The Teachers

by Sarah Blaine

We all know what teachers do, right? After all, we were all students. Each one of us, each product of public education, we each sat through class after class for thirteen years. We encountered dozens of teachers. We had our kindergarten teachers and our first grade teachers and our fifth grade teachers and our gym teachers and our art teachers and our music teachers. We had our science teachers and our social studies teachers and our English teachers and our math teachers. If we were lucky, we might even have had our Latin teachers or our Spanish teachers or our physics teachers or our psychology teachers. Heck, I even had a seventh grade “Communications Skills” teacher. We had our guidance counselors and our principals and some of us had our special education teachers and our study hall monitors.

So we know teachers. We get teachers. We know what happens in classrooms, and we know what teachers do. We know which teachers are effective, we know which teachers left lasting impressions, we know which teachers changed our lives, and we know which teachers sucked.  

We know.  We know which teachers changed lives for the better.  We know which teachers changed lives for the worse.

Teaching as a profession has no mystery. It has no mystique. It has no respect.

We were students, and therefore we know teachers. We denigrate teachers. We criticize teachers. We can do better than teachers. After all: We do. They teach.

We are wrong.

We need to honor teachers. We need to respect teachers. We need to listen to teachers. We need to stop reducing teachers to arbitrary measurements of student growth on so-called objective exams.

Most of all, we need to stop thinking that we know anything about teaching merely by virtue of having once been students.

We don’t know.

I spent a little over a year earning a master of arts in teaching degree. Then I spent two years teaching English Language Arts in a rural public high school. And I learned that my 13 years as a public school student, my 4 years as a college student at a highly selective college, and even a great deal of my year as a masters degree student in the education school of a flagship public university hadn’t taught me how to manage a classroom, how to reach students, how to inspire a love of learning, how to teach. Eighteen years as a student (and a year of preschool before that), and I didn’t know shit about teaching. Only years of practicing my skills and honing my skills would have rendered me a true professional. An expert. Someone who knows about the business of inspiring children. Of reaching students. Of making a difference. Of teaching.

I didn’t stay. I copped out. I left. I went home to suburban New Jersey, and a year later I enrolled in law school.

I passed the bar. I began to practice law at a prestigious large law firm. Three years as a law student had no more prepared me for the practice of law than 18 years of experience as a student had previously prepared me to teach. But even in my first year as a practicing attorney, I earned five times what a first year teacher made in the district where I’d taught.
I worked hard in my first year of practicing law. But I didn’t work five times harder than I’d worked in my first year of teaching. In fact, I didn’t work any harder. Maybe I worked a little less.

But I continued to practice. I continued to learn. Nine years after my law school graduation, I think I have some idea of how to litigate a case. But I am not a perfect lawyer. There is still more I could learn, more I could do, better legal instincts I could develop over time. I could hone my strategic sense. I could do better, be better. Learn more law. Learn more procedure. But law is a practice, law is a profession. Lawyers are expected to evolve over the course of their careers. Lawyers are given more responsibility as they earn it.

New teachers take on full responsibility the day they set foot in their first classrooms.

The people I encounter out in the world now respect me as a lawyer, as a professional, in part because the vast majority of them have absolutely no idea what I really do.

All of you former students who are not teachers and not lawyers, you have no more idea of what it is to teach than you do of what it is to practice law.

All of you former students: you did not design curricula, plan lessons, attend faculty meetings, assess papers, design rubrics, create exams, prepare report cards, and monitor attendance. You did not tutor students, review rough drafts, and create study questions. You did not assign homework. You did not write daily lesson objectives on the white board. You did not write poems of the week on the white board. You did not write homework on the white board. You did not learn to write legibly on the white board while simultaneously making sure that none of your students threw a chair out a window. 

You did not design lessons that succeeded. You did not design lessons that failed. 

You did not learn to keep your students quiet during lock down drills.

