At this time of year, you’ll see teachers out with their families enjoying the summer. You’ll leave for work, and they’ll be outside playing ball hockey with their kids. You’ll come home, and they’ll still be there, smiling and having fun. And if there is one piece of advice that I can give non-teachers, it’s this: DON’T SAY WHAT YOU’RE THINKING.
Resist the temptation to say: “Must be nice to have summers off, Betty-Anne!” or “Working hard, I see, Paul!” Because most of us have no idea how hard modern teachers work. It is a difficult job.
Everyone thinks they know the job, of course. We all sat in classrooms. We all listened to teachers. And we all thought, at one time or another: “I could do that. It’s not so hard.” Oddly enough, we all watch movies, too, but few of us think we could be Robert DeNiro. We know that to be a good actor – to make acting look easy – takes a lot of work. Being a good teacher is no different.
The night before, you’re working on the lessons for the next day. A really great lesson plan will engage the kids, but will also test their knowledge somehow, too. In the morning, you’re photocopying the handouts or testing the projector and equipment for the day.
As the lesson unfolds, you’re watching. A good teacher is all eyes. As you walk the halls you’re looking for bullying, or for kids who seem out of sorts, or drugs, or clothing violations, or anything that doesn’t seem right, somehow. In the class, you’re looking at the kids to make sure they’re getting it. You’re checking to see if the slower learners are following your plan, and worried that the quicker students might be bored. You’re watching faces to see what’s getting through, and making sure no one is texting or trying to disrupt the lesson, somehow.
A good lesson is one where everyone seems to understand the point. A great lesson is one that gets derailed completely by an amazing class discussion, which is rare. And a phenomenal lesson can be one where everything seems to go wrong, but actually goes much better than you hoped.
I once had a student act out in class and ruin my precious lesson plan. I said: “Neil, I’m not going to deal with you right now. See me after class.” He went quiet, expecting to get in trouble after everyone left.
When we were alone I said: “So what’s up? This isn’t like you. Is anything wrong?”
Immediately, Neil, who had expected to be in trouble, burst into tears. His parents worked really hard, he said, and were never home. He was sitting in my class, wondering what the point of education was if all it means is that you eventually get a job where you don’t spend any time with your family. We had a great talk. And to this day, I still wonder how he’s doing. If he managed to find the balance in his adult life that he was looking for as a teenager.
That’s the other part of the job that a lot of people don’t understand: the WORRY. I haven’t been in a classroom in 15 years, but I still worry about my “kids.” Did I prepare them well enough? How did they do once they got to university or college? Are they happy? Do they have kids of their own?
I once had a former student retroactively complain about his marks in my class. “I’m here at Calvin College and get As – but in your class I got Bs. Clearly you marked me too low,” he wrote. That he was well-prepared for college never crossed his mind, I guess, and the irony still makes me smile.
Good teachers worry about what the kids have been doing, what they’re doing now and what they will do. Teachers know they have a tremendous responsibility to influence lives for good. At the same time, they’re fallible. They live in fear of a wrong word, a harsh moment – of being the teacher a student remembers for all the wrong reasons.
Teaching changes you. After 10 months in the classroom, you’re part cop, part parent, part prison warden, part border collie, part circus performer, part door-to-door salesman . . . all aspects of the job that don’t translate very well to life outside school. You become a different person. You use your “teacher voice” in adult situations. Spouses of teachers, in particular, don’t appreciate that tone very much.
In my experience, it takes about three weeks into summer vacation before you start feeling like yourself again, which you can enjoy for the middle three weeks, before the preparation starts again. Since teaching, I’ve held jobs where I got three weeks’ vacation, was on call 24/7 and dealt with some really stressful issues. And yet I would never go back to teaching. Teaching is far more stressful than most jobs. It’s harder work than most jobs. In fact, the harder you work as a teacher, the more work you generate for yourself.
Modelling a strong work ethic
If I do well in my current job, I get paid for my performance. If a teacher does well, they get more work, and less pay than someone who has been around longer, and who does less. Yet despite the system being set up to dis-incentivize teachers – especially young teachers – from doing their best, many teachers do their best anyway.
Good teachers stick it out through the awkward parent-teacher interviews, and the students swearing at them, and the kids fiddling with their iPhones, and colleagues who mail it in, and despite their own shortcomings, and through the piles of marking and endless evaluation, and in spite of the low pay and the long hours and constant changes in curriculum and pedagogical philosophies. Their reward is a few weeks of normalcy in the summer, to spend with their own families.
Let them have it.
So when you see a teacher out this summer, wish them a great vacation. They’ve earned it.
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