“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.