You did not learn that your 15 year old students were pregnant from their answers to vocabulary quizzes. You did not learn how to teach functionally illiterate high school students to appreciate Shakespeare. You did not design lessons to teach students close reading skills by starting with the lyrics to pop songs. You did not miserably fail your honors level students at least in part because you had no books to give them. You did not struggle to teach your students how to develop a thesis for their essays, and bask in the joy of having taught a successful lesson, of having gotten through to them, even for five minutes. You did not struggle with trying to make SAT-level vocabulary relevant to students who did not have a single college in their county. You did not laugh — because you so desperately wanted to cry — when you read some of the absurdities on their final exams. You did not struggle to reach students who proudly announced that they only came to school so that their mom’s food stamps didn’t get reduced.

You did not spend all of New Years’ Day crying five years after you’d left the classroom because you reviewed the New York Times’ graphic of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and learned that one of your very favorite students had been killed in Iraq two years before. And you didn’t know. Because you copped out and left. So you cried, helplessly, and the next day you returned to the practice of law.

You did not. And you don’t know. You observed. Maybe you learned. But you didn’t teach.

The problem with teaching as a profession is that every single adult citizen of this country thinks that they know what teachers do. And they don’t. So they prescribe solutions, and they develop public policy, and they editorialize, and they politicize. And they don’t listen to those who do know. Those who could teach. The teachers. 

240 thoughts on “The Teachers

  1. Tears as I read this. Thanks for both truly understanding and making the space to write it. If I may add to one more of the demands/lives of teachers: limited to no time to dialogue with the public and policy makers about what is really going on because so deep in the trenches.

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    1. Is that the truth! Thaey make all these rules and laws and set curriculum and they haven’t a clue on what is really going on! And then I find out that some who write our texts and teachers’ guides aren’t even teachers!

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    1. Thank you so much, Eric. I checked out where you are working these days — it looks like such a neat place (the high school I taught at all of those years ago was also a combined vocational/technical and academic high school). I am glad to reconnect — I have fond memories of listening to music in your living room many years ago.

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      1. Sarah, I believe that teaching issues are at the forefront right now in terms of public interest. Thanks for this article- it is so true that the public has no idea what we’re up to in the run of a week. I am a teacher who writes on teaching and education. Thought I might include a link to an article of mine that has been receiving some exposure as well lately. Thanks for your work on behalf of teachers!
        http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/lori-gard/students_b_4422603.html

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  2. I come from a family of teachers. Grandfather, mother, husband, son, son-in-law: all teachers. I did not become a teacher, because when I saw what it takes, I knew I couldn’t do it. It’s just too hard. Thank you for saying this so well.

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  3. Wonderful! Brave! As a teacher now for almost 15 years this hit the nail on the head for me, and so many reasons why I think about leaving the classroom everyday. If so many people who are not educators can do my job better then me, then I guess I am not really needed in the classroom???

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  4. “…Maybe you learned. But you didn’t teach…”

    No, but you had a direct, ongoing, and immediate experience of being taught, which is very important – it’s something in a teacher’s past, not in his or her present. A good teacher would value that experience in you and… I was going to say ‘exploit’ it, but that is so much the wrong word… embrace what that brings to the teaching/learning situation.

    A teacher is not an island, much less a dictator. Others who are not teachers ought to defer to the teacher in matters of teaching, but not absolutely! A teacher does not work in isolation from the people she teaches, nor in isolation from the community in which she teaches; everyone is interdependent. Because she teaches, someone else has shoes to wear; because someone makes shoes, someone else has bread to eat; because someone makes bread, someone else has a roof over her head; because someone builds houses, someone else is able to teach; and so it goes on.

    One brilliant way to prepare youngsters – school students – for being active and effective members of that interdependency is to bring their voices freely into the structuring and decision-making of their teaching/learning environment. Allow them to make mistakes… facilitate their seeing the way to recover from mistakes… allow them to see the expertise of you, the teacher.
    _________

    Okay now someone will say, “Are you a teacher? No? Then shut up! Haven’t you heard what we’ve been saying? Sheesh!”

