How a Bad School Year Led to Renewed Certification and Dedication

November 6, 2017

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a video interview of an amazing athlete who had broken a world record. The athlete talked about the difference between motivation and dedication. Motivation, he argued, is fleeting. Dedication is what carries us across finish lines. Experienced teachers have this encoded in our DNA. We know that dedication is the bridge across the tough days and weeks. But what can we do beyond putting one foot in front of the other? Do we ever get to press the reset button?

Over the past two decades of teaching, I have experienced only two really awful school years. The first was my first year of teaching. Technically, it wasn’t even a whole year. I was hired in December, after another teacher’s abrupt departure. I hadn’t completed student teaching, so my first six months teaching high school also served as the internship requirement for my master’s degree. During that half-year crucible, I had four bad days a week. I made a ton of mistakes. I got in my own way. Looking back, I kind of wonder at my moxie. I entered the classroom with no experience, save my own – as a student.

Between years two and 18 I had ups and downs, but I also experienced a lot of joy in the classroom. I had the pleasure of teaching two distinct age groups – middle and high schoolers, and I found something to love about both of them. I read and taught amazing books, worked with great colleagues, and – my favorite – I got to plan and build a couple of new programs and courses along the way. If I had to paint 16 years of my professional life in broad strokes, I would say that my job was challenging, but in a good way. And I felt like I was becoming a really good teacher.

Then, it came without warning. My second terrible year was last year, my 19th year of teaching. Though I was certainly not a new teacher, many things had changed since the previous year: My school had new leadership, class sizes were large, and I was transitioning back to full-time teaching after a year in a hybrid teaching/GT support position. From the start, the chemistry in my classroom just felt “off.” Though I was planning and grading and teaching as much as I ever had, I wasn’t feeling any job satisfaction. The work felt hard. At the end of each day, I felt like a soap opera heroine, leaning my back against the door, just happy to have made it through one more day.

Coincidentally, last year also happened to be the year that I was working on my renewal for my National Board Certification. “That’s a good one,” I thought. “I don’t even think I will last through Thanksgiving.” My dedication was faltering under pressure. Giving up, at the time, seemed like a real option. But, while I was having this dark night of the soul, I started tinkering with my renewal. And I started writing about the things I had done and accomplished over the past 10 years: the classes I had taken, the lessons I had published, the strategies and programs I had tried. And I started to feel a little bit proud of what I had accomplished…and a bit willing to do a little more.

Renewal is a common concept, but one worth examining. We renew our vows, our car registrations, our subscriptions. But what about our professional lives and identities? I would argue that the reset option is one that we should all take from time to time. Renewing National Board certification, for me, was a great opportunity to make a new beginning. This school year, I am trying some new things: new books, new approaches, and a new outlook. Dedication is essential, but there is no shame in a fresh start, even if it comes in your 20th year.

Devon O'Brien, NBCT

Devon O’Brien has been teaching for twenty years. She has a passion for developing student writers and supporting “out of the box” programming for GT learners. Devon was one of five eighth-grade teachers selected for the NEA/BetterLesson Master Teacher Program, and she received a 2016 Excellence in Gifted and Talented Education Award from the State of Maryland. She teaches middle school in Southern Maryland and spends her summers as a test prep and writing coach for high school students.