Unhappy in Teaching

Most of us have bad days at work now and then: days when we’re feeling grumpy, days we’re under pressure because of an enormous workload, or days when nothing seems to go right.

But on occasion unhappiness at work may last for longer than a day. Many reasons or a combination of reasons may contribute to a sense of unhappiness in teaching. One possible cause may be disruptive behaviour by children in the class. Or we may have taken on too much work, in school or outside school, in a given year. We may perceive that we’re no good at teaching. We may have been unsuccessful in applying for a permanent job or for promotion. We may be experiencing tension with one or more colleagues. We may dislike the work of teaching, see it as lacking challenge or being monotonous, and see no way out. The conditions under which we work may have deteriorated. Or our professional unhappiness may have spilt over from personal unhappiness due to illness, relationship difficulties, financial problems, bereavement and so on.

Teaching is a demanding job which requires emotional investment and if you are unhappy about the work on an ongoing basis, it is unhealthy for you and is not good for the children you’re teaching. Although outsiders may envy certain extrinsic benefits of teaching, the benefits of a short day for student-contact, relative job and pension security, and long holidays provide inadequate compensation for an unhappy daily working life.

There are many reasons to like teaching: most children are enthusiastic and excited about life; you have the satisfaction of seeing people learn something for the first time, often because of your efforts and encouragement; you have the opportunity to shape children’s future; you are constantly learning, whether you are preparing material to teach or gaining insights from children’s contributions to lessons; the work varies – it can take place in a whole-class setting, in a resource setting, in a learning support setting, in an early childhood setting, or among older children; it can happen, and you can choose to live, in a rural, suburban or urban environment.

In some cases, if unhappiness in teaching or in life more generally is profound and persistent, the best help may be professional and expert support from suitably qualified personnel.

In many cases, options and alternatives to being unhappy in teaching are possible. Life is too precious to continue long-term in a job you dislike. So what can you do if you’re unhappy in teaching?

  • Read an inspirational book about teaching (or an inspirational book of any kind). Both Horace’s Compromise by Ted Sizer and 36 Children by Herbert Kohl inspired me as a teacher. Outside teaching, Robert Pirsig’s classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Complications or Better by Atul Gawande provide professional inspiration.
  • Find inspirational blogs or podasts by or about enthusiastic practitioners. Try, for example, this podcast.
  • Watch a film about teaching. Although some films make teachers out to be superheros, one I particularly like is Être et Avoir by Nicolas Philibert.
  • Become an expert in some area of teaching that interests you. This could help by deepening your interest in teaching generally, by preparing you to offer professional development to other teachers, or by introducing you to a community of teachers who have a particular interest in a similar area of teaching.
  • Set up a blog about teaching to connect with a wider community of educators.
  • Try to resolve any tensions that exist with colleagues.
  • If you believe your unhappiness is specific to the school you’re teaching in, consider moving to a different school.
  • Volunteer to work part-time after school in some charitable organisation or take time out to volunteer as a teacher in another country.
  • If there is an area of unhappiness in your personal life, address that in an appropriate way.
  • Talk about your unhappiness to a trusted colleague in your own school or elsewhere or to a friend.
  • Seek support through counselling.
  • Take steps to living a healthier life, through exercise, diet or sleep.
  • Find a hobby that enhances your life generally.
  • Plan to take a career break to try an alternative career or go back to study. In contemplating alternative careers think about careers related to teaching (such as educational psychologist, inspector, teacher educator) and think about the skills you have developed in teaching that could be transferable to another setting (e.g. writing, listening, planning and organising, and goal setting.)

In work as in life, we all need something that gives us hope, something to look forward to. The line from the film, The Shawshank Redemption, comes to mind, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

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