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  5. You hit the nail on the head! If I could encourage you to please upload this as a you tube video with scrolling pictures of students, teachers, and families as you speak these words…it certainly would go viral. Please think about it!

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  6. Well written and so true! Imagine…there are countries where if you are qualified you might, just might be good enough to become a teacher. And if you get that job as a teacher…you are the equivalent of a “Rock Star”!!! We need to keep our standards high and really make the effort match the reward for teaching in this country. Thanks for sharing this post. LW

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  7. Wow. I had tears in my eyes when I finished reading this. Educators often sit in silence while the disparaging comments continue. Not because we don’t have an opinion, but because we know it would be too hard explain our perspective. You explained it with eloquence because you’ve walked a day in our shoes…and it was difficult. Please consider sending this to newspapers and other media outlets. Please know your words are appreciated.

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    1. Thank you for your encouragement, Michelle. As you may know, the piece was picked up by Valerie Strauss, who writes The Answer Sheet blog at The Washington Post. The exposure has been amazing, but also a bit overwhelming. It is clear that I touched a nerve, and I hope that I can contribute some more to our public discourse about teaching, parenting, and learning.

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  8. A dear friend posted this to my wall. I just got in at 6 pm on a Friday after staying at school to try and get through the mounds of work on my desk. I love my students and I thank you for these kind and insightful words. It is an extremely hard job!

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  9. Wow! After a long week of 12-hour days in my classroom, trying to learn new content (10th year of teaching/ 1st year of a new subject) and then figure out the best way to teach it to my students… after a full day of teaching… this post brought tears to my eyes. Someone outside of the classroom ‘gets’ it and appreciates ‘it.’ Thank you!

    I sharing on my wall so that my friends in education might also enjoy your insight.

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  10. I linked this to my new blog. I taught for two years and now I am a law student. I know how hard it was to be a teacher, I still have nightmares about unfinished lesson plans.

    I decided to go to law school so that I can practice school law and help teachers and school districts. Thank you for all of the beautiful words about the difficulties of teaching.

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    1. Mackenzie, by any chance, were your two years teaching through TFA? I’m just wondering because I’m trying to figure out the protocol at TFA. It seems to have changed over the past few years since I knew some teachers in the program about eight years ago. I’d be interested in hearing about how things have changed there if you know anything about it. By the way, good luck in law school! That’s a pretty tough undertaking in itself!

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      1. No, I did not work through TFA. I taught at a low income middle school in my hometown. I don’t know much about the program but the news I have read recently is that its members quickly become disillusioned.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ve been teaching for almost 17 years and absolutely love what I do but have been feeling so disrespected and unappreciated for quite some time. Your words are what I needed to hear. So, thank you!

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  12. Being a student teacher, I am just starting to understand all these things. I really do appreciate you defending this career. It gives me confidence in my choice. My one criticism is this: I understand that you probably didn’t expect your blogpost to be published by the Washington Post (congratulations on that, I am very glad that it is reaching more circles!), but couldn’t you have refrained from using profanity? I hate to even bring it up, but hearing more profanity in my teacher workroom than in my classroom this week has made me sensitive to adult/ public use of profanity.

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  13. I have been teaching 22 years and plan to retire after one more. I love what you have shared. I love teaching my students with dyslexia how to become readers and see their joy when they can finally break the code. If it weren’t for all of the politics, etc. you mentioned, I’d stay longer, as I’m only 55 years old. But, I’m out because I’ve had enough of the burden that comes with the territory and the general public’s lack of respect. I do look forward to volunteering my time to tutor and work with children through CASA. Thanks for your well-written article.

