Friday, April 13, 2012

Teaching: A Halfway Job?

Teaching is considered an easy job. For one thing, we only work three-fourths of the year (five-sixths, but who's counting?); for another thing, the content of our jobs is easy. It's the equivalent of babysitting. So I'd like to break down the duties of a teacher.


Teachers are responsible for the lives and livelihoods of 20-30 (or above) live bodies at a time. If you're a kindergarten teacher, you have my respect. If you're like me, you're working with sleep-deprived adolescents. Fun.

We literally are in charge of these kids' safety. We don't take attendance for nothing. Heck, we're practically prison guards to way we keep track of how long it takes for a student to go to the bathroom. Even during non-classroom time, teachers are often called upon to supervise groups of students during lunch, school events, and field trips. This is not fun. When I was Head Director of a mentorship program we took kids ages 4-15 on field trips every quarter. I was constantly counting bodies as we moved from place to place (say, in a science museum), and freaking out when people were missing. Sometimes a child just went to the bathroom. Usually the child had told his or her mentor, but no one told me. Did I mention this field trip was with 10+ competent adults? Teachers have to do that without the 10+ competent adults.

Teachers really are babysitters, or "chaperones" if you want to put it in more polite terms. We need to account for every student body at all times, even if the student is a reliable teenager who can be trusted to not go around having sex or doing drugs. I explained to one such student that we were responsible for students in case there was an earthquake and a cabinet fell on her. She said that she thought she could get out herself.


Luckily they were good kids. If they weren't I would be reduced to doing this. I do have to stop kids from running in the hallways, eating food in my classroom, and be prepared to take responsibility for their safety at all times. Except that I was given zero training in this.


A lot of people think that teachers can do their jobs on their feet and in their sleep, and some of us sometimes do, but knowing one's content is actually a pretty important job. There's a reason we're supposed to have at least a bachelor's in what we're teaching. For one thing, although you may not cover college level material with your high-schoolers, you're supposed to be preparing them for college level material. Besides which, you might just have some advanced students in your class that need more material to be engaged. Lastly, I believe in infecting students with my love of learning. I used to think, "My students don't care about English, I shouldn't be too nerdy around them." Then I read an article about infecting my students with one's love of learning, and I realized I shouldn't be ashamed of my love of the English language. I should be modeling it. One of my favorite teachers in high school was my calculus teacher. He couldn't spell and encouraged us to correct his spelling. He waxed his whiteboards with car wax. He read math textbooks before going to sleep. I didn't learn to love calculus from him, but I gained an appreciation for math from him.

Therefore, a teacher should be constantly researching his or her subject matter. This does, of course, include the content material. It's not enough to read the textbook (though one should, at the very least, read the textbook). One should be reading novels and criticism and Sparknotes. Especially sparknotes: it will help you catch plagiarism. I remember one English professor I had who was originally a technical writer for IBM. He loved and cared about the integrity of his job so much that when he was a TA, he read every single piece of criticism on the text that he could get his hands on. Of course he immediately identified a plagiarizer. In addition, reading criticism gives you an overview of what stuff you could cover, should you choose.

Because teaching literature, or any other subject, is not about being about to cite from memory (or in your paper) myriad facts gleaned from reading or lecture. It is about analyzing the primary sources on one's own and being about to create and synthesize new information. Therefore, teachers should not only be researching the content of their subject, but how to teach students.

Though I would love to someday have the time and resources to skim through peer-reviewed scholarly articles about education, for now my informal research has unearthed such gems such as what material to use to teach reading comprehension, why reading fiction is important, another way of teaching grammar, and how pronouns are a clue to personality and writing style. Most of that has to do with my content knowledge. I also hope to review articles about Bloom's Taxonomy, ways to effectively question students, how to do backwards design, and how to effectively differentiate instruction.


I recently read an excellent book about introverts called Quiet, the Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. In the book, the author, who used to be a high-powered lawyer herself, talked about men and women in similarly high-powered jobs where they occasionally had to give a speech or a presentation--some kind of talk. Introverts don't like doing this, but they put up with the occasional presentation because they like other aspects of their job. At this point I was starting to think I needed a career change because teachers give presentations every day, usually several times a day.

My schedule is a bit unusual, but I have three academic classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, one academic class on Tuesdays and Fridays, and two academic classes on Thursdays. That means, on any given week, I will have to prepare and present ten different presentations.

Presenting is difficult because you have a captive, sometimes unwilling, sometimes sleep-deprived audience who aren't as excited about pronouns as you are.

Preparing the presentations also takes a lot of thought and planning, and I find it one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching. However, lesson planning is usually usurped by other duties, such as--


I have no idea what the average editor or copy-writer reads per day, perusing hundreds of lines with different colored pencils underlining this or that. An editor's job is to make a writer's language more coherent, to catch mistakes in reasoning, and to catch grammatical mistakes. A good editor also helps a writer develop his or her own personal writing style, if the writer is not adept at this already. I happen to be a English teacher, but I'm sure teachers in the other humanities have this trouble as well. Math and science teachers probably spend a bit more time looking at math problems gone awry or diagrams of cellular or atomic structures. In any case, all students should take notes.

