One Teacher’s Survival Guide to a Long Career: How to feel the joy, work through the hard stuff and embrace humanity.

By Barbara Watson

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(Pictured second from left with: Nicole Stout; Stephanie Jackman; and Julie Marquez)

I am pictured here with my colleagues a couple of years ago at the Tointon Institute for Leadership in Vail, Colorado (sponsored by UNC). I am a proud member of the school Leadership Team at Lafayette Elementary; where we work hard to create a welcoming and warm learning environment, where all students can reach their potential.  It’s a great little school, and I am so happy to be a fourth grade teacher there with the best teammates ever: Carolan Covington and Steve Lohn. As I enter my thirty-second year as an educator, with a continued passion to teach, I believe I can pass on some pearls of wisdom, you might be interested in to stay the course, as long as I have. This is my teachers’ survival guide for a long career.


First of all, it is important to remember that being a teacher is a VOCATIONAL PROFESSION,  it is not just a job. We are expected to work independently, and collaboratively toward the goal of successfully educating a group of people, or individuals about a given number of standards, within a given set of subject areas. This is HARD work, and not everyone is cut out for it. The question is are you?

As you continue to read, I am inviting you to reflect; to take a deep dive into your choices, behaviors and beliefs about your profession. Through reflection, it is my hope that you may make some decisions which might help you as you progress in your career.


When I became a teacher, no one sat me down and asked me to consider my values and what I believed in. But when I completed my principal’s license they did. I found it to be a very valuable exercise. Maybe you could take out a journal, and honestly respond to each question posed.

    1. Explore and seek to understand why you became a teacher in the first place. Try to ground your feet. Did you take this path because you couldn’t think of anything better to do? Did you like the idea of long school holidays? Did you have experience with working with youngsters, and wanted to work in a career that would help them grow and learn. Maybe you had some other motivation, or a combination of some of the above. There are no right or wrong answers here. It is good to be honest with yourself. I stumbled upon divine inspiration, but that’s a whole different story.
    2. Find your drivers. What do you believe in? What are your core values that provide the foundation or bedrock of your vocation? You will never make enough money in the classroom to call it anything else. My drivers are: honesty, integrity, compassion and kindness. If I look through these lenses, and what I am doing doesn’t fit with those values, I’m not doing something right. I need to speak up perhaps and talk to my colleagues or principal, or I need to rethink my classroom practice in some way. 
    3. Decide whether you are in it for the content or the students. It’s good to be passionate about a content area, but if you are more in love with it, than the idea of sharing that passion with someone else you might have a problem. If you do not like working with students, and being a teacher is only a job, then find the exit ramp now! Teaching is NOT for you. Well, not for the long haul anyway.




As an educator, you have been through college and been taught most of the stuff you are supposed to know to do your work of teaching. However, most of us land in the classroom, for the first time by ourselves, and feel woefully unprepared. I know I did. The plain fact of the matter is, you will have to spend time acquiring the tools of the trade, and the expertise to use them. This is the time to be humble. If you are like me, and became a teacher after a first career, you might think you are Miss Smarty Pants. I had to learn so much to get to the point where I was truly proficient as a teacher. Learn to ask questions. Listen a lot, and offer ideas gently. In addition:

    1. Build your knowledge base in all areas you teach. Take the time to seek out professional development in areas where you feel weak, or lacking in depth of knowledge. Become a lifelong learner. Read. Ask for help from your peers to grow.
    2. Learn all you can about classroom management. If you cannot manage your classroom environment in a safe and productive way, you are way behind the eightball already. If you are struggling, seek advice. 
    3. Look for mentorship in two directions: Mentors who can help you navigate the requirements of your district through the early years to tenureship; mentors who are successful at their craft and who are willing to share and support your thinking.
    4. Choose professional development in areas that will build your capacity to understand how people (especially children and peers) tick. Professional development can mean personal development outside of school too. Take up Tai Chi, play golf, learn to fly a plane. Whatever it is, learn to give others space, so that you can accept and enjoy the personality traits and quirks of others. It will make life a lot easier.
    5. Accept that truth is often in the eye of the beholder. I have heard so many people tell me that their teaching is research driven and children are not developmentally ready for this or that because so and so said so. Just because someone thinks they are right, doesn’t make them right. Do your own legwork to find good practice while still collaborating with others. Pilot new ideas and share out. You may be the leader you were hoping to follow!



