Part 2: It’s Harder than it Looks

Note: The following is an excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher: A Guide for First-Year Teachers, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” Although this book also elaborates on why teachers stay in the profession (in my case, since 1973), I believe it is important to also address some of the issues that were tripping up many of the teachers I encountered in the survey responses and interviews I did for this book. This chapter includes six challenges facing people entering the teaching profession.

Talk to some people outside of education and you’d swear we only work a few hours a day, basically babysitting or talking to kids, for a few months a year. Anyone who has actually worked as a teacher, however, would not be surprised at the number of contributors who mentioned the amount of time the job requires, the scope of responsibilities, or the degree to which teaching can take over our lives as stressful aspects of the job. This work involves a wide range of professional, instructional, and emotional demands, far beyond what people who are not in the field could possibly imagine. Although we no longer are required to fill lamps, light the fires to warm the rooms, or scrub the floors once a week,23 the preparation, paperwork, and increases in accountability— along with concerns for our students’ academic, social, and emotional well-being— can be overwhelming.

I certainly didn’t see much of my family or friends my first year or two, unless they came over to help me cut out bulletin boards or laminate materials. A recent conversation with retired teacher Ken Bauer who, a long time ago, co-interned with me in the same fifth grade classroom, brought up memories of our first year in the profession: “Nobody had a dime and nobody got any sleep,” he recalled. More recently, I had two new teachers, second careers for each of them, stumble into my seminar after having been in their respective classrooms well past midnight the day before. Although their schedules may not represent those of the majority of teachers, I doubt that there are many teachers who are not putting plenty of hours into their jobs, not only at home, but in their classrooms as well, before school starts and long after their students have left for the day.

Kindergarten teacher, Jill Snyderman, noted, “I really wish someone would have told me how tiring teaching was and how much work you put into each day. By the time I leave school and get home, I am exhausted and all I want to do is relax, but I can’t because I have work to do.” She advises beginning teachers, “Tell your loved ones to hang in there for you. You will be busy and tired and, depending on your grade level, you may work all day and then come home and grade all night—not to mention going to your classroom or bringing home work on the weekends.”

One fourth grade teacher commented, “I really wish someone had told me about all the long hours, of my own time, to prepare and check student progress.” Although as a matter of sanity and self-care, it is essential to carve out a little separation from work, I think that most teachers would chuckle at the notion of “my own time.” Yes, you do get to leave the building, but be prepared to take the job home with you—in your heart and your head, as well as your briefcase or book bag. Guidance counselor Carrie Balent observed that “there is no down time” and several contributors wrote to discourage anyone from coming to teaching with the idea that it would be an eight-to-three job.

I always found it hard to disconnect from teaching. I often awoke in the middle of the night worried about the kids I couldn’t seem to reach, stressed about an unhappy parent, or inspired with an idea for an activity or a game. Everything I did or saw, whether during the school year, on weekends, and even on vacation, tended to filter through the lens of how I could use the experience or item in my classroom. One contributor said, “It has taken over my life in many ways. I always think about my work, even when I’m trying to sleep or get a break on the weekend. I work every night and on weekends, too, to try and keep up and do a quality job.” Or as principal Ales Zitnik wryly noted, “It is an all-day, all-week, all-month, all-year activity—working, thinking, exploring, acting—like a disease.”

Although several teachers mentioned how much they enjoyed and appreciated having a break in the summer, a number found this time off to be a bit of a myth. Mandy Frantti, a secondary science teacher, wrote, “Many people, unfortunately, go into teaching because they see it as a way to get summers off. That’s not teaching. Most states now have laws requiring continuing education, which means that after spending a long tiring school year teaching, you then turn around and put yourself in the student’s spot for the summer. Not to mention the prep work good teachers do over the summer. There just isn’t time during the year to do all the things that will mean the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher.”

Third grade teacher Jason Gehrke has discovered, “You really don’t get your summers off. There is always work to be done after the school year in preparation for the next year.” High school English teacher Melody Aldrich agrees. She did not realize how consuming teaching would be. “Summers off?” she wrote. “You’ve got to be kidding. Working the same schedule as my kids? Think again. I stay late and come in early every day.” People who are drawn to teaching by the prospect of short days and summers off are often the first to leave the profession. First-grade teacher, Cindi Allen, notes, “The teaching field is not for the weak. I had a student teacher one year who was getting her teaching degree only because of the holidays and summers off. I imagine she isn’t in the field any longer.”

Many respondents were surprised by how physically demanding teaching was. Even in my 20s, there were plenty of times when I practically collapsed just walking in the door after work, especially if my day had included after-school home visits, meetings, conferences, or an inservice program or graduate class. Kindergarten teacher, Jillian Tsoukalas, recalled, “I was learning and the children were learning and I was so excited and the parents were happy and I was living my dream—and I was exhausted! I could hardly keep my eyes open to get through dinner each night.” And the non-stop mental and emotional demands don’t help. Author and educator Robin Fogarty reported, “It has been said that a classroom teacher makes 1500 decisions in a day.”24 No wonder we’re tired!

