Is Being a Great Teacher Actually Impossible?

Jonathan Gelbart
Apr 16 · 8 min read
Flickr / Kevin Dooley

It is not flattery but rather strong conviction underlying the statement that the classroom teacher performs one of the most difficult tasks asked of any professional person.

-Seymour Sarason

In defense of teachers

Sarason offers a nearly endless stream of similar insights that any teacher will appreciate, though he also offers some tough love that we’ll get to later on. Two decades after the book was released (and, in fact, almost 50 years since the book’s first edition), Sarason’s observations remain strikingly accurate.

For instance, Sarason explains the unrealistic expectations placed on teachers:

I am referring to the expectation…that a teacher should be equally adequate to the management of all children and problems in the classroom. This presumptuous expectation tends also to be shared by teachers, with the result that they have no difficulty finding occasions that prove their inadequacy.

And he talks about teacher burnout, quoting from a TV special on the subject that aired in 1980. This is fascinating and depressing to read mostly because it so closely resembles what we still hear today:

Teachers, often the most dedicated teachers, are fed up with years of long hours, low pay, turned-off students, indifferent parents, red tape, physical danger, and so on. Some say they suffer from illnesses related to stress. Other surveys show that teachers have almost the lowest job satisfaction of all the professions.

There is clear evidence the public thinks the schools aren’t doing the job any more, and they lay much of the blame on the teachers. In a Gallup Poll last year, the public put “improving the quality of teachers” number one on their list of ways to improve the education system. That same poll showed a decreasing respect and regard for the public schools generally, a concern over declining test scores and high school graduates who can’t read or write very well.

“In some of my classrooms,” [one teacher said], “up to 50 percent of the students come from families where there is only one parent present…there’s an increase in drug use…it’s also the growing number of disruptive students. That is a major problem.”

Of course 1980 was long before the advent of charter schools, No Child Left Behind, and the other oft-cited origins of modern-day teacher malaise. As Sarason says in his book, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Yet one of Sarason’s most interesting points is…

The importance of a stimulating intellectual environment for teachers

Is the intellectual growth of teachers less important than that of pupils? Can pupils learn and change if teachers are not continuing to learn and change?

Teachers cannot create and sustain contexts for productive learning if those contexts do not exist for them.

There were absolutely no forums, no traditions that brought teachers together on a scheduled basis seriously (a) to discuss the practical problems and issues of classroom and school living, and (b) to discuss and evaluate articles and books bearing on those issues and problems, i.e. publications about which any educator who purports to be a professional should be knowledgeable.

Sarason then asks, “If teaching becomes neither terribly interesting nor exciting to many teachers, can one expect them to make learning interesting or exciting to children?” He determines that “children and teachers show most of the effects of routinized thinking and living. It would be strange if it were otherwise.”

Next, Sarason shares several anecdotes about how younger teachers often realize rather quickly that they want to leave the classroom. “They did not see the school as an intellectual community in which they could look forward to growth and change,” he says. “In fact,” he relates, “some explicitly pointed to some older teachers in the schools as examples of what they feared they might become.”

His discussions with teachers “centered on the lack of intellectual stimulation. … They complained that their days were not varied, school was a well-insulated fortress, and that they felt locked into a system that had some characteristics of a factory.”

One of the biggest challenges new teachers face, Sarason explains, is the “loneliness of the classroom and the lack of relationships in which questions and problems can be asked and discussed without the fear that the teacher is being evaluated.”

On the structural challenges of teaching

At one point in the book, Sarason makes a firm recommendation that every teacher will love:

A law ought to be passed making it mandatory for each parent to teach a class by himself for a day each year.

Sarason caps off his discussion of the general challenges of teaching with this coup de grâce:

[Teachers] are expected to bring their children…to a certain academic level by a time criterion in regard to which they have no say. Faced with numbers and diversity of children and the pressure to adhere to a time schedule presents the teacher not with a difficult task but an impossible one.

