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Should I Teach?

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I got an email from James who has been reading my blog:

    I read your blog daily. I stumbled across it one day when I typed the word “corporatocracy” into Yahoo and followed the link to your blog. My question is this: I am thinking of becoming a teacher, in either political science or English. I’m a college senior, about to graduate with a dual major in Poli Sci and Sociology. I’ve heard some horror stories about teaching in the modern day high school, but it seems like a cool job in some ways, I mean you get to influence the youth of America (that feels weird to say, I’m only 22) and you have summers off. Do you think its worth the BS you probably put up with day in and day out? Is it a satisfying profession?

What follows is my lengthy response:

Dear James:

Thank you for one of the hardest questions I have had to answer in a while. I sit here with mixed emotions and ideas, trying to figure out what my answer is. I’m surprised at the emotion that the question brings up. But teaching has affected me at times much more than I ever thought it would. Hey, man, I don’t cry or anything, but I have felt deflated and defeated to the point of almost crying on a few occasions (no, I wasn’t crying; I just got some chalk in my eye).

Teaching takes over you mind at times—which can be a good and/or a bad thing. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep at night because my mind is on fire, fueled by the events from school that day. Teaching ideas, memories and reflections dominate my thoughts when I do simple tasks such as driving, walking my dog, chillin’ at a party. I somehow became a teacher instead of just having taken it on as an occupation. I like this in some ways. It has made my life more interesting, and I think I see things differently (no, not quite like Conner MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod at the end of Highlander).

One weird thing that I discovered early on as a teacher is that I truly do like all of my students. It is fascinating to encounter so many varied personalities and backgrounds (I need to remind myself more often to notice this—instead of just grading paper after paper to no end). I used to dislike or even hate certain people whom I had encountered in life. But students are somehow transparent. Maybe I am like Highlander. So often, I can tell what problems they have or have had in their lives. I understand what is going on, and I find myself being unable to dislike any of them—even when a kid acts like a complete ass. I do still get angry once in a while, and I have shown it before, but I am able to recover and continue to work with such a kid. This is probably my greatest strength as a teacher. I am understanding with students, I treat them with respect, and more often than not, they respect this—it adds something immeasurable to the learning environment.

The year before I started teaching high school (six years ago), I worked in an elementary school for four months and in schools k-12 as a sub and as a tutor. I learned so much about human beings in that brief span (about six total months before I found my current job). To be sure, there are things that I can still learn about kids if I become a parent, but I think what I learned is different in that I worked with all sorts of personalities and backgrounds. If you can find the time, sub or pre-student teach in an elementary school for a while, and then in a middle school, and then in a high school. If you spend even a few months doing this, you will see it all, from Piaget to Freud. Go to the playground. When my students went to recess and to lunch, I saw emotions at their purest. I even saw Lord of the Flies on more than a few occasions. Trying to reason with kids and to understand their thought processes and motivations—it’s intense. I swear that this understanding extends to my observations and insights about adult behavior. I’m thinking that this type of thing would interest a sociologist and a political scientist.

I mentioned anger above. Sometimes the job gets to you. Over the years, I have just gotten better at dealing with it. Some of my previous jobs helped prepare me for this. As a bartender, I had to deal with a lot of irrational, argumentative drunks—strangely this translates to dealing with high school students and their teenage “logic.”

When I first worked as a delivery driver for a brake parts supplier, I would get very upset with all of the bullshit drivers that I had to deal with. My temper would explode at times, and it all would build up over the course of a day. When I got home, I was an ass to my family and friends. I let the idiocy, carelessness and inconsiderateness of some drivers get to me. After a while of getting repeatedly pushed over the edge, I realized that I had to distance myself from what was happening out there on the roads that was beyond my control. I started taking it easy—no worries. I think it was a story my mom told me about a Berlin cab driver with whom she had once had a conversation. Berlin is a scary place to drive, and my mother had asked this cabbie how on earth he could handle it without exploding and going crazy. He answered that he just decided not to let it bother him. It sounds easy, but it took me a while to incorporate this into my personality. It has proven invaluable on a daily basis as a teacher.

