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What's So Hard About Teaching Anyway?

Teacher greeting students

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.

Wade Repta The Well Teacher CBC Interview

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. 

Water glassIt 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.

Classroom desk and chair

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.

 

20 comments

  • What they do not prepare you for in graduate schools of education.

    In what other profession, and I use the term humorously, are you expected to set up, continuously update, and pack up an entire office and classroom every 10 months?
    In what other profession are you expected to carry and set up ladders to “decorate” classrooms?
    In what other profession are you expected to lift, carry and move boxes of textbooks that are dropped off in your classroom?
    In what other profession are you expected to pack and move your professional library, desk and chair, computer equipment, file cabinets, Etc. to another classroom at the whim of an administrator?

    Kevin McGroary
  • Thank you for your support. You listed things that we do deal with on a daily basis. If I may, I would like to add a few. As soon as, I walk on campus I put on different hats through out the day, mother to my students, counselor, doctor (think HS) questions here, police officer breaking up fights or physically seperating fights, psychologist ( kids tell me everything) , maid picking up their PE clothes on the floor, helping students unlock lockers and honest to goodness at least 70 times a day I am asked, “Are we dressing? Well, can I just wear this?” Which sometimes, I cant believe they were allowed to leave the house with what they have on. Then. the inevitable “you are doing to much!!” After they have only jogged half a mile and warm up exercises. There’s a lot more to list, but even my own husband and his family say , i don’t really work, i just play all day as a PE teacher. I wish that was true. Before noon on an average day my Fitbit is at 15k steps, I quickly eat between dress bells, fending off the questions, quickly use the restroom. My smallest class size was 45 this year, my largest was 60 for an elective class that started at 7;07 everyday. I get to school at 6:20 so I look over lesson for the day, answer all the emails you mentioned and call parents explaining why the child is failing, only to be yelled at it’s my fault…. I love teaching PE , I love HS kids and I can’t imagine doing anything else but its hard to always be dismissed. Parents are quarantined with their kids and are so frustrated. Now, add at least another 42 attitudes and needs in your house while trying your best to teach a set curriculum. Thank you for listening. Sorry for some grammar mistakes very hard on a phone.

    Julie M
  • Teaching is like the day after Christmas sale and you’re on the floor dealing with questions, complaints, and job demands from 8-3, everyday.

    Delma
  • Thank you for the valuable insights that educators navigate while on and off the job

    Dorothy Johnson
  • Thank you for the valuable insights of some of the daily measures educators successfully navigate on the job

    Dorothy Johnson

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