Teaching is Hard

This past term, I taught a college history course.  It was my first college teaching experience, following  many years as a high school teacher and administrator. I admit it was quite fun -- college students can be a kick. It was also a tremendous amount of work to make each class session as valuable as possible.  I spent about twelve hours for each class session, 250 hours of work for my $2000 paycheck.  Just shy of minimum wage.

I was reminded how difficult teaching is, especially good teaching. I last taught (not counting conference presentations, staff development and occasional drop-in lessons) in 1993. That's twenty years ago. Since then I've been an administrator, hiring, guiding and evaluating other teachers, full of suggestions to make their classrooms more engaged, the learning more universal and the interactions more focused. I've mentored many a teacher from my perch in the principal's office.
Ridiculous. I failed to do several of the things I insisted my own teachers do: checking for understanding, not allowing the most vocal to dominate discussions, and scheduling frequent informal assessments. The students told me it was a good class, that they learned a lot and were engaged.  They liked the activities, the discussions and the emphasis on how history informs current issues. Nice, but not good enough.  A few of my students were still overwhelmed by the pacing and rigor of the course.

The critics who rail about "failing teachers" and "failing schools" have no idea how difficult the work is. We praise soldiers knowing the difficulties they face.  We support our police officers and fire fighters and appreciate the work they do on our behalf. We defend the office of the president in spite of disappointments because we know it must be a tough job. Surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, scientists, engineers and mathematicians are revered.  After all, their jobs are hard, really hard.

I remember teaching now. It's hard too. Really hard.

The next time you read some pundit talking about "good teachers" and "bad teachers", look for their description of what each does.  Ask yourself what exactly they are doing differently.  Odds are, neither you nor the pundit can clearly describe what "good teaching" entails.  It's not a recipe you follow. If it were, we could all do it perfectly.

Yes, I have seen excellent teachers and a few fairly worthless ones.  The worthless ones shared one quality: laziness. They were the ones who tried to do the job in just forty hours a week. Can't be done with any quality.

Go hug a teacher.  Now, before you forget and read another article from Bill Gates, Students Matter or Michelle Rhee slamming the profession.


  1. I've seen a number of interviews with Michelle Rhee, and it didn't seem to me as though she was slamming the profession as much as she was slamming the system. But I agree, teaching is hard, very hard.

  2. In college my worst teachers were the ones who turned the class over to the students for discussion. At first it was heady, giving impressions, input, discussion as 18-year-olds. But when it became obvious that we were teaching ourselves, I lost all respect for those "instructors."

    My daughter and son-in-law are high school teachers in Sacramento. What a zoo! They're happy if five parents show up for parents night. By the end of the first semester, most of the laptops that were distributed in lieu of textbooks had already been defaced or destroyed by students, and some had been sold by parents to buy drugs. And yet, when the students fail, it's the teacher's fault. I don't understand why they love their careers so much.


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