The Teachers

by Sarah Blaine

We all know what teachers do, right? After all, we were all students. Each one of us, each product of public education, we each sat through class after class for thirteen years. We encountered dozens of teachers. We had our kindergarten teachers and our first grade teachers and our fifth grade teachers and our gym teachers and our art teachers and our music teachers. We had our science teachers and our social studies teachers and our English teachers and our math teachers. If we were lucky, we might even have had our Latin teachers or our Spanish teachers or our physics teachers or our psychology teachers. Heck, I even had a seventh grade “Communications Skills” teacher. We had our guidance counselors and our principals and some of us had our special education teachers and our study hall monitors.

So we know teachers. We get teachers. We know what happens in classrooms, and we know what teachers do. We know which teachers are effective, we know which teachers left lasting impressions, we know which teachers changed our lives, and we know which teachers sucked.  

We know.  We know which teachers changed lives for the better.  We know which teachers changed lives for the worse.

Teaching as a profession has no mystery. It has no mystique. It has no respect.

We were students, and therefore we know teachers. We denigrate teachers. We criticize teachers. We can do better than teachers. After all: We do. They teach.

We are wrong.

We need to honor teachers. We need to respect teachers. We need to listen to teachers. We need to stop reducing teachers to arbitrary measurements of student growth on so-called objective exams.

Most of all, we need to stop thinking that we know anything about teaching merely by virtue of having once been students.

We don’t know.

I spent a little over a year earning a master of arts in teaching degree. Then I spent two years teaching English Language Arts in a rural public high school. And I learned that my 13 years as a public school student, my 4 years as a college student at a highly selective college, and even a great deal of my year as a masters degree student in the education school of a flagship public university hadn’t taught me how to manage a classroom, how to reach students, how to inspire a love of learning, how to teach. Eighteen years as a student (and a year of preschool before that), and I didn’t know shit about teaching. Only years of practicing my skills and honing my skills would have rendered me a true professional. An expert. Someone who knows about the business of inspiring children. Of reaching students. Of making a difference. Of teaching.

I didn’t stay. I copped out. I left. I went home to suburban New Jersey, and a year later I enrolled in law school.

I passed the bar. I began to practice law at a prestigious large law firm. Three years as a law student had no more prepared me for the practice of law than 18 years of experience as a student had previously prepared me to teach. But even in my first year as a practicing attorney, I earned five times what a first year teacher made in the district where I’d taught.
I worked hard in my first year of practicing law. But I didn’t work five times harder than I’d worked in my first year of teaching. In fact, I didn’t work any harder. Maybe I worked a little less.

But I continued to practice. I continued to learn. Nine years after my law school graduation, I think I have some idea of how to litigate a case. But I am not a perfect lawyer. There is still more I could learn, more I could do, better legal instincts I could develop over time. I could hone my strategic sense. I could do better, be better. Learn more law. Learn more procedure. But law is a practice, law is a profession. Lawyers are expected to evolve over the course of their careers. Lawyers are given more responsibility as they earn it.

New teachers take on full responsibility the day they set foot in their first classrooms.

The people I encounter out in the world now respect me as a lawyer, as a professional, in part because the vast majority of them have absolutely no idea what I really do.

All of you former students who are not teachers and not lawyers, you have no more idea of what it is to teach than you do of what it is to practice law.

All of you former students: you did not design curricula, plan lessons, attend faculty meetings, assess papers, design rubrics, create exams, prepare report cards, and monitor attendance. You did not tutor students, review rough drafts, and create study questions. You did not assign homework. You did not write daily lesson objectives on the white board. You did not write poems of the week on the white board. You did not write homework on the white board. You did not learn to write legibly on the white board while simultaneously making sure that none of your students threw a chair out a window. 

You did not design lessons that succeeded. You did not design lessons that failed. 

You did not learn to keep your students quiet during lock down drills.

