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What My Professors Never Told Me About Teaching (Opinion)

When I was in graduate school studying to teach English/language arts, my professors taught me about the value of student choice and the profound impact of a worthwhile text in the hands of a hungry learner. They taught me about classroom setup and assessments and the power of ceaseless positivity. Valuable lessons, of course, but weightless compared with the real challenges of teaching.

A decade in, here is what I wish they had taught me:

Your work is necessary—but it is work.

You will not be properly thanked, through money or otherwise. You did not go into it for thanks and you will not get thanks out of it.

You will sometimes forget that you are working, when a lesson is engaging and you have kids who are really interested in their learning, but mostly you will cram the grueling labor of mind growing into inedible chunks, force feeding, and begging for something—anything—to take.

You will question the necessity of the work, especially when nearly everyone believes they could do the job better than you can, and what’s more, that you should do it for less money and more hours because the love alone should be enough to sustain you.

While the work is necessary, it does not necessarily have to be yours. Only you will know when the work, for you, has ended. It is OK to let it go.

You will rely on your routine.

Alarm. Snooze. Alarm. Snooze. Alarm. Rise. You will park in the same spot and you will become irrationally irritated when a new car parks over the line. You will appreciate the breaks—you will need them. You will learn to schedule your restroom breaks by a bell and you will learn to eat breakfast and lunch at unholy hours.

You will know the waxing and waning moon by the moods of your students. You will come to dread the day before Thanksgiving and the week before Christmas, though of course, you will need the time to recover. You will limp your way through spring to summer break—which you will adamantly inform the uniformed public is not paid vacation but deferred-pay vacation. You need this summer break to soak up sun and energy for another year.

You will feel lonely and insignificant.

Most of your time will be spent in cinder block cells, in markedly prisonlike edifices. Sometimes, the teachers in your same content area and grade will be called your ‘team,” but, ultimately, you are a team of one. You will see yourself lined up as a series of statistics next to the names of students you have only barely begun to know and you will be asked to account for those numbers. You will doubt yourself and you will wonder if you have made a mistake.

Decisions will be made about you and for you. You will realize you are mostly a customer service representative. You will have books plucked from your hands with spines unbent, words unseen. Everyone who only has a passing knowledge of your school will have an opinion on what should happen inside.

You will be called into meetings over and again asking you to remember your purpose and to love away the pain of your chosen career. If you are ever angry, you will be asked to reevaluate your values.

You will find solace in your colleagues.

Without them, you will not survive. You will laugh at yourself as you lament the good old days with the people on your same journey. You will not like all of them. You will find yourself envious of those who love and are loved, of those who leave work at work and don’t think about it until the next school day, of those who are seen. You will despise yourself for this envy, which you will understand is the thief of joy.

But you will also have your work to thank for introducing you to your best friends—you will never have found them otherwise. And you will need to find them. You will need to find joy, because time is finite, and all of your joy cannot be reserved for after hours and weekends.

You will find this joy in the people beside you. They will be your lifeline and, though this work will always feel impossible, they will make it a little more possible.

You will be sowing seeds in the dark.

You will spend about 108 hours with each new student. Of these 108 hours, your time will be divided across a number of tasks: taking attendance, conducting safety drills, monitoring assemblies, escorting students to various locations, mediating their disputes, redirecting their outbursts, and, occasionally, teaching. Interspersed in the bursts of teaching the content, you will learn about your students’ lives and wonder who they will become after you.

You will laugh with them or when they are not looking (if you are the stoic and serious type), cry with them, grieve with them.

You will experience great joy and, sometimes, immense anger with them. You are human, and, as you will quickly learn, this is the most human of all the professions.

Occasionally, you will hear from them years later, but mostly you will not see the effects of whatever you have—or haven’t—done.

You are more powerful than you think.

You are. People will tell you that you are not. Parents will tell you that you are not. Legislators and other politicians, superintendents and principals, and even other teachers will devalue you. You will learn to let them. You will see the evidence of your worth and you remember what they do not: When COVID closes the classrooms, they will not be able to continue their lives without you. They will need you more than you ever need them.

You will be encouraged to forget this in favor of “remembering your why.” Instead, remember your power.

You know you will not see the fruits of your labor, but you know your labor will bear fruit. You have not toiled to see the earth you have tended go barren. You will develop an infinite capacity for hope. When all else fails (and it will all fail again and again), this hope must sustain you.

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