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  14. Thank you! This is my 38th and final year of teaching.
    It’s been an amazing career working with young children with disabilities and their families. The work has been hard, the special education paperwork grows every year. But “the perks” of working with children and families are heartwarming and the journey has been a good one!

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  15. Teaching is a personal career choice. Most professions in life are “choices”. We either love & thrive in our chosen profession or we seek – new opportunities in our career/work lives. It’s all a part of the journey…I think the best teachers in the classroom are those who have/being more experiences than “just academia teaching classes”…I think in today’s world – someone from the business world or the non-profit world makes for an excellent teacher. Unfortunately for students today – there are so many hoops to jump through in order to leave the business world and be “hired” as a teacher in the public/private school system. That’s one thing that needs to change. It’s all about $ and making people take useless classes that don’t make a damn bit of difference in the classroom w/students.

    I think the #1 problem that all of our teachers face today is that we have parents raising children who “have no rules/boundaries” at home…Parenting is out the window and unfortunately Teachers are expected to “parent” the kids while also teaching them to “be ready” to enter a very competitive world. Education begins at home and while so many of us enjoy the privilege of becoming parents – mothers and fathers – it’s up to the parents to “parent” re teaching common sense boundaries at home…Stop expecting the Teachers to “parent your child”. The other huge elephant in the room is that we’ve got kids – who are diagnosed with all the same things that most of us today – all grew up experiencing – re ADD and ADHD. Seriously, who among us doesn’t have attention deficit disorder in today’s 24/7 virtual news cycle-environment? Today, we have all far too many children on drugs and who benefits? The School Systems/Teachers are supposed to be able to manage these “Special Ed” children while receiving more funding due to the Special Ed numbers at each and every school system across America. Is this working? Are the children and the teachers any better off for all the drugs now being ingested 24/7? Seriously, some of these kids – are just “behaving as kids” but in order for the parents/teachers to manage kids either at home or in the classroom – are drugs totally necessary? I fear for these kids down the road…10-20 yrs. from now – what kind of medical issues will creep into their lives after having lived on these drugs for the entire young lives…in order for a parent/teacher to be able to “handle these kids and teach the rest of their class”? Education/Policy Reform is so outdated…Perhaps homeschooling w/on-line classes…might be a better solution for some families moving forward in order to help/deal with personal behavioral issues…Teachers are not your childs parent and to expect a teacher to be measured on the test results of all the varying degrees of students in the classroom daily…While the school system benefits getting more $ per Special Ed student…it doesn’t make any sense at all. Drugs in order to achieve higher test scores in order to keep a school system in “good standing”? Is this working?

    Yes, it is true…The Good, The Bad & The Ugly…We all had great teachers and terrible teachers but at the end of the day – what’s the goal? The point here in my humble opinion is that our kids live in a competitive world. If they can’t do the math – no one wins. Best of luck to all the good teachers out there today…My wish/hope for you all is that you have engaged, caring and healthy parents behind each and every child that enters your classroom. No matter what profession we work in today – I would rather “raise the bar” while working together on solutions vs. “lowering the bar” for our kids. Good Luck Everyone & God Bless!

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  16. You know that scene in The Natural where in the climatic scene Robert Redford’s character Roy Hobbs hits a home run so powerful that standium light explode because that ball flies into them? This is exactly like that. My days as a teacher are incredibly hard now. I wouldn’t mind so much if people in power didn’t denigrade us so much.

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  17. Reblogged this on In the Big World and commented:
    “I spent a little over a year earning a master of arts in teaching degree. Then I spent two years teaching English Language Arts in a rural public high school. And I learned that my 13 years as a public school student, my 4 years as a college student at a highly selective college, and even a great deal of my year as a masters degree student in the education school of a flagship public university hadn’t taught me how to manage a classroom, how to reach students, how to inspire a love of learning, how to teach”…

    I had the same experience as a teacher, same degrees, just not the caliber of schools she alludes to. Exact same experience, really. And, of course, I left teaching too: I was not cut out for it, and so it wasn’t just really hard, it was WAY TOO HARD, and most of the time I stunk at it.

