Things they didn’t tell me when I signed up

Regular readers will know that this year I became a high school teacher. I am privileged to teach in an exceptional environment, with incredibly talented and motivated kids. I used to be an academic, so I was used to teaching at a university level. My PhD was in computer science education, and I thought I was already a teacher. I had no idea.

I suspect most people share a tendency to think we know what teachers do. After all, we’ve all been to school. We’ve seen what they do. They teach our kids, and we hear about some of their finest moments, together with some not so fine. What’s to know?

Wow. Where do I even begin?

For starters, the only reason I have survived this year is that I am part time. I officially work 3 days per week – and only two of them are teaching days (one is officially study leave). This means my formal work hours are 9:30 til 2:30 three days per week, and all day Wednesdays. In practice, I start earlier, finish later, and regularly work at night and on weekends, and I still don’t get everything done. Those much vaunted school holidays are spent doing marking, curriculum development and generally trying to get my head above water. And this is with a much lighter teaching load than most of my colleagues.

Sure, I am new to this, and as I get more experienced some things will get faster and more efficient. But I will always be developing and refining the curriculum and materials of any subject I teach. The day I stop doing that will be the day I quit teaching. There’s no point in being here if I’m only going through the motions.

Every year, indeed every different class, comes in with a wide range of different skill sets, different knowledge bases and different interests. Part of the thrill of teaching lies in engaging and enthusing students in your subject, and to do that you have to get to know them, know their abilities and their interests, and engage with each student personally. That is thrilling and satisfying, but it is also an immense  effort. The emotional investment is huge, exhausting and utterly draining.

About two weeks before the end of each term I hit the wall, and feel as though there is no possible way I can make it through to the next lot of holidays. I know that I will need to temper my emotional input if I am to stay the course, and yet even the experienced teachers around me are deeply invested in their work – why would we do it if we weren’t?  For the low pay, the lack of community respect, the long hours and the vast amounts of take home work? For the holidays that we spend getting ready for the next term?

Early this year my 8 year old decided she didn’t want me to be a teacher anymore: “You work too much, Mummy!” And it’s hard to blame her.  I suspect that many teachers find their families get the short straw to some extent. And yet… and yet… I am happier and more fulfilled than I have ever been in my life. The days when I really connect with the students, and feel as though I have made a difference, are euphoric. Not every day is like that, of course. Many days I am painfully aware of my shortcomings, and the kids I haven’t reached. I want tangible measures of my success, and there aren’t any.

I can’t point to an object and say “I made that.” I can’t look at a mountain and say “I climbed that.” Perhaps one day, if I’m really good, when I have been teaching for years I will have students come back and say “You inspired me.” And I know I will want to frame those moments. Right now I live for the more immediate moments when a kid grins at me and says “Now I get it!” Or when I mark a batch of assignments and see that they really do get it.

We are a week and a half away from the end of term 3, and I am dragging myself towards that finish line. They tell me that term 4 is easier, but I’m pretty sure they’ve said that every term. I’m too tired to argue. Teaching is a hell of a ride. Fortunately it’s worth it.

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8 thoughts on “Things they didn’t tell me when I signed up

  1. Joe

    Part of the thrill of teaching lies in engaging and enthusing students in your subject, and to do that you have to get to know them, know their abilities and their interests, and engage with each student personally.

    Supposing you have two sessions weekly roughly one hour each with 20 students (is that the orders of magnitude?) presumably you need to present your material AND find a way to engage with and learn about 20 different individuals squeezed into about 5 or 6 minutes per student per week?

    I assume you can pick up some impressions in group work, but how do you squeeze trust and individual engagement through such a narrow funnel?

    1. lindamciver

      It’s both better and worse. With my year 10s we have two 75 minute classes per week, but because we team teach, there are up to 52 students in a group. Only 26 of them are technically “mine”, but I feel responsible for all of them. I got some excellent advice from a friend who is also a teacher at my school – he said that the relationship is far more important than the material. For many different reasons, giving them the means to explore the material (rather than presenting it at them) and spending the time on forming that relationship is likely to be much more effective.

      In practice I must admit it’s a work in progress. I am still finding out how to engage with more of them, but there’s more that you can do in a whole group than you might think. Also the out-of-class opportunities to connect, whether it’s in choir or just chatting while on yard duty, are invaluable. The whole school is a community, and that helps too. Events like sports days provide more opportunities. I hope to get better at getting to know them as I get more experienced, but you’re right that there’s a limit to what you can do in the time. Which means the learning opportunities might not be optimal. We do the best we can within the constraints that we have – indeed, this is one of the tensions that I struggle with. I can never teach the way I want to – it’s never as good in class as it is in my head!

