The teaching profession is in the midst of a shift, thanks to changing technology, policy, and various societal factors, such as growing inequality. One thing hasn’t changed: It is a profession of highs and lows—of intensely heartening moments and deeply challenging ones. For many teachers, this intensity is a major part of the appeal. For others, it’s reason enough to leave the role.
A recent survey from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers union in the United Kingdom found that of roughly 850 teachers surveyed, 80 percent said they got into teaching because they wanted to work with young people. Seventy-five percent of this same group said they wanted to make a difference. These are the factors that keep many people engaged in the teaching job over the length of their careers. But as that time elapses, they’re also bound to encounter difficulties on the job. What are some of the most common difficulties? Below, we explore a few of the best and worst parts of being a teacher.
Best: You have a role in one of our most important collective functions: preparing young people to be meaningful, contributing members of a democratic society.
Philosopher John Dewey and others have written extensively on the fact that the classroom is one of the most important cornerstones of our democracy. It is where young people learn history, develop skills to research and engage in productive debates, and work to collaborate to solve problems. When teachers can help them do this, they are helping to strengthen the bonds of our democratic society.
Worst: Political and financial forces—and others that you cannot control—frequently impact your day-to-day experience on the job.
Education budgets are declining, the Common Core State Standards are required in classrooms, and principals are more overloaded than ever before. All of these factors, and others, make the job harder for individual schools, principals, and teachers—despite the fact that they’re also factors beyond their own control. Still, all of this can mean that getting necessary resources becomes a strain, and it intensifies the difficulty of tailoring the education experience to learners with different needs.
Best: The relationships you build with students, who trust you to be their model and guide them through learning experiences.
People who enter the teaching profession because they want to make a difference are likely to find that they are getting the chance to have the impact they’d hoped. Effective teachers are enormous influences in the lives of their students, who often find their horizons widened, their prejudices challenged, and their understanding broadened thanks to a single influential teacher. Good teachers are likely to hear several times over the course of their careers that they’ve changed someone’s life for the better; in few professions is that true.
Worst: With great responsibility comes great stress.
According to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, more than half of teachers reported feeling great stress several days a week, which represented an increase of 15 percentage points of the just 36 percent of teachers who said the same in 1985. Teaching can be a stressful position, and it’s becoming even more so as resources tighten.
Best: Being with students during their “light bulb” moments.
Many teachers say that their favorite moment in the classroom is the one in which a student looks up, excited, to shout, “I get it!” Especially when this moment happens in connection to a subject that the teacher herself loves and values, it can lead to one of the most sustaining feelings in the profession: That this work matters, and it’s making a difference.
Worst: Being with students during their disrespectful/apathetic/lazy moments.
Just as many teachers say that as smartphones invade their classrooms, zapping attention and interest from lesson plans, it’s easy to grow demoralized about the time and effort devoted to preparing lesson plans and grading assignments. Of course, apathetic and lazy students have always existed, and they’ve always been a drain on teacher enthusiasm.
If a teacher loves the highs of teaching, it’s possible that she’ll be able to take the lows in stride, devoted to her work and the difference she’s making. If the job just isn’t a great fit, that’s OK too. Either way, it’s a good idea to have a sense of the perks and challenges going in so that—given all of the surprises teaching is likely to throw your way—its very intensity is somewhat expected.