Being a ‘Veteran’ Teacher

By Shannon Brown

As I approach my 10th year in education, I have started to reflect on the lack of teachers, especially in the schools where I’ve taught, who have more than 10 years of experience in the classroom.

By the end of my second teaching year, I was acting as the de facto team lead, taking notes during team meetings and sharing those notes with the principal. At the beginning of my third year teaching, I was one of the only returning staff members at my school, and I was considered a “veteran.” I sat in on administrative meetings, advised on hiring, and was officially given the title of “team lead” for the entire high school. How did this happen? Where were all the more experienced teachers?

To put it bluntly, they weren’t there. 

The teachers who had been naïve enough to take on my role before I had left the classroom and moved into administrative roles or gone back to school to get a Ph.D. If they weren’t still in school buildings, they were consultants, writing education manuals, and working for the state department of education. And I was the one in the classroom — the person with the most experience in my specific school, a third-year veteran teacher.

I was constantly praised for my work. “You do so much for these kids!” “It’s so great they have you!” “Wow, your class seems so put together!” But I also started to receive other comments like, “When are you going to get your admin license?” and “I can’t wait until you’re Secretary of Education.” 

I know these people meant well, but it was so frustrating to be told “great job!” while also being told, “OK, now move on!” I felt like I had barely gotten my feet underneath me by year three. I wasn’t the “veteran teacher” they all proclaimed me to be. I was incredibly young, and I was still learning.

So why was I put in that situation? Why did I have to grow up so fast? Two words: teacher turnover. Whether you call it burnout, attrition, or just overwork, the effect is the same. Teachers are leaving the profession (or at this point, not even starting) at an alarming rate. When I was getting started, the rate of teachers leaving was around 8% a year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But now, after the insanity of the 2020-21 school year, nearly one in four teachers are thinking of quitting, RAND Corporation survey results show.

And honestly, I don’t blame them. Teaching is hard, and teachers are overworked and underpaid. It’s a difficult decision to leave the classroom, but it’s typically made so that people can keep or improve their own mental and physical health.

I know this because I tried to leave the classroom. After a particularly difficult few years, my mental health was at a breaking point and my therapist was telling me to quit my job. I was given the opportunity to work at the district level and I took it. But I was miserable after just a few months. I asked to go back to the school level and eventually back to the classroom.

So as I enter my 10th year of teaching, I wonder if I’ll be doing this for the rest of my career. Probably not, but for now, I love working with students every day and enjoy where I’m at. Of course, that doesn’t mean that being a teacher is easy. It’s incredibly hard, and it requires those of us who do it to look past the long hours, drains on our mental and physical wellbeing, and lack of support from society as a whole in order to continue doing what we’re doing: teaching.

At the end of the day, if society wants teachers with experience in classrooms, we must pay them for that experience, and we cannot overwork them. Teachers need to be given support and treated with respect. They need coaches and cheerleaders who give them the tools to succeed in this profession. They need mentors who will listen and give them ideas. And new teachers need experienced teachers to fill all of these roles and more. 

We need good teachers with experience for our children, and we cannot achieve that until the attitude of “Thank you for being a teacher” changes to “What can I do to help?”

Shannon Brown is the Lead Humanities Teacher at Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.