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What Teachers Do

Way back in March of 2015, I posted an article title “What Teachers Do.”  It was my musings on the nature of the job, a sort of advice for prospective teachers and reality check for everyone else.  At that time, I had five years remaining on my teaching career, so I could dimly see light at the end of a long tunnel.  Today, I begin my final semester, and the light is so increasingly bright, I need to wear sunglasses.  So, time for an update.

From time to time–OK, pretty much constantly–I reflect on my profession. I know that teaching can’t be a profession, because a true profession sets its own entry requirements, polices itself and sets its own compensation. Teachers will never do that, yet the level of education and continuing employment requirements for teachers are among the most stringent. So, gentle readers, excuse me when I think of teaching as a profession. It is a small conceit I allow myself.

I am sometimes asked if I would recommend teaching to a young person. That’s a less difficult question than it was five years ago. I have a semester left before retirement. I am glad of this, as teaching is changing rapidly and dramatically, and not for the better.

Part of what attracted me to teaching is the great satisfaction to be derived from passing on knowledge and ability to others. In Asian ultures, that is revered. Not so much here. In a very real way, this is the most wonderful gift we can give others, for we give not only of our knowledge, but of ourselves. A little of us remains with those we teach.  Some build on it, some don’t, but the opportunity, and the dedication, are there.

Unfortunately, there are powerful movements afoot that ignore, even attack the value of individual teachers. There are those that would love to do away with teachers, and they’re not all textbook/education companies. Imagine a school district with only the number of low-paid adults necessary to keep order as children sit at computer monitors and are taught by teachers–or perhaps only simulations of human beings–created by self-imagine “experts.” People arguing for this sort of “education” believe that in this way, all students would have only excellent teachers and the finest curriculum “experts” can assemble.

They’d be able to prove it–or at least produce data that could be warped in that direction–too. Because the curriculum would be specifically focused on passing mandatory tests that would be used to justify the curriculum, all the kids would do all year is drill for the tests. If that’s all you did all year, wouldn’t you do well on those tests? And even if you didn’t, it wouldn’t be hard to do a little data “adjustment” or “norming” to ensure the data reflected the brilliance and effectiveness of the curriculum, would it?

We don’t need all those quirky, expensive teachers. Why some of them aren’t very good, and even worse, others are excellent, which tends to make the ones that aren’t very good–and even the average–look bad, and that’s not good.

Okay, so what was the question again? Oh yes: would I recommend teaching to a young person?

Yes, but with many very significant qualifications. Just a few off the top of my balding head:

DEDICATION: You must be willing to dedicate your life, during the school year, to your students. In very real ways, they must come first. If you object to this, you won’t be a very effective teacher, and you won’t accomplish much. Of course, you probably won’t notice you’re not accomplishing much and you’ll fit right in at most schools. You have to have a life and take care of yourself and your family, but teaching isn’t a job, it’s a calling, at least for the best teachers.  The most significant problem is many administrators and principals find such teacher threatening.  They’re the type that believe in what they do, and have no time for idiotic schemes and programs that recycle and dress up failed ideas with new acronyms and terms.  Thus do “details” in writing become “golden bricks.”  Thus do pencils, rules and staplers become “manipulables.”  They value every precious and ever-dwindling minute of class time, and resent anyone, well-meaning or otherwise–that steals time from actual teaching and learning.

One of the newest, most destructive and plainly stupid “new” ideas is that teachers should not actually teach, but be “facilitators.”  Facilitators are people that allow kid’s natural brilliance to emerge.  They let the kids evaluate them and their non-teaching, teach–er, facilitate–each other, and decide what they want to learn and how they learn it.  Combined with this brilliance is the idea that teaching really doesn’t matter.  As long as a kid can take a test that reflect supposed “mastery” of the state standards, that’s all that counts.

SMARTS:  By this I mean that most people, in any endeavor, are average. If you’re really smart, if the work and concepts come easily for you, if you see things and understand things you know your colleagues don’t, you’re going to have problems.  It’s commonly thought that the people that go into education are there because they’re too stupid for other more academic disciplines like “studies” courses, but I’ve found this to be generally untrue.

Teachers, as a whole, tend to be very much like people in any discipline, but if you’re really smart, you’ll be wise never to say or do anything to directly acknowledge it. Others will recognize it, some will appreciate it, and others will be very disturbed by it. They’ll think you look down on them, consider yourself superior to them. Whether you do or not means nothing. Their perception is their reality. You’ll need to be happy with virtually never hearing an encouraging word and you’ll need to take your satisfaction almost entirely in the improvement of your students. But that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?

ORGANIZATION:  If you’re one of those people that is hopelessly unorganized, teaching isn’t for you. You’re going to be in charge of showing entire classrooms full of unorganized youngsters how to structure their brains to be organized, focused, and capable. You must be a model for them, and if you’re not organized, not only will you fail as a model, you’ll be, for them most part, unprepared on a daily basis. Kids aren’t experienced, but they’re smart. They can quickly tell whether teachers care about them, whether they’re knowledgeable and whether they’re well prepared. If they’re not, the kids will know they don’t have to be prepared either.  They’ll be right, and you’ll be letting them down.

