So you want to be a teacher.
I know only like three and a half people follow this blog, and if they do it’s mostly for fandom purposes, but lately I’ve been running into a lot of aspiring teachers, and there are a lot of things I wish somebody had told me before I shelled out the money for my education degree.
For the record, if the job market were not so absolutely abysmal for teachers in my region (there is about one open job for every four unemployed teachers), then I would probably still be doggedly pursuing it, but the longer I am out of university and away from that culture, the more I think that maybe it’s not for me. Because I love teaching. I adore it. But teaching is only about 5% of a teacher’s job.
Further info about me, to clarify: I live in Canada, which is mostly similar to the USA in its school system, but there are some differences. I am a certified High School English teacher, but not currently, and possibly not ever, employed in the field.
So if you or a friend are considering going into teaching, you need to ask yourself some of these questions.
1. Are you prepared to work 14-hour days, 7 days a week?
I’m not. I’m lazy. I think anybody with any sense realizes that a teacher’s day doesn’t end after the bell rings at 3:30, but I never understood the sheer scale of work involved until I went through my practica. I would get up at 5:30 a.m., go into school an hour before class to prep for the day, prep and mark over my lunch, prep and mark during the periods I was not teaching, go home, and prep and mark until I went to bed. I marked while I ate, I took my marking to bed, I took my marking to the laundromat. That was when I only had two classes.
Every beginning teacher needs to be prepared to not have any sort of life whatsoever. It gets easier, or so they tell me, once you’ve built up a personal library of materials and developed the skills to do shit really freaking fast, but even experienced teachers have little time on their hands. One hour of class time requires about 2-5 hours of prep time.
And this is all assuming, of course, that you even get classes in your area of study, that you aren’t actually learning the material a day ahead of your class because you were desperate for work and this is all they had to offer. First-year teachers often get what’s known as a “dog’s breakfast”. A dog’s breakfast is a mish-mash of different classes, often the leftovers from what tenured teachers didn’t want. Instead of two grade 10 English and two grade 11 English, you get English, Socials, Biology, and Chemistry. So each class has its own prep, its own marking, its own planning, and you will never ever see the light of day.
And that is only class work. That does not include coaching, clubs, report cards, departmental meetings, professional development, and so on. If you are a teacher, you need to live and breathe teaching for a long time.
2. How much do you value your freedom?
A teacher is a public servant. A teacher is held to a high moral standard, and that “moral standard” is at the mercy of the community the teacher lives in. Do you go out drinking on occasion? Do you have strong political views? Do you see yourself ever attending a pro-choice rally or a pride event? Do you ever wear weird clothes or cosplay or swear in your Twitter?
A teacher in public is going to be judged, no matter where they go. Sometimes its things that might actually put your job at risk, such as parents complaining about you being inappropriate. Sometimes it’s just plain embarrassing. In the small town where I had one of my practica, my mentor teacher said it does bother her sometimes that there is a student or former student working in every store she walks into. Another teacher commented that she drives to the next town to buy maxi pads, because who wants their students to know that they’re on the rag? One fellow student teacher went to a house party and saw his definitely underaged students there.
And I’m not saying that standard of conduct isn’t justified in certain contexts. The teacher who attended a white supremacy rally? Yeah, that teacher needs to get fired on the spot and never be allowed near children again. But are you prepared to have your work life constantly spill over into your personal life? To always be “visible”?
3. Are you prepared to feel helpless to help the really tragic cases?
I am an idealistic social justice nut. I walked into that classroom thinking “heck yeah! I’m not going to be like those teachers who seemed to do nothing, I’m going to be empathetic and caring and act like the freaking Mother Teresa of the teenage outcasts!”
And then I met the girl who was probably being abused at home. I met the guy whose grades are slipping while he takes care of his little brother because his parents are drug addicts. I met so many others whose story I never heard, but who clearly had issues hanging over them.