You can’t bring it home with you. When you have 160 students per semester, and you actually care about your students and get to know them, you will hear and see the effects of some horrible things: rape, abuse, neglect, molestation, murder, suicide, death, serious injuries, dreams lost or stifled, and on and on. The semester that I student taught, one of my students committed suicide, and a month later his best friend killed himself. That was an ominous start to a teaching career. Obviously, it was tough to deal with, and if I didn’t become a teacher, I may never have been put in a situation where I had to deal with such a thing. It had a big impact on my life overall. But I still value the experience. Despite the suicides (which I would gladly undo), there were things that I saw in the students and people with whom I was working that were positive, that showed what humans can do when they come together. We supported each other. Kids wrote honest, intense pieces; for some this was perhaps a first. That which does not destroy you. . .

Finally, I worked in several customer service jobs. “The customer is always right.” How many times did I want to pull a “High Fidelity” type of attack, smashing a cash register over a jackass customer’s head? To be honest, I still have the urge once in a while, but I learned long ago that no matter how hard I tried, I could not totally become a Vulcan. It’s that damn little bit of Captain Kirk that we all have in us. My current customers are parents (and students, but they don’t have as much clout). The part of my job that I hate the most is dealing with parents. Forrest Gump, box of chocolates. . . I have had to deal with some serious nut cases. When I ran the yearbook, I had a punk-ass bitch mother (finally I get to swear at her—blogs are awesome) calling me a mother fucker, asswipe, dickless moron (or words to that effect) because her son wasn’t in his team’s photo (what the hell I had to do with him being absent for the team photo, I’ve never been able to figure out). As when dealing with any customer, I had to be patient and calm, speaking to her in a calm-but-eerie, Nurse Ratched way. I hate being in this powerless type of situation; I hate having to be phony in not expressing how I truly feel when dealing with a parent. I’m just not good at schmoozing.

You have to put up with all kinds of parents: assholes, holier-than-thou prisses/jerks, fundamentalist religious freaks, Amway-pitching psychos (yes, I once sat through an entire Amway presentation that a student’s mother tricked me into), the Sybils of the world, people with severe problems in perceiving reality, and the list goes on and on. I don’t know why it is, but I am much better at tolerating crazy students than I am at tolerating their crazy parents. Maybe it has something to do with power relationships. I bow down to no student, although I try to treat them as equals (most of the time). I have come damn close to having been forced to bow down to a parent, and often parents have not treated me as an equal. I have caved in to some lesser demands just to avoid a time-consuming hassle. If it comes to me having to totally sell out and bow down, I don’t think I’ll do it. I’ll flip out (not in the fashion of High Fidelity or 187, but I will speak my mind); I know it. Hopefully my union would get my back. By the way, administrators rarely back up a teacher in such situations. Administrators usually fold in the face of any complaints or controversy. They have even changed a student’s grade without consulting me. I am on my own, and this is a bit disconcerting. On many occasions, I have considered quitting after having gone through a nasty parent interaction.

I come off sounding like I hate parents. That is not my intent. I only meant to point out how negative and frustrating some parent interactions can be (these low times seem to outweigh the others in my mind). But when I think about it, I have had many great interactions with parents. There are some awesome parent volunteers at my school who are largely unappreciated. Without them, some of our overlooked students (ESL, special needs, etc.) would fall through the cracks. More power to nice and helpful parents. Down with parents who treat teachers like subordinate pieces of shit.

Kids are fresh. They surprise you. I have fun almost every day. I try to make my classes fun—for my students’ sake and for mine. My teaching approach is not dictatorial (contrary to my jokes in previous posts). In many ways, I am a constructivist teacher. A group of students, collectively, has more experience than I have. They don’t have the wisdom, or the adult experience, but the eyes of any class have seen a lot. I try to bring this out in my classes as much as possible. For any text that we consider, my students have to put it up against their own experience and knowledge and construct their interpretations of the text while they try to apply the text to our world—their world. I hope this doesn’t sound too wishy-washy. I only bring it up because it makes my class so much more interesting. I love stories. Humans love stories. Kids hate “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” but through the connections that they make to their own experience and stories, it becomes more interesting in some way. Now, I could follow the ways of some other teachers and lecture all hour about books and about writing. I could give a lot of multiple-choice tests and avoid student experience and opinions altogether. But to me, that would make for a career that I would rather bury in the ground. If you become a teacher, make sure that you design your classes and teaching style so that you will be stimulated and interested/entertained—in addition to your students. When you lose interest, they will follow suit.

