What it means to be a teacher

I’ve mentioned a couple times now that most people don’t really understand what it means to be a teacher. They think our day gets done by 4 and we get paid vacations. According to most people, we don’t earn what pay we get, and should not be paid for our summers (which we actually aren’t, but I’ll explain in more detail later).

  •  Schools out teacherA friend recently told me how much I “suck” because my day “ends before 4”. Sure. The paid portion of my day ends before 4 pm. 3:35, to be exact. But that doesn’t include the weekends I spend decorating my room so that my students feel safe, welcomed, and encouraged in my classroom. Or the hours spent grading papers in IHOP (well, a coffee shop of some sort where they stay open late and won’t kick me out while I work) into the wee hours of the morning. I’ve seen the sun rise from inside an IHOP more times than most of the clubhoppers I know. Or the hours spent scouring the internet for a relevant and interesting expository article that I can use in my lesson plans… I could continue, but then this post would never finish!
  • The misnomer about my summers being paid really ticks me off! I get paid for a 10 month work year. The summer isn’t included, nor is Christmas break, and I don’t ever get the option for holiday pay, even though I worked on lessons on Christmas day… In fact, my meager checks are shorted throughout the year so that I can receive a check during the summer. If I work summer school, sure I bank during the summer, but then I’m totally burned out by August, and I am an unpleasant teacher from the start of the year, with no hope of being nice before Thanksgiving.
  • And as far as only “those who can’t, teach…” The rigorous testing that teachers have to go through to prove they know their content would stump a good number of “professionals”. The test to obtain a certification as a science teacher is so difficult that I personally know 3 would be teachers, with Bachelor degrees in science, that couldn’t pass the test. Brilliant women, all of them. If I find some actual statistics, I’ll let you know… but in the meantime, unless you’ve actually spent time in a classroom, quit assuming that it’s only for those who are too dumb to do anything else.
  • Teacher yelling
    Teaching is WHAT?!?!

    One of the things that irks me the most about the above statement is that it suggest that teaching is simple, and for the simple minded. There seems to be this idea that anybody can be a teacher, and not that it’s a calling same as any other service profession. No one thinks that it’s easy to be an EMS technician or a doctor or a firefighter or a cop, but teachers are believed to go to a cushy job where they basically babysit all day. The truth couldn’t be any further from that! I teach at a school with a high gang population, in an area of town where many people don’t get out of their cars. My school is surrounded by a black, wrought iron fence to keep the bad elements out, but also to keep the students in. Some students often find a way under the fence or through it, if they’re skinny enough, so they can walk across the street to buy munchies at the store there. Or they go to do drugs behind the store because it’s off school property and they won’t get in as much trouble if they get caught there. They’re minors after all, well most of them… So yeah, I do actually put myself at risk sometimes.

  • bully lineupAnd by “at risk,” I mean I sometimes have to deal with fights, weapons, and occasionally a psychotic break. Teenagers are full of hormones, and unless you teach in a neighborhood completely devoid of crime and drugs, there will be some sort of trigger that pushes these usually sweet children (if you’re lucky) into a realm of negativity. They can become vicious. Think about the bullies you had when you were growing up. Remember how they only picked on those weaker than them? In today’s world, they challenge the teachers first. If you can’t out bluff them from the start, you’ve labeled yourself as a target…
  • Then, even when a student is giving you a hard time, you are often told not to remove them because each school has to explain why students aren’t in class receiving instruction, and after a while, “he was physically threatening the teacher” is no longer a viable excuse. They move dangerous students around until they find a teacher who can handle them, or, more often, who is so tired of fighting that he or she doesn’t argue when they add another problem student to his or her class. These are the teachers on which movies like Bad Teacher are based.


