Resolving Two Tensions, Pt. 2: Success/Failure

The intent of my evolution post was to describe the challenges I face now, five years in, versus those I faced fresh from college. Others took this for, variously, prescription, condemnation, arrogance, political grandstanding, and, inevitably, a recipe for burnout, all of which missed the mark, though I enjoyed thinking that last one through.

The effort I expend doing what I can to raise student achievement gets out of control here at the end of term. Students camp outside my door with clear goals, looking for help, looking to prove they know what they didn’t use to know. I take a ten-minute lunch lately but the returns are so consistently fun that they overwhelmingly counterbalance any risk of burnout.

What does burn me out is the realization that I have resolved the largest challenges I faced as a new teacher. I am at a place, for example, where classroom management no longer challenges me. Not that every day is all smiles and hard work, just that I have identified the mix of engaging instruction, mutual respect, and tough love that eluded me for years.

Maybe that sounds great to you, and it was for me, for awhile. Can you see, though, how resolving one of the challenges which used to define my professional existence has created a vacuum? How, for a teacher who got into teaching more for the pragmatic challenge than the emotional calling, this has resulted in a kind of post-partum depression?

I enjoy the job more now than I did then. The job is easier, certainly, now. But ease and enjoyment rank lower on my list of Good Reasons To Invest Thirty Years Of My Life than a compelling challenge.

I’m trying to say that I need more failure. I have experienced too much success this year, not because I’m so amazing, but because I have failed to fill the challenge vacuum with meaningful, overarching goals, goals that I will fail to meet, say, three days out of ten for the next three years, that failure keeping me lean and hungry.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Couldn’t find a place for these:

    1) This issue is more pronounced in teaching than in the private sector. While my friends are now moving into supervisory and managerial roles, with teaching, there is only teaching to move into. Teaching doesn’t cast off talent lightly, it just doesn’t really have a clue what to do with it.

    2) One goal I have tried and failed to push into the vacuum is to do all the same good stuff but in less time – sleeping more, blogging more, watching more movies, etc. Time is a formidable opponent, certainly, but I have decided that it also a boring opponent.

  2. Dan, I have gone through a similar transformation as you have…after four years the challenges that were initially there for me are almost gone (classroom management now is automatic and prep is not all consuming as it was when I started). I am also with you, that the job has become more boring…the pleasures that I get in the job are now seeing the “click” when a student gets a difficult concept or when students achieve something that they didn’t think they could do. But there is something missing this year…and I think like you it is difficult to put your finger on.

  3. I had an experience similar to the one you are describing when I moved from a school in a tough, ex-mining community with high levels of social deprivation to my current school – a very middle class place in an affluent seaside town.

    When my first set of students at the new school arrived, sat down, took out their books and looked up at me expectantly without a word from me, I thought “OK – a lot of the skills I developed over the last 7 years are not really going to be needed here!” In some ways my new job is less exciting and less rewarding than the old one was. It is definitely less emotionally draining. But it is also more rewarding in other ways.

    Stick at it – I am certain that what may seem to you now like a mountain top is just a plateau on the way to further heights to scale.

    I would suggest some hard-to-achieve targets for you, but I’m sure you’ll come up with plenty for yourself in the months and years ahead :-)

  4. From someone who is two years from retirement–for me the wonderful thing about teaching it gives you time to do other things. I have the best teaching job in the world–but I also love having the time to raise a family, have a 37 year marriage, read, spend time on computer, cook, go to gym, etc. I thanks God everyday that teaching was my career— and I didn’t have to work 12 hours a day, travel every week, work weekends, etc.

  5. Dan:

    You now know what I have gone through… it’s all 5-7 year cycles. I have gone from being the Head Varsity Football Coach at 25, to being the AP Government teacher, to the CCS Championship winning Softball coach, to the site technology coordinator, to writing grants to develop a new academic discipline, to the district technology coordinator to now becoming an administrator.

    Why did I decide after being a teacher for 20 years to move into administration? For the challenge of changing the educational process on a larger scale. There is a lot of talk about being a big fish in a small pond, but with the technology in use today, there are no more small ponds. There maybe specialty places where those who share common interests like to gather and discuss, but they cannot isolate themselves any longer.

    I could have at any point stopped moving forward and taken it easy and kept doing the same thing and been successful doing so, but what fun would that have been? Isn’t there a difference between teaching 30 years and teaching one year thirty times?

    So, you can seek for the next challenge, or let it come to you. I was definitely in the camp of going to seek out the next challenge.

  6. This may sound glib, but if you’re a newlywed, you’ve got plenty of failure heading your way. Nancy makes an excellent point, and the challenge often arises in other part of our lives.

    A Good Reason to Invest Thirty Years of your Life, by the way, can have lots to do with the numbers of students you can impact in a positive way. Continuing in one place deepens your impact, too, and broadens it in interesting ways.

  7. Maybe I have been fortunate to teach 3 or 4 preps a day, seldom having the same class twice except for marketing and now multimedia. I think I would go insane if I taught the same thing 5 times a day. i am never bored in my inner city school, there is always something happening and I am always scrambling to keep the technology up and running. I do get exhausted, however, especially when dealing with the issues of poverty.

