I interviewed Dan as part of an ongoing series of blog posts about real teaching experiences. I am writing about the situations that lead educators to leave the profession and what factors can potentially keep them in the classroom.
“For my (little bit) of money, teaching is the most noble, most meaningful job on the face of the planet.”
I admire Dan Tricarico so much. I have gotten to know him a little through the online world - Twitter, Voxer, and email. We have discussed teacher burnout and share the common goal of helping teachers with that particular struggle.
He is the author of The Zen Teacher - a book that provides a compassionate way to help educators through the difficult days of their careers. It teaches strategies to help maintain calm and focus and to overcome stress and anxiety. He says, “Much like with a 12 Step Program, managing stress in the classroom should happen one day at a time.”
Dan began teaching 27 years ago in the classroom of a school that was only four years old at the time. He continues to teach 9th and 10th grade at that same school - in that same classroom!
This is not his first career. He originally worked in offices while pursuing acting in Los Angeles, but the rewarding aspects of being a classroom teacher drew him to pursue education. As an office employee, he felt his biggest contribution was making someone else rich. In the classroom, he has the opportunity to help students every day, which “will have a ripple effect in the world and affect the future.” He stays focused on the difference he can make in a child’s life each day by asking himself, “What can I teach my students today that they didn’t already know?”
What word or phrase comes to mind when you think of your teaching career as a whole?
"Overwhelming. There’s so much, good & bad…
Are you content as a teacher?
"Reasonably so - it’s not perfect by any stretch, but I feel I am making an impact and a difference. It’s very rewarding - even if it’s hard to make ends meet sometimes...or many times."
A question I like to ask all teachers is about leaving the classroom. Many consider it, but not that many do it. For some, leaving is the only solution, for others, it remains a dream they don’t pursue. I have had a lot of jobs and been in a lot of ‘situations’ (want to quit but stay; want to stay but have to quit; unemployed; employed but unsure whether to stay or go). I have (slowly) learned it is less the work environment that is affecting me than it is me allowing myself to be affected by my work and workplace. I have so much control over how I react, what I prioritize, whose opinion I give power to, and how I speak to myself. It’s important to remember this is true in every workplace. The grass isn’t any greener if you’re using the same broken lawn mower.
I asked Dan if he had ever seriously considered leaving the profession.
"Sure, I have. I would think people do in any career, but teaching is big, so it happens in a bigger way, more often. Teachers realize they have amazing skills and the world doesn’t really see that because those skills don’t always transfer easily or others don’t recognize or value them. The reason I wrote The Zen Teacher is precisely that - teachers burn out and leave and I was headed there, too, but I wanted to make it to retirement. It was very disheartening, discouraging."
He added this enlightening anecdote about the class he taught for three weeks this summer:
"By the end, I felt like I had done some of the most effective teaching I’ve done in years because there were no interruptions - no testing, no PLN meetings, no assemblies, etc. (The students) had more skills when they left because it was a much more pure experience.
"In the classroom, our lives are dictated by bells, the day of the week, the Friday assembly, etc., and that is very disconcerting. You’re always off balance. I would just like three days in a row with the same schedule. That would be nice."
Assemblies, at some schools, have become a form of validation. They are a way to make sure everyone knows that everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing. (Except they’re not, because they’re at an assembly.)
Dan would like to see his relationship with administrators improved. This can happen only if they are willing and/or enabled to listen to teachers’ concerns without pressure from above to fulfill a mandate. It would be beneficial to all stakeholders if they could mindfully address what is going well and what is needed within the school community. Educational managers need to have “the courage to support the teachers’ vision more, instead of providing it.”
Dan defines teacher burnout this way:
"Feeling that what you are doing just isn’t making a difference anymore. Too much to do and not enough support. I can handle that if I feel I have a purpose. But if I feel there are too many obstacles, I can’t do it. It feels like it is more than one person can do. Put that all together and I’m amazed people stay at all.
"That we have structured things so there is little compensation, support or respect; that people are choosing either to leave or not enter the profession in the first place, is tragic. Our students deserve more."
And the main cause of it:
"When there is a top-down insistence on continuing to pile things on teachers because the teachers have always accepted it and say ‘Ok, I can do this’ but they are not supported with anything, financially or otherwise."
How can it be overcome?
"Overcoming it is checking in with whether you still want to do this. It doesn’t have to get desperate. We make the leap from ‘everything is ok’ to ‘everything is really NOT ok’ very fast. We need more in between. Mindfulness, being in the moment, thinking of the student right in front of me, finding things outside the class that fulfill me. Stillness and silence are two gifts I give myself. All of these approaches can help us navigate the stress and cope with the sense of overwhelm."
What aspect of your job would you like to never have to do again?
"Standardized testing. We act like it’s THE measurement, but it’s only A measurement. It takes up so much time that could be better spent elsewhere."
In order to improve classroom teaching, Dan would like to see more support and fewer directives. Educational managers need to trust the teachers’ professional judgement, particularly those with many years of experience. Teachers need to know they are supported even if they fail because the assumption should be that they are doing their best with what they’ve got.
Data has become a huge purpose and motivator behind many educational decisions in the last few decades. Data is vital and has its place, but Dan suggests streamlining it to keep things simple. “The last meeting I went to on data, I saw 47 pie charts and bar graphs and being a poet and an English teacher, my brain just shut down.” A better approach could be to choose 1 or 2 concerns to focus on in a school year “and then CRUSH IT!”
If you are looking for a mindful way to overcome the struggles of teacher burnout, visit Dan’s site The Zen Teacher.