And that was when I realized that there was no appropriate action I could take to help them. All of my power was contained to one classroom. Other than notifying counseling and administration—which had long ago been done, because these were the cases that the schools knew about, that everyone discussed in staff meetings because everyone did care—how could I possibly make that sort of thing better? All I could do was… give them the occasional extension on homework. I let the guy with the brother skip out more often, because I knew he needed it, and he worked really hard to make it up.
And that… is really hard to deal with. In those inspirational movies like The Dead Poet’s Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus, they only show you a handful of kids with problems. They don’t point out that that teacher has maybe 120 students, and odds are that more than you’ll ever know desperately need help. Are you the sort who is going to feel guilty knowing that you can’t help them all, or even most of them? That maybe you’ll be a good teacher and give them reprieve from the shit they deal with, but at the end of the day, you are the least likely person that a student will open up to with problems, because you are an authority figure?
And here’s another thing on that topic. You are at the mercy of school bureaucracy just as much as the kids are. All those kids who don’t learn well in a classroom environment, do you really think you can make your class any different when there are still bells and rows of desks and 30 kids to a class, 3 of them with disabilities? Sure, you can find yourself a nice private or independent school, but then you’re just serving the kids whose parents could afford to send them there, not the ones you actually wanted to be there for.
4. Are you ready to sell yourself?
This probably applies more to areas like here, where the job market is slim. The first time I walked into a school as a student teacher, I noticed that every staff mailbox had a glossy full-colour business card with a studio photo of a smiling professionally-dressed twenty-something. These cards were advertising her abilities as a substitute teacher.
Substituting is different across regions, but even in areas where all substitutes are picked at random from a call list, teachers can often request or directly call the sub of their choice first. Thus, subs are out to sell themselves like used car salesmen.
And how do you get a job, either at a school or as a sub? By doing things for free. And that means coaching. Remember what I said about those 14-hour days? The coaching and the clubs and the “volunteer” work are not really all that voluntary. School districts won’t hire somebody who is not willing to do a lot of extra work for free. And sometimes, that means working for free before you ever get hired. That means coaching for a school that does not even employ you, because you’re hoping to gain enough brownie points that they will.
Remember that all this is happening when you are right out of school, paying off student loans. You’ll want a night job, so you have a steady income, but you don’t want to be working on days that you might get a call to sub.
Some people are great at marketing themselves, and at doing the volunteer thing, but I am not one of them. If I were any good at marketing myself, I would have gone into an industry where I could actually make money at it.
5. How much do you want to be liked?
One thing I could not get over, no matter how much I knew intellectually that there was nothing to be offended by, because kids are kids and kids always hate school and it has nothing to do with you, was the idea of not being liked. Not even hated, just not liked. And this need to not be disliked can rear its head in unexpected ways, so that even when you have steeled yourself to not be the favorite, because that takes time and practice, suddenly you’re sideswiped by totally different ways of being disliked.
Imagine staying up all night to make something for a friend. You carefully and meticulously put it together, thinking carefully about exactly how it will benefit that friend, considering about all of the reasons that friend needs it, and how to make it as exciting for them as possible. The next day, you present your gift to your friend. They sneer, complain, make noises of disgust, and then take it from you only because they have to.
That is sort of what presenting a lesson feels like sometimes, and it doesn’t always feel good. You put forth so much effort, and get very little in return. It’s a bit like being slapped in the face.
6. So… parents?
So you’re fine with kids, but how about their parents? Because there is no dodging that bullet. Parents are going to be involved, they’re going to be talking to you, meeting with you, calling you up, sending you emails, making demands. Do you have phone anxiety at all? Because you’re going to have to pick up that phone and tell a parent bad news. Put on your best customer service voice, because this is the part where you’re talking to your real “customer.” Remember, if their kid is not getting straight As, it’s probably your fault.
Parents scare the shit out of me. I will take a belligerent teenager over their mom any day of the week.
And hey, remember what I said before about the tragic cases? Most of those parents won’t show up at all. But some of them do. You’re going to have to meet these people, knowing what you know about their home life. So, you know. That’s fun.
If you are actually going into teaching, then I really do wish you all the best. But just know that there is a lot more to it than anybody would have you believe.
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