There aren’t many things that I feel like I’m good at doing. I can’t fix cars. (I only fix them one way, by writing a check.) I really don’t feel that I’m that great at keeping up with my finances, although I feel that I haven’t done that bad for a kid who spent most of his childhood in the sticks in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
Yet I do feel like that I’m a fairly good teacher. That’s what my students usually tell me, and that’s what some other good teachers tell me. Although, there are many other teachers who I consider much better at our craft than I am.
I’ve been teaching for 19 years, and during this time I’ve heard from many critics who don’t believe that teaching is that hard or that the working conditions are as difficult as we say.
After I explain things to them, most people usually ask me, “Why don’t teachers stand up for themselves more often?”
My answer is always the same, “Most of us are too busy teaching, grading papers, and working with kids to write letters, call our politicians, or reach out to the media.” In other words, we are so busy working to fulfill our calling that we don’t have time to mount proper PR campaigns.
With that being said, I’ve had some time lately to think and write about my chosen career field, and here are eleven things that I wish people knew about working in education:
- All the stories being told about how difficult things are in the teaching field are usually true. As our families continue to splinter, our churches retreat from our inner cities, and our social problems increase, I’ve no choice but to try to minimize the damage we are doing to our kids as a society. Each and every day I work with kids whose parents are going through a divorce, their siblings are going to jail, or they don’t’ have enough food in their homes. All of this (and more) impacts how I teach. It’s almost impossible for me to help my students learn how to write paragraphs until I’ve addressed the personal issues they’re dealing with in some way.
- It’s usually worse than what you hear, and it’s not getting any better. I can’t tell you how many times I cry on the way home. My teachers used to tell me that they were preparing me for the “real” world. I believe this has changed. The “real” problems that many of my students face is much more difficult than the things I ever faced as a kid. As the social fabric of our society continues to be torn to tatters, all of it plays out in our schools and in our classrooms.
- Yes, we really do have to purchase our own teaching supplies for us and for our students. I’ve wondered many times how we, as a society, can justify spending billions on sports stadiums while not funding our schools to the point where teachers have to buy pencils, paper, Kleenex, copies, and markers for our students. Let’s just say that it’s hard to prepare students for a 21st Century workforce when our schools can’t even afford to buy supplies that teachers used in 1915.
- Every time we spend our own money we are taking away from our own kids and family. Every dollar that I spend on my students is a dollar that doesn’t go to help me rear my own children. While most of us don’t mind providing some supplies, it does add up over 10, 20, or 30 years. The fact is, most of us don’t make enough money as it is. And it’s hard to ask our personal children to do more with less so we can fund our classrooms. It always seems like a balancing act that really should’ve never existed in the first place.
- While we might not like all of our students, we really do love them and the ones who we don’t reach haunt us. As much as I would like to say that I like every kid that sits in my classroom, I can’t. What I can say is that I do love all of them, and I strive to make sure that each and every one of them is successful. Yet the one who I don’t reach and therefore fails, stays in my mind. Forever. Jerome, Sandy, Tom, Chris, Sherry…these names play over and over in my head. No matter how long it’s been since I’ve had them in class, I still go back and replay how I could’ve helped them be more successful.
- Most of us don’t continue our education for a pay raise. We do it so we can become better at our craft so we can reach more students. I never thought about the idea that I’d get a pay raise when I took graduate classes. I went back to school so I could find ways to improve my teaching skills and to build a network of professionals who would support me. On another note, teaching is one of the few fields where professionals work full time in their profession while going to school full time. What made it work for me was that I could take what I learned in grad school one night and use it the very next day in my own classroom.
- We want to get rid of the “bad” teachers as much as anyone. Nothing makes a good teacher angrier than being in the same building as a bad one. We don’t appreciate their bad attitudes and how they treat students. We don’t like their lack of professionalism, and we can’t stand the fact that they might have their students watch videos all day and just complete worksheets. Yet there is little we can do about it since the only people who can remove a bad teacher is an administrator who is in charge.
- The teachers’ union that we belong to really doesn’t have as much power as politicians say that it does. It always seems like politicians want a scapegoat instead of taking responsibility for the lack of supporting our schools. It’s much easier to blame the teachers’ union for protecting bad teachers, complaining about funding, or not consolidating schools. The truth is that unions provide teachers a degree of protection from political tailwinds, unscrupulous administrators, and sue hungry political groups. Without this protection, it would be very difficult for us to be successful in our jobs.
- We really don’t push our own political opinions and religious beliefs. The social and political issues that our country face play out, in real time, in our classrooms. As our country continues to splinter on issues from taxes to immigration to same-sex marriage to our country’s role on the world stage, our students are not immune from the arguing or the decisions that are made by adults. When we do have these discussions, we do it with tenderness and care in order so every side has a voice.
- We can’t stand standardized tests as much as our students and their parents. And we realize that these tests really don’t measure what we know about our students. It really doesn’t seem fair that society judges our students, our teachers, and our schools based on tests that students take in one sitting on one day. There are many other ways that we can assess the success of our students and most of us use these strategies. We would much prefer to use them than standardized tests that we are forced to give.
- The support we receive really makes a difference. Teaching is hard. It’s extremely hard. It’s physically draining, and it’s emotionally exhausting. Each and every day I take the stress, problems, and lack of success of my students home with me. When I receive a positive note or an encouraging email, it really does help me make it through the day.
If you would like to know exactly what it’s like to work fulltime in education and the issues that our teachers and students face, call your child’s teacher. Take them for coffee. Write them and ask how you can help them and then let others know how good they’re doing.
Become their advocate. I promise you that a good teacher will appreciate it. Far too many times they are too busy teaching to advocate for themselves.