People warned me about the paper-load for English teachers—that it is terribly time consuming. I just knew that I loved to read and write, and I sort of blew of these warnings, saying, “Yeah, yeah.” Well, I was an idiot. Outside of dealing with parents, my other least favored aspect of teaching is just the total time that I spend reading student work, writing comments on it, and entering and preparing data. In sociology and political science, if you want to be a good teacher who makes his students write and interact with texts and ideas, I’m thinking that you will have to spend a lot of time as well. In fact, and it’s obvious, the great teachers whom I know spend a lot of their time away from school on teaching. You should try to get some experience with the grading ritual now, so that you know what it’s like and the time it entails before you commit to being a teacher. That said, I have modified and adapted my teaching approach so that my students do a significant amount of writing while I don’t have to grade and write in-depth responses to everything they write. I had a heavy, overwhelming paper-load my first few years because I didn’t exactly know how to deal with it. I’ve learned how to do what I want with a class while cutting down on the paper-load.

In addition to having no clue about the paper load, I wondered about my ability to lead a class. I learned much of this as I went along. It’s a great skill to have developed, and if I changed careers today, I’m sure that what I got from teaching would come in handy.

I read recently that 40 or 50 percent of new teachers quit within three years. I came damn close myself on several occasions. It takes three, four, even five years to feel secure as a teacher in what you are doing. I still keep changing what I do here and there, and this is good because it keeps things fresh, but I have reached a level of understanding about who I am as a teacher and what I want to do in my classes—I’m comfortable.

That said, it still takes a lot of time. I am continually assessing how much time is reasonable. I need time to read, to write, blog, play guitar, work on my house, have a social life, and so on. My dog needs to play and be happy. Every year, the acceptable amount of time seems to be a smaller number. At this pace, by the time I retire (if I make it), I will be grading –20 papers a day. Right now, energy is a factor. Sometimes I go into a teaching day with four hours of sleep—I’m hoping for five tonight. A teacher has to find the energy when he or she is in front of a class. I don’t always find it, kids sense it, and either the lesson falls flat on its face as kids get bored and drift, or kids start acting worse than usual (they collectively seem to take advantage of tired and weakened teachers). Donald Graves even wrote a teaching book called “The Energy To Teach.”

I think that working for a school district is a lot like working for any organization: seemingly pointless time consuming tasks, meetings, lack of control and power (varies, depending on the school and its philosophy), futility, complainers and nay Sayers (it’s easy to fall into the rut of complaining about everything at school for some reason—too many things coming at you at one time, I guess), bureaucracy, personality conflicts. True, these things are all negative, but you see them everywhere—not just in schools. And if you’re into drama, then it’s all good.

The organizational structure of a school can drive a teacher crazy. I have literally seen it. That point from the movie, Office Space, about answering to seven (nine?) different bosses applies. There are teachers in charge of this committee or that committee, assistant principles, principles, curriculum coordinators, superintendents, other high-ranking school bureaucrats, school board members, politicians, parents, the students—as a teacher, you have to answer to a lot of people, both directly and indirectly.

Get in a situation now where you can work with students: subbing, if you qualify; pre-student teaching; volunteer work at a school; after-school activities such as coaching or community service. Find some excellent teachers and observe their classes. Don’t rely on your memory of what it was like to be a student. You need to re-experience what schools are like ASAP.

Part of my answer in the affirmative—that you should try teaching—hinges on the school in which you would start your teaching career. They run the gamut. You must find a good place to teach—with good leaders and a good staff. Finding such a place is not so easy because the schools are also being selective in whom they hire—I came close to settling for a job in the middle of nowhere in a school that did not match my teaching philosophy (what a mistake that would have been—I would have been miserable). You need the freedom to teach in the style that suits you. New teachers need to be in a school where teachers collaborate and share and are helpful. Depending on what you want to do, you might want to find a place that isn’t known for controversy. In my six years so far, two teachers whom I liked and respected were fired for “questionable” behavior. Several other teachers have been fired for other reasons.

Depending on where you teach, you might not be making relatively much. I’m okay with the money that I make, but I don’t have to support a family. The benefits and time off are certainly enticing. I idealistically said that money was not a factor. Once I settled into teaching, though, I heard all sorts of complaints from teachers about money. And we are getting gypped every time contract negotiations come up. Our raises are not keeping pace with inflation.

