What It’s Like to Be a Teacher

What it's like to be a teacher title image with woman standing in front of chalkboard

My friends always ask me a lot of questions about being a teacher. Well, they don’t ask. But they do offer brief pauses in conversation in which I excitedly leap in to talk at length about the minutiae of my day as if they had asked about it. And they sit there and listen because it’s my dinner party and they want dessert.

Explaining what it is like to be a teacher can be challenging. Our days are so full of good and bad things and we want to share it all. The majority of people won’t listen if you go on for more than ten minutes, so I’ll try to keep this succinct.

Let’s start with the bad.

Nearly everyone has a job that is stressful from time to time and it is wrong to think that teachers have a monopoly on that. But stress for teachers looks different. It can stem from a flurry of questions from children who seem to only be able to think about lunch. Spoiler alert: We are going to eat lunch at the same time we did yesterday, Billy!

Or stress can come from an administrator that decided the last 30 minutes of the last day before Christmas break was the appropriate time for an observation. Spoiler alert: It’s not, unless you want to hear how many different ways I can say, “Sit down and be quiet, Billy!”

You can’t talk about the downsides of teaching without mentioning the pay. I wish someone had told me teachers don’t make that much money. Actually, now that I think about it, that may have been mentioned during every teaching class I took in college. And there may have been a disclaimer on the Education department’s website that said: “Only enter if you are okay with buying store brand toothpaste for the rest of your life.” I mean, Colgate isn’t that great. And for me, the pay isn’t quite as bad as only being paid once a month. It is deceptive. When I check my account balance on the first of the month I feel like teachers get paid enough. I can go out to eat. I can buy toothpaste that comes in a box. I even research cruise dates. But by the 15th of the month, I begin to understand that I need to spend less and maybe I don’t need an appetizer at dinner. Or brand name detergent. During the last few days of the month I begin to research the nutritional content of air, because I don’t really have to eat every day, right?

I know, I know. Complaining about teacher pay isn’t novel. But I will say this. To me, teaching is worth it. So here we are: the good.

When teaching is good, it is so good. I’ve had moments in a class where we just click. We are all learning and having fun, and Billy is  even seated and not trying to crawl out the window. (The trifecta.) I have had days that just feel like a late 90s television show. I am Mr. Feeny in a room full of Corys in awe of my knowledge and expertise. Of course, these moments are fleeting, but they are enough to get you up the next morning to chase it again.

And then there is hearing from a student that you had years ago because they wanted to thank you. I have had emails from students that drove me insane thanking me for not giving up on them. One student actually emailed to tell me they had gone through some rough times, the hardest of their life actually, but when they wanted to give up they remembered how much faith I had in them. I cried when I read that email and I’m tearing up now. Some of my friends may have well-paying jobs, and they can probably afford to buy whitening toothpaste any given day of the month, but few people have the chance to change lives as teachers do.

The thing about teaching is that the setbacks and difficulties happen almost every day, while the rewards come slowly. It may be years before we hear from that one challenging student. And there are a lot of students we won’t hear from at all. But when we do, it will have made everything that got us there worth it.