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Let’s face it, the first three years as a teacher are brutal. The learning curve is almost a vertical cliff face. You are in boot camp, with many levels of scrutiny, before you find yourself in a position to attain tenureship.

You have no choice other than to suck it up, or leave the profession. Many people choose the exit ramp at this point. It does get better for most of us. Once you are on the pathway to security in your profession it may be time to take stock. Even if you have been teaching for a few years, I would encourage taking the time to stop and evaluate where you are at. 

Try this checklist:

  • I have read, digested and understood all of the standards I am expected to teach.
  • I have been provided with or developed a scope and sequence for the delivery of those standards. That document is also alive and flexible; revisited at least once a year for updates and improvements.
  • I have developed units of study using Backward Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 1999) to ensure that I meet all essential learning targets within that scope and sequence.
  • I have thought about, and planned for future professional development choices to support my growth as an educator.
  • I have developed strategies to work collaboratively with colleagues while maintaining my own sense of ownership and autonomy. I accept and follow norms.
  • I have come to the conclusion that gossip is toxic, and a happy work environment is one where teachers and colleagues assume positive intent from those around them.
  • I have established a safe and well-managed learning environment with and for my students, and have taught them, and practised with them, specific behaviors to meet expectations.
  • I know that being friendly with students and creating a warm and loving class environment is NOT the same as being their friend. I am still the authority figure in the room. I have fun with my kids, but can make sure we learn too.
  • I know that fair is not always equal. I have to be flexible about expectations and outcomes. Being reasonable builds respect.
  • I know that children feel safe when there are clear expectations and boundaries. They may give push back, but they prefer clarity around their behavior decisions and a bar set high for achievement.
  • I have a well-developed sense of humor. If I can’t laugh about many of the things that happen in any given day, then I will cry an awful lot.
  • Parents can be challenging. I am friendly, professional and courteous. However, I do not give out my personal contact information to everyone, and I certainly don’t become friends on FACEBOOK. Building a deep relationship with parents takes time, and may backfire on me if I become an open target.
  • I don’t get sucked into negative email communications. I thank parents for their feedback, I acknowledge any area that needs work, I seek a parent conference where needed. If I need administration to respond, I defer. Most parents want to vent in long emails because they are frustrated with their child and don’t know what to do.
  • I have become a union member, knowing that I might need their support at some point in my career, and through the union I have better pay and working conditions.
  • I apologise when I am wrong. Admitting mistakes is better in the long run. We all screw up at some point. Been there, done that, got too many t-shirts to mention.
  • OTHERS – My list is not exhaustive. It’s a starting point. HERE YOU GET TO PUT IN YOUR OWN CHECK POINTS. What are you still hoping to improve in?

HOW DID YOU DO? ARE YOU THERE YET? NO! Me neither, but I am closer to this point than I used to be. Many of us get wrapped so much in planning everything down to the last detail, that we forget that this is work involves young humans and their families. People rarely respond the way we expect them to, and so we must learn to be flexible and to grow.


The key to time use is to work smarter, not harder. Easier said than done, I know. But we have to work out a sensible life/work balance, otherwise we explode from the effort. Without it, many teachers burnout and take the exit ramp before retirement. The pie-chart below may be a little unrealistic. However, if you consider your overall time balance of work, play and sleep, it really is important to seek a fairly equal distribution. When I shifted the balance in my life a few years ago, the sky did not fall, and the students learned just as well. Food for thought!

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  • Get enough sleep. Preferably 8 hours.
  • Try to do your work at school in an 8hr time frame. Work during plans instead of visiting. Go home.
  • Rest. Enjoy family, friends, and food. Do something enriching to feed your own soul.


