Teaching is an incredibly taxing job, so much so that I’m opening myself to the possibility of leaving it behind before I break–physically, cognitively and emotionally. And, while I try to keep a professional demeanor and positive attitude (no easy task!) at work, sometimes a guy just has to get things off his chest!
The posts that follow are my thoughts (and musings) on what my life as an English teacher has been like, and why I’m ready to take my life in a different direction.
I don’t intend to speak for all teachers, nor will I pretend that my experience is necessarily the norm in public schools throughout the nation. This is simply the portrait of an individual who had the best of intentions, but isn’t quite making it in education.
As an educator, part of my responsibility is to act as a parent in your absence. In my daily interactions with your children I must ensure, not only to their academic success, but also to their emotional, social, and psychological well being. I must reinforce good habits, like perseverance and risk-taking. I must help students to build their moral character and take responsibility for their behavior.
But, I can’t do this alone; you and I are supposed to be a team. But, sometimes (too often) it feels like I’m the only one holding up my end of the bargain.
Now, I am not a parent, your response to which (I imagine) must be: “Well, then, you can’t know how difficult it is! How dare you judge me?”
You are right. I don’t know the intricacies and difficulties involved in parenting, and it is not my intention to judge you.
I imagine that, indeed, it must sometimes feel like you’re juggling 20 leaden objects in your two hands. You’ve got work, dinner, doctor’s appointments, housecleaning, bills, soccer practices, dog walking, family functions, arguments between siblings, trips to the mall–the list never ends! I get it. There are only so many hours in a week, and there’s only so much you can give. I have similarly outlined some of the difficulties of being a teacher.
But, this isn’t about whose job is more difficult. This is about your children, and why their education should not end with the afternoon dismissal bell.
You may, perhaps, be surprised to learn that your children do not always behave in school, as they (perhaps) do at home. They may tell you everything you want to hear, but it isn’t always the truth. On the other hand, if you have trouble getting your teenage son or daughter to do chores at home, to respect your wishes and follow your directives, to speak to in a respectful manner, and to earn everything you give them, please don’t expect that any of this will be different at school.
It is difficult for adults to understand the difficulties teenagers experience. Somehow, we forget the feeling that the world is against us, once we have surpassed it. And, yes, adolescence is a time when people make their best mistakes. But, that doesn’t mean that we should abandon teens to their selfish despair. We must do our best to guide them, urge them along, contain their reckless urges, and resist them when they attempt to assert their will upon us.
But, there’s only so much a teacher can do in one class period. This is why I need your help.
Your Children Are Comfortably Lazy
We could all argue that since the dawn of time, teens have been lazy. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Teenagers today, whose time and attention is consumed by Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and Netflix, have little motivation to do anything other than watch images dance across their screens. Their brains have been lulled into a permanent sleep from which they refuse to wake, and there are real consequences.
According to Common Sense Media, teens today spend nine hours of their day using their cellular devices. Social media seems to take priority over all other responsibilities, but when students are held accountable for not having completed assignments, invariably their excuse is, “I didn’t have time,” as if somehow, the time they waste online serves as a legitimate excuse for having done nothing else of value.
Some students hang their heads in shame, as I visit each desk to check for homework and will whisper, “I don’t have it.” Alarmingly, however, a large portion of them seem to believe I’m the villain in the story of their lives. They scowl at me, as if to say, “How dare you assign homework? Don’t you know I have better things to do with my time?”
(And, some people have been duped. An administrator once told me that if students weren’t doing homework, I should stop assigning homework. I wonder if the government would take the same tactic if we all stopped paying taxes. But, I’m just an educator; what do I know about teaching children how to be upstanding citizens? Please, forgive my digression.)
In my experience, the students who are most involved in time-consuming extra curricular activities and have other responsibilities at home are also the highest academic achievers. And, if they have time to get everything done, why doesn’t everyone else? The truth is that the majority of the students who claim they don’t have time to do their homework are simply managing their time poorly. Even worse, they believe that if something they need or want to do takes too much work (or time), it’s not worth the trouble.
Your Children Don’t Care About Learning; They Just Want to Pass
Students want to “earn” (be handed) a diploma because they’ve been convinced that it will lead them to a lucrative job, but this doesn’t meant that they actually want to learn anything–especially if it involves homework.
It’s difficult for me to express how disappointing it is to find that, of 30 students in a given class, only three thought it important to complete the homework. That means I’ll spend the class period teaching the three students who actually have some idea of what I’m talking about.