  2. Julia

    My husband is a secondary school teacher. He says he spends the whole school holidays preparing: by totally relaxing so that he’s ready for the next term.

    Here are some of his tips for sanity-saving teaching. They may sound slack in parts, but he has been teaching excellently for 20 years and is highly regarded, while many of his colleagues have had time out on stress leave.

    Testing options
    – Students correct and discuss in class time. There is evidence for rapid feedback being a top factor in adult learning for logic/maths/stats (not sure about children though).
    – Multi choice. Take longer to prepare but with a transparent overlay there is a time saving that pays off over years.
    – Online adaptive and linear tests for English and Maths. The marking is done for you online. Have to organise a session key, and the tests gives you a VELS level. If done at beginning and end of semester, gives an assessment for learning and of learning.

    General
    – For history and social studies, divide students’ work into work requirements and assessment tasks. Work requirements can be given a binary mark as done/not done. Assessment tasks are given a long time and checked in excruciating detail.

    – For IT classes, you can set up automated systems whereby all work sheets are sent to students automatically and received electronically. This makes it easy to ensure students’ access to handouts and saves on following up e.g. if students are away, no need for special physical arrangements for the work such as leaving work at the office for pick up.

    – Prepare a class once really well and that’s it. Detail your curriculum in minute detail with all handouts and attachments included, as if you have got to give it to another teacher: next time you have to teach it yourself, in six months or two years, you’re laughing. But what about continual updates as part of being a dedicated teacher? Yes, you still do! Every time you repeat the class you make little changes based on the cohort of students, the previous experience etc. However, you can do that on the fly in class time.

  3. Julia

    Student management
    – If you put out small fires, you never have to put out big fires. A lot of people waste huge amounts of time with big discipline issues, but if you just stick to the rules, be very consistent, be fair but firm, then things will be much easier. In a way, you are the servent and the students are your customers; an important public relations job that a lot of teachers forget is to continually remind them that the teacher is there to help.

    – He says when he was teaching IT, he taught things that took the students infinite hours to produce but could be assessed very quickly and easily. For example, Flash animations took students a long time but could be marked by visual inspection, sitting beside the student and writing assessment notes as the animation played then having a short discussion afterwards.

    – Teaching English is time consuming. As before, doing a very thorough first preparation and then adding to that, documenting all of your preparation details, is key. It leads to a big time saving over the years. The content is constantly changing – and sometimes you have an absolute disaster that needs re-doing – but usually it’s 90% good and will be fine.

    – Lessons are made interesting by ensuring the students have a large variety of different experiences. For example in a 75 minute English lesson on a play, the students had: focus questions;task objectives explained; blackboard notes with technical terms and definitions explained; whole group activity analysing one scene; small group work; reporting back to big group; reflections on learning; teacher-directed summaries.

    Colleagues that end up on stress leave are:
    – Spending long hours doing corrections which the students don’t value and only pay attention to the score

    – They are not spending a lot of time doing good preparations. They are stuck on corrections so they have poor, unengaging, not current curriculum that is ill suited to their current clients.

    – They are often inflexible and spending a lot of time on class conflicts. This is partly personality driven in that they are having a lot of fights with students, but also reflects their poor content. Their focus is on the wrong end.

    – Often disorganised. Better to go early to class and write up the expected learning, computer open to mark role, notes open, handouts ready to go.

    My husband’s class will often starts *before* the bell rings because if they are even seven seconds late he will make them sit in the naughty chair. Believe it or not these are Year 12s so this is done with a sense of humour but they know it will happen!

    In contrast, the stressed teachers are afraid of themselves or the class so arrive late. What happens: the students are already mucking up and it takes time to get back on track, including time spent on arguing with the students. Even the good kids aren’t happy with that kind of a start. Every student, whether good or bad, thinks “bad teacher” and it spirals for there.

  4. Julia

    Final tip: poo sandwich. Praise, improvement, praise. It may be quicker to say “you suck” (in effect) when you’re bothered but getting every one on side, making sure people feel valued, will also save time. Those are my husbands words, but I would gather it’s a nice thing to do too. :)

    1. lindamciver

      Thanks Julia, these are really wise words and lots of good advice. I’ve heard from other readers of this blog (also teachers) that they are already using your/Michael’s advice! Thanks so much for contributing.

  5. Sandrine

    I read your post. I recognize many moments of my teacher life…
    You’ll always work hard if you like it, you’ll always wonder if what you do is the right thing, and you’ll make your best for your students…
    I can say to you that : now, you know what is a teacher ! Welcome… and enjoy !

    1. lindamciver

      Thanks Sandrine. I do like it. I think I have found my place! But I probably need to learn to relax a little more and stress a little less. A work in progress. :)

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