You did not learn that your 15 year old students were pregnant from their answers to vocabulary quizzes. You did not learn how to teach functionally illiterate high school students to appreciate Shakespeare. You did not design lessons to teach students close reading skills by starting with the lyrics to pop songs. You did not miserably fail your honors level students at least in part because you had no books to give them. You did not struggle to teach your students how to develop a thesis for their essays, and bask in the joy of having taught a successful lesson, of having gotten through to them, even for five minutes. You did not struggle with trying to make SAT-level vocabulary relevant to students who did not have a single college in their county. You did not laugh — because you so desperately wanted to cry — when you read some of the absurdities on their final exams. You did not struggle to reach students who proudly announced that they only came to school so that their mom’s food stamps didn’t get reduced.

You did not spend all of New Years’ Day crying five years after you’d left the classroom because you reviewed the New York Times’ graphic of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and learned that one of your very favorite students had been killed in Iraq two years before. And you didn’t know. Because you copped out and left. So you cried, helplessly, and the next day you returned to the practice of law.

You did not. And you don’t know. You observed. Maybe you learned. But you didn’t teach.

The problem with teaching as a profession is that every single adult citizen of this country thinks that they know what teachers do. And they don’t. So they prescribe solutions, and they develop public policy, and they editorialize, and they politicize. And they don’t listen to those who do know. Those who could teach. The teachers. 

227 thoughts on “The Teachers

  1. Thank for you for an excellent insightful piece, and more so from a former teacher who would not be! I am neither a teacher, but I have always admiration for what I thought I knew they do!
    Your article is still going viral!

    Like

    • Even as a retired teacher, I can’t “lose” those moments, days, weeks, or years, of pouring all of my being into “getting through to all the minds”…..The meat of the article is in “the bones” (pun intended) whereby, no one, except the teacher, really knows what goes into teaching!!!! Teachers cannot be valued by results…there are just too many variables in their “products”; they cannot be valued by observations; every day may be a variable of a prior day. So, it remains the bane of the profession that we be nurtured by our own knowledge of successes, and, the occasional pat on the back….and pray that the latter becomes less rare!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ms Blaine,
    This essay cogently conveys many of the concerns that educators have expressed to me throughout my 45+ year career as an educator. Thank you,
    john f. Johnston

    Like

  3. Very well written post. I didn’t fully understand what a teacher went through until after my mom decided to make it her profession. She taught 5th and 6th graders for almost 20 years. She loved those kids and still keeps in touch with some of them even though she is no longer teaching. At first I wanted to follow in her footsteps until I saw what the school system put her through.
    A few years into her teaching the No Child Left Behind system started up. She would spend night after night filling out form after form on each kid, on lesson plans, and on red-tape nonsense. On top of this she had several classes of homework and tests needing to be corrected. Sometimes she’d stay up until 2 in the morning just trying to finish it all. Not only did she invest all her time into teaching, but she also invested her own money into supplies the kids needed that the schools wouldn’t (or couldn’t) provide.
    At first I wanted to teach like she did. I come from a strong background of women in the educational system who either worked as registrars, librarians or teachers. I was proud of that heritage and wanted to continue it by being a high school English teacher . . .until I saw what my mom’s profession starting turning in to.
    I decided to work in publishing instead.
    I am now a homeschooling mom who LOVES teaching. I have been teaching for 6 years now. The teaching I do is a far cry from how my mom taught. I won’t profess to know everything about how to teach, but I am allowed the freedom to approach teaching from different angles until something clicks. Testing is a very low priority. I also do a lot of research into what the kids are going to learn as well as what curriculum we’re going to use.
    Teaching is definitely not an easy profession. I have a lot of respect for those who go into it, knowing full well what their lives will be like and the hoops they will have to jump through. They should be treated with the respect deserved them.

    Like

  4. I sent this article to a fellow educator who wrote to me:

    Thank you for drawing it to my attention. I’m going to post Strauss’s insightful, graceful essay on my fb.
    She almost avoids the anger that seems to permeate anything I try to write on the topic. Perhaps one has credibility only when one leaves teaching and succeeds “in the world.” (What a sorry condition.)
    I don’t think anything will change while this country is so divided – the
    “haves” from the rest of us. Very disheartening. I am reminded of the
    bitterness during the Viet Nam War years; we are fighting among ourselves over what is right and what is wrong without considering the price being paid by the kids.

