Sunday, May 4, 2014

6 Reasons Teaching is the Most Awful/Awesome Job in the World

I have worked as a teacher, in some form or another, for the past decade. I was a teacher's assistant at a preschool, and tutor for elementary school kids. I currently teach sex ed and family life (it's really just teaching life) to middle school and high school age kids at a teen pregnancy prevention program. I also teach English composition at a community college, where the students range from age 17 to 65 (or older).

I never saw this occupation for myself growing up, but I absolutely love it. However, like any profession, there are positives and negatives. Most of the time, teaching is awesome, but there are plenty of times when it's awful, just maybe not in the ways you might think...

6. Students are stupid

So, so stupid. It's a constant deluge of stupidity. No matter the age, if they are in school, they are there to learn, and before people learn something, they are dumb as hell in that area. Nobody is born with knowledge. That's why all babies are complete imbeciles: they haven't been taught shit yet, or even how to shit yet.

This stupidity...maybe that word is too harsh...this lack of knowledge in students is the most obvious example of teaching as a gift and a curse. Students can make teachers lose their minds with their seemingly endless stupidity, but they also prove every day why teachers matter: students need us. A middle school student once told me that yellow skittles work as birth control. I thought it was an isolated idiotic thought, but apparently she was not the only one with the ridiculous belief. In fact, I've heard most of the insane claims in that link. So yeah, I'm constantly reminded how important my job is.

Teaching keeps you humble (despite what this post so far might lead you to believe). You are constantly reminded how stupid you once were because sometimes the dumb shit that students say sounds a lot like some dumb shit you used to say. Plus, when students don't know something, and you don't either, you're reminded that you're still not so smart yourself, jerk.

The fact is, today's students are smarter than you and I, and definitely a lot smarter than the generations before us. But they are ignorant (or "need instruction" if you want to be nice) in whatever subject you are teaching. Sometimes, their ignorance of a subject allows them to have moments of brilliant insight. They are not bogged down by facts and traditions and the awfulness of reality quite yet, so their naivete and lack of training in a subject often lets them see that subject in a fresh, innovative light.

When I taught pre-school, we did a lot of finger painting. That was my shit. One afternoon, I was painting a picture with two 5 year old girls. Like an asshole, I did my absolute best work. It was as if the spirit of Basquiat had possessed me and decided to change the world through finger paint. When I was done, one young girl looked at it and said, "Wow, that's so good! I want to do that. Why can't I draw like that? Mine sucks!" and then proceeded to cry.

As I sat there like an idiot racking my brain for a way to make the tears stop falling from this innocent creature's eyes, the other girl said, "It's okay, everybody draws differently. Whatever you draw is beautiful because it comes from you."

Oh my god. Now I was about to cry. Thankfully, the girl wasn't anymore.

What more can you say to that? I handed the adorable genius my pay for the day and walked home with the knowledge that a 5 year old was able to create a teachable moment better than I could. Ok, I didn't do that, but maybe I should have.

It was a moment that made me question my ability, yet, it also gave me the desire to improve my abilities and made me understand that there is no profession like that of a teacher because...

5. You learn more than you teach

I was always a better student than anything else. I can take a test like a motherfucker. I can read mostly anything and understand it enough to write a whole treatise. But I was never as good as a student when I was actually a student as I am now as a teacher. That was a hell of a sentence.

There is a teaching theory/technique that presupposes that individuals learn more about a topic when teaching it to others than when simply trying to learn for one's self. In my experience, that is absolutely true. As a grad student, several assignments required us to teach the class about given topics, and I never learned more about a topic than when I had to prepare a lesson and conduct said lesson in front of the entire class.

As a teacher, you constantly learn about yourself, about others, and about whatever topics you are teaching. If you are open-minded (a good teacher should be) you will face the reality that you are frightfully incompetent in the very subject you teach. You may know a lot, but it's never enough. I learned early on to prepare more than I think I will need because anything I don't know will inevitably come up, and every student will be looking to me for the answer.

The shame you feel when you don't have a response is one hell of a motivator though. You never again want to see their expectant faces and disappoint them with your lack of knowledge, so you prepare even more.

Your own stupidity is just one type of motivation, however...

4. Its an honorable profession

No, I'm not trying to imply that the possibility of David Lee Roth singing to you in class should be motivation to teach. I'm not not saying it either.

This one gets tossed out a lot when discussing teachers. Everybody wants a job they can be proud of right? The importance of teachers is understood by society at large (mostly). We hear it all the time: teachers rock!

See? All the time.

Besides the obvious fact that honor and respect don't always manifest as financial stability, when thirty middle schoolers are all yelling at the top of their lungs and two of them have cursed you out before noon, society's respect means jack shit. A lot of kids look at their teacher as the enemy by default and stay in that mindset until they are out of school. I've heard plenty of parents talk about how they wished they treated their teachers better (I've said it myself) and it's great that they finally understand the importance of teachers later in life, but that doesn't really help when their son or daughter is calling everybody in class a fag while your trying to teach the Pythagorean theorem to twenty five 12 year olds.

