Some advice from a veteran teacher.
#1. Don’t quit.
# 2. But know this one thing: You will never feel you’ve done enough.
You will never feel you’ve done even a satisfying portion of all that’s expected.
You will rarely know you’ve done enough, because you will never have done enough. As I write this, I should be planning for tomorrow’s class. I should be reviewing for a re-certification exam coming up. I should be grading essays and putting those grades into gradebook. I should be emailing a couple parents (one whose daughter is late every day, another whose son is failing, a third whose kid may be depressed, and a fourth who deserves a little praise.) I should be finalizing this little reward system I’ve been promising the class for a week, and making up the quiz for Friday, writing up the interventions I’ve been doing with my high needs kids, figuring out what interventions I should be doing for my high needs kids, reading any of the dozen new YA books the kids are reading so I can help them.
And I’ve been doing this for 20 years, so I don’t need to spend nearly as much of my time on the vastly time-consuming prep work of planning for tomorrow’s classes.
That’s what you’ll feel you have to do, the pressures of the day. There’s even more you’ll feel you want to do and can’t, especially when it comes to the students themselves.
Yet it’s not simply that you cannot do all that’s expected in the time you have, because you should know this other thing:
#3. Much of what you do will be wrong.
You will very often feel you’ve made the wrong choice. Not just becoming a teacher in the first place, but because of all the moments that seem to be mistakes. A day without some small error of judgement is lucky, a week is impossible.
And it’s not so much that you will blunder, but that you will have no choice.
Unless you are the kind of teacher who is comfortable and happy with a room full of silent, sullen children doing worksheets and taking tests with their heads down every single day, your hardest choices have no answer you can give. You cannot put 20 or 30 kids in a room based entirely on age and expect anything at all to stay on the rails. These are people, for one thing, and they are children for another. Adults at least pretend they know what they are doing; kids don’t even have the ability to pretend. They will daily do things that only have a good answer in hindsight.
Most good teaching means something close to one-on-one instruction, but every time you slice out the moment in that hour to sit with a single kid, the other 29 start squirming. You are one pair of eyes, one pair of ears, one voice. They are legion.
It is rare to get through a week of class, or even a day, without second-guessing a choice, without replaying a better way to have handled a moment. And these aren’t even the worst moments, the one where the kid calls another a name, or refuses to do any work for you at all, or throws stuff, or stabs himself with a pencil, starts walking around mid-lesson.
You will feel, perhaps every day, that you should have done something differently.
But new teachers, know this:
#4. NOBODY knows what they are doing.
Certainly not with the kind of certainty they will throw at you. The education professionals, all those doctors of education and administrators, all those curriculum directors and learning coaches, none of them really know what they are doing.
They have good ideas, yes. The good ones are amazing resources and you should march into school every day with the conviction that they work for you, not the other way around. But their expertise and research and conferences (and time you do not have) will create the impression that you are not doing anything right. They will throw jargon at you, and a dozen acronyms, and all manner of paperwork that will make you feel you don’t know what you are doing.
You’ll be right. You don’t know what you are doing. Nobody does.
I’ve taught ELA for 20 years, nearly every English class a school might offer, from middle school to seniors and community college. I still don’t know how to ‘teach’ reading. I was working with a girl today, a struggling reader, low test scorer but a super sweet young lady. Funny and energetic. We’re working on fluency so she’s reading a passage aloud, sounding out the words, pausing for meaning, all the little things I’ve been trained to do and have done for years. She reads ‘Leon had time to wolf down his foo….’ She stops. Reads the line again. Stops at ‘wolf’. I can see exactly on her face what she’s thinking. ‘Wolf? Where did the wolf come from? What wolf? Why’s it eating Leon’s food?’ We get through it, of course, and she remembers that she even knows the phrase ‘wolf down your food.’
But how do you teach THAT? How do you ‘teach’ vocabulary they already know? We have all these little systems we’ve devised for teaching reading, all these tiny compartmentalized moments that we only understand because they’ve been simplified. But reading is an absurdly complicated process. It resists every mechanical tool we attempt to make it run, and the best we can do is muddle along behind spilling tools out of overstuffed, rusty toolboxes. Trying to measure it with tests we insist apply to every single unique kid.
Our education system is less than a hundred years old, and most of the things we are doing in the classroom today are still in their infancy.
But there’s also something beautiful about that, if you can get past the frustration. Because you are the one discovering the secrets. Nobody else is making it happen alongside your failures. Teaching is discovered in the classroom. In yours.
Teaching hasn’t been discovered. It’s being discovered. By you.
And finally, know this:
#5. There’s nobody else.
You are the only one doing ANY of it.
Teaching is an exceptionally rewarding job if you can hold to the truth that there’s nobody else for your students. There’s nothing else. You will always feel like you are losing them, especially the ones who need saving the most from some kind of flood of the world. But the truth is, you are probably the one saving them from drowning.
Yours is the safest room in the world for your students, and yours is the kindest voice. You are the only one whose sole mission is to help them be people. Most likely you have a particular subject that you are passionate about, and you are the only one not seeking to profit off it. Or off them.