We all have opinions about teachers. Some of us see them as lazy and entitled, while others consider them underappreciated, underpaid, and overworked. To be sure, there are good teachers (hopefully you had a few that you still think of fondly) and bad teachers (do they still haunt your nightmares?).
In honour of World Teachers’ Day on October 5 (founded in 1994 and observed in over 100 countries), it’s time to examine our attitude towards them. No, you can’t paint them all with the same brush. And yes, not all teachers are created equal, but good teachers deserve to be celebrated. How much do you really know about what they do?
The average salary for a high school teacher in the United States, for example, was just over $55,000 in 2013. It’s about the same in Canada, but only about $45,000 in the United Kingdom. It’s not bad, but it’s not exactly six figures, either. Teacher salary is based on years of experience and educational credentials, so it does go up over time.
Unfortunately, it tends to be the older teachers that have the highest salaries (anywhere from $80,000 to $95,000 depending on the school board), who lack drive and lose their zest for the profession. They can - and do - contribute to the belief that teachers are very well paid but lazy. New teachers, on the other hand, make comparatively little and put in long hours. But we don’t see, or choose to ignore, that when discussing the job.
So what do teachers do? A lot. A bit of everything. The career is not easy, is not for everyone, and is generally dismissed by most people who have never taught. There’s even an expression that sums up the overall attitude: Those that can, do, and those that can’t, teach. It’s a hard and often thankless job. I speak from over twelve years of experience in the classroom.
But, for those of us with “the calling”, it’s the most gratifying career out there. You take the derisive comments from the public, the average salary, the long hours, the bureaucracy and red tape that goes with it because if you can reach one student, it’s all worth it.
Think you know teachers? Think again. Here’s what they really do.
1. They Teach
Of course, they may have a classroom with the same 25-35 kids all day (elementary school), or they may teach 3-5 periods of rotating students (middle and high school). It doesn’t matter; they still have to find ways to present the material, engage the students, keep them motivated, and ultimately understand the 1-3 key points for the day. The teacher must try to include all students, from the smarty pants right down to those who struggle with learning disabilities (or simply don’t care).
The perception? Teachers pass out a few photocopies, or drone on at the front of the class while students sleep, or press play on a video.
The reality? The teacher must perform for those 60-90 minutes. They must zero in on each student in some meaningful way. They must connect, engage, and inspire. And they must present the material in ways that all students will understand.
2. They Grade (A lot)
The bane of every teacher’s existence, Grading. Imagine having to read 25, 30, or 75 papers on the same subject. Having to come up with insightful comments for each one, correcting the grammar, spelling, and content while you go, and then evaluating each paper against not only the rubric or other criteria, but also against the student themselves (are they showing improvement? Do they understand?).
The perception? Teachers slap on a few generic comments and hand out a grade based on past performance (the “A” students get As, the “B” students get Bs, and so forth).
The reality? Marking eats up evenings, weekends, and holidays. A good teacher will have detailed, personalized comments and suggestions for improvement for each paper that crosses their desk.
3. They Create Lesson Plans
A school will provide a curriculum outlining the broad topics and big ideas that must be taught, but how it’s done is up to the individual teacher. That’s where lesson planning comes in. For every lesson or period of the day, they must plan what to do, create or find activities. For example, they could prepare questions to gauge student understanding, consider assessment (how will they check that the students “got it”?), prepare rubrics for said assessment, and determine goals for the lesson, unit, week, month, and semester.
The perception? Teachers receive a detailed lesson plan from some mysterious outside source, giving them everything they need to get through the day. It’s idiot-proof.
The reality? Nope. The curriculum might instruct a teacher to do Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If it’s a good one, it might even suggest a few key ideas. But, how the teacher fills those 2-4 weeks is blank and must be sketched out and filled in before the unit starts.
4. They Record Data
Teachers have to keep track of a lot of hard data: Marks; Grades; Comments; Issues and Discipline. It must be entered into whatever system the school uses (which can change from year to year, requiring hours of additional training). This allows them to effectively analyse the grades of each student and see how they are doing.
The perception? Marks are arbitrary and graded on a curve. No one actually tracks and analyzes how each student is doing. Teachers simply plug in the letter grade or percentage when it’s time to send out report cards.
