, or become a pediatric nurse, or join in a humanitarian aid effort. I struggle, because while the beach business idea is a good one, I don’t really see myself walking away from international education anytime soon. What I do know is that I’m approaching the end of the line in elementary, and I’m ready to be cast in a different role. My soul is yearning for something new, something fresh, and it can no longer be silenced or ignored.

After this summer, which will hopefully provide some clarity, I have another year of teaching fabulous fifth graders. I will give them the same amount of love and attention that I have given every group of students thus far. And then, I believe that this scene will come to a close. I’d love to remain part of the same storyline; the change to a new scene doesn’t necessarily require an entirely new script. Perhaps someday, it will. But for now, just being cast in a different role might provide the needed change I seek. Like an actor who finally breaks out of their typecast and then watches their career really take off, I am ready.

 

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8 Responses to It’s Real

  1. R Steven Gumbay says:

    I appreciate your sharing these feelings of frustration and discontent. This is a draining profession, yet it sounds like it remains a passionate part of who you are. I encourage you to seek out those very special schools who of administrators who are truly leaders, connected to their school community. The greatest asset a teacher can have is a passion for kids and a passion for sharing knowledge and a love of love learning. If you remain passionate about teaching older kids to communication and write well, to find their voice – you should do it! There are rare leaders (sadly, very rare) who can feel the passion in a teacher for the kids AND for a subject area. You have a great gift to give these older students. A gift to communicate and find their voice is vitally needed into today’s world. Network like crazy. Find those rare schools with people like yourself. It is difficult, but they are out there and will be greatly worth it. The greatest satisfaction I have in 25+ years in education was the opportunity and freedom to teach my passions (for science and biology) to middle and high school students. I know I helped create many women scientists and physicians. A truly rewarding feeling. You know you can influence kids lives, but now you could find an opportunity to truly shape a young person’s life and lead them into a passionate calling of their own. Best of luck. Persevere!

    ps I would hire you in a moment.

  2. Jill Johnson says:

    Shannon- I love your writing voice, and I know your struggle. I wish we could switch resumes. I’ve been “typecast” as a middle school English teacher, but I recently discovered I like the littles more. I kept taking the MS jobs because no one would hire me for other grades, or the pay wasn’t as good. I finally walked away from education completely so I could do what you want to do: investigate other options and interests. So, I cringe that this is going to come off as a sales pitch, but I’m really, really not trying to promote this for any reason other than you wrote that you still want to be in touch with the cute elementary kids. So, you might consider teaching online while you investigate. I’ve been teaching with VIPKID, and it’s given me enough income and time to take some PD classes and plan my next career direction. You’d especially like VIPKID because you get to teach one-one with really cute kids whose parents would love your expertise ($22/hr and up)…and you’d never have to smell the children! https://t.vipkidteachers.com/?refereeId=2508496

  3. Jane says:

    oh my god I understand being typecast. My partner’s previous experience was in high school but we started at a new school and they lost a teacher, were desperate, and asked if he would teach primary just one one year. He said well… um… I don’t really have any experience with primary but if you really need me to do it then I will but can you move me up to high school ASAP? They promised yes. The end of the year comes and they say you did such a good job in primary we’re keeping you there for next year! I think he is the same as you it’s not that he really dislikes the little ones he just wants to be a high school teacher. Then we went to a job fair and he was looking for a high school position and all the recruiters were asking him why are you looking for a high school position? You are an elementary teacher. Knock head on wall. We did find jobs but the only position offered to him was you guessed it: primary. And let’s face it there are stereotypes about male primary school teachers.
    Now we feel his one nice deed of helping out a school that was in a desperate position and saying yes to something to help them was a seriously career damaging favor to do. No past experience or credentials matter he’s now “just” primary teacher. I know if I’m ever asked if I’ll teach just one year at primary level at a school that really, really needs me just for one year I’ll say no. I’m usually the first to volunteer to help with anything even if it’s something I don’t really want to do, anything to help, but if this is ever asked of me I’ll be lightening quick to say not it! I also know if he cannot break the roll he is typecast in then our careers as international school teachers will come to an end soon. He loves the little ones! He does! But it’s just not a satisfying position for him and no one will let him out. We will move on to our version of your business on the beach much sooner than planned and the international school world will be down two teachers.

  4. KJ says:

    Just my thoughts of course.

    You express yourself clearly. I would think administration would be willing to engage in the process of new challenges for you. Perhaps it is being a subject(s) specialist for several grades – why does it always have to be the PE teacher who provides prep time in elementary? 🙂 I think perhaps subject integration and project based teaching and learning, and cross-curricular integration, might provide the challenges you seek. Of course you may be doing that already. And then sometimes, as stated earlier, it’s an indulgence year; a year away. I am a firm believer of taking a year off every 5 or 6 years as an educator. I have not “faded” as so many of my career counterparts, as I have always done such. This helps keeps my batteries charged and lets me explore my other dreams too. That said, not every cares as little about money as I. Whatever you do, you seem like a great teacher who cares and loves her craft and career. Best wishes.

  5. John L says:

    Is sounds as you may need to go on hiatus. As one pre-school teacher told me she loves little kids and how cute they are. But she reached the point where she could not take any more cuteness. She needed time away. I look it, as long as you are learning new things. When it becomes boring, it is time for a new challenge. I got bored in my old career and changed professions 14 yrs, ago. I thought I was done this year and planned to leave teaching, but the teaching profession is more in demand than others. At this point I see staying in the profession an additional six years, until retirement.

    • Shannon Fehse says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, John. I have considered taking a break from teaching. The thing is, I love the cuteness (5th graders are still cute, albeit stinky), and I don’t really want time away. I just want to do something different. I want to expand my horizons as an educator beyond the walls of an elementary school classroom, and I haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet.

  6. John Scramling says:

    A really nice article Shannon. You summed up what a lot of workers; not just teachers go through. I am considering changes and the time, effort, and uncertainty are the variables that are hard to predict. Good luck in whatever you decide to do.

  7. Suzanne says:

    Thank you, Shannon, for articulating this sense of malaise. I have had it myself and sometimes still experience it. I have tried 18 ways from Sunday to get paid full time to do the thing I love the most in education but the Universe just won’t let it happen YET. I wish I knew why I get so close only to be denied. (Some people say it’s because I keep taking jobs that aren’t quite my ideal. Um, excuse me, I have bills to pay!) I have nearly quit teaching after 18 years. Then going overseas made it bearable and even joyful again. Thanks be! But we have these confusing, frustrating, dry, desert places in our lives sometimes, and I think that’s where you are. I can only encourage you that you aren’t alone and to remember that sometimes things look the most messed up right before a big breakthrough. Cliche, but true. You never know what’s around the corner. Blessings and light, friend!

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