Could you sustain the energy level required to be a teacher?

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If your answer is “yes” than you need to update your meds.

I am a bit worn out. I spent the last two days in a High School classroom bringing the wonders of rodent anatomy and evolution to a group of eager students. Well, three groups of eager students. I try to spend at least a few days in a local K-12 school every semester, both to lend a hand and to keep in touch with what goes on in such places. And, not that I needed reminding, but quite a bit goes on.

Being a K-12 teacher in an American public school is like being a sailor on a leaky naval vessel under fire from a superior enemy closing in fast and you have been assigned by the Captain six jobs to be done ASAP, and half of them involve finding a bucket of steam, and the other half are life or death matters. I’m not talking about my teaching. As a guest, I just show up and do the classroom thing with the students. No, I’m talking about what the teachers are doing other than teaching. Every few months the typical school board or administration comes up with some neat idea to improve education without actually reducing class size or providing more resources, but that does involve making the teachers fill out more forms and go to more meetings and so on and so forth. All of this happens at the beginning of the year and the teachers, just getting their new courses under way, just don’t have time for that, yet they make time. There are constant interruptions in the classrooms. I spent a total of about 9 hours teaching in classrooms this week and was inturrupted by the public address system no fewer than 12 times, with the last interruption being a full five minute announcement that took up the last five minutes of the last hour of the last day. Which is when I would have normally said some important stuff, don’t ya think? As a person who has taught far more than the average professor in colleges and universities, I’m always astounded at how much interruption and distraction is tolerated in the K-12 classroom. The classroom needs to be restored to a higher status than it currently has, in my opinion.

One thing I noticed that I think is pretty typical. In this particular department, and this is probably an exemplar of similar things elsewhere, there is a shortage of microscopes. (In some other school, some other place and time, there is a shortage of some other thing.) Therefore, quite a bit of time was spent moving microscopes back and forth across a rather large building for use in different classes, and quite a bit of time and mental energy was spent trying to figure out how to arrange access to a limited amount of this equipment. Microscopes are expensive, but teaching scopes are not that expensive and tend to last for many years. An investment in more scopes (which I’m actually sure will happen in this particualr case) will serve everyone very well, but the sad irony is that at no point will it ever be officially acknowledged that purchasing 12 microscopes will save hundreds of hours of teacher time distributed over the next few years. Because nobody really cares about teacher time. The teachers themselves seem to have given up on being treated fairly. And, there is no wonder that one of the variables that determines state-wide educational quality is whether or not your state has unionized teachers.

I’m very grateful that I get the chance to help out in this way now and then in local schools. I get to bring something that otherwise might not be available in a particular classroom, I get to interact with mostly great kids, and I get to give a teacher or two a couple hours of time so they can get some more prep done or spend more time with grading or planning or helping students or going to the bathroom or breathing or whatever. If you have a chance you should do something for your local teachers as well. All schools have volunteer programs, as far as I know.

Oh, and it turns out that this is a school that does the Pledge of Allegiance every Monday. They don’t take up class time, but rather a bit of the student’s “news break” time. And, in total, the student’s news break was impinged on by various outside demands somewhat more than my teaching time. The only thing sacred in the average school is the right to interrupt, it would seem!

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16 thoughts on “Could you sustain the energy level required to be a teacher?

  1. I have a hard enough time doing one-on-one (or sometimes two-on-one) tutoring. Running an entire class of twenty to thirty kids or teenagers? I can’t even imagine making it through a day. Since I started, I’ve looked at my own schooling in a new light.

  2. I find myself continuously surprised by these reports of saying the pledge “every Monday”, or “weekly”, or sometimes monthly. In the six different schools I went to, in various places, we said it every single day. By the time I hit high school we weren’t personally required to say it, but were required to stand.

  3. I really don’t think I could long endure the grind of the secondary school routine (which routine I understand is punctuated with random unpleasant surprises). Sometimes I feel exhausted from teaching at my community college job, which is about as sweet a teaching assignment as one could ask for. My hat is off to high school teachers. Brave, unappreciated people!

  4. “And, there is no wonder that one of the variables that determines state-wide educational quality is whether or not your state has unionized teachers.”

    From the context, I’m having a hard time understanding the effect of teachers’ unions – do you mean to say that the presence of unions is correlated with better or worse educational quality? (I assume better, but I’d appreciate a link to research or numbers to quantify.)

    I’ve noticed the same resource issues at our SoCal elementary school, and I was pleased to work with a teacher last year who wasn’t too shy to ask parents for what she needed.

  5. From the context, I’m having a hard time understanding the effect of teachers’ unions – do you mean to say that the presence of unions is correlated with better or worse educational quality?

