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The Educator’s Mid-Career Crisis


It’s the end of August.  Year thirteen.  High School.  Literature.  

Classes start this week, and despite all of my experience, every glowing review, every devastating failure...every hard lesson learned and earned:  I’m terrified.


Things have changed again: the daily schedule, the number of classes I teach, the number of preps, the number of students in each class, the online grading system, the file-sharing format.  Those elements seem to change every year.  Except, this summer, I (along with several teammates) was also asked to take the curriculum I have sculpted over the course of my entire professional career—a curriculum that has been tested in the fire and proven itself a quantifiable success for the school—and throw it all out to follow the school’s new experimental “vision”. 


It’s a really cool idea, too.  I certainly don’t mean to complain.  Change is an inevitable part of the teaching experience.  In fact, for many of us, it is why we were attracted to the field.  No one lesson is ever quite the same as the next.  And it seems that these days, every school needs to have a particular unique slant that caters to a specific need in the community to survive.  This is what we do as public servants.  We serve, and adapt.


And yet, this year’s changes are wearing me to the bone, and I can’t help to wonder:  Why?  Sure, buying my first house, getting engaged, planning a family, and going through the initial rigmarole of organizing a wedding on top of starting a new school year would exhaust anyone (how dare I attempt a life without the school!).  But it’s more than that.  I’m calling it the “educator’s mid-career crisis”.  Everyone goes through it.  And even if you’re having a similar plethora of conflicting emotions this year—don’t worry—you’ll get through it, too.


During the educator’s mid-career crisis, a veteran teacher starts to question their place in the academic universe. For some, it might be trying to decide if your personal belief systems around education match your school’s practice.  You’ve learned a lot over the years, and at some point, you simply refuse to embrace practices that you believe are bad for kids.  For others, it might be about questioning whether or not you can keep up with the ever-changing landscape of education.  Each year requires a wealth of new skills and new ways of communicating, engaging, and supporting students.  There’s a learning curve there.  And at some point, it might feel like too much.  Different from the anxieties of the initial educator, the mid-career crisis is less about the craft, and more about staying relevant.


At my school over the years, I’ve managed to keep up-to-date with the steadily advancing world of technology.  Age-wise, grew up right at the cusp of the tech boom, so adapting is sometimes tough, but manageable.  From apps to the latest software, I’m on it.  Anything to keep them engaged and developing those 21ss Century Skills.  Over the years, I’ve becoming much more acutely data-responsive, and it has really helped me to target skills with individual students.  I’ve matured from a very independent “silo” teacher to a team player who honestly thrives on team feedback.  I’ve also made huge steps to “zeroing in”’ my curriculum...crafting it to make it more responsive to current events and the immediate needs of our community.  I’m proud of this growth.  It’s been a long and rewarding journey thus far.


So at what point in the hurricane of policy changes and the new pedagogical gimmicks do you start to wonder whether or not it’s time to find a new school or district to call home?  Conversely, how do you know when you need to dig in your heels and stand up for the students you teach?  With the accelerated pace of change, both at the national, state, and district level, I’m already seeing history repeat itself.  I’m seeing unfortunate mistakes being made in my own institution in turn; ones I’ve seen made time and time again over the years.  And if I can’t stand by my institution, how can I expect my students to?  During the educator’s mid-career crisis, you might even wonder whether or not you belong in the field at all, and that’s okay!  We’ve all thought about checking out the insurance game, business management, or any of the other common professions for transitioning teachers.  I certainly can’t make that call for you.


I can, however,  ask you this:  close your eyes.  Imagine yourself in front of a classroom filled with students.  Not your current or upcoming classroom, instead, maybe filled with a mix of past students.  Now delete from your mind the school itself:  the bureaucracy, the endless meetings, the institutional history, the “big personalities” on staff, every little thing about the job that might distract you from the thing you love.  Then ask yourself, “Is the fire still there?”  Do you love it?  Does it still fill you with that sense of purpose, challenge you to be the best version of yourself, call you to action toward a more just world?


This article isn’t necessarily going to have a Disney ending.  I could share with you how excited I am to get to know yet another new group of freshmen this year—they already seem pretty awesome.  I could talk about how nervously enthusiastic I am to be tackling new content, new skills, and some performance tasks that are seriously “outside the box” when it comes to assessment.  It would likely do you good to hear that I have nothing but optimism fueling my engine right now.  But the truth is, this year, I’m left with more apprehension and questions than anything else.  I need to make a choice, because in the end, my life’s work is all about the kids.  Either get on board, change it, or walk away.  If I “get on board”, I’m worried the burden of working against my value system will be too much for me to bear.  If I dedicate myself to changing the system, I’m afraid I’ll exhaust myself, taking a toll on both my personal and professional worlds (and then, of course, what if I’m wrong?)  And if I walk away from my current school, what about my students?  What about this community that I love?  Am I ready to sacrifice status and some semblance of comfort to have a go at a new school system?  And mid-career and considering budget cuts across the country, can anyone even afford to hire a teacher so long in the game?  Terrifying to even think about.


When considering big changes in any career path, they say, “you’ll know when you know”.  My biggest problem is that when I close my eyes, I still feel that fire in my belly.  Way stronger, in fact, than when I began 13 years ago.  I’m just very, very tired.  And there’s no time for it.  I need to put these questions to bed, at least until next June.  Class rosters are filling as we speak, and it is time to be excited, ready or not.  To muster up and nurture that wild and weird sense of wonder that each year brings.  If you, too, are struggling with your own mid-career crisis this year, stay with me.  Remember why you got into the game.  And let that fire guide your decisions this year.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.