What Really Makes Teaching Hard

March 21, 2015

What Really Makes Teaching Hard

By Tracie Davis Schwertley

It’s nearing the end of the year, and I’m beginning to write each of my 92 students a letter. I agonize over each letter–wanting my students to know that I see the best in them. I want to get the words just right. I need to capture the essence and creativity of one student, and let another know that they shouldn’t let their less than stellar behavior define them. Some letters are easy to write. The sixth grader who eagerly approaches my desk each morning telling me how excited she is for what we are doing in class, the awkward ‘doesn’t know how beautiful she will be someday’ theater girl in the back of the room, who always has something so deep to say that it blows me away. Other letters are more difficult. Josiah’s letter–I agonize over this one. What he writes in his journal is heart-wrenching. One parent in jail, the other not being who a mother should be. At the beginning of the year, I vowed to try to stand in for his missing mom, and he has made it really hard every step of the way. Fist fights in the classroom, throwing things at inopportune times, bullying his peers. I’m a seasoned teacher and know he needs to move, and move a lot. I plan lessons so that all of the kids I have in class will never have to sit still and listen to me talk for 82 minutes, but this is especially important with Josiah’s class (23 boys and five girls). We do vocabulary skits, review games with a ball. I make sure to add movement into every lesson, along with some meditation (luckily, my lesson plans are not micromanaged). Josiah needs praise and a lot of it. He needs structure, acceptance and love. When it’s given to him, he dodges away from it. He’s belligerent, disrespectful, and rude. He never turns in any assignment, but in a recent class debate, he rocked it out. In a hushed tone away from his peers, I tell him I can see him being a lawyer someday. His eyes light up and seconds later he calls a girl in class a retard. I worry about Josiah a lot. I worry about all of the kids in my class. All teachers do. This is the kind of thing that teachers are talking about in response to the sneery, “I wish I had a job where I worked seven hours a day for nine months out of the year.” Take the caring part out of teaching and this isn’t even remotely true on the best day, but even if it was, teaching is that type of career where you are nearly always thinking about it. Aside from social work or heath care careers, I cannot think of another career that is so emotionally wrenching. It’s what standardized tests, common core and the mighty Danielson model doesn’t measure.

Tessa was a bubbly 8th grader at the school I taught at. I had the joy of teaching her as a 7th grader–when students are often at their awkward worst. Give an extra hug to your child’s 7th grade teacher, because this is the worst of worst years. Their bodies are growing and their brains actually don’t. Retaining information is a struggle. I remember looking at standardized test data where these students made huge gains in 6th grade, only to have a flat graph line in 7th grade. Brain based research shows that this is normal, but I was always thankful I wasn’t part of a merit pay system. Four months after I had taught Tessa, she poked her head into my classroom one morning. I was on the phone with a parent. I smiled at Tessa, pointed to the phone and made a talking motion with my hand. She paused for a minute–a long minute I now recall–and gave me a little smile of understanding and left. My mind was full of what I had to do that day. Parent contacts, responding to emails, teaching, grading, IEP meetings, 504 accommodations, planning, managing behaviors…I made a mental note to try to catch her later on. I remembered that the last interaction I had with her was in the rush of the hallway. I asked her how things were going and she had given a typical middle school shrug. As anybody in education knows, there’s really no TIME. We are so rushed all day long. We have a lot to cram into the day. Every minute is accounted for. Still, I had planned to catch up with Tessa and touch base with her soon. I never got that chance to touch base with Tessa, because that night–the very night she poked her head into my classroom, she hung herself. This beautiful, vivacious, bubbly 8th grader, who showed zero signs of depression, and zero signs of “things to look for in a suicidal teen”, hung herself. She was 13. Her slight sad (in hindsight) smile was the last memory I had of Tessa until I went to her funeral. Every teacher in attendance was devastated and wracked with guilt. My coworkers reported that she had done her homework the day before she killed herself. She had written in her journal for Language Arts class about some mundane thing. I think of Tessa every single day.

