How I Saved My Teaching Career: Reprise

Dear readers:

I’ve received some comments and missives recently from discouraged teachers who have stumbled upon my blog and have found it helpful.  This makes me very happy.  However, there’s a place I want to send them, and I can’t.  So I’m going to try to fix this problem.

A few years ago, I published a series of posts called “How I Saved My Teaching Career” in the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate.  Those posts have long since disappeared behind a paywall, and so I am no longer able to link you to them, or to send teachers to consult them in hopes of alleviating their burnout hell.

Sarah Ebner, the lovely and generous editor of School Gate (which is still alive and kicking if you have a Times subscription), has given me permission to repost “How I Saved My Teaching Career” here on Classroom as Microcosm.  Accordingly, over the next four weeks or so, I will present you with a revised version of that 8-part series, in which I outline my journey: miserable teacher on the brink of quitting to rejuvenated teacher full of inspiration and hope.  (That’s what the movie trailer would look like, anyhow.)

Monday will bring you a brief introduction, and will be followed by posts on curing burnout in seven not-so-easy steps.

  • STEP 1:  Take stock.  Is it worth it to stay?
  • STEP 2:  Take time off.
  • STEP 3:  Find and appreciate your (educational and other) community.
  • STEP 4:  Face your fears.
  • STEP 5:  Keep learning: get more training.
  • STEP 6:  Take up meditation (or another contemplative practice).
  • STEP 7:  Start a blog.

I hope that those who haven’t read these will find some solace and support in them somewhere.  And if you were around in 2009 when they were first launched, I hope revisiting them in their updated form will remind you of some of the things that I find I often need reminding of!

In the meantime, I would love to hear from any of you, either now or along the way, about moments you’ve felt that teaching was too hard to be worth it.  What did you do to get past that feeling?  Or did you decide that teaching was no longer for you?  I’d love to hear your stories.

Image by John Boyer


When In Doubt, Make a Plan

On Monday, I posted a letter I received from a reader, asking advice about whether he should stay in college.  I promised you I would post my reply today, and here it is.  I sent this response before posting his letter here, and before reading your thoughts on his situation, but some commenters will notice that my advice jibes very well with theirs; others, not so much!  I welcome your comments.  Did I do right by N?

Dear N:

I’m very sorry to hear that you’re in such an unhappy position.  I am not a therapist or a guidance counsellor (and I think it might be a good idea for you to see one of each; your college services might still be available to you, or they might be able to tell you where to go.)  That said, it doesn’t sound like your situation is hopeless at all, although you are definitely in an uncomfortable spot.

One thing that encourages me is that you say your father sometimes tells you to come home and figure things out.  Next time he says that, would you consider taking him up on it?  I think you will have to demonstrate to both him and your mother that you are not just dropping out of life, but are actively trying to figure your life out, maybe by taking a temporary job, exploring some activities you’re interested in, continuing to pursue your writing etc.  It may be that college really is the best option for you, but not now.  It sounds to me like you are the kind of person who likes learning and would enjoy college (maybe a different college or a different program?) if you were feeling less pressured and confused.

Let me tell you a story.  When I was 21, I returned to school to study education.  I was at a very unhappy time in my life, and was living in a city I didn’t like and studying in a program that wasn’t for me.  I could have completed my program in a year, but I was paralyzed and depressed.  So, less than 3 months before graduation, I dropped out.  I moved to another city, got myself a job in a clothing boutique, and spent some time just figuring stuff out.  Two years later, I went back to school – a different school, and still in education but in an entirely different program – and was very happy there.  I just needed time, experience and reflection to work out my next moves.

Now, I had the support of my parents, although they were worried.  But it sounds like you have the worried support of your mother, and that your father might come around if you presented him with a plan.  What if you said, “Dad, I need to take a year.  I’ll get a job, pay you some rent, and a year from now, I will give you some definite answers about what I’m going to do next.”  How do you think that he would react?

I don’t know your parents, but in my experience, parents are able to be a bit more flexible if they know their children have a plan.

Life without college is definitely a tougher row to hoe in the long term, (especially in the U.S., from what I understand.)  Our society is not constructed in a way, right now, to support people who take the road less travelled. However, I don’t think you need to put yourself on that road for good, at least not yet.  What if you took a year, kept busy, and explored what is out there?  You never know what opportunities might fall in your lap.

Meanwhile, some time with therapists and career counsellors might be a good idea…

I hope that is helpful in some way; I wish I could offer you a pat solution.  I feel sure, though, that you will work this out if you give yourself some space in which to do it.


When to be Nice

Three weeks left in the semester.  I am trying not to drown.  I can’t write much today, but please read this and tell me what you think: is there such a thing as too nice, especially where female academics are concerned?

