Sunday, May 5, 2013

Top 10 Things No One Tells You About Becoming a Teacher



One of the many signs I'm getting old is that students I taught in middle and high school are now graduating college and starting their own careers. Some of them have even decided to go into the teaching profession.

I've been asked a few times to address things that first year teachers need to know, but that information has been covered ad nauseam by a number of people who are both more qualified and  more knowledgeable than I am. 

Instead, I figured I would cover some of the lesser known aspects of my profession that don't get discussed in the college classroom before our first year inductees are savagely thrown to the wolves. I may be a band/music teacher (which for some people doesn't even qualify as a "real" teacher), but these experiences are pretty universal to anyone that sets foot in a classroom.


10. Having to poop and/or pee while you are also teaching a room full of children is excruciating

It's 8:15 AM, just a few minutes before school starts. You've had a cup of coffee and a light breakfast, so your bowel movement cycle is right on track for its daily 11:40 AM deposit before lunch.

But today, a well-intentioned parent volunteer has brought a cornucopia of bagels, muffins, and doughnuts into the teacher workroom. Not one to turn down such a delicious (and free) spread, you dive right in and gorge yourself upon the vessels of sugar, carbs, and fiber that lay before you.

You then happily stroll to your first period class with a full belly (and a bit of caloric guilt), ready to begin the day with a little extra fuel in your tank.

But that "extra fuel" also ends up rushing through your large intestine like bat out of hell. By 9:30, you realize that your morning indulgence has helped to conceive a full blown food baby that fully expects to do a cannonball into the nearest toilet by 9:45.

Unfortunately for you, there are two more classes without a break before you can sprint to the sweet refuge of the faculty restroom. There is also a room full of children wondering why your temper is suddenly so short and why you're walking tiny circles. And heaven help that poor child who acts up the slightest bit while you clench your way through each agonizing minute of class.

Image
If you try to get out your phone one more time YOUR LIFE IS FORFEIT!


Unless you are are fortunate enough to have another teacher in the room with you, salvation from your own intestinal hell will have to wait. But unlike other situations where you usually find yourself unable to use a restroom when it's desperately needed (like driving in the car or in a movie theater during the last thirty minutes of Zero Dark Thirty), you will still have to try and act normal while publicly speaking in front of an age demographic that has zero sympathy for public urination and/or defecation.




9. Your attention span doesn't get a break

As someone that suffers from A.D.D. (the real kind, not the type where you get bored while listening to a live reading of the Great Gatsby), I would often let my mind wander while sitting in class during high school and college. When learning about the history of British colonialism or how to find the quantity of radiant energy in electromagnetic waves got to be too much, I would take little mental vacations (or full sabbaticals if it was in math class) to give my brain a break.

That neurological habit, however, came to a screeching halt when I became the one who was standing in front of a room full of students. If I was to allow my mind to drift away to a land of fantasy football statistics or what a well-done Justice League movie would be like, a room full of 11-14 year-olds would promptly do the following:

1. Stare at me with confused bewilderment.
2. Descend into utter chaos.
                                       
                                                                                                               krlphotography
The clean up required afterwards could also take a while


But even aided by the combination of my strong desire to be the best teacher I can and a prescription for Adderall, real life can still throw enough curve balls that giving your full attention to that day's lesson can be a monumental challenge.

Minutes after finding out that our schools' book keeper (and my friend) Judy had died in a car wreck that morning, I didn't get to stare blankly at a computer screen or start filing papers by rote while my brain processed the grief; I had to teach a 6th grade music class.

Every day, a room full of students will be waiting for you to give them an engaging lesson. No matter what's going on in your life, your role as a teacher is still going to happen. That's not to say that your personal life is suddenly unimportant or needs to be severely compartmentalized; you just have to become really good at putting it on hold for 45-50 minutes at a time.



8. You have mannerisms and ticks that you exhibit all the time, but have never been aware of.

Before I started teaching, I was well aware of how strange the way I walk can sometimes look. Anyone that knows me and has been around me long enough has probably brought it up, but one of my students was the first one to correctly identify it as looking like "a velociraptor with a stick shoved up its butt."

My wife later picked out a few more (nail biting, picking at the skin under my nails, etc). After that, I figured that all my weird physical habits were pretty well documented.