  8. Last year, I thought I was getting to Dan’s point. Then, those students left and a whole new crew came in this year. Many new challenges also came with this crew. That’s one of the things I love about teaching. Each year is very similar to a novel. We have the early introduction, rising action, climax (state assessments), and then resolution. Every year is a new story.

    Too many of my college friends are stuck in the “Groundhog Day” jobs. Same thing, same stuff, every day for years. Some move on to higher paying jobs, but they still have the same routine every weekday of the year. I like my new stories.

  9. Dan-

    I can identify with the desire for a consistent challenge, but it seems to me as if you’ve placed the lesser challenge of classroom management above the greater challenge of teaching as much as possible to as many as possible.

    I also feel that I’ve overcome many, though not all, of the initial hurdles (and it shocks and depresses me when I see colleagues with many more years of experience still floundering). But now I can concentrate more on the truly challenging task of teaching the segment of my student pop that may like me, but still feels science (and school in general)… meh.

    When non-educators pontificate about outsiders coming in to whip schools in to shape, I think, “Well, hell… Come on in, but be prepared to stay awhile. It’s taken me 5 years just to reach the point of honestly being able to call myself a teacher.”

  10. Dan,
    You do not seem like the type that will have any trouble finding something more to challenge you. It is quite likely that a wife and the other important non-school parts of life will begin to offer challenges that make the time not spent on school OK. However I think there is more than that in store for you.

    I am only 15 years in, so I cannot speak with the perspective of some here. However, each and every year has offered new student with new challenges that I can spend hour working to get through to them. Hours spent working on my own self and attitudes as well as helping the student to see the world with new eyes. You will never regret knowing more about student and how they look at the world, that is the fundamental challenge of teaching.

    I have also found that I want more and more to spread the news. You have this blog for that very reason. You train your colleagues to use moodle for that very reason. There will be no end to the challenges that you will look around and see and not be able to stop yourself from jumping in and trying something that has not been done before. Teaching, and the environment of school will never be boring to someone who stays curious and wants all students to know themselves better.

  11. Dr. Sanford Aranoff

    December 21, 2008 - 5:51 am -

    Great! You solved important problems with teaching! Now write up what you learned. This is your challenge! Help others! Here is an example of such writing, “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

  12. Thanks for the post, Dan.

    You’re describing a mile marker that I feel I am approaching, but see as a few years off, yet. I’m a third-year teacher with somewhat different circumstances than yours. First, I teach in Canada, absent of the pressures of state standardized testing (though we do have our own version here in BC–but it’s more of a performance assessment given in grades 4 and 7). Second, I teach all areas in an intermediate classroom.

    I think as teachers, though, that the challenges are the same in the early years. I spend a long time reading about and applying different approaches to my classroom, and each new angle gives me something to keep in the repertoire, and something to discard. Slowly I’m working toward my ‘preferred vision’ of the big picture that is an entire school year–though I’m still on the side of the success to failure ratio that keeps me second guessing always. I see the point at which I have it figured out, so to speak, being at five years. The key being, I think, that at that point the failure that drives us to improve is no longer automatic, and something that has be searched for and self-imposed–and that is where many teachers, based on my observations, allow themselves to stop.

    Thanks for sharing this–it’s a timely post for me to read, while I reflect on the first part of the school year.

  13. Chris R.,

    It’s not Dan that has placed classroom management challenges at their current inappropriately high place in the hierarchy of teaching challenges. It’s the nature of teacher preparation that has done this, with the vast majority of preparation institutions — both traditional and alt route — doing such a uniformly shitty job readying folks for the job. Compound this by a factor of 5,000 if you’re talking about people teaching in urban, rural, poor, or culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms. Not only does this cause too many people to struggle too much too early in their careers, but it miscasts what is both hard and great about the work of teaching, as you yourself identified. It leaves people who “solve” the classroom management thing feeling like there’s little left.

    And Dan, you wrote this yourself, when you explained that it wasn’t the lack of challenge, per se, but that you hadn’t found, identified, or set the new challenge. Now, I’m either the last person in the world who should get to write about this, or the first one, I don’t know, but this is huge, this thing about the new challenge. Because it can’t just be the accumulation of impact. It can’t be a numbers game, with x students taught, y lives impacted, z gains made. Dan’s in year 5 (?) so his enjoyment and satisfaction equals 5x + 5y + 5z. No, it can’t be that, doing it again and again and again putting less in getting more out and feeling worse about it.

    As my sixth (and to date final) year of teaching drew to a close, I couldn’t do that math anymore, and I couldn’t identify the new challenge. Worse still maybe, no one else near and close to me could either. It has to be something more than improving my pie chart, getting 90% of the kids from FBB to B, rather than 85%. And it had to be something more than thekidsthekidsthekids, cuz that shit is a double-edged sword.

    Then again, I sit at a desk on the 10th floor of a building, and sometimes catch a glimpse of the middle schoolers at P.E. down the street and a feel a sense of loss I don’t talk about at the weekly staff meetings.