Image by Chris Bowers, from the Images from #Occupy Facebook album

Character = Behavior: A Lesson Plan

Two parallel experiences over the last couple of weeks have culminated in a lesson plan that I may need to add to my permanent roster.

First, I’ve been meeting with students to look at their first at-home essay.  Their essays have to include a discussion of characterization, but it’s clear that many of them are still not certain how to write about characterization in their essays, and are still not making the connection between a character’s behaviour and what it says about him or her as a person.  What’s more, some don’t seem to recognize the connection between their OWN behaviour and what it says about THEM as people.  Most are polite, punctual and constructively inquisitive; others show up late with blank faces and no questions and are unable to let me finish a single sentence without interrupting me to make excuses or go off on tangents.

Secondly, many university applications were due this past week, and so, leading up to March 1st, I received a number of requests for reference letters.  I am usually delighted to write references for students, but, as a previous post attests, every year some of these requests are baffling.  Students who talked with their friends and played with their phones all class, who showed up late when they showed up at all, who sat passively during group work and said, “I didn’t read the story,” when I called on them, nevertheless somehow believe that I will have something nice to say about them in a reference letter.

So when I went into class on Thursday, I relayed the above information to the students, and told them the story of the most recent incident in which I felt I couldn’t provide someone with a reference.  “She sat in the back and talked with her friends when I was lecturing or other students were speaking,” I said.  “She spent half the class with her phone held up in front of her face, reading and replying to texts.  When she did group work with people other than her friends, her group members often complained about her, because she wasn’t prepared and didn’t contribute.  I had to tell her no, I wouldn’t write her a letter, and she didn’t ask why, so I didn’t tell her…but a couple of things occurred to me.”

By this time, they were riveted.  Cell phones were forgotten, whispered conversations were abandoned, faces were wary but attentive.

“First of all, it might have been helpful to her if she had known the impression she was making AT THE TIME SHE WAS IN MY CLASS.  It’s too late for her to do anything about it now, but if she’d realized then what her actions were saying about her, she might have been able to change something.  So I took some time and made a list of behaviours that will get you a good reference letter from me, and behaviours that will make me say no.  If you’re interested, I’ll show you my list at the end of the class.

“What’s more, it occurred to me that this is a real-life demonstration of characterization at work.  When we discussed characterization, what did we say is the best indication of a person’s character?”

“Their behavior,” the class chorused.

“Exactly.  Writing reference letters is an exercise in characterization: you identify the character traits you believe a person possesses, character traits that qualify them for a profession or a field of study, and then you identify the behaviours that have suggested that they have those character traits.”

So I showed them a good reference letter I wrote a couple of years ago – with the name of the referrant changed, of course – as an example.  Then I explained, “You will probably also have to write reference letters at some point in your lives.  You may be a teacher, or somebody’s boss, or somebody’s colleague.  Someone may ask you to write a comment about them on LinkedIn.  You will need to describe people and give evidence for your description.  So we’re going to practice that today.”

I had them form groups of three, draw professions from an envelope (primary school teacher, dog walker, event planner, garbage collector…) and discuss whether the three main characters in the novel we are reading possess the character qualities necessary to do these jobs.  Each group member then had to write a letter.  One wrote a reference letter for the character they thought was best qualified for the job; the other two wrote letters of apology to the other characters, explaining why they could not give them letters of reference.

When they were just about done, I asked if they’d like to see my list of pro- and anti-reference-letter behaviours, and they said, “YES YES YES.”


  • you often talk in class when you should be listening to me or other students
  • you spend a lot of class time typing on your phone (especially if you hold it up visibly so that I and everyone can see that you’re not listening)
  • you are often absent or late, or leave early, without documented reasons for doing so
  • you often fail to submit assignments or submit them late
  • you often half-complete in-class work or sit passively while other group members complete work for you
  • you’re often not able to answer my questions or participate in group work because you’re not prepared
  • you do homework from other courses in my class
  • you sulk when you get bad grades, or you complain about your grades without asking polite, constructive questions about how you can improve
  • you write me careless email messages without a greeting or signature (eg. “i wasnt in class today did I miss anything”)
  • I have ever caught you cheating on anything (including “small” infractions like copying in-class work from other students)
  • you are not an excellent, engaged, attentive student who tries hard, is polite and treats the people around you with consideration, regardless of your grades.  When writing you a reference letter, I do not care about your grades.  I care about how hard you try and how much you learn.



