Unlike inspirational education stories that tend to end after one year of turning the educational world upside down, reality in the world of education is a bit more real. It can feel like you’re being overwhelmed by forces you cannot control, and that can take a mental and physical toll on anyone, especially brand-new teachers.
I worked in the same school district for all of my twelve years of teaching in Wisconsin, and I got to see the worst of what being an educator has to offer. (Some of the best, too.) Working as a teacher can seem a bit like slavery at times, and here are the twelve reasons why, at least for me. Your results may vary, but knowing this list could help you navigate a career in teaching.
As a high school English teacher, I did get some time built into my schedule for planning and grading, but it was not nearly enough. I tried to do the planning at school as much as I could, so grading was nearly always at home. Part of this was because I tried to do internet on the cheap at home, which meant slow, with a shared computer. Most good teachers will admit that some lessons don’t go perfectly, so I reworked and revised all the time. I was also big into using technology for the kids, which meant a lot of figuring out how to do that. Businessy people who get trained by some corporate twit don’t understand that a teacher who wants to embrace some kind of free service has to learn it all for himself and then teach it to 150 kids each semester in order for it to work. That’s in addition to revising and creating new lessons all the time. Many teachers don’t have those resources sitting around, so the search is always on for the right resources to fit the planning. And don’t get confused with “student-centered” meaning teachers somehow get off the hook from ensuring the class is planned properly.
Papers were always the biggest thorn in my side. I’d collect 80 papers from three class sections on a Friday, and by Monday I was being asked when the papers would be entered into the books. I did an estimate one time that came to about 10 hours a week in home work for me, mostly grading and updating those grades (which parents, students, and admins expected within a day or two). For many years, my particular department also had students create portfolios for seniors, which were graded, and added roughly 20 hours per semester to my grading. Some teachers set limits and did the grading at school, leaving more of the planning for home, but the point is that a teacher’s job is not done when the bell rings, unlike maybe that of a construction worker. Yes, teachers know this coming in, but until you’re buried in a sea of five-page papers, you don’t really feel it.
While the best laid plans of any teacher is to get planning and grading done during prep periods or before/after school, communication with others tends to steal this time away. I learned early on that wandering into a fellow teacher’s classroom or the teachers’ lounge during any time off was a recipe for total disaster for me, so I had to avoid in-person communication in order to get work done. However, people still found me. Generally, when and where I was teaching, emails were the communication of choice, but I also know that some teachers are expected to Facebook or Tweet or message parents and students. Even the grading program had ways to send out alerts. And I went the extra step of adding every assignment to my website. Basically, a teacher can spend most of the small windows of time before and after school or classes simply telling others what has been going on inside the classroom. Think about how silly that is, since the whole point of teaching is to engage the STUDENTS in the CLASSROOM. Nope, parents, students, admins, counselors, special ed teachers, salesmen, and even follow teachers all need a piece of your time.
If your school district is like Menomonee Falls, then a lot of your administrators are former gym or social studies teachers, so you end up having to explain yourself a lot. Upwardly-mobile parents with average intelligence also want to know why their genius children aren’t getting the ACT scores of their peers over in the swankier suburb. Or why we read a book that talks about social injustice. Or how a nearly-perfect child can get a detention for three tardies. Really important explaining goes on all the time in schools by teachers, most of it having nothing to do with the lessons, which do also have to be explained. I guess it’s actually more defending than explaining most of the time, and that does get very tiresome for a teacher. A stellar student needing to be told why one point was lost on an assignment or a non-stellar student’s parent wondering why a teacher would go and misplace several of her little darling’s assignments. It all comes down to the public not having faith in what you’re doing as an educator, so you are required to explain your actions at any moment.
Not what you’re thinking. If a teacher has enough time to go out clubbing, then that teacher is probably not working as hard as most of her peers. I’m talking about clubs, official and unofficial. I ran two clubs most years of teaching, so that was one evening each week for the bi-monthly meetings. Some people will tell you it’s a great way to interact with students outside of the classroom, and I totally agree, but most of the people telling you that are administrators or veteran teachers without clubs of their own. While it’s nice to establish outside relationships with the kids, it’s also a drain on limited time. Unofficial clubs include students coming into your classroom during lunch or prep periods because you are their favorite teacher (and maybe there’s some bullying somewhere). Again, these clubs are great for making connections, but unless the kids volunteer to grade papers for you, they are taking your needed recovery/planning/grading/communicating time from you.
Technically, I not only ran two clubs, but I also coached an academic club. Most teachers will coach sports, and those assignments take even more time than academic ones. You have to be there to plan and run practices, and then there are the games or tournaments. I do have to stipulate here that plenty of teachers got into the job for summers off and love of sports, probably because high school was fun for them. They teach history from someone else’s PowerPoint and then diagram defensive plays on whiteboards while students copy and paste information about Reaganomics from Wikipedia. I was always happy to have enough of those teachers around so that those of us who needed to work as teachers could defer to them to coach the sports teams, not that I felt their base teacher salaries should be the same as the rest of ours.
