There is no job like being a schoolteacher.
You could read the above in one of three ways. You could assume a tone of complaint said at the end of a long day as one falls exhausted onto a couch. Or you could use this statement as a way to recruit young men and women into the school of education at a University. You can also read it simply as a statement of fact.
And that is how I would like for you to read it.
Because it’s true.
Teaching Is Unique
In my adult life I’ve had a few different kinds of jobs. I’ve worked for a car rental company and a bank. I worked in a library and did landscaping during grad school. I have worked in churches, written a book and countless articles, and now I have a private counseling practice.
Oh, and I have been a teacher.
And there is no job like it.
Why do I say this?
Think with me for a moment. If you are teaching five classes a day and in each class is 25 students, that means for five days a week you are personally dealing with 125 lives. And this does not include the students who are in clubs you might lead and teams you coach.
I don’t know of another job where this level of interaction happens.
It’s not just the numbers. The nature of the job is different too. You have to know a good bit of information and you must transfer that information into young minds, whose brains are not yet fully formed, test them on it, and then evaluate what they know.
All that to say, teaching is hard, even when it’s going well.
Teaching is Uniquely Hard
Now keep in mind that I have only described the job as neutrally as possible. As with every job, our limitations and the limitations of the people we work with are variables and therefore part of the equation.
You must deal with young people who for the most part would never choose to be there. They are not interested in Shakespeare, direct objects, pi, the narrative arc of a story, or the genus of a species. They are not willing participants. Inevitably, some are discipline problems.
Also, in every classroom, you have kids dealing with hard situations: divorce, eating disorders, substance abuse, poverty (wealth?), high expectations from their parents, bullying, and loneliness.
You also must manage the expectations of students, parents, fellow teachers, and administrators. Plus, there is the endless paperwork for 504 plans and IEPs and grading and entering grades…
You have a life too, by the way. And it does not stop so you can teach. Teachers also have marriage problems and discipline problems with their own kids. Teachers get cancer too and still have to get up and teach first graders how to sing “The Vowels on the Bus” with a smile on their face.
Teaching is not just unique. It is also uniquely hard. And you need to know this if only so you do not go crazy wondering if it’s just you.
It’s not just you.
This would all be distressing except for one undeniable fact – teaching has the potential to be uniquely meaningful. The reality of how hard teaching is points to the glorious potential for meaningfulness.
We could talk at great length about the philosophical and psychological underpinnings for this logic, but instead, how about a story?
Imagine a young boy sitting in his fifth-grade language arts class when his teacher announces everyone (even the boys) will have to memorize a poem and then recite it. His first reaction? “Poetry is for girls!” As he stands outside in the hall with his teacher, he expects doom. But his teacher instead gives him a copy of Where The Sidewalk Ends. He reads it. And then he reads it again.
This boy begins to think there may be something to this poetry thing.
In sixth grade, he is asked to write a metaphor by his teacher, who is famous for taking off her shoes and throwing them at students who did not pay attention and talked to their seatmates instead. He looks out the window into the trees and watches “a leaf fall like a paratrooper into enemy territory.” From that moment words became like gold and silver and precious gems.
He was good at similes too.
By eighth grade, he is writing poetry and fills his first of a dozen notebooks.
In high school, he reads Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare and though everyone made better grades than he did, he secretly relished the memorization and held (holds!) those lines the way the hungry hold bread.
He skated through college and grad school because he could write.
And then he wrote articles and eventually had a book published.
He collects poetry books now and his life is richer because of this love.
You see, all the work of those teachers was uniquely hard because that young boy wanted to be playing baseball and football instead. But it was meaningful because they drew out of him something more valuable than money. And for that, I will always be thankful.
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