The other day, a former student of mine who is now in college wrote to me asking me to share with her the “dark side” of being a teacher. There are plenty of sources one can find romanticizing the teaching life, but comparatively few talking about any of the downsides of this career. I’m happy in my job and in my career, but as with any path in life, downsides do exist. A lot of teaching careers burn out early, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because these teachers didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. I think it’s worth going into this career with one’s eyes open, so I took this request seriously. At the risk of alienating some folks, I thought I’d go ahead and share my reply here.
There’s a line of thinking among writers that suggests that every budding writer that can be discouraged should be. The idea is that the writing life is a life filled with impossibly high walls to climb, disappointment, rejection, failure, and criticism, and so the only people who should take it on are the people who are so driven to write that they can’t do otherwise, the people who can’t be turned away by any amount of discouragement.
I’m inclined to think the same applies to teaching.
You asked about the downsides of teaching; I’ll try to pull together as many as I can think of and give it to you straight. There are upsides too, and I want to make that point so I don’t come across as some bitter jerk who’s in the wrong line of work. But I’m deliberately not going to talk about them for two reasons. First, that’s not what you asked for. Second, I don’t want to muddy my points here by appearing to be setting up a “point-counterpoint” type of thing. I don’t want to make it seem like a given that the pros outweigh the cons. They might, for you, or they might not. Anybody who doesn’t acknowledge that is peddling something.
If you’d like to talk about the upsides of teaching on a different day, I’d be happy to have that conversation too.
So here are some reasons not to be a teacher:
• You will fail, frequently and continuously
The movies make it seem like if you really really want to get through to kids, you will find a way to reach them, to make what you teach important in their lives. You will inspire the generations and change lives. Edward James Olmos as Jaime Escalante manages to reach every last gangbanger and teach them all calculus, making them realize their self-worth along the way and giving them all a way out of the barrio.
That’s a bunch of crap.
Every teacher fails. Every one. No matter how desperately you want it to be otherwise. You succeed magnificently with a few kids. You are adequate or perhaps better than adequate with most, maybe. But there will be kids who don’t want to hear your message, won’t believe you’re on their side, or will misinterpret the things you say. If you’re worth anything as a teacher, you won’t give up trying, and so you’ll never stop being dissatisfied. Every last kid you don’t reach, you will blame yourself for. Because, sure, the kid may have had baggage coming in that made him or her hard to reach, but that’s no excuse, because reaching that kid was your job, damnit.
With the kids who succeed, you’ll know that many of them were brilliant, many of them were hard workers, many of them had families supporting them, or tutors coming by. Many of them were going to succeed no matter what you did. You can’t take sole credit for most of them. But the failures are all yours. Failure will be your constant companion until the day you retire or the day you stop giving a damn.
• You will be disliked by the very people you are devoted to helping (or, worse, you will sell your soul to keep that from happening)
Every teacher worth anything got into teaching because he or she loves young people. (Or adults, if that’s what you end up teaching, but I’m assuming for the moment you’re considering teaching young people.) But as a teacher, you must wield authority. No teacher is gifted enough to make every student want what she wants–see the previous point. No matter how nice you want to be, sooner or later you have to demand of a student what he or she doesn’t want to give. Sooner or later, you will have to let a student deal with the consequences of his or her actions or inactions. (This may not be true of Montessori teaching, but I’m not convinced that Montessori teaching works for all kids beyond the elementary level.)
When people are made to do what they don’t want, when people receive negative feedback or consequences, they generally look for someone to blame. Guess who? You. (And, you know, sometimes they’ll be right.) So you will enter teaching because you really like young people, but some of them will hate–hate–you. It doesn’t matter how much you think this or that teacher you had was beloved–I promise you, a significant number of students hated that person, and that teacher can probably tell you who.
And not just hatred as in personality clash, but as in people believing, with all their fiber, that you are a horrible person, who has harmed them.
And, by the way, the people you failed to reach, or the people who are sure you’re a horrible, petty monster, have a lot more incentive to tell you about it than the people who think you were okay.
Swing by my RateYourTeachers page and see what some angry folks say about me, and consider whether you’re prepared for the hurt that will come when they say those things about you. I promise you, somebody will.
(The irony of being the sellout teacher–you know what I’m talking about, I’m sure–is that even the sellout teacher is despised by somebody. Usually the people who want to learn and be prepared for their later courses. Or by the unpopular kid who doesn’t like the popular kids the sellout panders to.)
