I applied for something at work and didn’t get it. The specifics don’t matter. I bear no ill-will toward those who chose the recipient or the recipient himself. He is eminently deserving, and I’m happy for him.
In teaching, desire and fulfillment don’t always align. Opportunities outside the classroom only come up so often. You want something just filled or lack some stipulated prerequisite. Or you hope for positions others simply fit better. Maybe you seek to invent something perfect for you, but your employers aren’t interested or haven’t the money. You want an honor or a fellowship or a stipend that might ratify and support your personal ambitions, but you don’t have the stomach to push yourself forward… or the institution’s ambitions and affections supersede. Their plans may not include you. The older you get, the less likely they will.
So, as a teacher, you abide. You sit in the same figurative waiting room with a lot of other similarly hopeful teachers, all roughly equally qualified for a next step. In the meantime, you hope students express enough approval and/or gratitude to motivate you to do essentially the same job next year.
Maybe I sound bitter. It’s just that I’ve been here before. My career seems punctuated with moments of doubt and reconsideration. In my first teaching job, the headmaster met with me to talk about my future. He said, “Very few teachers remain simply teachers their whole career. Most find something fulfilling outside the classroom to keep them going.” I accepted his statement and the college counseling duties he wanted me to add. Yet, though I was a decent college counselor, I never took to the work, and, after the headmaster left, I left that position and that school behind. I focused on being a teacher again. After fifteen more years teaching, I became bored and reconsidered what my former headmaster said. I decided it was time I be a department chair. I switched jobs and shifted halfway across the country to fulfill that ambition and discovered working with students is more satisfying and reliable than working with colleagues. I returned to the classroom again.
Six years later I’m quite familiar with what’s asked of me, comfortable and ready for fresh challenges. But no new or dramatic change awaits, and few exist for teachers of my experience. It’s paradoxical—a teacher’s job is to assure the growth of students. A teacher’s growth seems hard to assure and is seldom an institutional priority. At most schools, as long as you are steady in the classroom and fulfill your job requirements without parental complaints, everything is fine. For any ambitious person, however, adequacy is seldom fine.
The geographical solution is popular in independent schools. Feeling unfulfilled?…Pick up your old life, and, like a gypsy scholar, move somewhere fresh. It’s a risky proposition, this leap of faith—you trade the goodwill you gained at your old school for whatever affection the new one expresses by hiring you. And you go to the back of the line for opportunities like the one I applied for. If I keep working hard and remain stalwart, I’m told, I’ll be a viable candidate in some future, indeterminate year.
I’m sorry if I seem to be crying “Poor pitiful me.” Like any good wannabe Buddhist, I try to tell myself I’m better off living for the moments given me than dreaming about reward or ratification or advancement. Ambition should be more modest, I think. My energy is best spent trying to deserve respect, not expecting applause. I shouldn’t be working for approval anyway. I need to satisfy for the occasional and quiet thank you and revel in my current headmaster’s message, “Teachers make this institution great. You are all superstars.”
Looking for personal advancement won’t do because who can rely on it? And any teacher expecting to survive on a regular diet of praise is bound to starve. We all do the same job and are roughly equal in stature. In a school, whatever author you credit for good fortune—chance, or fate, or circumstance—doesn’t love anyone particularly.
Not even—it turns out—me.
But missing out stings and takes me another step closer to “Teacher Burn-out,” a state I used to think mythical. New questions crop up: How much challenge and how much affirmation does it take to fuel a long teaching career? If my first headmaster was right and few survive as “simply teachers,” how will it feel ten years from now as I start another fall in the same spot?