  • you are always attentive in class, with your phone out of sight and your ears open
  • you attend class and are punctual, with very occasional exceptions
  • you ask polite questions when you don’t understand things
  • you always do your reading and make an effort to respond to questions about it, whether or not you “get it right”
  • your work is always complete, even when it doesn’t “count for grades,” and you submit it on time
  • you come to me for extra help if you need it, or you seek help at the Learning Centre
  • you inform me when you know you will miss a class or will be late for class, and you make an effort to catch up on what you miss
  • you do your best when working with other students and pull your weight (even when others don’t)
  • you write me polite, clear email messages (eg. “Dear Ms. Curious: I’m sorry I had to miss class today; I had to take care of a personal matter.  Could you let me know what I missed and what I should do for homework?  Sincerely, Jane X.”)
  • you are an excellent, engaged, attentive student who tries hard, is polite and treats the people around you with consideration, regardless of your grades.  When writing you a reference letter, I do not care about your grades.  I care about how hard you try and how much you learn.

Immediate results?  A lot of polite and enthusiastic “Goodbye Miss”s at the end of class, a number of polite and well-formulated messages this weekend asking pertinent questions (and apologizing for disturbing me on the weekend) and a lot of thorough and thoughtful (and sometimes hilarious!) reference letters for fictional characters.  Down side?  I’m anticipating an unprecedented number of reference letter requests next year…but if they’ve earned them, I’ll happily write them.

Students are understandably obsessed with grades, and this means they sometimes miss the bigger picture.  And so do we – I spend a lot of time trying to attach grades to things so that students will take them seriously.  Reminding students that grades are not the only thing that counts – even when it comes to immediate, concrete goals like university admission – can go a long way, not only toward establishing a productive classroom, but also toward preparing them for life outside of school.  I have no idea what the long-term effect of this lesson will be, but if nothing else, maybe it will help them understand how “characterization” functions, not only in literature but in life.

Image by miamiamia

I Like My High School

If you read the world’s best fashion magazine – I Like My Style – then you will have seen their spread on the High School of Fashion Industries, a vocational high school in NYC that, according to its website, “devotes itself entirely to the world of fashion from styling and design through business and marketing.”  The school’s site lists a host of accolades from the New York Board of Education, the Manhattan Superintendency, the New York Times survey of school performance, and more.  They quote the National Center for Research in Vocational Education as reporting:

“Students we observed in classes and spoke with in groups were self-confident and motivated. They expressed great pride in their school, respect and admiration for their teachers, and a strong sense of commitment to their education. They clearly felt a sense of connection to the school and the school family. Students who plan to pursue careers related to the occupational focus of the school felt they were receiving a first rate education for these pursuits; students who planned on careers unrelated to the specific focus felt they were receiving strong academic preparation as well as valuable work skills… “

This spread, and the high school’s self-description and mission statement, reminded me of a segment of a podcast I heard a year or so ago – I’ve been searching for it, and can’t find it; I believe it was on either This American Life or To the Best of Our Knowledge.  It was a piece on an alternative high school that focuses all its curriculum on design and architecture skills.  (If anyone remembers this podcast, or the school it was presenting, I’d be grateful if you could point me to it.)

What struck me about both these pieces was the sense of pride the students seemed to take in their schools, and the enjoyment they got from their studies.  They wanted to learn.  Learning felt meaningful.

I would be interested in hearing your stories, opinions etc. on the value of vocational education at the high school level.  What are the advantages of providing younger teenagers with an education that focuses on specific practical skills?  What is lost when we do this?

Dear Auntie Siobhan: Should I Become a Teacher?

Hi Siobhan,
First, let me say that your blog is a great resource. I stumbled on it a few weeks ago and have read almost all of the entries. Your writing is refreshingly articulate, and I have enjoyed reading it.

I’m considering a career in CEGEP teaching down the line. At this stage I have the qualifications (an MA in English), but no teaching experience. My own CEGEP experience was fantastic. I was a Liberal Arts student at — College, where we addressed our teachers by first name and were intimately acquainted with everybody in the program. Knowledge for its own sake was celebrated, and a general atmosphere of intellectual freedom and exploration was encouraged.

I have to admit that while reading your blog has been great, it has contrasted a lot with my own CEGEP experience. When you speak about your students, who call you “miss”, they seem more child-like. It makes me a bit nervous about entering into this career! How much of your job is disciplinary? Would you recommend a career as a CEGEP teacher?

Thanks so much for writing your blog.


Dear Sonia:

Thanks so much for your note.  It’s great to hear that you’ve been reading my blog and getting something out of it.