    Like

  5. Though the debate for fair salary pay has been ongoing for sometime, one thing is appreciated. That regardless of where our pay lies, for the majority of teachers, little if any swaying occurs from continually striving to being a highly caring and effective teacher. Not many professions fill this criteria.

    Like

  6. That may be true for lawyers but not for teachers. As parents we are responsible for teaching our children as well. Only in our case we are responsible for teaching them things that are never taught in school and, often times we are responsible for correcting the erroneous information that comes out of the educational system. I know that in the last week alone I have had to correct erroneous information that was fed to my child so please do not tell me that I have no concept of what a teacher does.

    Like

    • And no one said that ALL teachers are perfect just as we, as parents are NOT ALL perfect. But the majority of us do what we believe is best for the children we deeply care about, and yes, even love. Your comment that misinformation was “fed” to your child just shows the anger and disrespect you hold for teachers, seemingly lumping us all into one big category.
      After 30 years of teaching I can still not figure out when this deep hatred for teachers began. But people like you will continue to see to it that it never dies.
      What a shame, and what a sad example to others.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Unless you’ve been a classroom teacher, you do NOT know what a teacher does. Teaching 20 to 30 students at a time cannot compare to teaching on a one on one basis. Learning how to incorporate everything that has to be done in a limited time period with many students takes practice and a lot skill. I did it for 31 years and leaned something new every year. I’m amazed at how many individuals think that they know how to teach when they have never done so in a classroom setting. I had several student teachers who all struggled when they first started out. A good teacher makes it look easy. Please don’t undermine the fact that teachers are professionals and that the skill of classroom instruction takes years to develop.

      Like

  7. Reblogged this on small blue thing and commented:
    I know it’s another re-blog. But this one really spoke to me. Please, let’s try to encourage respect for teachers in our communities and our nation as a whole. It’s never too late. We can turn this downward spiral around if we’ll just realize that the common stereotypes and beliefs about education are wrong. We can make a change for the better. I know we can.

    Like

  8. Thank you for writing this wonderful article. I also taught English for about 4 years and am now working in an education-related field, but outside the classroom. I often consider going back to teaching, but it’s not easy. All teachers, not just the excellent ones who raise test scores and inspire dozens to pursue PhDs or start charity organizations, work hard and deserve credit for it.

    Like

  9. Pingback: links encontrados por aí [5] | virei professora, e agora?

  10. Pingback: Think you understand teachers? You’re wrong | Edwize

  11. Ms. Blaine, thank you!

    I am a public middle school teacher in NYC and have made it my mission to enlighten people about what teaching really is, because, as you’ve stated, most people believe they ‘know’ teaching because they’ve been students. But what makes teaching effective is all of the work that students cannot see in conjunction with what they do see. In fact, the work students don’t see comprises 80 – 90% of what we do.

    I’ve devoted my blog to demystifying the work of teaching. It serves to open the curtain of obscurity and invite people in to the control room.

    Your writing gives me chills, because it passionately defends our work. Teachers need to be upheld in our culture. We devote our lives to guiding and supporting the intellectual, personal and social development of America’s youngest and growing citizens. It’s incredibly disheartening that we put daily effort, time, and care into that work while being bashed, criticized, and devalued by our neighbors, politicians, and national community.

    At times, the punishment threatens to outweigh the reward for what I do and causes me to question why I stay, why I don’t seek another career, one that pays a lot more and comes with a higher degree of respect and the promise of less (or no) homework, so I can put more time and energy into my own family. I start my 10th year next fall, and I plan on heading back into the tumult, determined, as always, to apply what I’ve learned this year to do a better job for my students next year. I keep doing this, despite the fact that for some reason I have to defend my work and explain its value to people who think they know better.

    Thank you for being one of the few who is standing up for us!