  • Speaking of, let’s talk about how the system is flawed enough to keep these poor souls around. I’m sure every teacher in this category started out a bright-eyed, idealistic teacher, and then they were eventually put with a class who would not listen, would not cooperate, would not even acknowledge their existence, and the spirit of their inner teacher slowly died, but by then it was too late for them to go back and change careers. OR they had tenure. Which means they can’t be removed without a really good reason! So they get shuffled around, and often get the bad kids, because everyone knows they don’t care anymore and they’re just biding their time til they can retire. The kids run over them, or love them because their classes are total blow off classes. The administration turns a blind eye, or purposefully tries to get them to quit, because they know they can’t really fire them. It’s a bad situation for all involved.
  • So teaching can actually damage you as a person, if you’re not strong enough to resist the temptation to just babysit. If all teachers took the attitude that this was an easy job, and they were only there for the paycheck, all teachers would be the type of teacher that just sat there and let the students have their way. I’ve been tempted. I’ve even given in a time or two, but I always come back, because there is so much to be taught! And I still have hope that I can make a difference. It’s why I took this job.
Mean teacher painting
That’s mostly for the teachers… The kids do what they want!
  • Teaching is a job where you are paid to shove knowledge into the brains of people who don’t want to hear what you have to say. Each day you go into battle to prepare them for a test that you don’t agree they should have to take. You lose time due to benchmark testing and diagnostics, fire drills and snow days, and you still get up the next day to do it all again. Your armor is your smile; your arsenal is your knowledge and your sense of right and wrong. If you’re successful, by Christmas you’ll have students who love you and adore you, act like ladies and gentlemen, and are excited about what new information you can offer them, even if that information isn’t actually school related (and sometimes you have to tell them about yourself to gain their trust, so this isn’t as far fetched as it seems). If unsuccessful, you have to prepare for an ongoing battle. You struggle to maintain order, and your composure, and you begin your countdown to the end of the year as soon as you return from Christmas Break. It’s hell.
  • Teacher gift plants "Thanks for helping me grow"
    Teach above 4th grade? Don’t expect ANYTHING like this…Ever.

    And what is our reward? We get to see our students be successful. They will pass the test (the one we don’t think they should have to take in the first place), and move onto the next grade or the next phase in their life (if you teach seniors). Maybe they’ll come back next year to visit us and see how the new kids are treating us. Maybe they’ll remember a handful of what we taught them. Maybe you’ll get a thank you or a hug or something from them after they walk across the stage. Most of the time, though, you just have to believe you made a difference in a child’s life. There is no thank you.

  • Instead, you get politicians, parents, and even complete strangers telling you how to do your job, because, well obviously anyone can be a teacher, right? Of course they can! That’s why teachers are quitting in droves, and there are a million different programs to get degreed individuals into the teaching field. Programs like Teach for America, which pay off your student debt and offer you something ridiculous like $10K if you can stick it out for 2 years in an inner city school. After those 2 years, you are a certified teacher and can go anywhere. If teaching was so easy, wouldn’t more TFA teachers last longer than their 2 year minimum? I only know of 4 at my school who continued past their 2 years. And believe me, we hire plenty of first year, TFA people… They don’t stick around.

So before you decide that your neighbor, the teacher, is just a lazy, good for nothing, think about this:Would you be willing to spend a day in their shoes? If you automatically said no, then deep down you know it’s not true.

You know that feeling you get when the end of summer is near, and you can’t WAIT to send your kids to school? Why is that? Think about all the attention you have to give your children. Teachers have to do that for up to 40 kids in a classroom at a time. Imagine if you had 40 kids and not only did you have to entertain them, but teach them Geometry… Now add cell phones and texting and listening to music through their headphones, all while you are trying to teach them Physics… Now put yourself with these 40 children in a room with no windows and keep them seated in rows while you read Shakespeare with them… Now take that whole scenario and imagine you can’t touch them to discipline them, or to take up their phones; you can’t lose your temper or say anything mean; and for heaven’s sake, don’t you dare let them take a picture or a video of you!

Still think teaching is an easy job and anyone can do it? If so, you weren’t actually imagining what I just described to you.


About Elizabeth

First and foremost I am a teacher. What I teach is a blend of grammatical art, literary love, and a smidge of spiritual awareness. My blog tries to combine the best of all three over a cup of tea.

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