CONFIDENCE:  Do you have any idea who you are? Do you believe, actually believe, you’re a competent, capable, interesting person? Do you believe you have interesting and valuable things to say, to impart? If not, why do you want to be a teacher? Who wants to be in a room with a meek, frightened, feckless dishrag that doesn’t believe they’re capable of doing the job? From the first day you must believe “this is my room, I know exactly what I want to accomplish, and I’m not going to let anyone or anything get in the way.”

KIDS:  Do you know anything about them? I teach high school kids, grades 10-12, but mostly juniors. Most of all, do you actually like the age group you’ll be teaching? You’d be surprised at the number of teachers that become very upset when teenagers behave like teenagers. Apparently no one told them that might happen. You can’t expect teenagers to act like anything but teenagers, even though some–mostly girls–may be substantially more mature and attentive. Just don’t let them be rude or stupid teenagers. If you don’t like kids, I mean really like them, like them for who and what they are, teaching isn’t for you. You’ll be miserable and so will the kids.

COLLEAGUES:  For really good teachers, working with kids is pure pleasure. Working with colleagues, particularly administrators, can be pure torture. You’ll be amazed at how many teachers, support staff, and administrators don’t seem to actually like working with people. You’ll be amazed at how those kinds of people can abuse others, including the public, all the time and never get fired. You’ll be amazed at the sheer incompetence of some–usually relatively few–of the teachers around you, and you’ll be amazed at how those people never get fired. You will be certain, however, that it would take very little for you to be fired, and you’ll be right. You’ll be amazed at the sheer idiocy administrators think to be brilliant, never before imagined, concepts that will change everything. They actually believe they’ve found entirely new ideas, brilliant insights into human nature that will revolutionize education.  You’ll wonder how some of those people ever got into education in the first place, and then you’ll realize it was because the people that do dirty, physical jobs have higher standards.  They have to deal with reality and produce.

DISCIPLINE:  Discipline isn’t hard, unless you have a weak principal who thinks it’s his or her job to be a middle-aged friend to all the kids. But for starters, you must conduct yourself as an adult, who will always do what a responsible adult thinks is best for the kids. You can be their friend, but a responsible adult friend, like a friend of their parents if their parents are particularly adult and responsible. You can’t be their middle-aged homie; they don’t need one of those. They get to be teenagers; they don’t get to be rude or stupid teenagers. You must tell them all of this the first day of school.

Most of all, you can’t take anything the kids do personally. If they’re making it personal, you’ll know, and even then, you don’t take it personally. You never threaten. You explain appropriate behaviors and fitting consequences, and you apply them when necessary. You do it with utter calm, no differently than handing back an assignment. If they say: “did you write me up?” You reply, calmly: “yes I did.”

You never raise your voice. That’s your classroom tactical nuclear weapon. Once you use that, to what do you escalate?

The other day, I had to raise my voice because a student was talking and so unfocused on what was going on around him it was the only way to get his attention. I had never done this before with this class. Stunned, mu students immediately shut up and froze.  Several eventually and meekly asked if that was my “serious” voice. I smiled and replied: “no. That was my ‘raise my voice enough to be heard because he wasn’t paying attention’ voice. You’ve never heard my serious voice.” They got the message: they don’t want to hear my serious voice.

If you must hand out discipline, do it without anger, with utter calm, and be genuinely as glad to see that child coming the next day as you were the first day you saw them. They’ll immediately understand that you understand them, and accept them, and will give them a chance, but there are consequences for misbehavior.

If you’re thinking “but what if they don’t like me?” You’re not ready to be a teacher.

MAKING THEM LIKE ME:  If you’re responsible, dedicated, well organized, you know your discipline and believe in what you’re teaching, if you’re excited about it and explain to them why they should be excited about it too, if you smile at them–every day–because you like them and you’re genuinely glad to be there, they’ll like you. What you’re really concerned about is whether they show you the appropriate deference.  Respect only comes thereafter. That’s something you earn every day by doing all the things I just mentioned.

PAY AND BENEFITS:  The pay is fair; the benefits are usually a bit better than that. You can make a great deal more doing many things–plumbing, for example. Job security is perhaps a bit better–at least in some places–than in some places. Working conditions can be anything from terrible to great. You will never get rich or famous, and the only way to make significantly more money is to become a principal, or an administrator, in other words, to get entirely out of teaching. The people who want to do that pretty much know that from their first day. You’ll recognize them; they’re the people kissing certain rear ends and ruthlessly promoting themselves. They know they’re not one of you, and you will too. Treat them kindly like everyone else, but avoid them like the plague, and very very, very cautious about what you say around them, or anyone that it likely to think like them.  They will betray your confidence and twist your realistic and professional concerns in a second.

Enough for today.  I’m not feeling particularly “up” on my chosen profession today, but tomorrow the kids return, and I have four new sections–two of professional communications and two of Mythology II–to teach.  We’ll get to know each other, and I’ll learn their names within a week and a half or less.  I am already completely prepared for them.  I don’t have to do that. Many won’t. But that’s what real teachers do.