What Is It About Teaching?

What is it about teaching in 2016 that is so challenging?

I remember having a conversation with a friend about this a few years after I started teaching.  Many teachers have this conversation with their friends.  It’s not that teaching is more demanding than many other occupations, because stress and fatigue are really a part of the American experience.  The friend I refer to has a job where the occupational safety of ship builders is his main priority.  He helps make sure people performing dangerous tasks are not in danger, and when accidents or complaints happen, he sometimes is called to make an appearance in court, where a lot could be on the line.  There are some seemingly endless days and sleepless nights.  He gets up in the dark to be on time for work, like most middle school teachers, and often stays late.  Vacations are few and far between.  I could never make an argument that my job was more stressful than his, or required more of my energy.  

But there is something about teaching that has the tendency to leach all joy and enthusiasm from one’s being, leaving one in a state of near hopelessness verging on self-loathing.  It sounds funny to say that, but I bet readers who are teachers are not laughing.  It is serious matter, as these are the folks hired to open the doors of the universe to the next generations of safety officers, teachers, lawyers, doctors and presidents.  Here are a few of the more bleak utterances I have heard from respected teacher colleagues over the years:

“I love teaching, I love working with children, but I hate my job.”

“I would never recommend this profession to a young person; it is the only job where you put your heart and soul, your entire being into what you do, and you still come out feeling like a failure.”

“I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and it’s still getting harder.”

For years now, much of the work I have done has involved having conversations with teachers.  As a classroom teacher, as a Title I Coordinator, and now as a math coach, I talk to teachers all the time about their instruction, what works well for them, what are the struggles.  I’m also married to a teacher, so we inevitably compare notes at the dinner table.  I make it a point to talk to teachers from other districts whenever I can, as well, and on rare occasions, I even get to meet teachers from other countries.  Once, I met a teacher from Vietnam, and she told me all about what it’s like to become a teacher there, the intense work that goes into it, and the vetting process one must go through before being granted a teaching certificate.  It made me feel glad I did not have to go through the same thing to obtain my teaching certificate.  I also spoke to a teacher from New Zealand who told me a similar story about teacher education in her country.  It made me question whether teacher training programs in America do enough to prepare teachers for the classroom.  Conversations like these really excite me, because I think American public schools are underperforming, and I am slightly obsessed with finding out what we should be doing to fix that.  

Last week in The Unrealized Maine Classroom, I wrote about a conversation I had with Jennifer Dorman, a middle school teacher who was Maine’s Teacher of the Year in 2015, about a special writing project she taught, and the tremendous passion and effort she put into it.  This week I want to follow up to that by addressing the question, why is it that every lesson we teach is not amazing and special?  Moreover, what prevents teachers from providing inspiring and engaging lessons to their students every day?  In order to approach that topic, we have to explore what it is that makes teaching a typical third grade class as challenging and demanding as a great many other stressful occupations that don’t offer summers off.  

Ask that question to your teacher friend and you will likely get a long list of factors.  Among them, perhaps: too much testing, too many learners with exceptional needs, dysfunctional technology, punitive teacher evaluation policies, irate parents, new curricula, and not enough time.

Not enough time.  Wait, what?  But teachers have their summers off, and don’t they get out every day at 3:00?  

When I was a public school student, I used to judge my teachers a lot.  I had absolutely no tolerance for boring classes.  If one teacher could be fun and exciting to be with, why couldn’t they all?  My best guess was, “well, those must be the ones who went into teaching just for their summers off.”  I thought it was a lousy reason for someone to become a teacher.  One of the reasons I wanted to become a teacher from an early age was so I wouldn’t be one of the deadbeats who was there just for the summers off.  I loved learning, hated being bored, and really wanted to share my love of learning with young people once I was no longer a young person.  

I’ve changed my tune since then.  I think having summers off should be a perk of the job.  I love my summers.  I have also gained a new understanding of what “summers off” are like as a teacher.  I won’t go into it in detail.  Most readers probably know that devoted teachers generally spend a large portion of their summers either in their classrooms working, or at home surrounded by work, all in preparation for the upcoming school year.  There are also teacher institutes and conferences that happen in summer.  In a typical nine or ten week summer break, there is usually only a short window when a teacher feels he or she can separate from work, maybe go on a vacation, focus on the garden, read a book or two for pleasure, and/or spend time with family.  Still, it is a beautiful thing for a teacher, summer.  It is a most welcome break from the classroom routine, and it is a fine reason to want to go into teaching.  If you are a great writer who loves children, or a great artist, or engineer, or a devoted biologist, or a specialist of any field, and you like the idea of having a flexible summer work schedule, I want you to consider the teaching profession, because you could be that amazing teacher that really knows how to inspire and engage children with innovative, amazing lessons.  But beware.  As the quotes above illustrate, teaching can have a few undesirable side effects, and is not for everyone.  It’s true; not everyone is cut out for teaching.  But those who love children and love teaching really ought to be encouraged to teach and teach for a long time.  But by now it is widely known that many good, capable people quit teaching, for reasons illustrated, once again, by those quotes above.

