9 Things I’ve Come to Believe After Teaching 19 Years

I’ve been teaching high school for close to two decades now. When I first started teaching, Bill Clinton was at the end of his presidency, dial-up internet was still a thing, and there was no such thing as a smartphone. Some things have changed during that time, while other things have not.

What follows is a collection of observations I’ve had after teaching for 19 years.

1. The hardest part about teaching, in my view, is energy. The amount of mental, physical, emotional, and social energy required to teach is a daily challenge. Each lesson plan, decision, intervention, parent contact, weighing of a student request, lecture, proctoring of a group activity, dealing with a student behavior issue, interaction with a principal, adjusting a lesson on the fly, making sure you have all the materials, thinking ahead, summoning the energy to treat each and every lesson like it’s the most important thing in the world (especially in the face, sometimes, of apathy) … it requires a lot. Every day.

2. Teacher burnout is real. In my experience, it’s the end result of thousands of little disappointments that create a teaching reality separate from what a teacher wishes the job could be. (It’s a challenge for other helping professions, too: social workers, nurses, pastors.) Whether it’s because of disappointments with students, parents, colleagues, administration, or all of the above, even the most passionate of teachers can become cynical. It’s truly awful to watch gifted teachers become jaded to the point of wanting to do anything else but teach. Creating a supportive climate to prevent that is not easy, either, especially because 1) you can’t easily control all the social factors in a school and 2) there isn’t always a budget to spend on things that might help. One important factor, though: a building leader who is visibly in the trenches with the rest of the staff seems to count for a lot.

3. One thing that sets teaching apart from most other occupations: managing the absurdly complicated sociology that is the classroom. Each collection of kids is its own community, its own ecosystem, with its own unique set of academic, social, emotional, and practical challenges. (Try to imagine how many possible interactions can happen with, say, 25 students in just one hour.) Even with years of experience, an individual class can surprise me, either with unexpected moments of joy or with serious problems I never saw coming. (Or both. On the same day.) Likewise, lesson plans can live and die by the class they’re used in: I’ve seen awesome activities derailed with a troubled class … and I’ve seen really bad lessons salvaged by a great class … and a so-so lesson go awesome — or terrible — in a class for no obvious reason at all. And then there is that one moment when a single student’s emergency is so titanic that it overshadows everything else, and you have to deal with it while still juggling the needs of the rest of the class.

4. I think that class size is a thoroughly underrated factor in schooling. When class sizes approach 25 or more — especially with a lot of at-risk students — the number of potential problems grows exponentially in proportion to the class size, even to the point of harming collaborative activities like debates and group work. (As a teacher, it’s a lot easier to float among 4 student groups than 8.) In my ideal world, every class would have 15-20 kids: it’s big enough to do class discussions, debates, and meaningful group activities, but it’s also small enough that I can give individual students adequate attention.

5. Cell phones can be really annoying, but I feel like they’re as much a symptom of deeper issues as they are a cause of problems, at least in my experience. My teaching career started long before smartphones, and when I first started teaching, problem students would pass notes, sleep, and be disruptive by acting out in other ways. (Home problems were frequently an underlying common factor.) Those issues were, to me, every bit as problematic to the class climate as today’s tech, and kids suffered academically then as now. For me, cell phones basically replaced a lot of my old problems with new ones. That said, although I think cell phones are a symptom rather than a cause in many cases, a kid’s technology use can tell me a lot about their academic success. Put simply: my best-performing kids are much more effective at being masters over their technology, while technology is often the master of my lowest-performing kids.

6. I started teaching right at the start of the standardized testing movement, and after all this time, I’m not sure we have much to show for it. I feel like most test scores are a great way of measuring affluence, or selectivity, or the ability to game tests. That last category is a real worry, because I feel like, in those schools, tests can distort what those classes are about. (That includes, in my opinion, Advanced Placement, which I’m not as much of a fan of as I was 15 years ago.) I also haven’t seen a lot of evidence that doing well on these tests automatically connects with doing better in life. I do think some standardized assessment is important and useful, but I’d almost rather take some of the billions we pay to standardized testing companies and spend it on something that more directly impacts kids: maybe putting more caring adults in orbit around them, or attacking the underlying factors that cause kids to struggle, or reducing class sizes, or increasing teacher pay in high-need areas, or even just better evaluating what programs help kids best.

7. The most maddening part of this job are the things outside your control that you wish weren’t outside your control. For a long time there was (and, in some places, still is) a “no excuses” movement in education that likes to minimize talk about out-of-school factors that influence student success. Why, some argue, should we discuss things we can’t control? I’ve come to believe that this approach, while maybe well-intentioned, not only causes teachers to burn out, but it also can lead to schools and policymakers approaching kids in the wrong way. Kids aren’t machines – they’re humans, each with his or her own completely unique, complex web of life experiences that make them who they are. That web is so enormous that each individual student’s story could fill a book, from the time they were put in front of a TV as preschooler to the fact they only got two hours of sleep yesterday. What makes it even harder is that, because children are (like the rest of us) icebergs, as a teacher I only get a small glimpse into the total picture, and even then it is so, so hard to even begin to know how to help. If I knew how to solve this, I’d write a book, but I do wish that politicians and policymakers took a more holistic approach to helping children.

8. There are a couple of ways in which my teaching experiences have shaped the way I parent.

One, my wife and I talk to our kids incessantly. One reason is because I’ve come to believe that strong oral language skills directly connect to a high reading level, and immersing kids in language early and often seems the most surefire way to accomplish that. A second reason is because, while I do believe in critical thinking skills (and we encourage our kids to think critically), I also believe that knowledge is power, and I believe that kids who have a strong base of knowledge are well-equipped to think deeply about a range of issues. A third reason is just to keep the lines of communication open, something I’ve come to believe, through professional experience, is possible even in middle school and high school.

Two, I don’t lose much sleep over where my kids go (or don’t go) to school. I do care about our kids being physically safe, and I do care about academics, but watching well-adjusted kids thrive in all kinds of situations as a teacher — and reading the research on the subject, which indicates well-adjusted kids can thrive in a wide range of environments — has helped me focus my energies as a parent into trying to cultivate a strong home life.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have seen a lot of parents do certain things successfully year in and year out, and I’ve learned a lot from them, and from the kids they’ve sent into my classroom.

9. “The one continuing purpose of education, since ancient times, has been to bring people to as full a realization as possible of what it is to be a human being. Other statements of educational purpose have also been widely accepted: to develop the intellect, to serve social needs, to contribute to the economy, to create an effective work force, to prepare students for a job or career, to promote a particular social or political system. These purposes offered are undesirably limited in scope, and in some instances they conflict with the broad purpose I have indicated; they imply a distorted human existence. The broader humanistic purpose includes all of them, and goes beyond them, for it seeks to encompass all the dimensions of human experience.”

—Arthur W. Foshay, “The Curriculum Matrix: Transcendence and Mathematics,” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 1991

2 Comments

  1. This is extraordinary,Joshua. Some of it seems like common sense,but as they say “The thing about common sense is it isn’t common”. One of my best friends,neighbors,and teachers who became principal had control of the big outdoor sign at his school. One I’ll never forget is “Attitude is EVERYTHING”.
    Thanks,and best wishes for a Happy Easter to you and your family.

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