• You won’t have as much spare time as you think you will
During the school year, I put in about three hours per school day of my own time. In that time, I grade papers, write assessments, lesson plan, answer questions from students via Moodle, help students after school, communicate with parents, etc. And it’s barely enough. I could possibly do less–not give up my after school time helping students, not answer Moodle questions, grade things on more of a right-wrong level and not give as much feedback as I do. But that brings me back to the first point I made. I am working my butt off because when I fail, I need to believe that I did everything I could to make it be otherwise.
A lot of people go into teaching because they believe that teaching will give them time to pursue some other dream–very commonly it’s writing. 😉 (Since I know you like writing, you might want to check out Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, where he talks about attempting this and just how disastrously it turned out for him. It’s an awesome read anyway, so it’s time well spent.)
For the first ten years or so of my career, I spent most of my summers working as well, preparing for the upcoming year. In recent years this has tapered off some–I’ll take a week or so of inservices, but I no longer try to lesson plan ahead or anything like that, mostly because our shifting expectations when it comes to curriculum has made it, in my experience, wasted effort. And one year I actually wrote a whole year’s worth of sixth-grade lesson plans over the summer, only to be told the week before school started that they wanted to move me to seventh-grade.
Still, I keep hearing how a perk of this job is the easy, easy working hours, and it just ain’t so.
• You won’t get paid what you’re worth
“What you’re worth” is a tricky and potentially offensive phrase, so I’ll just put it this way. Pretty much the only people working jobs that require a bachelors or more who will earn less than you are social workers and the counselors and librarians at your own school. This is not hyperbole–I’ve done the research. Try to find a career requiring as much that pays less. And the summer doesn’t mitigate that–I’m talking per hour. (And I’m not counting all the work on your own time, either.)
Are there jobs that pay less? Sure there are. You won’t be living in poverty. But you could be making a much more comfortable living. It’s easy as a young person, when you’re already accustomed to not having much, to proclaim that you don’t care about money. Years later, when you realize you’ve made that choice not just for yourself but for your spouse and your children as well, you may find you’re a little less blasé.
• Society won’t respect you or what you do
Everyone loves to talk about how much they love and respect teachers, but it’s just talk. You need look no further than how poorly we compensate teachers to know that society doesn’t mean it. Do we love teachers enough to pay an extra penny on our sales tax? Eh, not so much.
But there is clearer evidence these days. Look at what’s happened in Wisconsin and in Florida. Look at the rhetoric being slung around about how so many teachers are lazy and incompetent. You can go to the Daily Show’s website and see a whole lot of it collected in one place–I’m not online right now, but on the front page where they have segments collected by theme, there is at least one about education. I can find a link later if you can’t find it. There you’ll see pundits (mostly on FOX, the country’s most popular news network) talking about how teachers are in fact overpaid, undereducated, and incompetent. Google up the phrase “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” and see how many hits you get. Dig up some Front Porch threads from around the year 2000 (or see if Wayback Machine has archived any of the really racy threads from 34747.org).
• Everybody is sure that education is broken, and everybody has a different idea of how to fix it, and you must satisfy them all
Whether education is in fact “broken” is, first of all, not as clear-cut as most pundits–from the left or the right!–would have you believe. But that’s a topic for a whole other thesis, so I’ll just throw that statement out there for now.
Assuming for the moment that it is broken, experts have been trying to fix it for many, many decades. Every three or four years, some new fix becomes the vogue, and you will be required to invent all sorts of ways to implement this fix. The previous requirements from the last fix, however, are rarely lifted from your shoulders. If you protest, it’s because you don’t care enough about reaching kids, you don’t have the right motivation, you aren’t really a good teacher. And, you know, a lot of the ideas you will run across will actually be good ideas that resonate with you. But you won’t be able to take one good idea and run with it, because you’ll be too busy trying to implement everybody’s pet solution. (It’s worth noting that inventing ways to fix education is a good way to make your name as a pedagogue, as a bureaucrat, or as a politician.)
Well I seem to be running out of steam–or at the very least, I’m running out of batteries on my laptop. 🙂
There are reasons to teach. I’m not planning on leaving the profession any time soon. But I am in no way exaggerating the downsides.
Teaching is not a job; it’s a vocation. The majority of teachers burn out within a few short years of beginning their careers–as I recall, it’s currently at five years, but you might want to confirm that with some research of your own. Those who burn out, I have to think, were unprepared for the hard parts.
Don’t be one of those teachers who burns out in five years. Don’t go into teaching on a lark; this is not something you back into. If you find that you are so drawn to teaching, that it’s the only job that will satisfy you, even with all the downsides, then maybe you were born to be a teacher. Maybe it’s the career for you. But hopefully you’ll go into it with your eyes open, and not be surprised by harsh reality.