Making a Difference

Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves…. We do ourselves the most good doing something for others.

– Horace Mann

Teachers merit great admiration for having the courage to place themselves in the trenches of public education and do something every day to serve children. Teachers are indeed a special breed and deserve nothing but the highest praise.

And their work is not easy.

Considering the extraordinary demands placed on teachers, I find it remarkable that teachers achieve as much as they do. At times, I wonder how anyone can do the job.

As an illustration, let me offer a description of my own experiences as a teacher. Although I am no longer teaching in a public school classroom, the memories of the pressure that accompanied the job will remain with me forever.

Upon driving into the parking lot every day at 7:15 a.m. (or earlier) I always took a deep breath and braced myself for the stress that would define the next ten hours.

Throughout the day I found myself juggling several tasks at once. Before school I tried to complete administrative paperwork while students surrounded my desk. Every student needed something from me and every one of them seemed to talk at the same time. As students asked me questions, I sat at my desk with piles of paperwork in front of me, paperwork that included various types of administrative trivia: forms for students needing special accommodations, surveys or inventory for administrators, and progress reports for parents and counselors.

While trying to process several demands at once, my mind was also reviewing my lesson plans for the day. I'm not sure how I kept everything straight. I kept yellow sticky notes scattered around my desk with reminders of everything I needed to get done, but in the constant confusion I often couldn't keep track of the sticky notes.

And the stress never let up. During the school day I found myself standing in front of each class facing thirty-five adolescent personalities, each one needing my attention and an affirmation of their self-worth. While trying to provide students with their individual and group needs, I was forced to deal with constant interruptions from intercom announcements, students needing to leave class and a steady stream of people knocking on the door — students, teachers, and administrators. I often felt forced to teach between the cracks.

Finding time to go to the restroom was a luxury. I would try to go between classes, only to have my walk down the hallway interrupted by many of the students, teachers, and administrators I passed on the way. Again everyone seemed to need something from me, and if they asked me for something as I walked down the hallway I might later forget what they wanted because I didn’t have a sticky note to write it down. Sometimes I never made it to the restroom before the next class began.

If I wasn't in my classroom helping students during the all-too-short lunch period, I would find myself nursing a sandwich and a bag of potato chips in the teacher’s lounge while I listened to other teachers grumble about administrators and the educational system in general. I would then return to my classroom for my afternoon classes, awash in the gloominess of the teacher's lounge.

For me, the so-called "planning" period placed in our daily schedule never seemed long enough to complete the unfinished administrative tasks that had built up during the day. My planning time was almost always occupied by completing paperwork or going to meetings with special education facilitators, counselors, administrators, or parents. Too often, I had no time to plan lessons for my own classes, much less get any papers graded.

Quiet time to gather my thoughts at school was nonexistent, and during my evenings at home I was often too tired to do much more than take a nap in front of the television before I began grading papers or creating a lesson plan for the next day. Teaching was not a job I could leave behind once the workday was over.
What I have described about my day at school does not include the interruptions that stemmed from breaking up fights in the hallway, confronting students possessing drugs or alcohol, leading students through fire drills and bomb scares, and even trying to keep students safe from someone firing a gun. (Yes, that happened at my school.)

From what I have heard in the professional development workshops I have been leading over the last 18 years, my experiences as a classroom teacher seem to be shared by all public school teachers.

It has been estimated that
40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first three years, and I understand the reasons people leave. Teaching is a demanding and stressful job — to say the least — and I have not even mentioned the sometimes unruly students that often magnify the stress. I have also not mentioned the inadequate salary that has forced many teachers to seek part-time jobs so they can pay the bills and support their families.

None of this, however, is meant to discourage young people from thinking about a career in teaching. Many careers have a high level of stress, and many jobs are ultimately full of frustration. Teaching, however, can often be quite a fulfilling profession, a job that can make you feel you have done something worthwhile with your life.

Teaching is a vitally important profession. I’ve heard school described by an elementary student as "The Big Chance.” Education provides opportunities for children in their personal lives, and no less that the health of our society depends on how well we educate our children. Everyone dedicating themselves to improving the world by becoming a teacher should be able to sleep well at night knowing they have done something to help others.

If any prospective teachers are reading this blog, I recommend that you take the leap but do it with your eyes wide open. It won't be easy, but your nation needs good people willing to place themselves in the trenches and make a difference. Yes, teaching is stressful and the pay is not great, but the rewards are plentiful.

I would like to thank all teachers for the sacrifices they make. Hang in there, and keep working hard. In the end, you just might win a few victories for humanity.