The subjects that you majored in have a ton of possibilities. I would love to teach sociology. In fact, I incorporate some things that I learned from sociology classes into my English classes (we connect group psychology and dynamics, culture, social patterns, ethnicity, discrimination, etc.). You can be quite creative in this area. The same can be said for political science, depending on how flexible the curriculum would be.

At my school, all kinds of personalities are evident in the teachers. There is no, one right personality or methodology to be a good and content teacher. On some other level, teaching is for some people, while it is not for others. Don’t assume either way. There is only one way to find out. You have to experience it.

I will say that it is definitely worth a try–even if you quit after a year. Teaching offers some experiences, both good and bad, that I don’t think you can get in any other field of work. No matter how much time you might spend teaching, you will have all kinds of memories to draw on for the rest of your life. Somehow, I think that if I worked in a typical office environment, the experiences wouldn’t even come close. And if you teach some students to be critical thinkers, then you will have made the world a better place.

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About Dirtgrain

  • Eric Olsen

    This is heartfelt, practical, honest and overall outstanding. Thanks! We need teachers, but we need them for the right reasons.

  • duane

    Very generous and honest appraisal, Dirtgrain. I haven’t taught at the high school or elementary levels, but I know people who have or that do. I have taught at the college level, which is much easier going. Let me second your opinion that it’s not just the students that color the experience but also the administrative staff and the rest of the teaching staff.

  • Dwaine AKA Scooter AKA D.J.

    That was pretty good Dirtgrain. One question, what grades do you teach?

  • Dirtgrain

    I teach composition and literature classes to students in grades nine through twelve.

  • Dwaine AKA Scooter AKA D.J.

    Cool. I just wanted to know. I’m a high school freshman.

  • carla

    I am reading your book lives on the boundry and I am woundering if I could email you sometime.

  • Dirtgrain

    I’m not Mike Rose.

  • Vern Halen

    You’re right – it takes all kinds. Glad to have you aboard, Dirtgrain.

  • Brenda

    I know that you wrote this forever ago, but I want to say thanks for writing it. It has helped tremendously, and I will make arrangements to sub:)

  • Dirtgrain

    Thanks Brenda. I just re-read it, and I wouldn’t change what I wrote. I’m in my tenth year now, and I still like it (and suffer with it at times).

    People tend to see substitute teaching as something negative. I think we can all remember when we had a sub in one of our classes–and a lot of kids planned on taking advantage. While I did have some tough subbing experiences before I became a teacher (and I still sub now and then during my planning period), I also had some great experiences. Even some of the bad ones are memorable.

    I once subbed for a special ed. teacher at a middle school. In one class, I saw that she had three students. “Three students,” I thought, “that’s going to be easy.” I was mistaken. The three students, Larry, Willie and Joe (sounds oddly like the Three Stooges), were the most foul-mouthed, delinquent seventh graders I have ever seen. They had to be escorted by a teacher from class to class. I was told to call immediately to call for help if they gave me any trouble. As soon as the escorting teacher left the room, these three kids start putting swear words together in combinations that I had never heard before. One of the kids walked right up to the window, picked up a book and threw it out the window. I didn’t call for help. I was too stubborn. So, I did my best, and by the end of the hour, I had managed to get the kids to sit at the table and talk a bit about the assignment that they had. Nothing else was thrown out the window that day. I was shaken and drained after that one class period, but I felt a degree of success. That was my toughest substitute teaching experience.

    A more positive experience came at another middle school, where I subbed for a music teacher. She had left me pages and pages of typed, single-spaced notes and instructions. It was ridiculous. I couldn’t even finish reading them before class started. Before I knew it, I found myself in front of an orchestra of about twenty five girls, conducting them as they played through several pieces of music that they were working on. I had no experience in conducting an orchestra–only my own experiences as a choir student in junior high school. That didn’t stop me, and while I made some mistakes (there’s nothing quite like a group of twenty five middle school girls simultaneously getting pissed off at you for messing up on telling the bases when to come in), it was a great time for me. I don’t think I’ll ever get an opportunity to conduct an orchestra again.

  • Kyra

    I am currently going to school to become a teacher. I have encountered some difficult times that have made me second guess my decision. I’ve read books that are supposed to inspire me to become a teacher but they’ve achieved only the opposite. They encourage teachers to become revolutionists and to fight the system. That is not my intentions and your words have helped to light the flame under my feet again. I appreciate your honesty and your writing style. You should write a book… Thank you!