Granted, my students are not working on novels. They don't even turn in papers every day--only about once a month. However, each time they turn in their papers, I have a stack of a minimum of sixteen papers to grade. It takes me about half an hour to go through a paper with a rubric. I stop grading if I catch myself skimming over works and glazing over when deciding which box to check on the rubric. Superior papers are easier to grade, and perhaps only take ten minutes. Still, if I have to grade sixteen papers at a rate of ten minutes per paper, I will have to spend 160 minutes, or 2 hours and 40 minutes grading papers for one class. This is probably why I dread starting each stack.

In addition, before the final paper I do at least one teacher edit where I edit a draft and then meet with the student individually to talk about the paper while trying to keep the rest of the class quiet and on task with something else, usually grammar homework.

Of course, that's just for one class. Soon my twenty-four strong class turns in their papers. In addition, my literature classes are consistently turning in quizzes and "short" papers which are one page to 500 words. I have to grade these too--yes, even the quizzes, because I make them write sentences with their vocabulary words and extended definitions of literary terms where they analyze and evaluate said literary terms.

In addition, I also have to critique any number of presentations and projects throughout a quarter. Presentations can consist of powerpoints and prezis. Projects include tri-folds and booklets.

Data Entry:

Data entry is a respectable office job. My boyfriend used to have a job that was nothing but data entry and making phone calls to angry debtors (okay, at least I don't have to do that). Once I get everything graded, I can enter the data onto my computer at a rate of about 30 seconds per assignment, but I usually try and arrange for my TA to do this for me. She finishes in about 2 and a half minutes, but that's 2 and a half minutes that can be spent actually grading quizzes.


In case you haven't noticed, teachers have cheerily decorated classrooms. This is not a coincidence. Some schools require teachers to have a certain amount of charts, diagrams, and students work up on the walls. My students do do some projects which are appropriate for this type of display, but usually I get them to decorate my walls for me by offering extra credit for vocabulary flaps, posters, and large, colorful subordinating conjunctions and wait patiently for them to turn it in--a week before grades are due.

In addition to decorating one's classroom, one is also expected to maintain a space where as many as 80 students may traipse in and out per day, bringing with them their secret colas, candy wrappers, and scraps of papers used to draw doodles or write notes on, or simply make origami out of. Luckily I have a crew of homeroom students who help me sweep the room and clean the tables of drawings--unless they're called to an assembly.


Teachers are in charge of cleaning up scrap paper airplanes and eraser shavings left by students. They also occasionally have to mop up spilled drinks that students illegally sneak into the classroom.

Workshop Leader:

Lecturing is only (supposed to be) half or less of the battle now. Teachers should also be walking students through classwork, groupwork, and discussions--usually designed or modified by the teacher herself. For example, I once had my students diagram how various literary terms such as narrative writing, descriptive writing, imagery, figurative language, metaphor, personification, and simile were related to each other. After that, they had to come up with an example for each and decorate their diagram.

My duty while they were working was to go out and have a cigarette. Of course not. I was walking amongst the groups. Some were on track and enthusiastic and didn't need much help--just some positive reinforcement. Other groups were having trouble understanding the directions or coming up with examples. In some groups, the work not was evenly distributed among group members. In these cases, I was facilitating the workshop process.

Of course leading workshops does give me more downtime than lecture, and I can do some data entry or lesson planning or editing if all groups seem to be on track, but at the same time I have to maintain focus and move onto the next step of the workshop before the students complete their work and get bored. In some (most) cases, some groups are still working while others are done. In this case, I encourage the "finished" groups to add more detail.


Lately I've been reading articles from the Harvard Business Review on how to deal with the people you are managing. These articles strike me as very similar to how you would manage your students in terms of happiness and productivity. Schools are factories now anyway, people say.


I said that being a teacher was like being a presenter or workshop leader, except it's not. We have a captive audience, but they didn't sign up to be there, and may not even care about the extrinsic reward I'm supposed to give them. So really, I'm supposed to sell my subject: why it's important (something my fellow math and even history colleagues don't understand) and why they should love it. I'm supposed to sell my love of learning. I'm supposed to be a--
Role Model:

There is a reason why some teachers can be fired for formally being sex workers. We're supposed to be role models. In my case I teach adolescent boys, and I try and make it so that they will never have access to a picture of me in a bikini (so no facebook friending). It is also unprofessional for me to appear drunk, otherwise intoxicated, or anything but a shade from asexual on--oh, anywhere on the domain of the internet. In addition, it's not wise for me to go to school or be walking around my school's neighborhood wearing shorts and a low-cut tank top, even if the heat is blistering outside.

I am also supposed to refrain (I assume) from taking up my 11th grade girls' offer of trying their new nail polish--at least during class (put that way for now).