What’s even scarier, though, is when I see that more than 50% of my students across multiple class sections are turning in the exact same answers to homework questions, word for word–answers they undoubtedly received as a text or tweet from the one “friend” who actually attempted the homework (or looked up the answers online). Students will present their plagiarized work, boldfaced, expecting full marks. Yet, when class discussion begins, it is obvious that these students have no idea what the words they copied onto their notebooks even mean.
But, here’s where it all breaks down: teenagers today expect that their mere presence in the classroom is enough to “earn” them a passing grade, even if they’ve completed no homework. They don’t actually care about learning. They simply want to pass. (There are many arguments to be made about why this is the case, and it’s due in large part to the the way in which the educational system is structured).
Because learning is not important to them, they expect big rewards for little effort. And, when they don’t get their way, they pout, whine and claim that “this is unfair.” This is when they’ll turn to you, because they know that instead of having them suffer the consequences of their actions, you’ll probably defend them.
Your Children Know You’ll Take Their Side
Often, I call parents to discuss their children’s progress in my class. “Ricky didn’t turn in his analytical essay,” I’ll say. “We worked on it in class for three weeks,” I’ll add. “Ricky will probably fail this marking period–perhaps the year–because he is not turning in his work,” I’ll predict.
Way too often, parents will jump to their child’s defense. They’ll make excuses for their child. They’ll ask me if their son or daughter can make up the work. They’ll say, “My son told me that the students in your class can be chatty,” trying to project the blame onto me. They’ll say anything to alleviate their child of responsibility for his or her own mistakes.
Parents who do this are teaching their children that they don’t need to hold themselves responsible for anything. When things don’t go well, it’s always someone else’s fault–someone else’s problem. Students know that when they fall short, their parents will fix everything, so why even bother in the first place?
Your Children Know You’re Too Busy To Keep Tabs
Yet, never do I feel more anguish than when parents say things like, “He’s failing? How can this be? I had NO IDEA! He always says he has no homework.”
If you are busy parent, your child may have grown to expect that he or she will not be held accountable for doing well in school. You child may not communicate with you about what’s going on in school. He or she may hide report cards and progress reports from you.
But here’s the deal, having no idea about your child’s progress in school is equivalent to them “having no idea that there was homework.” It’s no good!
Teachers call home. In most schools, teachers’ grade books can be accessed online. Schools send progress reports and report cards each marking period. If you haven’t received any indication (good or bad) about your child’s progress in school, that’s usually a sign that your child is hiding something. If it’s December, and you haven’t seen a single report card, log onto the grade book. Call the school. Email your child’s teachers.
You are busy; I get it. But, to be boldly frank, this is part of your homework–it is your child, after all. Find out how they’re doing in school. Ask your child to show you his/her completed homework. Set clear expectations, rewards, and consequences.
A child who hopes to be educated cannot hope to learn everything at school. Yes, sometimes, homework is overwhelming, and while there should also be opportunities for relaxation, there is also value in wrestling with, and overcoming, difficulty. Managing homework, among other responsibilities, teaches your children the value of diligence and grit.
Your Children Have Too Much & They Feel Entitled to Everything
Part of the reason why teenagers today have difficulty accepting the idea that they have to work to earn a passing grade is because they’ve never had to work for anything in their lives–and they have SO MUCH!
When they wanted a teddy bear, you got it for them. When they wanted walkie-talkies, “Santa” brought them. You got them Xboxes, PlayStations, iPads, iPods, $300 sneakers, headphones, expensive jeans, and tickets to the Drake concert. You gave them their own rooms with flatscreen TVs and laptops. And then, you got them smartphones, unleashing them unsupervised unto the dangerous world of social media.
Now, rewarding children when they complete their chores, do well in school, and treat others with respect is great! Your child should be encouraged to continue working hard to become a good student and a good person. That’s not to say that your children should have everything. Teaching them the value of humility will take them far. People who work for what they have, and learn to make do with what they don’t, are stronger, happier people.
But, when your children have everything they could ever want, without feeling that they’ve had to work for it, there’s little anyone can do to reverse their feeling of entitlement.
Often, when I call parents, they will make a desperate plea: “I don’t know what to do anymore. Kim won’t listen to me.” I sit in silence, and listen with as much compassion as I can muster. “Kim was showing her friends her new iPhone 7 this morning,” I won’t tell her mother. “Kim missed two-week’s worth of work because you took her on vacation to Costa Rica,” I’ll withhold. “When Kim failed English class last semester, why did you buy her expensive, new Nikes,” I’ll wonder in silence?
I understand the urge to give your children everything you think they deserve–everything, perhaps, that you never had. But, unless you’re teaching your children that they are earning these rewards–and that the availability of these rewards is contingent upon their continued cooperation with you and their teachers–you are debilitating your children. You are teaching them that these comforts are automatic–that they require no effort or exertion. When they become adults, life without you will crush them.