The reality? Data entry is part of every day for most teachers. They keep track of everything to help them with each student, the class as a whole, and the strength of each unit.
5. They Have MANY Professional Obligations
My favourite false belief about teachers is that their day doesn’t start until 9am, and they punch out at 3 pm. If only. In addition to the lesson planning, grading, and data entry - much of which takes place outside of those hours - most teachers must attend frequent meetings (whole school, departmental and grade level), training sessions (new data collection system, new school-wide network, new curriculum, new equipment), engage in housekeeping (dealing with student issues, meeting with parents, physically cleaning their classroom and student areas), chaperone the occasional student dance, party, or trip (day, overnight, international) and attend grad ceremonies, school games, and plays.
The perception? Teachers work from 9am to 3pm, then go home and enjoy their late afternoons, evenings, and weekends.
The reality? Many teachers stay at school until 5pm or 6pm each night, and most teachers simply must grade and plan at home and over the weekend or it wouldn’t all get done.
6. They Work All Year (Just Like You)
This one is hard to believe for most people, but it’s true. A good teacher, sadly, does not have the luxury of 2.5 work-free months each summer, despite what people think. Yes, they probably take a couple weeks off in there somewhere (just like everyone), but once again, their actual workload demands attention. They need to consider their teaching schedule for the next year, read any books new to the curriculum, evaluate the effectiveness of existing lesson plans, tweak as necessary, and create new units for new topics. Also, if they want to climb the ladder out of borderline poverty (especially in their first few years), they’ll probably have to take some summer training (special education, or technology in the classroom).
The perception? Teachers get off 2.5 months each summer, 2-3 weeks at Christmas, a week for Spring Break, and many other long weekends and “PD Days”. They do nothing but relax during those frequent holidays.
The reality? Most (though not all) of that time is spent planning, thinking, grading, studying, or learning. No teacher can get done what they must get done while school is in session. It’s just not possible.
7. They Herd Cats
Okay, not literally. But have you ever had trouble controlling your 1-3 kids? Try 25 or 30. It’s exhausting, and the difficulty goes up exponentially as the age of the students goes down (Kindergarten teachers should be international heroes!). Teachers must supervise, control, motivate, and discipline. They must corral tiny human beings that often want nothing to do with whatever it is the teacher is trying to get them to do. Besides the actual teaching, a teacher must also deal with every conceivable “disaster” of childhood: a fight with their BFF, someone’s boyfriend broke up with them, they weren’t allowed to play soccer on the “good” team”, so-and-so’s elbow is touching their desk, they can’t find their lunch, and on and on. Many teachers swear they can hear circus music in their head all the time.
The perception? Students sit when they’re supposed to sit, are quiet when they’re supposed to be quiet, and work when they’re supposed to work. They are self-sufficient. A teacher is a glorified babysitter.
The reality? Right. A teacher must be a caregiver, problem solver, a sympathetic ear, a trusted confidant, a role model, an impartial judge, a counselor, and about 37 other job titles. All day. Every day. The job would be easy if it was just about presenting the material that must be learned, and the students all wanted to hear and learn it. It’s not, and they don’t.
Teachers work hard. They sacrifice their evenings, weekends, and holidays for your children. They probably spend more time with them during the week than you do. If we trust them with that, don’t they deserve our respect and support? Shouldn’t we make an effort to better understand what it is they do on a daily basis?
Teachers are venerated in many places like Finland and Korea while they are all-too-often vilified in Canada, the US, and the United Kingdom. We blame them when our child is failing math or falling behind instead of looking at our own attitudes and shortcomings.
Don’t get me wrong, there are bad, lazy teachers. But - and this is a huge, major, colossal but - the vast majority are giving it everything they have to help your son or daughter improve and learn. They are not just teaching them about fractions, or World War II, or Lord of the Flies. They’re teaching them how to think, and question. How to be a decent and moral human being. They challenge and push. They cultivate and foster everything that is good about us.
The job is hard. The hours are long. The work is sometimes tedious and frequently thankless. The budget usually requires that they supplement from their own pocket to provide students with everything they need. And they still do it, because teachers don’t teach for money or recognition. They teach to make a difference. That’s what they do.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” ~Henry Adams
What made your favourite teacher so great? What was it about your least favourite that made him or her so bad? Leave your answers in the comments below.