What's so hard about teaching anyway?
Since the release of The Well Teacher, I have been greeted with two responses to the book. The first is that The Well Teacher is “helpful”, “important”, and “necessary” reading for anyone who works in the field of education. The second is essentially some version of, “what is so hard about teaching anyway?” Every educator, and really anyone who works with educators, has heard this question too many times to count and it is usually mixed in with mentions of “summers off”, “winter break”, “March Break”, “sitting all day”, “9-to-5”, etc. I have done several interviews since The Well Teacher launched, all of which have involved some version of this question. Some have been more direct than others, yet the question about why teaching is so demanding is always inevitably asked.
Lately, I have found myself thinking more and more about this question. I have been trying to figure out the most succinct way of explaining to someone, who doesn’t understand the complexities of teaching, why the job is so demanding. I could start with the facts, of course. No teacher works 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. All teachers are expected to perform various aspects of their job outside of work hours; which is usually prep and marking, but also involves expectations to coach, oversee various committees, participate in school-based and union activities, stay updated on emerging learning strategies and pedagogy, meet and communicate with parents, and respond to emails. There are probably a dozen other things I am missing here but let’s just say the list of additional responsibilities is long.
But the real answer lies beyond just the basic components of the job of teaching. Teachers intrinsically want to teach. In fact, teachers are so driven and passionate about their work that they will often teach to the detriment of their own wellness. More often than not, in my regular job, I find myself working with teachers and their doctors to help them step away from the classroom to allow some time to increase wellness and build resilience, rather than encouraging them to continue or return during an illness. This type of self-sacrifice is not something we see in too many other professions; and, I would argue that it is due, in part, to the level of accountability and scrutiny teachers face. Teachers are accountable to their students, colleagues, principals and administration, district, local association, union, parents, community, and media, etc. – all of whom have their own expectations and needs in terms of the teacher’s ability and time. This is the day-to-day life of a teacher.
This is the experience of a teacher doing everything “right”. But, let’s be honest, errors in judgement are a natural part of the human condition. And, when teachers do err, a formal process of investigation and discipline (which is not inherently negative, rather it is just part of the system) is sometimes initiated. When this happens, teachers take this VERY seriously. Even if the outcome is nothing more than a letter in their file for a minor offence, these teachers are overrun with shame, guilt, and negative thinking about their abilities. When it comes to situations that result in more serious outcomes, beyond the professional disciplinary measures, there is also a good chance it will end up in the local paper. The average person never has to worry that a mistake they make at work will be reported on and dissected by the local news. And yet, this is the reality for every teacher. There is the constant stress of needing to do everything right because everyone is watching all the time.
It is not a stretch to say this job is all consuming. Teachers are always on. There is no downtime during the day for teachers. “But what about their breaks, and lunch, and time between periods?” I will often be asked. Nope, not even then. Most teachers take about 10 minutes for their “lunch”, which basically consists of eating while completing other tasks. Many teachers will work with students who need a little more assistance before school, during breaks, during lunch, and after school. Some teachers are also responsible for recess supervision, lunch supervision, and making various other contributions to the management of the students and school during what would usually be considered their “downtime”. In at least five different conversations over the past three weeks, I have been told by teachers that they don’t drink water during the day because they don’t have time to go to the bathroom. I will surely hear this five more times over the next three weeks. Again, this is the norm for teachers.
In addition to the social and professional accountability, the expectations of others, and the deep altruism that characterizes most teachers, there are also the general challenges of the job including workload, class size, class make up (in terms of the range of student behaviours), lack of resources, the need to pay for their own resources, and the need to manage outside stressors and family demands. All of these things play a role in why teaching is so challenging.
And then there are the physical demands – especially for teachers who present with injuries or disabilities. There are a lot of repetitive physical tasks in teaching and many classrooms are understandably set up to meet the physical and learning needs of students, not the physical and teaching needs of the teacher. Imagine asking the average person who works at a desk with a computer or at a workstation to perform manual tasks, to try and work all day long at a desk or sit in a chair designed for five-year-olds.
Imagine asking the average person to stay standing for 75 minutes straight, four times a day, even while experiencing constant back pain, weakness in their legs from MS, or a debilitating arthritis flair up. Imaging asking the average person to manage a group of 21 ten-year-olds and to stay physically up to speed with them and all their energy, even when their own mood is down or compromised, or they have chronic pain. The average person simply wouldn’t be able do these things on a day-in-day-out basis, but teachers do. This fact doesn’t make the average person incapable; it simply means that teachers are unique.
In truth, there are dozens of reasons why, in my opinion, teaching is one of the most difficult, stressful, physically and emotionally demanding jobs in the world. And you don’t just have to take my word for it, there is a substantial amount of data out there to support this position (here, here, here, & here), especially in regard to overall teacher wellness. But cycling back to how I could go about answering the question of why teaching is so demanding, I find myself thinking, “if you are asking the question, there is probably no way to convince you. You either get it or you don’t. You understand teachers and their incredible commitment to their job, despite their own stressors, injuries and illnesses, and family demands, or you don’t.”
So, I’ve come to the conclusion that, instead of trying to convince people outside education that teachers, and indeed all educators, are more vulnerable to being unwell; the focus should actually be on convincing teachers that because of all the ways they are vulnerable, they need to make themselves and their well-being a priority. In the future, when someone suggests that teaching is easy, or that teachers have all this time off, or that the job isn’t really that hard, I will continue to respond as succinctly as I can, but I hope, more than anyone else, it is the teachers and the educators who are listening. Because, the most important people paying attention to the wellness of teachers needs to be the teachers themselves.