Thirty-Two Down…

factor_tree_32Wednesday was the last day of my thirty-second year teaching. Besides a flurry of part-time teenage jobs, I’ve never really done anything else and I honestly can’t imagine a different career.

Despite my apparent longevity (or stagnation) I am not the same teacher I was back in 1984. I’ve learned a few things, sometimes the easy way, but mostly the hard way. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  1. Get good at classroom management. It’s not the most important thing we do, but none of the important things can happen without it.
  2. Relationships matter. Especially your relationships with the principal, the office manager and the custodian.
  3. Don’t pull maps down past the line that says “Don’t pull past this line.”
  4. Don’t lose your school key. It’s a huge mess.
  5. Take your job seriously. It’s about the most important job you can imagine.
  6. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You aren’t as special as your mother said you were.
  7. Stay in shape. That’s good advice in general, but this job definitely has a physical component. I’ve seen teachers let themselves go only to have their careers cut short.
  8. You can’t change people. I’m not talking about students; changing students is actually our job. I’m talking about other people, like colleagues and parents. It might be nice to change some of these people, but you can’t.
  9. This is not a competitive job. Trying to be the best teacher is a waste of time and energy.
  10. The reason we have assessments is to improve instruction. It’s not the other way around.
  11. Don’t go to work when you’re sick. Don’t call in sick when you’re not.
  12. The kids who need the most love are the hardest kids to love. And you should sit them towards the front.
  13. Go to most of the staff parties, but don’t bring your spouse; they won’t enjoy it. And don’t get drunk.
  14. Don’t expect anything productive to happen when you have a sub.
  15. Work hard, but sustainably hard. You’re not being paid to work 70-hour weeks, and doing so will have a negative effect on the 35 hours for which you are being paid. Know when to quit.
  16. Grade papers immediately. Student work does not become more interesting over time.

And finally,

17. Support your union. Those are good people.

It’s been a great thirty-years. That doesn’t mean every minute of every day was bliss, but it does mean that I can look back knowing I’ve done something important with myself. And that’s saying something.

And I’m not even close to being done. In fact, I’m shooting for fifty. So that’s thirty-two down and eighteen to go!

7 thoughts on “Thirty-Two Down…

  1. Jasmine Lawrence

    Dear Tom White,

    Wow, Thirty- two years, congratulations! On Tuesday the 28th I will be finished with my first year of teaching and I have to say, WHAT A YEAR! There have been more ok days then good days and more bad days then ok days. But I have to say that I have learned so much in this year.

    1. Classroom management: In the beginning of the school year I can say that I was strict. However, towards the end of November I thought, why do I have to be strict, and that’s when I lost many of my students. Next year, I have to be stricter and have good procedures and routines. The funny thing is I know that, but I need help implementing these procedures and routines.

    2. Yes, having a relationship with the office staff is very important. This is how you get the things you need.

    3. Staying in shape is very important. Before I started teaching, I knew that I had to lose weight and I lost 15 pounds, I am very happy with myself. I am proud to say that I have kept the weight off. Hopefully I can loose another 5 this summer.

    4. I agree that the most difficult kids are the ones that need the most love. I have to learn not to argue with middle school children because most of the time at the end of the argument , they think that they are always right.

    5. Yes, immediate feedback is very important because after two weeks I do not want to spend time looking at an assignment that I know the students won’t even remember.

    Congratulations again on 32 years.

    This gives me hope that everything will get better!

  2. Mark Gardner

    FIFTY? At least you’re one of those teachers who is always willing to learn and evolve your practice… that isn’t always the case 🙂

    Your #17 is resonating more and more with me lately. I attended a workshop from our local Uniserv, and we had the opportunity to hear from some teachers operating in right-to-work states where unions are essentially non-existent. It was truly appalling. Horrifying. I cannot imagine being a parent in one of those states and knowing what I was sending my children to every day. The little things we take for granted from being unionized in WA!

    After hearing from several schools/districts, it made more sense why right-to-work states have schools in such turmoil. People bash teachers’ unions all the time without realizing that unions aren’t fighting for pay and benefits, they are fighting for the learning conditions of kids.

    To adapt a quote from Marcy Yoshida (mentor guru extraordinaire at OSPI), the working conditions unions create for teachers are the learning conditions that teachers create for students. Good working conditions = good learning conditions. Good learning conditions = successful students.

  3. Marc Holt


    You are a great teacher in fact. The experience you have, the life you have lived with your students, colleagues, and other people really shows in effect in this post. I’m happy after reading your post because it says all qualities that a teacher should possess.

    Definitely, a teacher must not try to become good. He/she must try their students to be good. Mostly, students follow their teachers, not their parents. So, teachers must teach them how to be good in our society.

    These tips really helps me to understand your feelings towards your career and I really enjoyed a lot.

    Thank you so much for sharing such a wonderful experience 🙂

  4. Jan Kragen

    I read number 9 wrong for a moment and wholeheartedly disagreed. Then I read it again and said ok. See, I always wanted, from my first year teaching, to be the best teacher I could be. (Not competing against anyone but myself.) I still feel that way, which is why I want to keep improving.

    BTW, I have 38 years in and plan on 6 more. That’s when my NBTC runs out. I’ll be 69. I figure I’ll probably be old enough to retire by then!

  5. Hope Teague-Bowling

    I love the mixture of practical and theoretical advice you give here. #16 is SOO REAL for HS English teachers! Great reminder!

    Congrats on 32 years!

  6. Spencer Olmsted

    Awesome Tom, really awesome. 32 years is a big deal and the fact that you’re in for another 18 is outstanding! I think the one thing that didn’t or perhaps can’t make your list is something about not getting jaded or about finding and renewing the love of teaching all the time. It’s not something you can put on a list of things to do or not do – it just has to “happen” for a long career to be both a blessing to the teacher and the students. Obviously that happens for you.

    I just moved schools and changed grades this summer and feel deeply renewed. I loved my former job, but the new one is in my neighborhood school where I have watched my preschooler play for years and where he will attend kindergarten next year. Too much to pass up. I walked in tonight at 7:30pm (not for the first time today) with a power sander, some wood oil and the new finish trim that I’m going to put on my mailboxes. I felt at home in a new way there this evening. It is my community center, my workshop, my practice.

    You’ve got to find yourself in teaching.

  7. Sylvia Soholt

    As I understand the current use of language, AWESOME is still acceptable as a word to convey appreciation. Absolutely AWESOME, Tom.

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