Like most professionals, teachers need growth and gratitude to flourish.
I became a math teacher for two reasons.
1. I really loved mathematics, particularly the “figuring things out” part.
2. I wanted students to enjoy solving problems as much as I did.
Like many teachers before me, I quickly learned that while teaching was extremely rewarding, it was also extremely challenging and downright exhausting. And that was 20 years ago.
In my current role as Chief Services Officer at Carnegie Learning, I no longer have my own classroom, but I do get to visit many other classrooms across the country. And while I see many teachers who love teaching as much as I did, I also see that educators are completely spent from the normal demands of their jobs, compounded by the twists and turns of the past couple of years.
The effects of this stress and burnout are showing themselves in record numbers of teachers leaving the profession.
The problem is obvious. But what’s the solution?
As someone whose job it is to rekindle teacher joy and give educators the tools they need to succeed and sustain themselves, I've got a few ideas.
How Do We Rekindle Teacher Joy?
Two words. Professional learning.
Wait. Don’t roll your eyes yet! Hear me out.
I’m talking about the right kind of professional learning. The kind of professional learning that research tells us actually works.
The kind that empowers teachers to rediscover their joy.
What Does Joyful Teacher PD Look Like?
Let’s talk a little about what joyful, productive professional learning looks like.
After countless hours of classroom observation, coupled with reading, tagging, and sorting themes in every article on teacher burnout and job satisfaction I could find, I have a good sense of what teachers need in order to feel joy in their work. And not lukewarm joy, mind you. I’m talking about the powerful, passionate kind of joy that leaves teachers saying, "You've rekindled a fire that was extinguishing within me"—an actual comment I had the privilege of getting at one of our PL events.
Without further ado, here is what teachers need to feel valued and happy.
It’s why we all went into education, right? The feeling that we were doing something that mattered, something that would impact the future is unparalleled. It's also true: every day, I see teachers who are molding the world into a smarter, kinder, more functional place.
While most teachers enter the profession with a well-defined sense of purpose, these convictions, like a hungry teenager, need constant refills, especially in the face of the daily grind of teaching. If teachers aren’t given the chance to name and refine their purpose—and if that purpose isn’t validated by school or district leaders—teachers can lose sight of the fact that what they do is critically important.
When teachers feel strongly about their sense of purpose, they'll be less likely to burn out.
The stereotype of the stodgy teacher who has taught the same way for 40 years is so bogus.
Like any other professional, teachers want to get better at what they do. They want access to fresh perspectives, techniques that reflect the latest research, shiny new tools for their teacher toolboxes, and adequate time to learn how to use these tools.
If teachers get more opportunities to increase their content knowledge and upgrade their craft, they’ll have more incentive to keep teaching.
In such a demanding job, it’s the relationships that keep teachers going.
Really, ask any educator, and they'll tell you that their teacher friends are their true besties. I still stay connected with teachers I taught with 20 years ago because the shared experiences and connections are like no other.
Given the power of these friendships, teachers need time to develop strong bonds with their colleagues—and also their mentors, administrators, and students. Providing space for teachers to build these relationships will not only improve their pedagogy—it will improve their mental health and well-being. And when so many teachers cite stress and crummy work/life balance as reasons for leaving the profession, administrators who help their teachers feel connected to their work and to each other stand a better chance of keeping teachers on board.
To teach more effectively and find satisfaction in the profession, teachers need opportunities to reflect on themselves and their practice. They also need time to be mindful of the skills they are teaching and the work they are asking students to do.
While it’s challenging to carve out time to be mindful during the school year, a lack of reflection will leave teachers feeling disconnected from their work and unable to fully diagnose the dynamics in their classrooms that they would like to change.
One thing to keep in mind about mindfulness is that the same approaches and strategies don't work for everyone, so teachers need the space to carve out and practice mindfulness in their own way.
Every teacher I’ve ever spoken to has a story about a time when a student, colleague, parent, or principal expressed gratitude and made their day—or even their year.
A lot of the work teachers do goes unacknowledged, and that can make them feel unappreciated. So when someone takes the time to express appreciation or to invest in their well-being and professional growth, it’s pretty magical. After all these years out of the classroom, I still smile at the illustrated list a student made for me about the top five ways math class had changed his life for the better.
I'm also reminded of a colleague who had his students write letters at the end of each quarter to an adult at school who had helped them recently. Receiving these letters was always illuminating. Without them, I would have had no idea that my staying after school to hold test prep sessions or helping a student locate their backpack had made such a difference.
The teachers who feel valued and respected are the teachers who will stick around.
Professional Learning Can Be a Path to Teacher Joy
So, if these five things are what we need to provide to educators to rekindle their joy in teaching, effective professional learning needs to deliver them.
I’m so glad you asked.
Kasey is a passionate leader striving to make a big impact on education across the country. She is an advocate for student thought and is driven to support educators as they create their own classrooms full of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.
As Chief Services Officer, Kasey is now living out her passion by leading the superb work of Carnegie Learning’s professional learning and tutoring groups in schools and districts across the US.
Before joining Carnegie Learning full-time in 2011, Kasey taught middle and high school mathematics for eight years and served as a mathematics consultant and coach for the largest educational cooperative in Kentucky.Explore more related to this author
"Every day, I see teachers who are molding the world into a smarter, kinder, more functional place.
Kasey Bratcher, Chief Services Officer, Carnegie Learning