  • Noemi

    I have been debating whether or not I should go into teaching i’ve been thinking about i for a whole year. Today, I googled the question “should i teach?” and you’re blog popped up. I received an answer. Although teaching has it’s negative points, i believe your description is true and refreshing. Thank you for being honest and giving me a heads up as I continue the path to teaching! I agree with the previous comment. You should write a book if you haven’t already:)

  • minijen

    inspirational. i’m half way to qualifying, feeling confused, and your words are like gold dust. i work in a high school as an assistant and cannot wait to become a teacher. thanks

  • Ryan

    Hard to believe you posted this five years ago. Reads as if it was (were?) written yesterday. After several months of job shadowing/student teaching/volunteering/receiving stickers at a local elementary school, I’ve been seriously considering elementary education as a career and have been referring to all sorts of articles, short stories, and anecdotes to help guide my thought. Out of everything, this has been the most useful and rewarding.. And my forehead wasn’t idling on “Stickey Keys” by the end of things. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jess

    So true. I am an English teacher as well. I teach 9th graders. When people ask how I like it…I always feel I can’t answer that question with a simple response.

    Teaching is such a love-hate career. Some days I love it, other days I dream of going and sitting in a cubical somewhere.

    I love teaching when I am actually teaching the students. The time in my classroom is the time that I am the happiest. After-school and at night when I have loads of work to grade and stupid paper-work tasks and documentation that administration wants me to, I hate it.

    After talking to some parents, I also want to quit. I have all the patience in the world for irrational and annoying kids-but I have NO patience for stupid parents, other teachers, and administrators. I actually feel I have less patience for adults because I am a teacher.

    I also agreed with you that I also always end up liking every student I teach. Even though some drive me absolutely crazy, I always find love for them somewhere. It is amazing what they go through on a day-to-day basis and I carry them long after the school day is over.

    I hate the paperwork, and all the stupid BS that administrators make you do. I also teach in a state-tested subject, which limits my freedom to teach how I want. I am constantly pushed by administration to “teach to the test” even though I firmly believe that if you teach kids how to think, they will do fine on the state standarized test. I am still learning to marry the two.

    Half the battle while teaching is keeping myself entertained, if I have any hope of the students finding what I am talking about interesting.

    Thanks for the honesty. You made me laugh. It is amazing how much I could relate to your post. Teachers are the only ones who can really understand what it is like. When you try to explain what it is like to someone else…well you end up attempting with a 5-7 page response.

  • Vanessa

    Thanks so much for your post, Dirtgrain. I’ve been thinking of a teaching career for so long now, and I’m just entering college… This set my mind on teaching. My father was just trying to convince me out of it because he thinks I’m capable of more.. but teaching is such a challenge already. A great teacher is like a work of art. You help so many people through teaching, and even though it may not be the highest paying job or the easiest either, it seems so rewarding. Not just for the teacher. You give and you get, and that is my interpretation of success. It pays in experiences.
    Thanks once again. Take Care!

  • V9

    By far the most helpful and honest advice imaginable…. Thank you!

  • Nikki

    I’m just beginning to teach English to blind children and adults,I come from a long line of distinguished (whatever that means!)teachers and often feel like I’m too young and in very deep water. Your pages lifted me up so thank you :) I also wanted to share a wonderful book which I have just finished called ‘For You, Dear Teacher’ by Eva Hoffman. It is more for people who have been teaching for a long time, but for me it explained one or two issues that come up most of the time i.e. stress, uncertainty, stress! Not the chemical goings on in the brain, but the human responses, or maybe I should say the ‘teacher responses’, and suggests ways to keep yourself calm and motivated for your students, whilst keeping your integrity! Thank you again, I’m going to go and look up ‘The Energy to Teach’ :)

  • Dee dee

    I am a current substitute Teacher and I work mainly with special needs children. I have encountered obstacles as a substitute mainly with my students parents and parents can be very harsh especially when their child has a disability. My undergrad was in Political science Public Administration and honestly, I have been 2nd guessing if I should just pursue my masters degree within my major or go into special education. I have thought about completing a Teachers career switcher program which we have in VA or just completing the teachers program now and complete a masters in my undergrad later. I am so confused and I love love both professions.:/