Your Children Can Be Unapologetically Rude
Once upon a time, people said “please” and “thank you.” Once upon a time, people responded to a “Good morning,” and wished each other a wonderful day, as they parted ways. Once upon a time, people pledged allegiance to the flag (or at least stood quietly as others pledged allegiance). Once upon a time, people looked you in the face (instead of at their phones) when they were having a conversation with you. Once upon a time, children knew that speaking to an adult–speaking to a teacher–was different from speaking to a peer.
Ah, the good old days. More than anything else, what debilitates my soul more than any of the issues outlined above are the disappearance of manners and the absence of respect.
I expect to write a blog post dedicated entirely, and in detail, to this problem, but here’s what I’ll say now. Your children are convinced that they have just as much power and authority as any adult that surrounds them. They challenge us, curse at us, tell us what’s what. “You’re the only teacher that cares I don’t have my ID,” they’ll tell me. “Just leave me a lone and teach your class.”
Granted, teens have always attempted to challenge authority–that’s nothing new. The problem is, now more than ever, they are actually succeeding. Instead of standing strong, adults are succumbing to the whims of teenagers, afraid to anger them or make them upset.
Often, I’ll politely ask a student to be quiet. He’ll stop talking for a second, then turn around and do it again. Often, I’ll greet an entire class and hear two students whisper a greeting in return. Often, I’ll ask a student in the hallway to take off her headphones, and hear, “You’re not my teacher,” in response.
With all due respect, manners and respect are learned at home. If your children curse at home (or hear you cursing at home), they will curse at school (anywhere really) regardless of the presence of adults. If your children talk back to you at home, they will talk back to their teachers. If your children learn that you don’t value teachers, they won’t value teachers. If your children break the rules at home, they will break the rules in school.
As a teacher, I can do my best to reinforce manners and cultivate a culture of respect. However, these values begin at home. If you give me the flour, sugar and butter, I can bake the pie. But, without the ingredients, there’s nothing I can do.
We Need You
So you see, teachers need you, because, in spite of what you may believe, education doesn’t just happen at school. Education begins and ends with you.
Take the time to talk with your children. Teach them to value and love learning. Communicate with teachers. Don’t give your children EVERYTHING. Make them work for what they want, and make them work to keep what they already have.
Make “Good morning!” a required phrase in your household. Prompt your children always to greet you and other adults. Teach them to treat the cashier at McDonald’s with dignity and respect. “Thank you,” goes a long way. Show them how to write a note of appreciation for grandma.
Make them apologize when they make a mistake. Demand excellent grades. Cheer them on when things get difficult, but also allow them to learn from failure–don’t rescue them every time.
Limit TV time. Monitor cell phone use. Be a constant presence in all aspects of your child’s life.
Yes, it’s difficult work, but so is everything worth having.
For many of us, the sound of the Monday morning alarm unleashes an avalanche of to-dos, should haves, if onlys, and what ifs, accompanied by a painful desire to hug our pillows and take comfort under our blankets–pretending that we are suspended in space and time and nothing matters. (Please tell me it’s not just me!) We quickly realize, however, that we must take action. We spring out of bed in a desperate, “it’s now or never,” and dash through our morning routines; we rush to get coffee, rush through breakfast, rush to the car, rush to work.
Here are some of the ways that I (attempt) to deal with Monday. Maybe they’ll help you, too.
1. Get in the car. Play this playlist. (Try to) Relax.
Anyone who doesn’t feel anxiety on their way to work, please tell me your secrets! In the meantime, I use this playlist (Thanks, Spotify!) to get me through.
2. Begin with gratitude. (This one requires a little more explanation)
On my morning commute, traffic on the highways is slow and I have a lot of time to think. I think about my lessons for the day and meetings with guidance counselors. I remind myself to remind students that their compositions are due in a few days. I pray that the copier is free, because I forgot to copy a handout the day before. I dread the faces of some of my first-period students, whose faces seem to have been sculpted in a permanent scowl.
But, in the middle of all this, I remember to give thanks. It’s the one thing that keeps be grounded, and it’s the one thing that gives me hope. Maybe, I don’t love my job. Maybe there are other passions I could pursue if teaching didn’t take up so much of my time, or if I didn’t need to hold other part-time jobs because my teaching income doesn’t go very far. Nevertheless, I am reminded that no matter how dissatisfied I may feel, things aren’t that bad in the grand scheme of things–much less in comparison to other people (those who are unemployed, those who suffer from illness or abuse, those who don’t have the freedom to choose their own destinies). And so, I take some time to give thanks.