If you're a real teacher, that's okay though. You'll deal with the worst and the best that kids have to offer and you'll deal with those who still disparage the teaching profession and you'll deal with the meager compensation. All of the negatives on this list barely even register on the scale compared to the positives. Teaching requires patience and empathy, but those are two things everyone should work on anyway. It really is an honorable profession, and part of having honor is accepting that you will not get rewarded for the job you do.

It's not about whether people notice you, it's about what you notice in your students...

3. You see progress. Eventually. Maybe

As opposed to a regular school teacher, at the teen pregnancy prevention program, I get to see kids mature and develop for the better part of a decade. It's amazing, and it's something I need to keep in mind on a daily basis working with the younger kids because progress isn't necessary visible day to day. It is happening, though.

Of course, when you do start noticing improvement and progress, cruel fate steps in: it's time for them to move on. Even after seeing them grow for 6-7 years, I sometimes feel like it's not enough. These kids who didn't know a damn thing about the world when they started are now bright young adults. You want to keep guiding them and helping them develop and you want to experience their lives with them as you have been doing for so long, but you have to let them go. An educator's job isn't finished until students can go out on their own, so we have to eventually let them do that. That's the goal from day one. When it happens, it's beautiful, but heartbreaking because now they have to move on with their lives without your daily guidance.

You can never get too upset, though, because there's always more...

2. The endless parade of students

This song doesn't have anything to do with this entry except that it has "Parade" in the title. I just like it.

...and more and more and more. And they all have the same issues as the last batch you taught, with slight twists that keep you on your toes.

When you are asked the same question literally a hundred times, the natural human response is to lose your shit a little bit. How many times do I have to explain what a uterus is people, jeezus!?! The thing to remember is that they haven't heard it a hundred times (unless you've told them a hundred times, which justifies shit losing). It's not their fault you have to explain the same topic to hundreds of students every year; to each new group of students, it's the first time. How are they supposed to know the topic? They came to you for that. It can be repetitive as hell, but it makes you try different methods and tactics so you don't bore yourself to death. You try to come up with the most entertaining and effective way to teach any given subject. Students need to be stimulated to learn, and everybody doesn't learn the same way. You have to use different methods to reach everybody; therefore, experimenting with different techniques to keep yourself sane is actually benefiting  the students as well.

Teaching requires a concerted effort. It requires getting out of your comfort zone, unless your comfort zone is talking to 30 strangers that hate you by default because you're giving them work. I'm not a big conversationalist, but I've learned that it's important to engage kids in conversations to get them interested in learning. I've also learned that opening up to students, showing them that you're not afraid to look foolish by telling an embarrassing story about yourself or doing something silly is the quickest way to a student's heart. They have to trust you to learn from you.

I've always believed that getting out of your comfort zone is vital to leading a rewarding life, and sometimes being forced to do so is necessary. Just because my philosophy is to get out of my comfort zone, it doesn't mean I voluntarily do it often. When it comes to teaching I do, however, because the rewards are plentiful, and the effort is well worth it.

1. They will idolize you

This mostly applies to younger students, but if you make a connection with them, students will absolutely idolize you. Awesome, right? Everyone wants to be an idol, that's the whole reason American Idol exists.

It definitely can give you confidence and self esteem to be looked at as an all-mighty bestower of knowledge: "Look at this youngster coming to me for advice...I'm the man!" you might think.

But then...

"Look at this youngster coming to me for advice about whether or not to have sex for the first time...Oh shit. Oh shiiiit." I have thought.

Why are you putting your faith and trust in me? I can't even decide what to eat for dinner every night. What I say could affect this person's entire life and possibly the life of another human being (or two if they don't use the condom I give them). What if I say the wrong thing?

You very well may say the wrong thing (when it comes to an opinion; if it's a fact-based question and you're not sure, use Google dammit!) but if you are doing your best to look out for the kids while allowing them to keep their own sovereignty, then it's all good. They barely remember what you say anyway, it's how you say it, and most importantly, that you say it at all. They remember you being there for them, not the exact words that come out of your mouth. And when they screw up, the urge is to give them a grand lecture that will make them regret their actions, but for the most part, if they messed up, they know they did; they just need to know that you will still be there for them despite their mistakes. Don't let them off the hook, but don't act like they're the first ones to ever misbehave or make a mistake.

The greatest thing about the job, though, is that you end up idolizing the students. Life is unbelievably difficult for an unacceptable amount of children in this country, and when you get to know your students and understand what so many of them have to go through just to get to school, the resiliency they show is truly inspiring.

If you teach long enough, and you get to watch wave after wave of students grow into intelligent, successful individuals, it's more rewarding than any other job in the world.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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