Teaching is hard

Teaching high school is so immensely difficult. I am too stubborn to give up, but lately that feeling of wanting to give up is getting stronger.

Lots of people have been asking me questions like “What is the hardest thing about teaching high school?” I still can’t fully articulate an answer to this question, but here is a first attempt.

1. It’s so easy to stop caring. Most of the kids at my school are disrespectful to me and each other, do not care about learning, do not seem to care about their future. For these first few months, I’ve been drawing on my enthusiasm for the job and compassion for these kids (many of these kids have rough circumstances, they need someone to care for them, they need someone to explain to them why getting an education matters, etc.) to make it to work every day and try my best. Lately, my “reserves” are running empty. I put out so much energy and get so little back from the kids. The moments when I feel successful are too few and far between, and sometimes seem like delusions: one day I feel like I’m getting through to a kid, the next day he/she is behaving worse than before. The ups and downs are emotionally draining. It’s hard to keep going like this. It would be far easier to just do a mediocre job, stop hoping that kids would achieve more and feeling disappointed, and quit caring.

2. It sucks to know you suck at your job. I am fragile, prideful and have an ego. It’s a real shock going from my university where I felt good at my job and felt validated, appreciated and respected for it, to a situation in which my skills and knowledge are inadequate and I do not feel respected by students. I am good at some parts of teaching high school, in other areas I am lacking (for example, discipline). The other day I wrote about how intrinsic motivation is strongly tied to a feeling of self-efficacy–well, that applies to me too. It’s hard to feel motivated when you feel ineffectual. And when you force yourself to do something when you’re feeling unmotivated, you lose the joy of it all.

Who in their right mind would take on a job like this? No wonder the public school teacher attrition is so high.

If it weren’t for a friend and colleague who reached out to me today, listened to me vent, and encouraged me, I probably wouldn’t have the presence of mind to write these words. Our schools need more teachers like this person.

Winter vacation can’t come a moment too soon.

5 thoughts on “Teaching is hard

  1. Dude, it is a special person who can do the job for a long time – I respect them greatly. It seems to get worse and worse all the time – even here in Aus. I used to think I would end up teaching math in a private school, but I wouldn’t even touch that now. They have their own problems there.

    You know that you don’t suck at your job. Teaching high school math in the inner city is a near on impossible thing to do. I reckon that just showing up and keeping the body count less than 10 should be considered successful – I know that sounds like I am joking, but I’m fairly serious.

    You rock…take it as a life experience to make you super strong (like King Kong).

    Dr Dannole el Mannole.

  2. When I was in Tanzania I once spent hours preparing a “get to know the lab equipment” lab, basically just having students measure stuff in as many ways as I could think of. When they finally did the lab, it was total chaos. Several thermometers were broken, teaching students how to read screwgauges and calipers was much more difficult than I had expected, many students were off-task and finished less than half the activities, and my room was a mess. I was frustrated and mad, but one student stayed behind after class to say “Thank you teacher, we learned so much and had fun too.” I didn’t think my mood could change as quickly as it did after that comment.

    It’s made me reflect a lot on my teachers and how infrequently even the best of them must hear that they’re appreciated. (Or parents of teenagers, perhaps even less.) Trying to teach teenagers to express gratitude would have to be 10 times harder than teaching them math. To stay motivated as a teacher I had to have faith that the students were learning, even when I didn’t hear about it or when exam scores were disappointing. Speaking of which, I was always happy to have finals followed by a break, because grading those finals was almost never encouraging.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, even if it doesn’t feel like it, I’m sure you’re doing a very good job and those kids are damn lucky to have you as their teacher. They just might not realize it for another 10 years.

    Good luck!

  3. “Winter vacation can’t come a moment too soon.” You said it, and the students feel it too. I remember the times before holidays being especially difficult. And they say the holidays can bring out the worst in folks. I think this stress probably is affecting your students, too.

    Another thought: a Montessori teacher once said that teaching is like planting seeds. You can’t dig them up to see how things are going and you can’t usually predict when they will sprout. You just have to keep planting and tending and hoping for growth. Just today a seed I planted with a student several years ago sprouted. Several years ago, I was pretty sure that my interactions with this student were a big flop. At the time, I was pretty upset and didn’t know what to do. In this case, the former student shared with me that what I said sunk in but only made sense recently in light of new experiences. I think this is the exception — when you hear about the sprouts. Probably we have no idea how most of what we plant turns out.

    What I am sure of is that your students’ lives will be different because you have interacted with them in the fabulous way that you do. They may not show it or even feel it now, but I am absolutely certain that more than one will be affected in the years to come. You are good at what you do. Better than good. Amazing.

  4. How many students does it take for you to feel that this was worthwhile? What if it’s an effect that isn’t realized for many years?

    You have very high flux. If just one of your students becomes a math teacher because you helped him move from memorization to assimilation, then you would have huge second-order effects.

    As a teacher, you’re there to open them to possibility and prepare them for opportunity. It’ll be on them to realize the effects, and that may take many years.

    Take courage. Be strong, my friend and teacher. You sow the seeds of hope.

  5. You’ve described how I’ve been feeling for the past year and a half. Add to that having to deal with CRAZY parents and an administration that is completely unprofessional, and I just can’t take it anymore. I haven’t told work yet, but I won’t be continuing teaching next year, not high school at least. I think I’m going back to teaching adults ESL in a private language school. I made less money but felt so appreciated by my paying, adult students. It was very rewarding. High school is not worth having benefits just to constantly feel abused and unappreciated. Good luck.

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