Probably all teachers end up spending the $250 the government gives us to use in tax relief. I usually spent much more, and I taught high school. I know plenty of elementary school teachers who are constantly buying items for the classroom. Schools do provide some resources, but those have become more and more limited over the years. My last year of teaching, the store room for classroom materials was being converted for some other purpose, which meant no more dry-erase markers unless you ordered and waited. No paper or staplers, either, so most teachers just bought them if needed. And people in other fields just don’t understand what it’s like to have staplers mysteriously break once a month. Also, shopping if you happen to live in the same area in which you teach can be a hassle. I tried buying booze one time in the city where I worked, and I felt so guilty that I never did it again. Even going out to the bars after school and seeing former students was too weird for me.
Whenever I spent time in the teachers’ lounge, which was about thrice a decade, it was depressing, with teachers mostly talking shop about students. Instead, I hid out in my room and sometimes had student-visitors. While that might seem lonely, it was my best way to deal with stress. Plus, I never had enough time to plan or grade by lunch, so I’d generally eat in about three minutes and then get some work done. As mentioned above, eating out in town was also a pain, since I didn’t really want students to serve up my fast food offering, just in case someone was dissatisfied with a B-. Metaphorically, you might also think of eating as drinking the Kool-Aid. Some teachers will do this, and I’ve seen it help them to become the stars that admis are looking for. Other teachers might not like you as much, but it’s something to consider. Job security in teaching is much more fleeting than in the past.
There are few events less useful than a school-wide in-service led by a vice-principal. They don’t know what the teachers are teaching, and whatever it is that’s being pushed is both irrelevant and possibly detrimental to how the teachers currently engage students. Actually, I bet you didn’t realize that the official name for a minion of Satan is “vice-principal.” Other terrible meetings include the curriculum consultants with two relevant ideas over three hours, the token minority who is going to diversify something, the awkward introvert IT guy who wants to hide instead of teach Google Docs, the weasel business manager who praises himself for only laying off three people, etc. Oh, and any meeting with a superintendent, since that’s usually when you realize that a building superintendent (janitor/engineer) generally has more sense than the person leading your school district. Even department meetings can be awful if it’s all about implementing a new mandate from a vice-principal that will be gone in two years, and that’s generally the case.
The aforementioned meetings are often about having to change something. Teachers don’t hate change if it makes sense, but when you go to a new grading system that has a new website system and student information system every three years, just to find out there’s another fatal flaw with that new system, then it’s change for the sake of stupidity. Mandates that have no chance of succeeding are often pushed by administration onto teachers “in the trenches,” like dress code or smart phone policies. After parents complain, many of the changes are changed back, but teacher complaints never seem to have the same effect. Some changes are good, but those often don’t last, since they were based on grant money or someone’s thesis project. The old, grizzled teachers will sit back and watch the changes pass them by, while the young teachers will drive themselves crazy trying to keep up, only to be assigned to help one of the dinosaurs after they finally get it all done.
Teachers need to get recertified in most states. They need to pay for this privilege. School districts rarely offer any money to help out. I’ve known people in other industries that have gotten their entire master’s programs paid for by the employer, and those people are often ready to move to a new company after the investment. Most great teachers teach kids, and they only study curriculum and instruction in order to get out of the classroom. Paying to get a higher degree or renewal credits is a huge college industrial complex scam. So are union dues, since my 12 years of paying in didn’t even get me a condolence card when I was laid off. I even had to pay money into my school in order to wear jeans on Casual Friday. And then there are professional groups to join and online lessons to purchase. Of course, there are those dinosaurs, cashing in on their long careers, and making the public think all teachers make $55,000 a year with Cadillac benefits. Oh yeah, those benefits have become so bad that teachers have to put aside part of their salaries for that now, too. Just be prepared to break even as a teacher and hope the pension lasts.
For me, it was losing the job that was still the worst of it all. I’d been used for my skills and talents for a dozen years. Just as I was about to move about that $50,000 a year threshold, I was gone. But I also realized how much I’d lost by staying a teacher all those years. My screenplay will never be a movie. My books had a decade fewer years to collect dust on Amazon. My name had not been used as part of my business ventures, and I’d passed up legitimate opportunities for wealth in order to maintain a sensible profession. I was lulled into the promise of summers off, sweet healthcare benies, and a retirement that would allow me to travel the US in a big RV. When public opinion is low, teaching is the biggest losing profession out there, and I got to see several years of very low public opinion. Lawyers, lobbyists, CEOs, used car salesmen--everyone--was seen as hard-working and honest compared to those greedy teachers.
I wish anyone seeking out a career in teaching the best. If you can navigate the twelve reasons not to teach above, it really can be a great job. I had some really good semesters thrown in with some very depressing years doing the work. I do know that my efforts were useful to students, and some of those students understood it, too. If I ever get back into teaching, I’ll just have to carve out my space in a way that avoids the pitfalls. Sure, it’s possible.