I give thanks for my family, whose unconditional love and support have helped me to overcome difficult circumstances and to feel that I am a good person. I give thanks for my partner, who believes in me, unconditionally. I give thanks for the opportunities that have afforded me a quality education. I give thanks for my health, for my friends and colleagues, for my ability to make enough money (from varied sources) to pay the bills. And, I give thanks for my students–especially those who remember to say “Good morning!” or “Have a great day!” (More on this below).
When I get to school, I’ll probably forget to feel grateful. I’ll focus too much on all of the things that I wish were different. I’ll complain about all of the things I feel powerless to change. I’ll chastise myself for not having been more productive on the weekend. But, starting the morning with gratitude gives me hope. I may feel like I’m drowning sometimes, but I haven’t drowned yet, which is more than many people (too many people!) can say.
3. Remind yourself that you know what you’re doing.
The first period of the day is always an experiment (sorry kids!). No matter how much planning I’ve done, I always feel insecure when I’m teaching something for the first time. What if I can’t explain this well enough, I ask myself? What if I’m not energetic enough? I’m only on my first cup of coffee! What if I can’t answer a student’s question? What if this lesson just sucks?
My mind scrolls endlessly this way as I stand at the whiteboard, updating the agenda for the week. And then, I remind myself: You’ve got this. You’re smart! You know what you’re doing, and if your lesson doesn’t work as well as you’d hoped, you’ve got enough wits to modify it before the next period.
4. When students come in, smile and say good morning even if you’re dying inside.
I’ve never been a morning person. That’s part of what makes Mondays so difficult. I wake up at 5:30 AM (!!!) and by 7:30, I’m expected to be in full-on teacher mode. Thirty students will depend on me to tell them what to do and how to do it, and to give them a good enough reason to follow along. Honestly, I just want to hide under my desk, hug myself, and sneak a quick nap.
But, I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. If I want my students to show me respect and enthusiasm, and I need to teach them how it’s done. So, I smile and say, “Good morning!,” as they enter my classroom. Then, I greet the whole class the same way when the bell rings. I repeat myself several times until they greet me, in return. I’m trying to teach them that, while we ALL would love to be curled up under our blankets on a Monday morning, we can and SHOULD do our best to enjoy each other’s company.
5. Be glad you didn’t assign homework
Students don’t do homework on the weekend. If you’ve taught for a while, you’ve surely been witness to an array of interesting reactions when you say, “Everyone, take out your homework,” on a Monday morning.
They usually look like this:
Or, like this:
Or, like this:
If you’ve based your lesson on students having completed a task over the weekend, you’ve sabotaged yourself. I’ve learned this the hard way, so nothing is due on Monday–ever!
Go ahead and judge me. You can thank me later.
6. Don’t let go of that coffee mug until at least 10 AM.
Pretty self explanatory.
7. Bring your headphones or avoid common teacher areas.
On most days, your colleagues can be a source of joy, comfort, and friendship. In fact, my colleagues are my favorite part of the job. But, on Mondays, they can also be the source of a great deal of negativity, and while commiserating comes with its fair share of satisfaction, it also sets the tone for our interactions with our students.
So, because Monday is difficult enough on its own, I hide in empty classrooms or computer labs and work, or if I must sit in a common teacher area, I bring my headphones and listen to the playlist above.
8. Work through every available second between classes–grade!
A teacher’s job is never done. English teachers, especially, must contend with mountains of grading and paperwork. For every task I cross off my to-do list, three more stand in its place. It’s a problem I’ve never learned to solve, and it’s a large part of the reason why I don’t enjoy teaching anymore.
One day, I hope to enjoy a career that actually allows me to have a life beyond work. In the meantime, I grade between classes. I grade through lunch. I grade before I get in my car, after student dismissal. I grade when I get home, before dinner. I grade in bed before I go to sleep. I even grade in my dreams.
9. Close your eyes when you feel a rant coming on–breathe.
Sometimes, students mess up. They’re chatty. They refuse to do the work. Way too often, they are downright rude! After a while, the well of emotions begins to overflow and then: word vomit (What?! You haven’t seen “Mean Girls”?).
You might be tempted to tell your students why their behavior is unacceptable. Why they won’t get away with this in “the real world” (which is a lie), or why a college professor would never stand for this.