FURTHERMORE: DO NOT GRADE EVERYTHING! Most of the time students don’t read half of what you write. Talk to them instead! This is worth repeating: DO NOT GRADE EVERYTHING BELIEVING ANYONE IS GOING TO READ AND DIGEST YOUR COMMENTS!

Learning is a process. There needs to be space and time to grow and to fail. If all tasks in the classroom are high stakes, then students will not take risks to try something new. Life is too stressful for them and you. Identify vital and necessary check points and make clear to the students that you are going to grade them on the work associated with that checkpoint. You are going to use those grades in your gradebook to determine mastery. Guess what? More time is released to you to do a better job all around.

I don’t mean that you back away from knowing their progress and sit at your computer and shop online. Absolutely not! Being present during instruction; discussing their work and paying attention to details will give you tons of information about their progress. Record your anecdotes in a notebook if needed, but take the released time to educate yourself about your students as learners and people. Listen. Listen in on their conversations. Pay attention to struggles, and check in with those who have little support at home.

Contact parents early if there are issues or if you have a concern. Let them know what you are experiencing, and ask for their input. “Have you noticed any changes at home? Is there anything going on that I should be aware of? Can you offer some advice, so that I can help your child better?” Parents are generally happy when you have paid attention to their child, and are grateful for your interest and questions. Realise that most parents love their kids and are trying their best. Humanity is really messy, and everyone has got something going on in their lives we are probably unaware of. Try to give others grace and space even if they are really annoying!


If you can’t find the joy in your daily exchanges with students and colleagues, get out of the profession now! Look for the small moments and the victories that make the hard slog worth it: the student who smiles at you when they finally get it; the hug you receive from a past student who remembered the activity they liked in class; the student who writes you a note to thank you for raising the bar and helping them to reach their potential. This is the motherlode of gold lying deep within that rockface; sometimes hidden between the multiple and complex layers of this profession. You have to care; you have to be present. Ultimately, if you don’t turn up and tune in, everyone suffers and ultimately your administrator will notice too. (You know right! That evaluation thing?)

Be aware too, that there are a lot of bandwagons in education. If you have been in the business of education for a long time like me, this can be exasperating, and we feel like our expertise is being undermined. New people at management and district levels are often unaware of a district’s history and bring back old ideas, as though they are new. The latest research becomes the “secret code” to student achievement. However, we do not have to throw the baby out with the bathwater every time this happens. Be patient, do your due diligence to what is expected of you, and breathe. This too shall pass! 


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Barbara Watson is a fourth grade teacher at LAFAYETTE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, BOULDER VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT. She has been an educator since 1987, beginning her career in the U.K, before moving to Colorado in 1997. In 2006, she received the IMPACT ON EDUCATION award for her proactive initiatives at Louisville Elementary, in areas of Science and Math. She was also an administrator for three years at ELDORADO K-8 SCHOOL. A life- long learner, Barbara became one of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s cohort of educators, who have brought OPEN INQUIRY to ELEMENTARY science education, and in 2012 she became a NOYCE Scholar at CU Boulder, fostering science investigation in the elementary classroom. She has just completed the COLORADO WRITING PROJECT, is enthusiastic about using WRITER’S WORKSHOP in her class, and is actively engaged in writing her first novel. Contact her at



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3 thoughts on “One Teacher’s Survival Guide to a Long Career: How to feel the joy, work through the hard stuff and embrace humanity.”

  1. Good read after 40 years in classrooms I agree with most of the content. It was a good reflection on my own career both successes and areas for growth.


  2. Thank you, Barb, for sharing your enthusiasm, professionalism, and great advice for a balanced life and passionate heart! I enjoy sharing learning philosophies with you. It makes collaboration such a joy and I’m grateful to know you and value you as a colleague and friend.


  3. Barb,
    Loved reading this! These are good reminders for all of us working with students. I am entering my 21st year working with our students at Lafayette Elementary and there is no place else I’d rather be! I love helping our students learn and I love learning from them! Thank you for sharing these words of wisdom!
    Lynne 😊❤️


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