I enjoy my job as a CEGEP teacher, but I find it very challenging.  There are indeed disciplinary issues, and some of them are serious.  There are also students who struggle a lot with academic challenges.  A Liberal Arts program at — College is not at all representative of the general CEGEP population; I regularly deal with students who can barely read and write in English (or, I suspect, in any language) and whose levels of maturity vary wildly.  In order to really enjoy teaching CEGEP, I think it’s necessary to embrace the challenges of working with such students.

Most of the CEGEP teachers I know who truly enjoy their jobs are people who have previous teaching experience or education degrees.  Working with high school students, in particular, is excellent preparation.  Most of the teachers I know who quickly burn out are those who come to the job  straight out of graduate school and expect to be working with the equivalent of university English majors.   It’s important to remember that English is a core subject at CEGEP – all students must take it, regardless of their program, and many have little interest and weak skills.

I taught in other venues for a number of years before becoming a CEGEP teacher.  CEGEP teaching has many advantages over other teaching jobs – we have long holidays, we have a lighter workload than secondary teachers, and we are not expected to research or publish like university professors (although our colleagues are usually excited and proud when we do!)  But as far as the teaching itself is concerned, most of my satisfaction  comes, not from the celebration of “knowledge for its own sake” or opportunities to encourage “intellectual freedom and exploration” – most of my students have little interest in these concepts – but from seeing students in difficulty overcome obstacles, or from seeing the occasional talented student really shine.

All CEGEPs are different, so you might be able to find a place with a similar atmosphere to the one you experienced as a student.  If your general goal is to become a CEGEP teacher, however, I think it’s important to examine whether the challenges of CEGEP teaching really interest you.

If you’d like to know more about some of the stages I went through in relation to my job, you might want to check out a series I wrote for the TimesOnline’s education blog, called “How I Saved My Teaching Career.” 

Good luck!  I hope you’ll think it over some more and come to the conclusion that’s right for you.  Any job is hard, and a CEGEP teaching job is a really good deal as jobs go, if teaching is what you want to do.  I’d be happy to know about the decision you come to, or any other questions you have.


Image by srbichara

how I saved my teaching career part 7: meditate!

The penultimate post in my series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” appeared on School Gate this morning.  In this post, I describe how learning to meditate made me a better teacher.

School vs. the Real World

Today I came across a post called “‘Meaningful’ School-to-Career” on the blog In Pursuit of Excellence. The blogger asks,

Schools provide young people with a solid academic foundation to build the rest of their lives on. But schools are also supposed to prepare students for the real world….How can the real adult world they will soon enter be brought into focus and elevated in importance for kids? Or, should we just let them be kids while they can, and let the real world smack them between the eyes when the time comes?

Below is the comment I wrote in response to this question, a question that, although I receognize its validity, never fails to irritate me.

The “school vs. ‘real world'” dilemma is a tricky one, and one that I think sets up a number of false dichotomies. Here is a typical conversation I might have with a student who feels that my course doesn’t relate to the “real world”:

Student: “Finding themes in short stories doesn’t relate to real life.”

Me: “Really? What do you mean by ‘real life’?”

Student: “Well, the job I’ll have, for example.”

Me: “The job you’ll have someday is your life? What is your life right now?”

Student: “These stories don’t relate to my life right now.”

Me: “Do you think that the ideas in this story have anything to say about anyone’s life, anywhere in the world? Do you think people like the people in this story might exist? Do you think that events like those that happen in this story might actually happen to someone somewhere?”

Student: “I guess.”

Me: “Do you think it’s possible that you might someday meet someone somewhere who has had an experience with something in common with something that has happened in this story?”

Student: “I don’t know. Maybe?”

Me: “Maybe. So it’s possible. Do you think it might even be possible that something that happens to you someday might bear some remote resemblance to something that happens to someone in this story?”

Student: “Not really.”

Me: “That’s why we study themes. Because if we understand the larger themes of a story, we gain a greater insight into our own lives. If you don’t see anything in this story that relates to your life in any way, then you and I need to work harder on helping you understand the larger themes of the story. That way, you will see the relationship between this story, and all stories, and your own life.”

[end of comment]

Now, I recognize that telling a student all this is not going to make the student love the story or love searching it for greater meanings or identify with all the characters. But the idea that we need to make schoolwork “relevant” to the “real world” raises the question of what that means.

What if students’ (and society’s) concept of the “real world” was not limited to specific job-focused skills? And even if we focus on the workplace, what skills are “relevant” to that environment? What about the need for employers and employees to cultivate compassion, empathy, an ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective, insight…all things that are developed through the active study of literature?

I don’t expect adolescent students to immediately recognize this: that analyzing stories, poems, plays and essays, even ones that seem removed from their experience, can make them better people: better friends, better sons and daughters, better parents, and better workers. But they can be taught to recognize that, and I think that’s part of what school learning is for.

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