Once I began teaching, however, a plethora of strange mannerisms I had not yet become aware of were brought to my attention. The fact that I'm a band teacher and I end up having many of the same students for three years only made their observations even more accurately damning.

The first one was that I often will touch the back of my head when trying to make a decision. It's not anything to be terribly embarrassed about, but when a group of 7th grade girls asks why you do it, something in their inherently mocking tone can suddenly make you feel very self conscious and hyper-aware of whenever it happens.

                                        freedigitalphotos.net
Hey, let's make Mr. N feel awkward so 
he won't notice that we're chewing gum.


I have also been told that I occasionally do a quick scratch under my armpit about two or three times per class period (which even grossed me out), I start almost every class by loudly saying "Alright", and that I can often times look at an entire room of people without ever making eye contact with anyone (I apparently look like I'm staring at everyone's foreheads).

I'm sure that there are more, but they have not yet been brought to my attention by one of the following reliable sources:

1. A mean kid who has boundary issues.
2. A kid that is trying to use me in a revenge plot by tattling on their arch nemesis for making fun of me.
3. A well meaning child who also happens to have aspergers.

But I'm sure that I'll hear from one or all of them very soon.



7. It's not the pay that really sucks; it's all the extra hours you'll spend at school (physically and mentally).

No matter what Fox News says, teachers (for the most part) are not overpaid. Sure, there may be rare odd/terrible situations like the rubber rooms in New York (where teachers who have been put on disciplinary leave wait years for a hearing while collecting their full salaries), but the overwhelming majority of teachers in this country work their butts off under conditions in which most other folks would have long since quit their profession and moved on.

But while teacher salaries are definitely lower than other professions with comparable education requirements, it's not like we're making anywhere close to minimum wage, either. Factor in the full benefits and you still have a decent (albeit not very good) salary on which to live.

One of the studies that says teachers are paid too much, however, made the laughable assertion that the average educator works 36.5 hours a week. Even the teachers I know who try to make a point of getting out of school as fast as possible to get home to their families easily blow by that number...and most of us are lucky to slide in at under 50 hours if there aren't too many after school meetings during that particular week.

After school help/tutoring, rehearsals, grading papers, inputting grades, writing lesson plans, and a long list of other factors will often times keep you in the building well before or after the final bell rings.

Another factor to consider is that unlike most jobs, it's incredibly hard to separate your thoughts, feelings, and even sometimes your very own self worth from work that day.


This is no longer an emotional option


You worry about your kids and (as cliche as it sounds) you also worry about if you're getting through to them. Teaching can feel incredibly rewarding when things go well, but it takes a heck of an emotional and mental toll when it doesn't.




6. You will become that old person who says that all music/television/movies kids like now are bad...and just like them, you will be wrong (sort of)


Aside from you parents, the overwhelming amount of your interaction with adults as a child probably came from teachers. During that time, it's safe to assume that there was no shortage of them trying to tell you how doomed we all were as a society due to your generation's taste in the current pop culture trends.

What they failed to realized (and you probably will, too) is that unlike them, your general artistic experiences were very limited by that point in your life. While Taylor Swift whining and calling out all of her ex's in song might be a new thing to the kids, those of us who have been on this earth a little longer have seen it plenty of times before.

They also haven't developed the same palette of experiences with which to fully develop a more "refined" taste in things. There will be plenty of stuff they like now that end up being great and plenty more that the test of time will prove to be complete and utter crap...just like with everything we grew up with.

A lot of stuff that we liked back in the day was pretty bad, too. We've just wrapped it in a blanket of nostalgia and guarded it with our with our hearts.


Don't you dare call it "overwrought."



5. The school's principal may be your boss, but the school's bookkeeper/secretary owns your soul.

This goes double if you are a teacher like me who has lots of after school activities. Permission forms, money collected, PAYCHECKS, and all that lovely paperwork (that you'll inevitably forget to turn when you were supposed to) goes through them.

They may not be the ones teaching the children, but he/she might very well be the hardest working person at your school. Make sure to be nice to them...and bring them gifts once in a while.




