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20 Things Only Teachers Really Understand           

teachers only understand

At a party a few years ago, I was chatting with a brand-new acquaintance about what we did for a living. When she learned that I was an English teacher, she provided some unsolicited advice: “You should really teach the classics more,” she said. “Kids don’t learn how to read unless they have exposure to the classics.” Several retorts popped into my head, but I held back and found a way to excuse myself rather than go down the rabbit hole of explaining to a totally unqualified individual why providing kids with engaging texts is more important than forcing them to read so-called “classics” that have been traditionally curated by a homogeneous group. If you have been teaching for any length of time, someone outside the profession has probably told you how to do your job at least once, if not several times. People might think they understand teaching because they have at one point been in a classroom, but that perception could not be further from reality. In the pandemic’s wake, laypeople know even less about the complex work of teaching. In the spirit of mentally blocking the outside noise and reminding ourselves of truths that only we understand, here is a list of 20 things about being a teacher (by no means exhaustive) that nobody else really gets.

  1. The term “multitasking” has taken on new and insane meaning during pandemic-era instruction.
  2. Having a curriculum guide does not mean the whole “what I’m teaching” thing is figured out. It’s only a starting point, and the rest is up to us.
  3. Being told to prioritize SEL while simultaneously being directed to formally assess students non-stop to determine what happened during the pandemic is contradictory.
  4. If you teach teenagers, current seniors are the only class that has experienced a full year of in-person high school instruction. The impact of that fact cannot be overstated.
  5. Especially in the winter when we go to work and head home in darkness, our awareness of the weather is restricted to snow or no snow. Otherwise, we have no idea what it’s like outside.
  6. Some people may take office supplies from work to use at home; teachers take supplies from home to use (i.e., give to kids) at work.
  7. The students who are the most disruptive are often the same students who do not want to go home at the end of the day.
  8. Giving each student in the class a specific and important job to do builds trust faster, better, and longer.
  9. Building strong relationships with kids is not just about knowing their favorite color. It’s about showing them, day in and day out, that they can take risks in our classes without being shut down.
  10. Effective teachers understand that the way it was done even a couple of years ago no longer applies to how it should be done today.
  11. Putting a variety of engaging texts in any classroom from magazines to comic books and giving kids time to read will help students build literacy skills more than any other reading instruction we can give.
  12. Without providing frequent breaks so that everyone can get up and move around, we lose everyone’s attention and make diminishing returns.
  13. Kids cannot learn if they are hungry. Full stop.
  14. Many of our students work late into the night to support their families and come to school exhausted. It is a privilege to see them in our classrooms.
  15. We do not want gift cards or certificates as expressions of appreciation. What we really want is for school leaders to recognize us consistently and express their gratitude by speaking specifically to what we do that they appreciate.
  16. While we enjoy parent-sponsored breakfasts, we would rather see more consistent support for our profession each day.
  17. It is a misconception that students hate school. More accurately, they hate any place where the adults do not see them or respond to them as humans. That can be a school, but it can also be anywhere else.
  18. We might be stretched thinner than we ever thought we would be, but we are here. More public recognition of that persistence would be appreciated.
  19. Teachers do this job for the kids. That is who we serve. Everything and everyone else just needs to wait.
  20. We love our jobs, and more importantly, we chose our jobs. Teaching is not a backup plan. It is the only plan.           

This list might be a start, but all teachers understand far more than 20 things that people outside the profession do not. There is a reason that people refer to our job as being “in the trenches.” If teaching were easier, more people would not just enter our line of work; they would also remain beyond just a few years. This year more than any other in recent history, teachers have left the profession in droves, and those who remain are warriors. When someone approaches us who has little understanding of the reality behind the job, the best course of action might be to respond, or it might be to walk away. It might also be to read this list, add to it, and remember that what we do is singular. That way, when someone with no clue about what we do shares an unsolicited opinion, we can shrug off unproductive words and focus on keeping our heads in the most important game: teaching.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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