  14. @Chris R., I cherrypicked classroom management as only one example of the sort of enduring challenge that used to propel my teaching but which I now lack. In a forgotten draft of this post, I included a year-by-year summary of those challenges:

    Year 1: Classroom Management / Meaningful Assessment / Engaging Curriculum
    Year 2: Classroom Management / Meaningful Assessment / Engaging Curriculum
    Year 3: Classroom Management / Visual Instruction / Engaging Curriculum
    Year 4: Visual Instruction
    Year 5: Um.

    Again, not to say I hit those marks every single day, just that, intellectually, especially, those challenges no longer motivate me.

    Kilian, I don’t buy a) that ed schools (or at least not the ed schools in my locus of experience) overemphasize classroom management (I’m struggling to recall any emphasis at all), or b) that it’s possible to underestimate the challenge of classroom management.

    There is much, much higher fruit, yes, but no way a 23-yo urban educator will reach any of it if her kids are hacking away at the ladder beneath her.

    And sucks about the degree to which you’re experiencing buyer’s remorse (whatever degree that is). I’m sure you anticipated it.

    And, for whatever it’s worth, while several people have pointed out the joys of a job that lets you make solid, incremental, yearly progress (cf. Jeri) while maintaining a home life (cf. Nancy) and summers off (cf. my old colleague at Asilomar), no one has offered me a compelling challenge for the second half of the first decade teaching. I can think of several in education, though outside the classroom, but none come to mind in my current setup.

  15. I’m not be the person to be answering this, either, and this story doesn’t have a happy ending.

    I stayed in the classroom for nine years. Like you, Dan, the “mechanics” of the job were mostly under control somewhere around year four. I did new challenges to keep me through the second half of the decade, though.

    About the time that I was feeling comfortable with the basics of what I was doing (but long before I felt fully competent … a day which never arrived completely, btw), I found two new challenges.

    The first was the National Writing Project: an association of teachers that challenged me to see myself as a professional within a larger group of professionals who were quite capable, thank you very much, of teaching each other how to become better at the job: specifically, better teachers of writing. I would guess that your blogging experiences, at least in part, served a similar function.

    The second was that my school became a “magnet” school (sorta) for the fine arts. I was part of the team that worked on that transition and helped to design the humanities and creative writing programs. That took me from knowing how to manage and teach a mostly-successful English class to thinking about how to manage and teach two four-year programs (humanities and creative writing). That challenge kept me around for another five years.

    When it became clear that the county wouldn’t actually be supporting that initiative (even though the county created it), and that all our work and success with students would remain unfunded, under-supported, and eventually die, I decided not to die with it and left the classroom.

    Not sure if there’s anything to learn from all that or not. I’ll leave it to the wiser and/or more experienced to discern.

  16. Somewhere in this discussion we seem to have lost sight of the joy of teaching – the joy of spending time with young people. At the end of the day that is what keeps me in teaching.

  17. There’s a reason universities often require teachers to have 3 or more years of experience before they host student teachers and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards requires you to be in your fourth year, at least, before you can go through the process. You really get a handle on things by that time.

    I get the feeling of not being challenged and looking for that next mountain to climb. Luckily, at the elementary level I’ve been able to change my role in my school to keep that energy. I’ve taught fourth and fifth and looped with my students and now I’m teaching first. It’s kept me on my toes and that’s been important to me. I felt like I was in a rut. You have to find what works for you.

  18. @Jenny, some of the most fun I’ve via blogging and via face-to-face has been chatting with new teachers about what motivates them, what troubles them. Gotta wonder if there isn’t something to that.

    @Robert, along those lines, I try not to assume that what motivates me to teach, motivates other people to teach.

  19. If it’s challenge and failure you want, there’s always inner-city teaching. But I’m a 2nd-year teacher who’s still trying to do *anything* competently, so don’t go by me.

  20. As a 30+ year veteran who is now teaching students online, I can only say that I still get a kick out of kids. Even online I think they are funny and challenging. But to me, the real way that I make a difference is teaching teachers. That’s where my satifisfaction is the greatest because they are SO grateful, and you know that not only does it help the teacher, it helps their students. I’m not watching tv, or reading much or doing anything “fun” but I love the Internet and I love reading about teaching and teachers. I find Dan absolutely inspspirational….gives me faith in the younguns!

  21. Dag. I’m having a pretty tough time now distinguishing Jenny, Jenn, and now Jen.

    Jenny has been around this blog since, like, day one; Jenn and I learned how to teach in the same UCD cohort; And I subscribe to Jen’s blog though I can’t remember why and I can’t bring myself to unsubscribe ’cause, yeah, the writing’s good but she also curses like a longshoreman and I dig that.

  22. Dan,

    Since you have mastered classroom management, how about videos of some of your typical class periods?

    As a potential new teacher, I am eager to see how you do classroom management, from beginning to end of class.

    If student privacy is an issue, how about video shot from back of classroom, and fuzzy-up any student faces?

    I think your next calling is to teach the teachers!