I’ve done my fair share of ranting, mostly while feeling guilty because I’m subjecting the entire class to my tirade, even though the message is really intended for a few knuckle heads. This is what I’ve learned: My rant won’t improve my students’ behavior, because it doesn’t solve the problem: a lack of motivation to learn (more on this in a later post). If ranting does have any effect, it only serves to upset those students who were not misbehaving in the first place. It sets a negative tone. It puts them in a bad mood. It puts ME in a bad mood. So now, I just swallow my words. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I tell the guilty parties, “I’ll speak to you after class,” and I move on with my lesson.
10. Thank the Stephanies and Yousefs, who actually treated you like a human being.
After a tough day of teaching, I feel exhausted. Sometimes I feel accomplished. Most of the time, I feel demoralized and overcome with a sense of despair.
But then, I remember: Stephanie said good morning to me, when I saw her in the hallway! (Most students pretend not to see me). Yousef stayed behind (AFTER THE BELL RANG!) to talk about the last chapter of Animal Farm! Carlos wished me a good afternoon, before he walked out of the classroom!
Sadly, this doesn’t fix the disappointment I feel most of the time, as a teacher, but it certainly does help! I make a point to thank these students for their kindness the next time I see them. I want them to know that their actions make a difference and, even if they are not great students, being good people goes a long way.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a teacher. Truthfully, I hadn’t even thought about becoming a teacher until I was already halfway through my degree as an English major, and I realized I had no idea what I would do once I graduated.
But, once the idea took root in my mind and I began to take the necessary steps to enter the education program at my university, I was excited. I knew that I had something to offer students. I knew I would be good.
I thought about the difference I would make in the lives of students who couldn’t read and write well. As their English teacher, I would spark students’ curiosity and wonder–help them see how literature is life, how literature feeds the soul. I imagined students returning to my 10th grade classroom, telling me that because of me, they had learned to love books–that I was THE REASON To Kill a Mockingbird was their favorite book.
At the time, I thought teaching would be the most rewarding profession I could ever have, and I was lucky. I would matter to my students, I thought. People would respect me and my work, because I wasn’t going to be a just good teacher; I would work to be the best.
That confidence and that insatiable desire to do well–to be the best–propelled me through my teaching certification coursework, student teaching (OMG! I almost died from exhaustion. It was SOOOOO hard!), and my first years as a novice teacher. But it only took me so far.
Student teaching presented the first indication that my reality as a teacher would be a far departure from the fantasy my imagination had once indulged. The majority of my students were good people, as individuals, but they were lousy students: unmotivated, lazy, chatty, defiant–sometimes aggressive– and SO far behind in reading development, vocabulary acquisition, and basic writing and grammar skills.
When I found it difficult, sometimes impossible, to reach some of my students, I coached myself through it. You’re a novice, I told myself. Everything gets better with experience. Once you’ve taught for a few years, you won’t have these problems anymore. Just keep working. Forgive yourself when you fall short. Get better. Be the best. Work hard. Sleep later.
And then, students didn’t read. They didn’t do their homework. They didn’t study for their tests and quizzes. They didn’t participate in class. They stared blankly at me when I asked basic questions about a chapter that I had assigned a week earlier.
They didn’t follow the dress code. They broke the rules and became angry (hostile, even) when they were held accountable for it. They texted or Snapchatted their friends, even when you were talking to them. Many abandoned decency, unapologetically painting expletives and vulgarities in the air like works of art.
None of that mattered, not to the administration, not to the parents–at least, not enough. It was MY JOB to ensure that these kids learned. My job to make them care. My job to make them behave or deal with their behavior. My job to make them pass. I did what I could.
Of course, not ALL of the the students were lazy, defiant and rude. Some were perfect examples of diligence, human decency, and kindness. These students regarded me with desperate eyes, as if to say, “I’m sorry my classmates are being rude. I’m sorry our class has let you down.” I can always count on at least one of these students per class. They give me hope, but they’re the minority.
Still, most students could be convinced that doing at least SOME work for the class was worthwhile. Some really did want to learn–they just didn’t want to have to work for it. They turned in papers with their names on them replete with plagiarized nonsense, sloppy handwriting, and made-up answers. They turned in essays written during their 40-minute lunch period on the due date, laden with spelling errors and flimsy and unsubstantiated arguments. Meanwhile, I agonized for hours, correcting errors and making suggestions for improvement that would never be acknowledged.
Why It’s a No Go
Now in my sixth year as a teacher, I wake up to the same reality every day, and it’s killing my soul.
I love my students, even the difficult ones, and I wish them well. Why else would I work as hard as I do for even the smallest ounce of progress on their part? However, I don’t have much left to give. My energy, my patience, and my enthusiasm have all waned.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I know what it’s like to walk in a teacher’s shoes. Now, I’m ready for a different pair.