    The states that are generally ranked higher generally have unions. The reason that there would be an effect is simply because unions ensure or at least encourage a higher quality of teachers. The pay scale in non-union states is much lower, and the demands even higher. In the business world and everywhere else, this sort of thing is thought to quite understandably related to recruitment quality and training. Somehow these “free market” rules are often fogotten when it comes to teachers.

    Here’s a couple of links:

  6. I’ve decided to go back into the fire and teach again. I’m planning to teach science in Middle or High School and will be starting my Masters in the spring semester.

    I taught Horticulture for one year in a high school and it was hell, but I know a lot more and I learned a lot that year. I think I will prefer teaching a core class rather than an elective.

    So now I’m studying for my GRE and hoping I’m making the right decision.

    I always enjoy your posts about teaching. Thanks Greg.

  7. “All schools have volunteer programs, as far as I know.”

    I am a middle school teacher, and volunteers usually do make our jobs easier.

    However, it is now district policy that all adults that come into contact with the students for a length of time, including volunteers, have to be background checked and fingerprinted. While I appreciate the concern for our kid’s safety, our volunteer list has nearly vanished. The background check and fingerprinting are time-consuming and costly – none of it is paid for by the schools. The volunteers must foot the bill.

    Gone are the days of parents helping out at school or retirees coming back to aide…

  8. I want to do core mostly because the students knew the class wasn’t as important as their other classes. The Hort program was very like a plant science class, but some didn’t want to learn that. In the 10 years since I have learned more about how to get students excited about something, I’ve had a child and that’s helped and I’ve learned how important science education really is (partly from reading blogs like this).

    I also learned that I wasn’t interested in the FFA program and Ag-Ed teachers are not needed in every school. The Ag teachers in this state are a rather inclusive group and I just didn’t fit in. The standard Ag tests for our state really sucked–so many poorly worded questions, wrong answers and very bad grammar. Yuck.

    About the background check, my county does it free for parents and, in my case, grandparents, I don’t know about for those who might visit for something like this. It is getting much harder to get others in the classroom. Permissions galore, planning and then background checks.

  9. Sherri:

    That’s an impressively backwards volunteer policy by your district (and state). In my state there are checks but they are free.

    In my experience the greatest hindrance to volunteering in schools were the teachers and administrators. I spent a significant time volunteering before starting a teaching program. It was part of the requirement for the program but mostly to determine whether I really wanted to do this long term. It was very difficult to get into many schools. They said they wanted volunteers but in practice didn’t follow through. I did manage to find a few teachers that wanted volunteers but they were few and far between.

    I’m just about to start my student teaching/practicum in high school science.

  10. Greg, I am loving xblog. The 9/11 rant was excellent.

    I taught high school math for one year, so on reading the title of this post, I said to myself, “From experience, no I cannot.” Teaching is a draining and mostly thankless job, even if it is gratifying to be able to get paid for trying to make the world a better place in some small way.

    This is pure opinion, but I think the biggest problems with our high schools are:
    1. Administrations try to run school like businesses but lack the education to do so correctly. This leads to problems like the microscopes you mentioned. They try to cut costs without actually doing cost benefit analyses and their assumptions about the impacts of various cost-cutting changes are often not realistic.
    2. School administrations are largely unaccountable. If a student or parent complains, it will almost certainly be about a teacher, someone who actually has to spend several hours a day in front of students whether or not they want to. From an administrator’s point of view, punishing the teacher makes the problem go away. The principal at my school ran it like his own little fiefdom until the school board voted not to renew his contract mid-year (which is some indication of how frustrated everyone was with this guy) and by most accounts he caused far more trouble than he ever resolved.
    3. Our culture promotes active disrespect for teachers and education in general. Culture in the U.S.A. is anti-intellectual, particularly youth culture. Only nerds want to learn things and improve themselves. This is reinforced by parents who say things like “those who can’t do, teach.” And of course, there’s the strain of conservative thinking that attacks teachers and teacher unions at every opportunity, insisting that all teachers are lazy parasites living off the dole.

    On that last bit: in my admittedly limited teaching experience, most teachers were working their fingers to the bone to teach their students, often working against the administration and some of the loonier parents to make things happen in the classroom. The administrator of my department, who also taught, came into work sick for a whole week before passing out, getting taken to the hospital, and being diagnosed with walking pneumonia. Lazy parasites don’t put out that kind of superhuman effort to teach kids about math.

    Then the same jerks who made our culture the way it is ask why our schools are doing so poorly. Just compare our country to one in which education is great — Finland, Germany, Japan…the difference is that those countries have a culture of respect for education and educators.

    Anyway, thanks for being a cool dude with a cool blog.

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