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  18. “I spent a little over a year earning a master of arts in teaching degree. Then I spent two years teaching English Language Arts in a rural public high school. And I learned that my 13 years as a public school student, my 4 years as a college student at a highly selective college, and even a great deal of my year as a masters degree student in the education school of a flagship public university hadn’t taught me how to manage a classroom, how to reach students, how to inspire a love of learning, how to teach… ”

    I had the same experience as a teacher, same degrees, just not the caliber of schools she alludes to. Exact same experience, really. And, of course, I left teaching too: I was not cut out for it, and so it wasn’t just really hard, it was WAY TOO HARD, and most of the time I stunk at it.

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  19. Wonderful article, and even more so, you didn’t begin to scratch the surface of what special education teachers do! I’m still a teacher, but no longer teach in a classroom setting, We were supposed to do all as you wrote, plus maintain and update IEP’s, sign point sheets, write to parents daily. We were expected to enforce behavior management, trying to keep groups of deeply troubled and emotionally disturbed students sitting and learning.

    Sometimes I would just settle for the students sitting without punching the lights out of each other. (Of course, if they got injured, it would me my fault.) Yet I did it all. I gained the students trust. When I made a promise, it was carried through. I was generally the only consistent grown up in their lives. And I don’t even want to start about how much food I had to bring for my students.

    It really upsets me when someone would say, “only 8 students? you have the easiest job in the world”. “Come, sub for me for a week” I’d say, They wouldn’t be able two days. As crazy as my life was in those challenging days I loved it. But respect? Being paid appropriately? Most teachers I know have two masters degrees. We have not had a raise for years…

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    1. If there is such a place as heaven, there should be a special place in it reserved for special education teachers. Inclusion is a post for another day (and I’ve dealt with it in both of my careers), but trust me, I will get there (although I was only certified as a high school English teacher).

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  20. I am a 17 year veteran of urban middle-school, and I cannot begin to express how thankful I am to you for writing this. Such a great blog post that absolutely nails it. I will share this with everyone I know and ask them to do the same. Thank you Sarah. Thank you.

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  21. Thank you!!! As a public school teacher in my 25th year of teaching, I am deeply grateful for this eloquent, accurate post. I was teary-eyed as I read it. There is such comfort in knowing someone out there “gets it.”

    Sadly, so many of the characteristics of good teachers that you referenced and mentioned in your post seem to no longer be valued in present-day public education. I have long felt that since these traits and abilities can’t be quantitatively measured, those who evaluate education have chosen to focus on what can be measured, whether it is an accurate indicator or not. This approach seems akin to testing a urine sample to check for strep throat.

    As a result, so many of the markers of a skilled educator are completely devalued, leaving many excellent teachers feeling inadequate. As a result,have seen many excellent teachers leave the profession.

    I skimmed the previous replies to your post. Several brought a smile or nod. Others caused me to stop reading the replies. I wanted to respond to them point by point but decided that if theses folks didn’t understand what you were trying to express, my words wouldn’t do much more to further the cause.

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  22. Excellent heartful words to praise the art of teaching!
    I’d like to share my other blog with you:
    likesunflowers.org
    which represents me as a teacher, I’m glad you’re out there!
    Regards,
    Camelia

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  23. thank you so, so much. I’m in my sixth year of teaching English (mostly advanced placement) to urban students. the disrespect is everywhere, and it is, without a doubt, one of the most difficult parts of teaching. I wish more people would realize what we do and how we do it.

    thank you, again. I’m so glad this is everywhere.

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  24. Thank you! For my fellow Teachers for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing, I’d like to insert: “you don’t know ears – just because you have them does not mean that you can make educationally appropriate decisions for students who have hearing loss without consulting someone (like me) who does.” If only teachers were respected nearly as much as lawyers…maybe one day!

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