This is what teachers are talking about when they say our job is hard. Yes, standardized testing is wearing. We hate giving up a week of our teaching time. We worry about being paid based on our students’ test scores. It’s really hard to measure tangible gains by looking at data from a test. It’s hard having to follow rules and standards and curriculum given to us by somebody who has never set foot in a classroom (or by somebody who has taught for two years in a privileged prep school and who deems themselves ‘one of us‘). It’s hard to have 35 students in a class and differentiate and accommodate and reach them all. It’s hard to have so many bosses (our principal, the superintendent, the students’ parents and the public). It’s hard to put our students before our families sometime, because if we don’t coach speech/theater/ baseball/basketball/chaperone the dance…..nobody will, and the kids miss out. It’s hard to attend meeting after meeting, and add more and more and more to our plates. It’s hard. But we roll with it. It’s our job. What’s hard is dealing with what I’ve written above, and then reading comments about public education on Facebook, maligning us. When you do this, you are misunderstanding the whole essence of teaching and education.

If you’re a parent, your kids are probably never far from your thoughts. You make a lot of sacrifices and put in a lot of work so that these kids know they’re loved. You want them to be a productive member of society. Now multiply those feelings by 28, or 35, or 100, or 220 (a few of my coworkers regularly have this many kids on their roster). Imagine the stress, responsibility, and emotional stress. I can’t tell you how many nights I have lain awake, worrying about my students. Worrying about some off-hand comment, worrying that by not having enough time, the student might be suffering. This is what makes teaching hard.

I’ve written this after reading multiple Facebook comments about how their kid’s school or teacher sucks for various reasons (and as a teacher, I can tell them that in nearly 95% of the cases the school or teacher “sucks” because it is trying valiantly to keep ALL of their students safe, educated and free from harm.) It’s disheartening. It’s disheartening putting your heart and soul into a job where there’s a million and one “behind the scenes” things that you do as a teacher, only to be trashed by the public, every media outlet, and sometimes Facebook friends. While I was writing this, I got a Facebook notification that somebody replied to a comment I had made defending my profession. The poster said, “If you don’t think that public education needs help, then you must be one of the bad teachers.” I second guess myself often–most teachers do. I worry if I’m doing enough, or teaching the best way I can. I wonder if I’m a good enough teacher nearly every single day. Still, at the end of the day, I do believe I’m a good teacher. I have emails and letters and notes from students and parents telling me I am. I have the memory of a mom this year who gave me a hug at conferences and whispered in my ear, “You are the teacher I have been praying for my son to have.” But this Facebook comment from a faceless stranger telling me I was probably one of the bad teachers stung. It’s hard. There’s not enough praise, support or help, and there’s too much condemning and blaming and finger pointing. And it’s constant.

It’s a hard job. It’s a really, really hard job. The public, Arne Duncan, and the media won’t see the letters that I write to these kids. Just like they haven’t seen the really cool lessons that we’ve done in class this year. They won’t see how my kids have created their own Utopian societies, they won’t hear their speeches, they won’t see how the student with an extreme stutter will muster up all of his strength and give a five minute speech in front of his peers. They won’t see how the students respectfully watch him, and give him high fives. They won’t see the scrawled note I get from a student, who doesn’t sign his name, who said that I made him be more confident in himself. They won’t hear the overdramatic (but oh so sweet) comment from a preteen who said, “This class is the reason I get up in the morning.“ They won’t see the critical thinking skills that my kids are developing (and which aren’t measured on tests), they won’t see the joy a student has when she shares the project she has carefully hand sewn for class. They won’t see the student who visits me early in the morning sobbing because her dog died the night before. They won’t know that 100% of my students on an anonymous survey say they love Language Arts (which–funny story–was the same year I got an “average“ teaching rating because my classroom didn‘t have enough posters on the wall). I’m not tooting my own teaching horn–walk into any of my colleague’s classrooms and I can guarantee you’re going to see some pretty cool things. The anti-teaching public won’t see this, but they will be quick to comment on Facebook posts how teachers are quite overpaid for the seven hours they work a day. This is part of the problem. As long as the public trashes us (and the kids see that we’re not worthy of respect), as long as we have lawmakers who have no idea what it’s like to be on the front lines, as long as people keep making pithy anti-education comments to the media, the things that are wrong with education aren’t going to change. I think I can speak for nearly every one of my colleagues when I say that we want you to understand what we do. We want you to see all of these “behind the scenes” things. We want you to agree that it’s hard. We want you to understand WHY it’s hard. Instead of saying, “Yeah! Public education sucks!” we invite you to give up your time to understand what really goes on in the classroom. See what teachers are up against. Talk to us. Donate materials, donate your time. Be a mentor to an inner city student who might not have a role model. Try to understand that we all want what you want. Help us get there.