The Long Game

-by Jack M. Jose

It was the end of the second Monday in March, the time of year when we are all so focused on spring break and just getting through, that we forget about the “long game” of creating confident, competent students. The Teacher:Teacher mentoring meeting had just begun. The plan is for veteran teachers to light the way with enthusiasm and optimism so new teachers feel supported. Today I looked around the table and I felt sympathy for George Washington examining his troops at Valley Forge. My teachers – ESPECIALLY the veterans – looked defeated and lost.

I made a critical error. I asked, “How’s it going?”

washington-valley-forge-granger

Did I mention? It was early March.

It is easy to forget this in the heart of winter, or even at the end of first quarter, when March means the promise of spring and a year soon coming to a close. In October, March looks like a promise.

However, March is a uniquely challenging time in schools.

March presents several consecutive 5-day weeks of warmer weather, with the prospect of spring break looming, making teaching all but impossible. Restless students stir in their seats as they stare out the window at blossoming trees. Teachers go to the window to close the blinds, then look out and lose their train of thought.

In short, in March, the less we ask “How’s it going?” the better we all get along. You’re much better off greeting someone by saying, “It’s nearly Friday!” or “Only 48 days left!” Like Washington’s soldiers, my teachers needed sleep, food, and possibly even a warm blanket.

I should have known better than to ask, really. Recent comprehensive studies show that new teacher attrition is an alarming 17% after 5 years[1]Teacher burnout is a monster best kept at bay with both arms. We know that involving new teachers in communication and decision-making is empowering, and helps to keep teachers in the profession[2]. Support is why we created a mentoring program. The mentors themselves probably knew better than to ask “How’s it going?” in March, a question designed to make young teachers pine for a job waiting tables at Denny’s.

A veteran teacher, Julia Bauer*, spoke up. She quietly offered a litany of woe and exhaustion: restless students, insufficient time for curriculum, field experiences, state testing and more, the details of which echo in all teachers’ experiences. Raised eyebrows and meaningful eye contact around the now-silent table spoke clearly: they all felt the same way.

It is times like these that we have to intentionally work to focus on the “long game.” This term, often applied to politics, applies to any endeavor when a larger goal can only be accomplished after a series of strategic maneuvers and even tactical losses. Education is the ultimate long game. We middle school and high school folks meet students as children, in mind and body, and, 4 or 6 years later, send them into the world as adults. In between, there is a lot of important work to be done. It is hard work, and it can be messy.

It seems like it takes a long time to hear back from our students that we made a difference for them. I had been teaching for several years before I reached back and sent a letter to a particularly influential high school English teacher.

I was upset that a mentor was the one to express this note of doom; I should have been thankful. She was articulating what the younger teachers were thinking, and allowing us to feel this way out loud and together. The teaching career is a hard one. Teaching is much like parenting, and March is much like a week of lost nights’ sleep with a colicky infant. One could easily look at March and decide it is not all worth it, because, honestly, if it was March all year long, it might be unbearable.

We are playing the long game. Each discipline return conference and corrected assignment is a step toward Commencement. Now we meet parents to discuss grades, and later we will embrace them and talk about college choices. There are disagreements and setbacks, but there will be celebration. It was always going to be hard work; we knew that from the beginning. And it is always going to be worth it in the end.

The mentors probably knew better than to ask “How’s it going?” in March, a question designed to make young teachers pine for a job waiting tables at Denny’s.

I possess an old invitation to an event I missed. Leslee McElrath, a student of mine a decade earlier, was receiving her doctorate in medicine. I was shocked by the invitation to the ceremony, and the reminder about the “long game”. One year I pushed her to write and rewrite her portfolio, and explicate Shakespeare. She was suspicious of the need to edit her writing repeatedly, when I clearly understood what she was trying to say. And Shakespeare?! In the years after she left my 10th grade classroom, I checked up on her to verify that she was meeting her potential. When her college was inundated by Hurricane Katrina, other teachers and I sent her money for a replacement computer. Somewhere in there, by pushing her academically, and supporting her personally, and doing what I considered my job, I left an indelible impression. And she repaid the favor with a simple invitation that profoundly reminded me all the effort was worthwhile.

So this is my message to all teachers; rookies and veterans, English and science, art and social studies: Thank you for what you do. Your smile and your forbearance made a difference today, and forever. The work is not extrinsically rewarding. The work is hard. The work is world-changing. It’s messy. There will be bad days, sometimes in bunches, for teachers and for students. Perseverance, cooperation, and working together to support each other will guarantee that we will be okay.

We are playing a long game.

 

[1] Gray, Lucinda, and Soheyla Taie. “Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years: Results From the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study.” Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years: Results From the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study (n.d.): n. pag. 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.

[2] Teacher Retention: Why do Beginning Teachers Remain in the Profession?; Inman, Duane; Marlow, Leslie. Education124.4 (Summer 2004): 605-614.

*All names used with permission.