About My Job: The Teacher

by Conor Friedersdorf

Let's begin with my favorite.

Your children tell me lots of things that would make you cringe from embarrassment, maybe because you didn't want them airing your dirty laundry or they misunderstood the way you said something to them.

Don't worry: I know they come home and misrepresent some of the things that I tell them, too. Let's just trust that maybe half of what they tell us about each other is true. This will save us all a lot of time when your child gets detention, and blames me for it.

From a middle school teacher....

On teaching: The best description I know of teaching is that it is, in essence, giving a 7-8 hour presentation every day to a group of 20-30 people, all of whom will stop paying attention every 7-8 minutes and all of whom must show they have learned the content of what you have presented for your presentation to be considered a success.  The reality of what it takes to be a successful teacher is exhausting just to think about.

On good schools: If the grown-ups in a building are doing their job, the students will succeed.  Without exceptions.

On good parents: They read with and talk to their children.  Constantly and from an early age.  Little else is necessary for a child to become a successful student.

A seventh grade teacher:

I am frequently the lone adult in a room of pre-adolescent, hormonally unpredictable young people, and that strangely, I love it. That sounds odd. But it is precisely this vulnerability that I enjoy protecting, even when it manifests as eye rolling, a surly sigh accompanied by a desk slap, or loudly crumpled papers. It's an unpopular age to teach. Junior-highers aren't cute. They don't give you hugs, and they can't discuss Shakespeare yet. They don't come back to thank you and you're rarely remembered at graduation. That's ok. I think tendering the transition from childhood to adolescence is a lot like beekeeping. You are stung many times, and you must be careful in your movements. But under the surly hum is a sweetness and a resonance that sometimes feels - and sounds - like music.

An elementary school teacher:

The #1 misconception about my job? The main thing that people fail to appreciate? Simple: that in the long run, I have some power over your child's academic achievement or performance. I don't need studies to back me up (although they most certainly do), I just need my own experience. How am I supposed to instill a culture of learning in your child when you do not have books in your home, and refuse to emphasize reading at this critical age? How am I supposed to teach your kid when you refuse to see to it that she does her homework? How am I supposed to teach your child about diligence and perseverance when you allow them unlimited play time at home; a home which does precisely nothing to foster a serious academic environment?

Here is the bottom line: as a teacher, I and my colleagues have your child for no more than 8 hours per day. Personally, I only have your child for 2 hours per day. The other 16 hours, they are in your care. And in those 16 hours, you do absolutely nothing to advance you child's academic growth. So, explain to me again, how am I responsible for you kid's academic failure? How can you expect me to undo the laziness and disinterest that you foster in your home in only 2 class periods per day? 

A high school teacher:

Every time a parent or guardian dismisses proper language usage as unnecessary or "snobby" or "old-fashioned," not only does that make my job that much more difficult (not just because of lost interest, but because of lost respect), it hampers that child from developing the skills they need to be and appear educated in a world that values education more and more. You may not think proper grammar and writing, etc., is important, but please don't tell my student that. You're only hobbling their growth and teaching them that my job is unimportant and not worthy of their respect and attention.

The writer teaches beginning medical students in the Middle East:

...what people don't realize is the amount of emotional energy I put into teaching -- as does almost every other teacher. It is a form of performance art: keeping 18-yr-olds entertained, informed, and awake. Or being prepared for the simply crazy things that can happen in class. And acting happy when I'm exhausted, or concerned when I really don't care why their assignment is late. Yet, all this interaction is why I teach. Sure, the hours and the pay are great, but there's so much more. I teach because sometimes I really reach someone ... I can see my words about learning or discovering or honesty or responsibility suddenly click. I get to see people improve.
So, yes, roll your eyes at how few hours I work. And scoff at my explanation of the huge amount of energy I put into my lesson plans. That's okay. I understand. I'd feel the same if I were you. But I love this job because it gives me an opportunity to connect with someone on a basic, life-changing level. Not many jobs do that.

A high school math teacher writes:

When people ask where I work, and I tell them I have always taught in urban public high schools, I often get a reaction that leads me to believe they heard "I defuse nuclear bombs using a toothpick and a gum wrapper." Urban high schools -- and particularly urban high school students -- have been pigeon-holed and misrepresented so often that many people assume they are battle zones. Worse, they assume the students are somehow different from the kids who attend suburban schools,  They are not. Teenagers are teenagers -- tempests of uncertainty and bravado -- no matter what zip code they live in.

