Some Lessons on Teaching

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

So far we’ve heard from a minister who gets exasperated when parishioners treat her differently outside the church and a reader in the biotech field who cleared up a common misconception about cancer. This next reader, David, runs through several misconceptions about his work as a preschool teacher:

You’re so lucky. You get summers off.

Many teachers work in the summer. They don’t make enough money during the school year. More than a few teachers have to pay for supplies for their own classroom. They are not given a big enough budget by the school.

You’re so lucky. You get off work at 2:30, right?

Faculty meetings, prep for the next day’s classes, emails and phone calls to parents ... you get the picture. It is 8:30 pm as I write this, and I’m taking a break from preparing for tomorrow’s school day. I’ve only taken time off for dinner and a short walk since the kids left.

You’re so lucky. You get to play with kids all day.

This was said to me by a parent—and preschool teacher too—at a parent conference. For the youngest children, play is work. And in these days of Common Core and the Every Student Succeeds Act, preschool is pre-high-stakes testing. Five year olds have work to do in their handwriting workbooks. After that, they work on what number combinations make 5. Morning meeting lasts at least a half hour. And all this is before any recess.

A daughter of a teacher adds:

I stopped visiting my parents over Christmas because my mom was WAY too busy to do anything with me while on her winter break. Much better to go in late July or early August, after the prior school year was put to bed, but before it was time to start setting up for the next year. (And she usually still coerced me into doing prep work for her :)

Another teacher is a bit miffed that “people perceive teachers as being ‘secular saints’—and that we are expected to be: mother/father, nurse, social worker, psychologist, and a host of other things to our students that go above and beyond our job description.” Another reader looks through a gendered lens:

Teaching went from a male-dominated career to female vocation. Once that occurred, it was considered an almost pastoral calling for unmarried women. They were expected to take jobs for almost no money because they were just so moved to nurture children and were waiting to get married.

This expectation left a residue. People expect perfect nurturing and caring for their kids and to be asked nothing. Meanwhile, classrooms have gotten more complex and challenging. What could go wrong?

This next reader gets a little political:

According to the Tea Party types, teachers are just a lazy and incompetent bunch of (unionized) people that are doing their best to “ruin” the youth of our nation, while feeding off the public trough, via their taxes. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least from what I see of the tremendous work that is being done with students at the public school where I work, in an inner city neighborhood.

Update: Some pushback from a reader:

The way I understood it, the complaint [among Tea Party types] wasn’t that teachers were lazy and incompetent, but that lazy and incompetent teachers could never ever be got rid of. They’d simply go through the nod-wink process of sitting in “rubber rooms” all day, with full pay and benefits, for months or years while their cases were being “reviewed.” This kind of feather-bedding is very galling to private-sector citizens during economic downturns.

This is one reason why I feel I made the right decision to put my kids in a charter elementary school. We had a couple of sub-standard teachers along the way, but they didn’t last long.

This American Life did an excellent episode in 2008 on NYC “rubber rooms”— reassignment centers that hold teachers with full-time pay for months or years while they await a resolution to their misconduct case. The centers were closed down in 2010, but they could be continuing to operate under the radar.

Here’s one more reader, who works as an English teacher:

Having to defend why my job is important is a little frustrating. Here are some reasons why English is important:

  1. Media literacy (i.e. discerning what is fake news, what is good journalism)
  2. Reading novels helps us learn empathy and ethics. We are able to relate to what a character is thinking and feeling, which helps us examine our own morality. Also, if a character is in a situation similar to ours, it can both make us feel better and help us solve it.
  3. Writing helps us be able to articulate our thoughts clearly. Communicating in written form (as well as spoken form) is key for success in many occupations.
  4. Imagination! Creativity! Exploring the world of books helps cultivate these things, which are extremely important for innovation and problem solving.
  5. Books can serve as warnings for human nature and world development. Think Nineteen-Eighty-Four.
  6. Being able to analyze text helps strengthen one’s critical and analytical thinking abilities. Look at the president-elect. The man has probably read very few books in his life and clearly has a very limited understanding of the world. He doesn’t appreciate nuance or complexity of issues. He is completely incurious, which, as you can see, is dangerous. The more one reads and learns through reading, often guided by an English teacher, the more one is able to see multiple sides of an issue and address it with the seriousness and thought it deserves. Furthermore, look at his vocabulary. Had he read more, he would be able to express himself in more sophisticated language.

Update from a math teacher at a private school in NYC:

This is my seventh year teaching, and I’ve taught at two different schools (one fancy, one decidedly unfancy). I have some disagreements with the picture painted by teachers in this post. One wrote:

Many teachers work in the summer. They don’t make enough money during the school year.

Many teachers work in the summer because we want (or need) more money. Many don’t. That’s the whole reason why summers are a great perk: You get to choose. Teachers talk often about how “summer isn’t vacation,” but in my opinion this is nuts. I know teachers who vacation, and others (like me) who try to teach summer school.

Faculty meetings, prep for the next day’s classes, emails and phone calls to parents ... you get the picture. It is 8:30 pm as I write this, and I’m taking a break from preparing for tomorrow’s school day. I’ve only taken time off for dinner and a short walk since the kids left.

One of the crazy things about education is that there are incredibly different working conditions for teachers of younger vs. older students. Elementary teachers teach more of the day with less planning time; we middle and high school teachers have many many more planning periods throughout the day. I still find myself working sometimes at night (marking papers, planning for first period, writing report card comments, etc.) but it’s manageable. The other thing is that more experienced teachers eventually find ways to work less at nights, I think, for obvious burnout-related reasons.

And while I hear the “it’s not fun to be around children’s play” line, being around children and learning is absolutely something that’s great about the job, and it’s why so many of us put up with a degree of professional ridiculousness. We like working with kids and that’s a great part of the job. Right? This seems obvious to me, but I think for rhetorical reasons teachers like to play up the negative aspects of teaching. We forget that so many of us stick around teaching because the work is meaningful.