(Note: This article is written mainly from my personal experience of public school teaching in the United States, but from what I’ve heard from friends who have lived in or visited other countries, the experience of teaching and being taught seems to be very similar across the board these days.)
When you’re in school, your teachers are the people you love to hate. They seem to thrive on assigning tons of homework, giving terrible lectures that you find hard to listen to, and punishing the kids who even barely step out of line. Maybe there’s one in a thousand teachers who do things differently, but those are a precious few. Most of the teachers use stock worksheets, old assignments that aren’t even relevant to our daily lives, and they themselves seem stuck in a time warp.
Did I get the picture right? This is pretty much what I remember from being a public school student. Of course, there were teachers who stuck out in my memory as being awesome, vibrant educators, but most of them stuck to the books and didn’t like students deviating at all from their plans. As an “out-of-the-box” thinker, I found myself out of place in their classrooms.
Only when I endeavored to become a teacher myself did I see what really went on in public school classrooms, and how much each of those “boring” teachers must have suffered. Here’s what I found out while trying (and ultimately failing) to become a middle-school teacher:
Teachers are pressed for time, all the time.
There are simply not enough hours in the day to do what a typical teacher must do. Most teachers must rise before the sun, eat alone (usually on the way to work), and get there just in time to have a precious few minutes to think before the chaotic rumbling mass of students washes into the classroom like high tide. Then, you don’t have a spare moment to yourself until whenever the school day ends, because you have to be either teaching actively and keeping the kids busy, or you must be consistently vigilant for kids screwing off not doing their work, copying each other’s papers, or vandalizing school property. Even your “planning” time is not your own–this is when endless meetings are scheduled, or when parents waft in on the tide as well, asking about their kids. You also might get a principal or assistant principal dropping by to ask you if you can take “5 minutes” (usually more like 30) to do something for them.
And the work day does not end when you hobble out the door on sore feet! Once you get home, there are likely crates and boxes full of papers to grade and return to the students. Say, for instance, that one double-sided worksheet you assigned to all four classes takes about 10 minutes to grade per sheet. Multiply that by about 80 or 90 (the number of students most middle- and high-school teachers teach) and you get how much time it takes to grade all of that single worksheet. (It equates to about 15 hours. Don’t get me started on long papers and research projects. Just…don’t.)
Now, you might think that all a teacher has to do to reduce this load is to assign less homework. Students would like that, right? Certainly the teachers would! But that leads me to reason number two to respect your teachers:
Teachers are held to extremely high state and national standards.
There are these magical little documents called “Standard Courses of Study” that basically tell you what you’re supposed to cover in your class. (Here’s North Carolina’s Standard Courses of Study as an example.) There’s one for each grade level and each subject. My grade level and subject area was 7th grade Language Arts, so I had to teach what the 7th grade Language Arts SCS told me to teach.
These documents are generally written in a dialect called “Vague Legalese” that you are supposed to decipher as part of your never-ending day. If you don’t follow these guidelines, it is intimated that the dire consequences of less than 70% of your student body passing its End of Grade or End of Course test is the unhappy result. When your students don’t pass the EOG or EOC, it automatically means you’re a bad teacher, even if your students didn’t do their work and/or didn’t try.
Plus, your superiors will check up on you regularly to make sure you’re teaching along the guidelines. You have to be able to justify every lesson plan, every assignment, every breath as being part of the SCS. And you have to assign a certain amount of work, otherwise evaluators will get after you for not allowing your students to practice what they’re being taught.
And what if your student decides not to do any of his or her work? That’s your fault, too. See reason #3 to respect your teachers, below:
Teachers get punished if a student fails their class because the student refused to do his/her work.
Teachers can suffer a salary drop or even lose his or her job because a student decided to screw off in class (which usually leads to the student failing the End-of-Grade or End-of-Course test). All that the numeric grades and test results show is that a student performed poorly, and that he or she was taught by a specific teacher, not WHY the student performed poorly. This system is (SLOWLY) changing, with hopefully more humanized input in place in a few years, but it is far from perfect. Meanwhile, teachers saddled with kids who will not work and parents who will not motivate their children have to try to be miracle workers before that dreaded day in May.
