Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Hard Part

They never tell you in teacher school, and it's rarely discussed elsewhere. It is never, ever portrayed in movies and tv shows about teaching. Teachers rarely bring it up around non-teachers for fear it will make us look weak or inadequate.

Valerie Strauss in yesterday's Washington Post put together a series of quotes to answer the question "How hard is teaching?" and asked for more in the comments section. My rant didn't entirely fit there, so I'm putting it here, because it is on the list of Top Ten Things They Never Tell You in Teacher School.

The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:

There is never enough.

There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.

As a teacher, you can see what a perfect job in your classroom would look like. You know all the assignments you should be giving. You know all the feedback you should be providing your students. You know all the individual crafting that should provide for each individual's instruction. You know all the material you should be covering. You know all the ways in which, when the teachable moment emerges (unannounced as always), you can greet it with a smile and drop everything to make it grow and blossom.

You know all this, but you can also do the math. 110 papers about the view of death in American Romantic writing times 15 minutes to respond with thoughtful written comments equals-- wait! what?! That CAN'T be right! Plus quizzes to assess where we are in the grammar unit in order to design a new remedial unit before we craft the final test on that unit (five minutes each to grade). And that was before Ethel made that comment about Poe that offered us a perfect chance to talk about the gothic influences. And I know that if my students are really going to get good at writing, they should be composing something at least once a week. And if I am going to prepare my students for life in the real world, I need to have one of my own to be credible.

If you are going to take any control of your professional life, you have to make some hard, conscious decisions. What is it that I know I should be doing that I am not going to do?

Every year you get better. You get faster, you learn tricks, you learn which corners can more safely be cut, you get better at predicting where the student-based bumps in the road will appear. A good administrative team can provide a great deal of help.

But every day is still educational triage. You will pick and choose your battles, and you will always be at best bothers, at worst haunted, by the things you know you should have done but didn't. Show me a teacher who thinks she's got everything all under control and doesn't need to fix a thing for next year, and I will show you a lousy teacher. The best teachers I've ever known can give you a list of exactly what they don't do well enough yet.

Not everybody can deal with this. I had a colleague (high school English) years ago who was a great classroom teacher. But she gave every assignment that she knew she should, and so once a grading period, she took a personal day to sit at home and grade papers for 18 hours straight. She was awesome, but she left teaching, because doing triage broke her heart.

So if you show up at my door saying, "Here's a box from Pearson. Open it up, hand out the materials, read the script, and stick to the daily schedule. Do that, and your classroom will work perfectly," I will look you in your beady eyes and ask, "Are you high? Are you stupid?" Because you have to be one of those. Maybe both.

Here's your metaphor* for the day.

Teaching is like painting a huge Victorian mansion. And you don't actually have enough paint. And when you get to some section of the house it turns out the wood is a little rotten or not ready for the paint. And about every hour some supervisor comes around and asks you get down off the ladder and explain why you aren't making faster progress. And some days the weather is terrible. So it takes all your art and skill and experience to do a job where the house still ends up looking good.

Where are school reformy folks in this metaphor? They're the ones who show up and tell you that having a ladder is making you lazy, and you should work without. They're the ones who take a cup of your paint every day to paint test strips on scrap wood, just to make sure the paint is okay (but now you have less of it). They're the ones who show up after the work is done and tell passerbys, "See that one good-looking part? That turned out good because the painters followed my instructions." And they're most especially the ones who turn up after the job is complete to say, "Hey, you missed a spot right there on that one board under the eaves."

There isn't much discussion of the not-enough problem. Movie and tv teachers never have it (high school teachers on television only ever teach one class a day!). And teachers hate to bring it up because we know it just sounds like whiny complaining.

But all the other hard part of teaching-- the technical issues of instruction and planning and individualization and being our own "administrative assistants" and acquiring materials and designing unit plans and assessment-- all of those issues rest solidly on the foundation of Not Enough.

Trust us. We will suck it up. We will make do. We will Find A Way. We will even do that when the people tasked with helping us do all that on the state and federal level instead try to make it harder. Even though we can't get to perfect, we can steer toward it. But if you ask me what the hard part of teaching is, hands down, this wins.

There's not enough.

*Yes, I know. If I had had any idea the number of people who were going to read this, I would have edited more carefully and not ended up calling a simile a metaphor in front of so many people. 


  1. You nailed it. Thank you for helping me to see it isn't that I am doing something wrong, there simply isn't enough of 'anything' to do it right. I loved the metaphor too. Brilliant.