I say impossible because I have never met a teacher who was not aware of and disturbed by the fact that he or she had not the time to give to some children in the class the kind of help they need — and the need for help, it should be emphasized, is frequently not due to any basic intellectual defect.

Reinforcing the latter point, he says elsewhere that there is a “frequent clash between the needs of children and the structure and organization of schools.” On this point, “teachers [resent] having no voice.”

Despite the magnitude of these challenges, Sarason does not see them improving any time soon. In fact, he is not bashful about breaking even more bad news.

Tough love

The fantasy of smaller class sizes

“One of the most frequent fantasies in which teachers indulge,” Sarason says, “is how enjoyable life in a classroom could be if class size were discernibly decreased.” He continues:

Like the heavens of religions, reduced class size is a teacher’s ultimate reward in comparison to which inadequate salaries pale in significance. The reason I label this a fantasy is not only because it is incapable of fulfillment, but because those who hold it tend to be unaware that it is unrealistic.

Let us put it this way: if Congress in its infinite wisdom were to pass legislation making it financially possible to reduce class size in half, the legislation could not be implemented…what would be impossible would be to train teachers and other educational specialists in numbers necessary to implement the legislation, especially if one employed more demanding criteria for selection than has been true in the past. … Other human resources will have to be tapped and developed.

In other words, even if legislation were passed funding a 50 percent decrease in class sizes, filling those classrooms with high quality teachers trained in the traditional manner would be impossible.

“In formulating the goal in such a way, the problem is rendered unsolvable,” he says. “The formulation is also based on the assumption that training centers have the capability to train twice the number of teachers — an assumption that never had and does not now have a basis in reality.” (Later on, he proposes one way to solve this problem: decrease the prerequisites and shorten the training time for someone to become a teacher.)

Want to be treated like a professional? Act like one.

Sarason then takes a surprisingly harsh tone toward what he perceives as most teachers’ lack of knowledge of the general goings-on of their profession. For instance, what are the current debates in the wider world of teaching, the controversies, new discoveries and best practices?

For teachers “not to feel an obligation…to read what [is] going on in the field, is, I must in all candor say, inexcusable.” He continues, saying that “a professional person is, among other things, someone whose responsibilities include knowing what others in the field think, do, and have found and reported.”

“If I were czar of education,” Sarason says, “I would seek to stimulate and support the professionals in each school to devote at least one hour each week to a meeting in which is discussed a published study, report, or book that everyone had read beforehand.” This is a worthy concept (and unsurprising to hear from a university professor and researcher who may be projecting a bit), but perhaps it is not the best implementation strategy considering the numerous existing demands on teachers’ time each week.

“Professionals should always be ‘going to school,’” Sarason adds, though he is quick to clarify this doesn’t mean “taking courses, workshops, or what passes for staff development days.” Just as students “should be helped to accept” responsibility “in furtherance of their learning,” teachers should have a responsibility for learning over their lifetime.


Sarason wraps up by saying that teaching became an impossible profession because the school system promised the public it could do an impossible job.

The single most significant mistake made by educational personnel was to accept responsibility for schools; i.e., willingly (even eagerly) to permit parents and others to give them responsibility.

It was shortsighted…because there has never been a time when educators had the resources to deal with problems as they and the community defined those problems.

School personnel…effectively kept parents and others in ignorance about the unbridgeable gulf between problem definition and resources.

In other words, the schools should have admitted that they could not tackle all these challenges alone — but they didn’t. That leaves us with the question: what now?

Clearly, public expectations need to be recalibrated. Schools (and teachers) alone cannot solve or make up for all of society’s problems. And, as Sarason describes elsewhere in his book, reorganizing schools to account for this reality can happen only with pressure from outside the school system.

(See the full list of the book’s takeaways in my review here.)

In closing, struggling teachers, take heart. At least one expert education researcher really did believe that being great at your job — in its current form — is truly, literally, impossible.

Buy Revisiting “The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change” on Amazon (affiliate link)

Jonathan Gelbart

Written by

Director of Educational Initiatives and Innovation for the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute. Engineer. AZ native. All articles represent my personal views only.