The non-renewal process is a very stressful time in a teacher’s career. This is an issue that is not discussed a lot. Today, we are going to discuss how to thrive during the non-renewal process.
Over the last few months, I have been opening up this blog to guest bloggers who have been able to bring their various strengths and experiences to share with my readers. Today’s blog post was written by Jessica who teaches in New Jersey.
I was very drawn to this topic when Jessica suggested it as her guest post topic. Where I teach you can earn tenured position (permanent status) after your first year of teaching. I was saddened to know that it is possible for a teacher to be given a non-renewal letter with no quantifiable justification. Jessica’s tips are honest and valuable to any teacher who has had to navigate the non-renewal process.
“…the Board has decided not to renew your contract for the 2017-2018 school year…” These are the words no teacher ever wants to hear. I never thought I’d be on the receiving end of one these conversations, especially when I assumed I’d be receiving tenure the following September. But there I was, at the end of my fourth year of teaching, sobbing in the middle of our main office conference room. My principal passed me a box of tissues, as my union rep rattled off a list of explanations I couldn’t even comprehend. “…legally not obligated to provide a justification…could resign within 30 days…Donaldson hearing…”
The days that followed were a blur of emotions and confusion. Like any teacher living in the 21st century, I immediately went to Google for answers. I was hoping that somewhere out there, some other teacher had gone through the same thing and that they could provide me with the hope I so desperately needed. All I found, however, were message boards from 2001, comment threads from teachers in other states, or blog posts from teachers who were let go after their first year. None of this was relatable to me. I had put in four wonderful years in my district, with not a single issue. I would have had tenure in the fall of next year. I was devastated, and I felt like there was no one in the world who I could relate to.
Flash forward five months, and I’m now preparing to start my first year in a brand new district. It has been a long, exhausting road to get here, and I would be remiss if I didn’t share what I’ve learned with other teachers so that they too could find their light at the end of the tunnel.
Non-Renewal vs. Resignation
One of the first things a union representative should tell you, at least in New Jersey, is that you have the option to resign, rather than “accept” your nonrenewal. There is a very small window of opportunity for this, so you’ll have to seriously consider the options quickly. My husband is in school, meaning I was the only source of income for our household. I accepted the non-renewal because it meant I could qualify for unemployment in the event I couldn’t find a new job. However, if you feel that you are financially stable enough, it may be in your best interest to resign instead. A resignation will “look” much better when applying for new jobs than a nonrenewal will, but the choice is yours to make. What’s important to remember is that you do have a choice.
The Application Process
It is difficult to find a job after a nonrenewal. Many job applications are online, and they ask questions like, “Have you ever been asked to resign, or had a contract non-renewed?”, or “Have you ever been denied tenure?” You’re legally obligated to answer these questions honestly. It’s a gut wrenching process – I applied to 87 school districts over a three week period, and I honestly thought none of them would get back to me. Many of them, did not. DO NOT BE DISCOURAGED. I learned fairly quickly that many districts will look past one, maybe even two, non-renewals, if they feel the candidate is a good fit for the position. According to several of the principals I’ve spoken with, it’s not until you’ve got three or four non-renewals under your belt that districts see you as a “bad bet.” BE PATIENT. Of those 87 schools, only 10 of them got back to me before June 30th. I had already accepted my new position and signed my contract when other schools began calling in July and August.
I was lucky enough to score several interviews, even after my non-renewal. The first thing every principal, supervisor, or superintendent said to me at these interviews was that they LOVED my resume. I learned that even with online applications, like Applitrack, your resume is the first thing they will see. Take the time to really highlight your qualifications, your experience, and your 21st-century skills. You might also want to include any professional development you’ve had. Many schools were excited to see that I had training in curriculum or software that they were hoping to implement, or already using. One superintendent at a job fair I attended was thoughtful enough to share this tidbit with me: “I really liked that you listed your certifications first. So often you’ll find education, or degrees, or experience listed above all that. As someone looking for highly qualified candidates, it’s important for me to see right away if you have the right certification for the job.” It’s honestly so important to take the time and make your resume stand out. Sell yourself. Highlight only relevant information, and adjust your resume for certain openings if necessary. If you’d like to go that extra mile, you can create a visual resume. This is the Etsy one I purchased and used in all of my applications.
This is where you really shine. You’re not a first-year teacher – you have experience under your belt. Use this knowledge and confidence to really make a great impression on your interviewers. Be prepared; many of them will ask you the specifics of your non-renewal. This is normal, don’t panic. The important thing to remember is that you should never trash talk your previous district. This will only make you look bad in the eyes of your interviewer, and many districts will decide then and there that you’re not the right fit for the job. Be humble. This is the best piece of advice I can give you. Own your non-renewal, and admit that you’re still growing as an educator. I was not given a reason for my non-renewal, as many teachers aren’t, so it was a real struggle coming up with an answer for their questions. Here’s what I’ve found worked best: “I wish I had a better answer for you than ‘I don’t know.’ It’s just as frustrating for me as an educator to not have answers. I want to know what my mistakes were and own them, so I can grow and improve and use them to further myself as a teacher. All I can do is reflect, and try to move on knowing I gave my best every single day in my classroom.” Interviewers appreciate honesty, and can tell when you’re trying to avoid an issue or ‘talk your way out’ of a question. Don’t lie. Be yourself, and use what you do know to guide the interview in a positive direction. “I learned so much from my last district, and I’m eager to build on that with the resources your district can provide. I want to give your students the best education possible.”
Bring a 21st-century portfolio!
This is the second most important thing I can tell you about interviews. No interviewer wants to flip through your 100-page teaching portfolio or has the time to. I was given the advice that most interviewers don’t want something bulky, or something they have to hold on to. They’d like something quick and appealing that gives them immediate insight into who you are as an educator. My advice? Create a slideshow: fill it with photographs, videos, positive observation notes, letters from your students – anything and everything that highlight you as a person and educator. Bring this slideshow with you, either on an iPad, a Chromebook, or even your smart phone. Have it open prior to entering the room, so when it’s convenient, you can quickly demonstrate your awesomeness. I cannot tell you how many times I received the question, “If we could take a snapshot of your classroom, what would it look like? What would we see or hear?” My response was always, “Can I show you?” It was always so reassuring to watch them genuinely smile as they swiped through photos of my students and my classroom. When you send your follow-up thank you email (always send this email!), include a link to the slideshow so they can review it again whenever they’d like. It’s a great way to help you stand out for other interviewees, and it gives the interviewers something to remember you by. You can find Jessica’s digital portfolio on Teachers Pay Teachers.
My final piece of advice is the hardest to implement. Being “let go” really shakes your confidence as a teacher, as a person. I remember sitting at some of these interviews, next to girls fresh out of college and thinking, “They’re never gonna’ give me a second look.” This kind of attitude will get you nowhere. The first few interviews I went on, I know I screwed up because I lacked the confidence and positivity I knew they were looking for. I was in my own head. I was bitter, I was angry, I was depressed, and interviewers can really pick up on things like that. It wasn’t until I really took a step back, adjusted my attitude, and remembered why I got into teaching in the first place that I started getting callback, after callback.
Get off social media for a while.
Stop comparing yourself to other teachers, and stop thinking that there’s something wrong with you.
Stop thinking about all your friends who may or may not be getting tenure now, and don’t worry about the other teachers you didn’t like who “got to keep their job”.
Find your zen.
Believe in yourself.
Fill your life with positive people and positive thoughts.
The moment you believe that you’ll succeed is the moment everyone else will believe it too.