Rather than dive into a months-long series of persuasive essays and investigative reports to determine what it is in today’s education climate that causes so many promising young teachers to quit teaching early in their careers and not look back, I’m going to save us all some time and just provide an answer right here in the next couple paragraphs.  There are a bunch of reasons people struggle with teaching, but I see it, there are two major factors that should be addressed and deserve our attention.  

Firstly, a teacher’s typical work day is scheduled in a way that requires the teacher to teach multiple classes sequentially, with little or no time between classes, so there is little to no time to plan or prepare for each class during the day.  Every lesson takes time to plan and prepare, and most public school teachers at every grade level do not teach the same lesson over and over all day long, so this work schedule demands that almost all planning and preparation happen outside the standard work day.  Most teachers are contracted to work between seven and seven-and-a-half hours, roughly within the window of 8:00 to 3:30 for elementary teachers, or 7:15 to 2:45 if you are a middle or high school teacher.  Teacher contracts usually allow for about 30 minutes before and after students arrive, plus one “prep period” during the day.  If any teacher wants to provide a lesson for his or her students that is meaningful and intentional, he or she needs to put in at least as much time toward planning and preparing that lesson, in addition to following up that lesson, as the time it takes to teach the lesson.  In other words, for a 45 minute math lesson, there are at least 45 minutes of reviewing notes, readying digital and/or concrete resources, and making photocopies ahead of time, and then likely more time after the lesson to review student work and adjust future instruction accordingly.  On days when there is a summative test, the follow-up work of grading, recording results and providing feedback to students can take hours, for just one class.  Now consider that there are usually four, five or even six lessons taught per day for each teacher, and we have a situation on our hands.  It is an almost super-human task for a teacher to whip up an inspiring, engaging set of five lessons with the amount of planning time provided in an average school day.  It is a hefty expectation for any adult, even if he or she has exceptional organizational skills, amazing patience and magical, never-ending energy.  And forget about providing meaningful feedback and reviewing student work for best practices.

One can see why teachers make adjustments and sacrifices to their routines in order to account for this deficit of non-instructional professional work time.  They work well beyond their contracted hours; they replace inspiring and engaging lessons with lessons that require less time to put together; they lose sleep; they wonder what’s wrong with their ability to engage their students; they hate themselves for being a less than amazing teacher; they soul-search; they seek solace from each other; they bring each other donuts for support; you get the picture.   A teacher’s work day that requires back-to-back instruction all day long without nearly adequate planning time is more than just a matter of the work being challenging and demanding.  For people whose work directly impacts the lives of children they care deeply about, it is depressing and unfulfilling to feel incapable of providing the kind of learning experience you want to provide for them.

That time deficit and its impact on the work teachers do is not all that sends young, promising teachers sprinting for new careers in other fields.  The other factor, which we will devote more time to in another post, is the culture of accountability that has descended upon public educators within the last decade and a half.  Since the early 1980’s, public schools have been scrutinized for underperforming.  Just about everybody has been blamed for this at one point or another, but teachers have taken the brunt of the criticism and blame for underperforming students.  So federal and state education policy makers took it upon themselves to try to make teachers more accountable for their students’ shortcomings with attempts at quantitative measures of teacher effectiveness via exhaustive teacher evaluations and excessive standardized testing.  The word, accountability, is itself most often used in reference to something bad.  If something bad happens, we want to know who is accountable.  

I cannot blame state or federal overseers of public education for taking that approach, for they want answers too.  Nevertheless, it has only added to the already unreasonable expectations placed on the shoulders of teachers.  Not only are they expected to perform seemingly impossible tasks, but now they will be held all the more accountable for their failures.  Never mind focusing on the positive, on the potential for greatness every teacher has, the responsibility we all feel to provide a meaningful and effective learning environment for our students.  The culture of accountability tends to discourage risk taking, innovation, and thinking outside the box, in favor of following rigid rules and protocols.

The Unrealized Maine Classroom is devoted to focusing on the positive.  We’ll talk about the culture of accountability, what’s happening to it now that the No Child Left Behind law has been replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act, and how to fix it in the future.  Like many professionals, teachers need to be evaluated by supervisors, but we’ll explore in the coming weeks why it is impossible to objectively and quantitatively measure teacher effectiveness.  For now, let us focus on what it takes to do good teaching, to encourage innovation and excellence in the classroom, and what needs to happen in schools to allow that.  

Please keep the comments coming, visit the Facebook page, and if you are a teacher, write to me and share a story of a wonderful lesson you taught and what it took to make it happen.  

If you are interested in exploring more about the culture of accountability and its impact on schools, I have two great resources to recommend.  First, read Pasi Sahlburg’s book, Finnish Lessons, about what it is like to teach in Finland, where students routinely outperform everyone else in the world on international assessments, and then check out Diane Ravitch’s blog.  Ms. Ravitch is a former deputy Education Commissioner who has a lot to say about the culture of accountability, among other things.  I do not agree with everything she says, but her writings have a lot we can all learn from.


James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.