Role modeling is a tricky business. On the one hand, I am not supposed to show any religious or political biases. On the other hand, as I once said to a fellow friend and educator, one goes into teaching specifically to influence children, hoping to make them better adults--of course that includes my political views on freedom of speech, equality, diversity, and the environment.

So sometimes I espouse my own views, but more often than not I challenge my own students by asking them what they think, and play devil's advocate either way. Now I have to rant about a fellow teacher.

He is guilty of egregiously making clear his biases because he happens to be a history teacher. Personally, I think he's ethnocentric, and told him so once, but he dismissed my comment. Another experienced colleague of ours mentioned that what he does is particular hurtful because of his field. That being said, history teachers are often biased, I feel. My middle school teacher was fairly liberal, and that influenced my views. My sister's middle school teacher was very conservative, and that influenced my sister's views in a way neither I nor my mom liked. Luckily she grew out of it. My US AP History teacher also had a conservative bent that she occasionally waved, but I was in 11th grade by then and could take what she said with a grain of salt. So perhaps this particular history teacher is not doing his students a great disservice.

Nevertheless, when I overhear his lectures on Modern China, they seem to consist of him mostly making fun of China--something he is wont to do in normal conversations with colleagues. I wonder how his students, who are Asian, take his ethnocentric world view, for example, ordering nachos in every country he visits as an indicator of how developed and modernized the country is (which is a pretty interesting idea).

Unfortunately, he does seem to be influencing his students. I once walked by his bulletin board and saw a chart comparing Islam and Christianity. It was a pretty horrible chart, basically comparing a liberal view of Christianity to the extreme fundamentalist aspects of Islam. I don't believe that indicates good research skills or critical thinking.


While we are on the aspect of this particular teacher, I might as well talk about mentoring. Mentoring can be anything from answering a student's question to asking a student a question, to complimenting a student to sending home a notice of concern about missed homework assignments. It is finding time to sit down with a student personally about what he or she can work on, regardless of the student's performance. It is looking up terms and ideas that students asked you, but which you did not know the answer to at the time. It is noticing when a student is looking tired or sick of down. It is helping students find their place in life, the path they want to be on, and the person they want to be. Then we help them get there.

I can definitely work on my mentoring skills. Now to bag on the history teacher for a bit, I did observe one of his classes and noticed three things about his relationship to the students. One was that he often asked yes-no or remembering questions during his lecture, and did not focus on students' answers by expanding on them; always back to the content. The second was five minutes into some independent seat work, when he came up to and noticed an ESL student had not started on her work yet. While it was good that he identified the issue, he could have taken proactive steps to catch it faster. The third was when on the opposite end of the scale, one of his best, most outspoken, and most articulate student (I determined from observing one class) read her short response. It was critical and articulate. He moved on immediately without even a "Good job."

The last thing, which I did not bring up to him but which I thought was very hurtful, was when he asked one student a question and the student said he didn't know. At that point the teacher asked, "You don't know? You don't have any thoughts in your head?" I and other teachers have said variations of that to our students. Perhaps we shouldn't, but when we do we use humorous tones or tones or surprise. He used a disdainful tone, one that he used to talk about certain things in his lecture, but which I thought was particularly inappropriate toward a student.

I have to say I learned a lot more about what not to do from this particular teacher than what to do. I have to say, he has very well-prepared powerpoints and his lectures have excellent content. But I would not call him a great or even a good teacher, at least not for that particular grade level.

The Problem with Teaching:

The problem with teaching is that it is largely a self-motivated job. You can put a lot of time, energy, and even personal resources into it--if you want to. You can do a mediocre or a great job and no one will notice or give you recognition for it, monetary or otherwise. Your students will complain about the homework you give them and ask to watch movies in class like other, cool, teachers.

In addition, there is a lack of mentoring in education. From what I read about most businesses, there is a corporate culture that you are trained to fit into and your supervisor trains you--or at least tells you what your duties are. Most schools don't seem to have that; most teachers are in their own classrooms doing their own thing, occasionally collaborating with a friend. Even when senior teachers are willing and eager to observe and mentor you, your schedules might conflict. Little to no time is set aside for collaboration.

If you think about it, teachers are like small business owners, or rather, like managers of a store that is given no instructions on how to run it. There is a customer base, but they are unhappy. The company tells the managers to increase sales and keep customer satisfaction high, but with strict restrictions and little to no support.

This, along with the relative ease with which one can enter the profession, the relative difficulty of kicking out people unsuitable for the job, the low pay, and the low status, make teaching a pretty undesirable position for those who actually care about doing a good job.

I've only been a teacher for a couple of years. I've gone over now familiar material and have achieved a rhythm for my classes and a rapport with my students, but I am still convinced more than ever that teaching is a difficult job. With it's holidays and vacations and leaving at 4pm (but arriving before 8am), it is a halfway job. It is halfway down many jobs--at the intersection of at least 9. Other duties include cheerleader, academic nurse, negotiator, prosecuting lawyer, and petitioner. Other names my colleagues and I have come up with to garner more respect include "information systems management professional" and "productivity and negative disposition rehabilitator."

And now I will leave you with this:

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