Another high school teacher:

I work approximately 80 hours per week during the school year and another 30 hours per week during the summer... While the workload is taxing, trying to meet the emotional needs of children in underfunded, understaffed schools is grueling.  I had over 190 total students in my classes last year.  I agreed to take on 12 more as Independent Studies without pay because they asked me to be their advisor.  This means that I had about 34 students in each of my classes.  Additionally, we attend 30 hours of meetings per year without pay and have office hours once every other week without pay.  To maintain our sanity, we had to cut back our curriculum or else the paper would never end.  If every student wrote a three-page paper, that would be over 500 pages to read and correct.  Pile that on top of lesson planning and other obligations, and time becomes a black hole.  I work with dedicated people for whom the situation in the same.  Our family and social relationships have become strained or non-existent because we are consumed by our work.

I make $50,594 as a fifth-year teacher and I have five college degrees (three Bachelor's and two Master's) from a top-ten public university where I graduated with highest honors each time.  I nearly have a 4.0 cumulative grade point average.  I have to pay three percent of my salary into a health care fund on top of $34 per pay.  I also have to pay union dues because I can't opt out (it's currently against the law to do so).  Union dues are $847 per year and they have done nothing but sell us out and sell us short, as is usually the case.  Indeed, I am more educated than 97 percent of the population and have five-years experience in my field with exemplary reviews and results in any measure, objective or subjective, but I'm making less than almost anyone I know.  In fact, most of my friends and family are not only making more, they work far less...

We are always political targets; pawns in a game. I would argue that this is because of the misconceptions of teachers and other public employees as new Welfare Queens, living the high life off public money.  I can say that this depiction--offered mostly by Conservative critics--is errant on so many levels.  These attacks not only make it difficult to stay in the profession, but they make it completely undesirable for smart, talented people to find their way to teaching.  I question how much longer I can stay with it.  I think most teachers wouldn't necessarily want a six-figure salary or lavish perks, but they want to be compensated fairly and they want the very public humiliations and indignities to cease.

Many people tell me that I get other rewards from my work (i.e. personal satisfaction), which is true, but I never understand how that relates to the argument about being adequately compensated.  I never hear anyone talk about how doctors should work for mere satisfaction.  I have as many years of training and education as most doctors, but I'm not making anywhere near what they do.  You may say that there are fewer people that can do what they do, but I'll say that there aren't than many people who can do what I have done either with respect to student learning outcomes.

An exhausted teacher:

Everyone thinks that teaching is some kind of rewarding profession. Bullshit. I hate my job most of the time, like a lot of people. It is Sunday night and the last thing I want to do is go to work tomorrow. However, I am not really qualified to do anything else. I do my job well, but if I had the skills or training for a 9 to 5 job that would pay me enough to live comfortably in my fair city of Chicago, I would do it in a heart beat. I am on my feet for 8 hours a day...and for those 8 hours I have to be "on." If I am off for a second, I will get eaten alive.

Then after my day is done, I have all my regular work to do (grading papers, planning lessons and making parent phone calls, not to mention all the other little projects and administrative type things that we are asked to do by the administration). The worst part is the guilt. The guilt that I can always be more prepared, more educated, and more dedicated. I feel guilt because I can always be educating my students better than I am. This has a direct effect on their life. I also feel the guilt when I see what some of the other teachers are doing. I can tell they feel the pressure too, but they don't give in to it like I do. They stay at school until 9pm, they get in early, they are constantly trying to better themselves. Unfortunately there are too many other things I want to do with my life. I want to read the Dish, for one, I want to play and write my music, I want to build a computer, I want to learn new recipes to cook, I want to take a class on photography, I want to work on a radio documentary, I want to watch the Bulls and the Bears, I want to read for pleasure.....and well I want to have a Sunday to myself.

Why don't I do all that on my summers off? This summer, I moved, took a trip to visit my brother in Europe, spent a weekend on Lake Michigan and then had to get ready again for the coming school year. I had about 2 days in there to do nothing and no days to do any of those things I listed. Now, I know a lot of teachers feel different than I, but there are others that feel the same. Is teaching rewarding enough for me to not stop working or thinking about someone else (my students) from late August- early June. Not to me...I want to go home at 5 pm and be done with work until the next day. I don't want to be lazy, and I know a lot of other professionals work their tail off for minimal vacation time, but my job is supposed to be "rewarding." It's not...its exhausting.