4.  All the stuff you hear about how far behind American students are compared to the rest of the world is (mostly) B.S.

One thing I get really tired of hearing is the constant cry from the media that American students are lagging far behind students from other countries. Not only is it an old and tired refrain, but it's also not really true.

First off, let's just ignore the fact that the United States has never ranked at the top of international education tests since we began comparing scores back in 1964; this is 'Murica gosh darn it, and we should be the best...right?

Never mind the fact that our population far exceeds almost all of the countries who are supposedly kicking our ass both in sheer quantity, diversity, and poverty levels. 

I'm sure that in India, where their students are apparently demolishing our kids on international test scores, it's totally taken into account that over half of children aged 6-14 (most of them severely underprivileged) don't even go to school...


                                                                    sodahead.com
Approaching dangerous levels.


...while in the United States, nearly every child is enrolled in school and required to go, even if the individual child or their parents would rather they not be there.

                                                      whatgives.com
Hopefully you see what I'm getting at, here


Part of what makes America great is that every kid gets an opportunity to have an education. The chance to learn about higher level concepts in all subject areas isn't just limited to children whose families can afford to live in the city or who don't require them to start doing manual labor once they're out of diapers.

With that all inclusive mentality, however, comes the fact that there will be some students who struggle to succeed despite their best efforts...or due to giving no effort at all. But there are many more kids that get a chance to learn and interact with their peers that would not have been available if a public education system for everyone wasn't in place.

Does that mean that America's school system is fine the way it is and doesn't need any adjustments? Absolutely not.

Do I still look at Finland's education system and turn green with envy? Yes.

But the hyperbole about how American students are falling impossibly far behind students from every other country in the world is just plain wrong. I'd put our top 10% up against anyone and be proud.


But let's just not talk about this, okay?


3. Don't assign seats on the first day

I know that this flies in the face of all the current teacher education models out there, but hear me out. If you allow your students to sit where they want on the first day, you will gain two pieces of incredibly valuable information.

1. The really loud kids that are also friends with each other will sit together. Now you'll know who to separate no matter where their last name falls in the alphabet.

2. Students still think that if they sit in the back row, they can get away with talking. The students who come in and instantly gravitate there are typically the ones you'll have problems with early on. Is that type of profiling fair? No. Does it generally work? Absolutely.




2. School lunch food is okay, but school breakfast food is awesome

It doesn't matter that the scrambled eggs are served from an ice cream scoop; it's still delicious. Just make sure to put butter on the grits. If you don't, they taste like death.

Also, you haven't truly lived until you've eaten square breakfast pizza. It may look disgusting, but it tastes heavenly.

Don't judge me



1. Do not base your future in the teaching profession on your first year in the classroom.

While it might be entirely possible to have a good first year teaching, most people will describe an experience that makes the nine rings of hell seem like a water slide.

Much of this will be due to factors that you cannot control. When you peak your head out from the warm fuzziness that came with being the "cool student teacher" and become the person in charge, it can bring a lot of unexpected pressure and anxiety.

It also doesn't help that students can smell fear and uncertainty in an adult authority figure. Even if you confidently do everything the way you're supposed to, your nervousness is going to be picked up on by the boy who models himself after the O'doyle family or the girl who makes Veruca Salt seem like a well adjusted child....along with the posse of kids who hangs close to them so that they won't become a target themselves.


Their parents can also be a real joy to deal with.


That's not to say that they should be able win, by the way. Don't give kids like that an inch; they make school terrible for the other students and completely disrupt the learning environment.

But after your first year, you'll gain an aura that silently proclaims "I know what I'm doing." That alone will help diffuse a large portion of the classroom control problems that arose from a few kids trying to test their limits against you.

You'll also be ready for all the curve balls from last year and better prepared for the new ones that will come your way. Your mind will be able to focus how to become a better and more effective teacher rather than surviving from day to day.

I have talked to some teachers that really did enjoy their first year in the classroom, but even they say that things got much easier from the second year onward. Just hang in there and realize that despite all the horror stories you will hear, the various cliched accounts of how amazingly rewarding the job can be never do it justice. 

Knowing that you have made a difference in a kids' life by teaching them a skill or how to better understand the world around them is one of the most amazing feelings in the world.


...along with taking a nap when you get home.



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