Teachers also have to be law enforcement officers, prison wardens, marketing representatives, and PR representatives.
Not only are teachers supposed to be masters of their subject matter, but they also must:
- teach their subject matter efficiently and quickly, no matter what kind of distractions and interruptions they encounter;
- police their classrooms (and the hallways outside) for bad behavior, cheating, vandalism, and other such delinquency, all while trying to teach;
- lead their classes silently to recess, lunch, and the library so as not to interfere with other inmates–I mean students;
- argue successfully for school and classroom grants to get the materials and technology they cannot do without but are not given because of budget cuts;
- deal with the public, in the form of parents and guardians who might or might not be prepared to listen and help with what the teacher needs done at home.
As a budding middle-school teacher, I felt constantly pulled in about 100 different directions while trying to teach. There were literally earmarks on every second of my time as a teacher, no time to think or plan. When I got home from teaching every day, I was jumpy and frazzled, as if I expected to be rousted out of my seat (or my bed) to take care of yet another catastrophe in the making.
Teachers have to deal with angry students, other disgruntled teachers, and more often frustrated parents.
This is the part of the job that literally scared the crap out of me–sitting face-to-face with a parent who, for instance, refuses to hear anything about how his/her child threatened another student with scissors held at the throat, threw a desk across the room and broke it, and tried to climb out one of the windows. (This happened to me, every part of it…and I wish I was exaggerating.)
You can feel utterly without support sometimes, because if even the parent isn’t willing to ally with you, who will? Certainly the misbehaving student would like nothing better than to see you tossed out on your behind. Plus, the legal systems usually side with the complaining parent, which leaves the school system with their hands tied–they cannot help you either. And your fellow teachers can only vouch for you so far; sometimes you have no witnesses except yourself and a classful of rioting kids.
Lastly, and possibly most frustrating of all:
Teachers must do lots of outside work that they don’t get paid for, at all.
Taking (and paying out of pocket for) continuing education classes, in the form of more books to read and more videos to watch in your nonexistent “spare time,” instructing you on how you’re teaching all “wrong” and these programs can help you teach “right?” Yep.
Tutoring kids before and after school, whenever THEY find it convenient to show up, for no extra pay? Yep.
Attending endless hours-long unpaid meetings in the summers about meetings we’re going to have later, all while you’re trying to set up your classroom, order new books, throw away books that kids have written curse words and drawn lewd pictures in, manage your old assignments, find updated assignments, print off new material, learn new school software, implement new technology/repair old technology, etc.? YEP.
Paying for books and classroom supplies out of your own pocket because your school’s budget is so drastically cut that they can’t afford to even buy one extra book, extra printer paper, or paper clips? YEP.
Staying at school from 7:30am until 7 or 8pm each day grading papers (or taking it home)? YEP. (Sometimes I ended up staying up till well past 3am grading!)
I was expected to do all this AS WELL AS teach during the day, and for all this work, I was projected to receive about $30,000 for what would have been my first year of teaching (the 2009-2010 school year). This would have been my gross salary as a middle-school educator in North Carolina with a Masters’ degree. According to this graph about what public school educators make, I would have been on the extreme left of the bell curve; NC teachers really don’t get paid worth doodly, especially when compared to other states (and other countries). But when you take into consideration the standard of living in various places, many teachers end up living right around the POVERTY LINE. I WISH I WAS KIDDING.
This is the Job Teachers Do!
Teaching is one of the highest career callings, and once upon a time I aspired to it, only to find that I was definitely not strong enough. The best teachers do all this with grace, but for most of us, this sounds pretty overwhelming. I know it was for me. Respect the people who do this job and don’t go absolutely batpoo crazy…they’re truly born for it!