Management and organization can be overwhelming, and were frequently mentioned as issues astounding contributors. Although my undergraduate classes demanded a great deal of time and effort, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer number of hours I would need for planning, checking papers, developing materials, or communicating with parents, not to mention keeping up with professional literature or fulfilling the requirements of graduate classes I took during most of the years I was in the classroom. One high school English teacher wrote about how “the marking is insane and the planning is unending. Every time I teach a course, even if I’ve taught it before, I have to change and adapt to meet the needs of that particular group of students.” Diane Callahan, middle school science teacher, also commented on the paperwork. “I don’t mean grading papers—that’s a given.” But Callahan noted that many of her weekends were devoted to “doing reports or writing something that was of no value to my teaching or my students when I could have spent that time designing a new lesson or a new approach to a subject.” Third-grade teacher Adrian Schaefer identified “the inundation of paperwork related to students who have special needs” as one area in which he felt least prepared. And staff development specialist Diane Laveglia wished she had learned more about ways to reduce the paper load and be more organized. “That was definitely not covered in my education classes,” she said.

Effective teachers know that educating young people involves a whole lot more than simply getting up and talking about a particular subject. Many beginning teachers are surprised when they discover that their students lack prerequisite skills necessary for the content being presented, the auditory strengths and attention span to get much out of a lecture, or an inherent interest in the content area (or learning, for that matter).25 Even veteran teachers may make certain assumptions about how people learn, and many of us enter the profession using the types of instructional techniques to which we responded best as students. One contributor noted, “I was least prepared in strategies to teach students math who did not learn in the way I did.” Indeed, this topic has started to take over my seminars on working with challenging students, as differences in learning and modality preferences can be a huge source of frustration for students and teachers alike.

As far as experiences and interests, variations in cognitive abilities, developmental readiness, and learning styles, every group I’ve encountered—kids and adults—has been all over the map. It didn’t take me long to discover that trying to teach to one style or one set of experiences disregarded the majority of my students. While I may have learned or heard about these differences in my preparation classes, there was a shocking difference between understanding this information intellectually and experiencing it up close and personal.

Many contributors were surprised by how much of their time would be devoted to activities besides teaching. Professional development coordinator Amy DesChane was assigned a paraeducator to supervise during her first year. She described how difficult it was “to be young and responsible for someone else’s duties without any management experience.” A special education coordinator commented, “I love teaching and working with children, when I actually got the chance to!” She was one of many professionals who commented about the degree to which paperwork, meetings, committee work, preparation for testing, and “a million other assigned duties” kept them from being able to just teach.26 It’s not hard to see how a love of teaching can quickly be eroded by so many demands and distractions.

Click here to continue reading this chapter. (List of chapters below.)

23 These items are on a number of lists of “Rules for Teachers,” which I have seen in print and online many times over the years, attributed to various districts around the country. This most recent search turned up lists on numerous sites, including the Teaching Handwork blog at http://teachinghandwork.blogspot.com/2008/09/in-1915-life-was-different.html and the Teacherworld site at http://teacherworld.com/potrules.html. Although the Snopes site suggests this list is little more than an urban myth that has been circulating for decades (http://www.snopes.com/language/document/1872rule.asp), the duties and restrictions listed are not that different from some of the stories I heard from older family members about their teachers (or teaching experiences) in the 1930s and 40s.

24 Robin Fogarty, 10 Things New Teachers Need to Succeed (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2007), 9.

25 I hear this often from subject-area specialists and people coming to education as a second career after working in their field with adults.

26 Elementary teacher Lydia Aranda observed the challenges in balancing the demands of a teaching career and raising a family: “In many ways, teaching was much more conducive to a single lifestyle with no children of my own. Then again, in other ways, I am much ‘wiser’ now that I have my own children on which to base my understanding of my students.” And high school biology teacher, Sherry Annee commented about how the demands of teaching have affected her choices about expanding her family: “Although I would love to have more children, my husband and I have decided that my profession limits my ability to be attentive to more than one child at home. Teaching is a serious responsibility… It’s difficult to imagine that my teaching and students’ learning would not suffer if I chose to have more than one child.” Other contributors include Adrian Schaefer, third-grade teacher; Dot Woodfin, director of a character education program; Joel Black, high school alternative teacher; Micki Agresta, high school special education teacher; Susan Bailey, middle school reading specialist; Marlene Berman, Title I coordinator; Annette Dake, elementary gifted teacher, and several others who requested anonymity.

Excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher: A Guide for First-Year Teachers, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” This material was taken directly from the final manuscript submitted and may be slightly different from the actual text of the book. For full bibliography listing all of the the resources used in this book (and details on the references listed above), click here.

This chapter includes six challenges facing people in the teaching profession:

Part 1: Financial Realities
Part 2: It’s Harder than it Looks
Part 3: Lack of Support
Part 4: Difficult Students, Difficult Parents
Part 5: Value and Status
Part 6: Issues of Autonomy and Discretion

Also check out:

Book: Managing 21st Century ClassroomsHow to avoid ineffective classroom management practices!
Article: “Great Expectations: Good News for Beginning Teachers
Podcast: “On the Right Foot: Support for Beginning Teachers” with J. Victor McGuire
Presentation: “Great Beginnings: Special workshop for beginning teachers, returning teachers, and preservice teachers

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