  2. As an elementary educator, I reversed the math: 26 students X HOW MANY PIECES OF PAPER??? but we are all in the same boat. I have felt, for quite a while, like I am not enough. I simply cannot be what they need in the hours I see them. I chose this profession to make a difference in the lives of children, and now I feel like I am barely treading water.

    1. @teacheratheart... Please know that the most important lesson I've learned as an educator is that sometimes one is enough. You can not be that game changer for everyone. If I reach that one child, my starfish... If I make a difference for just one of my students, it is enough to make the job worth the struggle. I learned this the hard way and I almost quit teaching my first year, the year I learned this lesson. What we do is so important. Don't give up!

    2. You cannot be everything they need, but you can still be something they need, and that is no small accomplishment. Even if you are barely treading water, you're still afloat.

      Yes, as I said above, you will always be aware of the things you didn't get done or could have done better. But that does not mean you are not having an impact with the things you get right. You are making a difference. Don't give up.

  3. I have been living this post for 17 years (including the personal days to grade). Thanks for the food for thought!

  4. Nicely stated, Peter...

    My comments / submissions to Valerie Strauss' Wash Post piece contained in my latest post:

  5. Thank you for saying what I have known for years but heve seldom verbalized. No matter how well I do, I always feel like I am failing more then winning. It does break my heart and after 32 years I am too tired to kill myself any more - there may be more of me now, there is less to go around. They are tears running down my face as I write this.

  6. Peter Greene: you absolutely nailed a core truth of the life of Teachers, Teachers who care.

    The sum of all expectations are simply impossible to deliver, physically, emotionally or financially. Paraphrasing: There will never be enough time… enough resources… and especially never enough of me to go around.

    The exclamation point on the hard part, for teachers who care, is dealing with that sobering reality, being reminded of insufficiencies, daily. Daily ! As a new teacher, dealing with this reality, it was only senior, great teachers and a deep sense of calling which kept me going.

    Meanwhile, we know things can be done more effectively, "but"… We need more investment on all levels, especially the “people” level. Overlapping with the hard part is today’s political environment, comprised of “outsiders”, naive outsiders (defacto) driving more and more great teachers and future great teachers from the profession -- from the starting point of "never enough".

    Excellent work, Peter. Thank you.

  7. What frustrates me about this discussion is that teachers seem to believe these feelings are limited to the teaching profession when, in fact, they are the realities of most workers in America. Certainly when you are in a salaried professional position, it is easy to feel as if there is never enough time and an unlimited amount of work. This is especially true when the work involves ministering to humans who are small, sick or weak. Don't you think that health care workers, clergy, social workers and the like feel the same way? Don't you think that small business owners feel the same pressures, amplified because professional failure can mean personal financial failure as well?

    I hold 2 part time jobs, one in education and one outside the field, and I feel this way in BOTH positions. There is never enough (time, money, energy) but you do what you can to be of service and to keep your job. Even when I was working jobs where I was punching a clock, I felt there was too much work, not enough time or resources, and the best I could hope for was to tread water and stay even. You hustle or they replace you (no tenure in the world outside education!).

    Of course teaching is hard and the demands on one's time and emotions are enormous. But this is true of many professions. I am sympathetic toward teachers but don't often feel like teachers reciprocate that sympathy toward other employees facing similar pressures. Talk to the parents of your students about the pressures of their jobs (or better yet, talk to those students of yours who are working to help support their families while also full time students) and I suspect you'll see that what you are feeling isn't unique to education.

  8. Interesting article. I saw it today on HuffPo. I agree with your thesis - that we as educators simply have too little of most things to do the job in the way we think would be best for our students. We become, over years of industrious management of resources, masters of modification.

    By the way, my English teacher senses are quivering over your 'metaphor' - which is actually a simile (a comparison using like or as). ;)

    K. Webb (husband to Alice, whose Blogspot is always logged in on my iPad).

  9. Hello, I am a trainee teacher. I read the article. It was an interesting read. I have a question. How can a teacher attain a work life balance, given that she wants to do so much and that she is expected to do so much?

  10. I have good news about your metaphor embarrassment: METAPHOR ... (1) All figures of speech that achieve their effect through association, comparison, and resemblance. Figures like antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy, simile are all species of metaphor. (Oxford Companion to the English Language.)

  11. I am a teacher educator who is one of those working at a Teacher School who does tell her students, future (and sometimes already practicing) teachers, that there is never enough. It's impossible to do everything you want/should/need to do as an educator. It seems to me, though, that what we can do is to try to bring our best selves to the job every day. We won't always be successful, but day after day we can keep trying.