Lost Faith

D.I.G. asked in the comments a few posts ago:

So, Sam, did anyone say what happens when you lose that faith?

People still tell me that they think I’m a good teacher, although I think it’s less and less true as time goes on. I no longer know why I do this job. I haven’t given up yet, as witnessed by the fact that I still have things like your blog in my feed reader.

I’ve been at this career for 20+ years. On some level, I still think I’m probably better in my position than some random person who might be hired to take my place if I left — I have no doubt that I’m basically competent, and not everyone is — but that doesn’t make it much easier to keep going. Did anyone address how to get back to feeling like what you do matters when you’ve lost the faith?

We hadn’t talked about this, and considering where I am in my career (read: early), I had no worthy advice to bestow. so I emailed Peg Cagle, the person at PCMI who talked about faith. She’s been teaching a while. Although she has been busy all summer, she took the time to jot down a few “non-linear musings.”

1.) Faith of any sort demands courage. Courage to believe in something for which there is little if any substantiating evidence let alone proof. Unfortunately, I have no particular insight into the creation of personal courage.
2.) Faith of any sort needs to be nourished. People with religious faith feed it by spending time with other like-minded people discussing and studying their beliefs. The same is true for faith in the work of teaching. Beyond the tools that I gain from attending conferences, talking with colleagues or reading independently, I also renew my belief that teaching is a worthy intellectual endeavor and that by engaging in the work of teaching, I make a difference.
3.) Faith of any sort can be strengthened through challenge. Don’t be afraid to profess your beliefs about public education. While you may not be supporting a popular viewpoint, standing up to a modicum of contrary perspective can re-affirm your own values.
4.) Faith allows for forgiveness. Everyone has weaknesses and doubts during a lifetime of beliefs and don’t beat up on yourself for sometimes thinking that you are delusional for believing that teaching makes a difference. At the same time that you need to remember that our work is an investment in the future, don’t expect to see the long term pay-offs. Focus on the small victories; they exist. And they can get you through another semester, another day or perhaps just another class period.

Thank you Peg, and I hope you find your lost faith, D.I.G.

Personally, I’m not at the place yet where I have started to develop that deep faith in what I do, but I’m sure it will be powerful when (if) it happens.

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5 comments

  1. I think that confidence in one’s teaching should not be a matter of faith, but supported by evidence: students doing well in subsequent classes, students doing well on achievement exams, feedback from alumni, kudos from parents, awards from administrators, … (that list is in roughly decreasing order of importance).

    If you are having to rely on faith and on spending time with like-minded people to support that faith, then it may be time to look for a different way of teaching.

  2. @gas The problem of course with that list you give is that teachers don’t usually get that kind of feedback. Most of the time, you just are left with trusting things work out ok in the end. You’ve got no idea whether you made a difference or not and that’s why faith is so important.

    There’s a separate issue about whether the things you list would identify you as a good teacher or not, but that’s not really what I want to get into.

  3. …And don’t forget to have fun! Faith in incremental success is much easier to have when both you and your students are enjoying what you do. Find ways to keep it fresh for yourself (like Stephen said in the previous post about mentoring a new teacher, etc.) and for your kids (ambitious, innovative lessons), re-focus on incorporating meta-skills and habits of mind into every lesson, and remember that the way you are reaching/impacting kids goes far beyond whether they can still factor in 10 years. Change a school, get into a different level (middle vs. high school) if that’s what it takes to change the scene for yourself to remind you that what you do is challenging, fun, crazy, and meaningful all at the same time.

  4. I agree with Mimi. Constantly keeping it fresh by taking on new challenges helps to keep me from wallowing in the “am I even making a difference” question. I’ve changed grade levels, content areas, teaching styles… innovation keeps me inspired.

  5. I remained in teaching as long as I felt I was making a positive impact. However, in the past three years, before I left the profession, too many things were changing, out of my control, to keep that positive impact going. Students were required to take too many remedial classes; poverty was overtaking the students and their parents; school budgets were being cut; the program in which I had taught was no longer receiving the strong support it had received for decades. Although I was working so hard, I was getting no where. Time to leave.

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