    Sincerely,
    Katherine Hernandez
    teacherkhwrites.wordpress.com

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Beautiful essay. Currently finishing my 19th year in the classroom and seriously debating if I can go back next year. My heart is there, but my head is telling me that enough is enough.

    Like

  13. Thank you, Sarah, for your supportive (and so true, and so well written) words! Here is something else teachers do:
    An English teacher (That’s me!) and an Art teacher (Christine Kane) use their professional skills (poetry and illustration) to give you a glimpse into their world.
    We’d be honored if you’d take 6 minutes out of your day to view a piece of what your teaching colleagues think.

    Like

    • Thank you for this valuable contribution. And because English is one of the Germanic languages, its core grammatical structure not only allows, but actually expects, some sentences to end with a preposition. Some prescriptive rule creators, not unlike standardized testing gurus, are responsible for the idea that prepositions belong within the sentence, trying to make English into Latin, the more prestigious language at the time. I say, keep breaking out!

      Like

  14. Thank you. I have been teaching for eleven years, and the lack of respect is wearing me down. I thought gaining years of experience would bring along more confidence in what I do, but society today will not let that happen.

    Like

  15. Pingback: There’s no such thing as the ‘best’ teacher

  16. I get so tired of this kind of article/column/blog/whatever. Don’t get me wrong — I have taught, coached, and administered in schools from K-College; teaching is difficult, and often thankless. I admire those who do it with passion and excellence, and I understand when others say, “You know what, this isn’t what I signed on for.” BUT IT IS NO DIFFERENT, IN THAT REGARD OR ANY OTHER, FROM ANY OTHER JOB.

    How many teachers know precisely what a Certified Nurses Aide does, for roughly 1/3 the income (and usually no benefits) and roughly 25% more days out of the year? How many teachers are capable of putting out a three-alarm fire in a fleabag tenement, rescuing kids and brain-addled indigents with as much concern as if they were the President of the United States? How many teachers know what goes through a Marine’s head when he’s about to dive into an enemy tunnel that may booby trapped or set up for an ambush? How many teachers know the quiet desperation of filing endless spreadsheets and reports about the fluctuations in projections of markets that the business analyst’s firm hasn’t even decided yet to enter … months on end of crunching numbers that may never amount to anything, just so you can buy your kid the G.I.Joe with the Kung Fu Grip for Christmas? Why aren’t we writing endless editorials about the importance of the poor sots who watch the gauges at the water treatment plants in Toledo, so they can tell 400,000 people DON’T DRINK THE WATER in time to keep 399,999 of them from dying?

    Everybody’s job is hard, or they wouldn’t get paid to do it. And everybody’s job is important, or it wouldn’t exist. But the last teacher … the last carpenter … the last political activist … the last community organizer … the last doctor … the last vintner … the last foot washer … to walk on water died 1985 year ago.

    Get over yourself. If your job is so damned hard and thankless that we should all bow down and kiss your arse … well, it isn’t. That’s all. Grow up.

    Like

    • Sadly, you are like most of the pompous, ego-inflated, coach-turned-administrators I’ve had the misfortune to teach under during my 30 years as an educator. Men who have spent little time in the actual classroom (1 or 2 classes a day) and the rest on a practice field, while most Fridays some over-worked teacher covers your classes so you can galavant to God-knows-where for the Big Game. When your students’ scores are not up to par, and admin hasn’t a clue what to do with you, they make you a principal to get you out of the classroom.

      If anyone needs to get over themselves, sir, it’s you. You don’t have a clue what a REAL teacher does, and you probably couldn’t hold down a job as a teacher, nurses aide, analyst, or garbage collector in the REAL world!

      Like

  17. Bravo! I kept nodding my head as I read. Now I’ll get back to designing lesson plans. (I’m yet another teacher who tries “to teach students close reading skills by starting with the lyrics to pop songs.”)

    Like

  18. Pingback: students vs. statistics: why I stay a teacher | lifeinthedport

  19. Pingback: Education Panorama (November ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

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