Teaching as a Driver for Personal Growth

Despite being paid below both the average salary of college graduates and below the median income of most major cities, we like to talk about teaching as a noble and high-status profession. In some ways it is, and in some ways it’s not. I think, collectively, we would prefer that our teachers commit to the profession for the joy of teaching in itself. After all, you can’t really do it for the money, but, more realistically, there’s no chance that we build a large and resilient teacher workforce around the joy of teaching alone. That sort of thinking has led to pretty substantial issues in teacher retention and teacher quality in almost all urban and rural school districts. So one outlook on this is to partially see teaching as a massive possible driver for personal growth. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job, if you don’t like your teaching and your students it’s unlikely that you will remain in the job for long, but there’s no reason for us not to embrace and celebrate the possible side effects of trying to be competent in such a difficult job.

Now there are some folks who think that teaching is easy. Teachers do get around 13 weeks of vacation a year. Some districts only operate from 8 am to 2 pm everyday. And teachers are known for getting great benefits. In some ways these critics can be right. There are plenty of incompetent teachers across this country that get by without trying at all. I had plenty of these teachers in high school. They would clock in 8, leave at 2, teach for 10 minutes a class period, only teach 4 out of 7 periods a day, and then spend an inordinate amount of time playing movies during class while they were on Facebook. This is a real travesty, and it says a lot about the dysfunctions of the system. But that’s the exception. And even with those examples, if the job was so great, why aren’t more people lining up to take the job? Why do we have such issues with teacher retention?

The truth is that the job, when done right, is unbelievably hard. I have 6 years of tutoring experience and a year of classroom teaching experience (1 semester of student teaching and now 8 full months of classroom teaching), but I’m still overwhelmed everyday. There are veteran teachers at my school who are incredible at what they do, but they still are stressed by the week. The job never really becomes easy. You’re constantly adapting to new curricula, new students, new bureaucracy, and new state standards. If you’re trying to be good, the job will always be hard.

That hardness is good. It genuinelly makes you better. And although I’ve almost completely lost any feeling of youth and boyishness after my first semester of teaching alone, I feel like I’ve grown tremendously as a professional. So I wanted to list some of the unexpected ways in which teaching K12 can teach you.

Teaching is basically a Psychology degree

Before teaching you’re almost never put into a situation where you’re in charge of 120 other people who conflict with each other and conflict with you. If you want to accomplish any academic goals and help your students succeed you have to learn to quickly navigate the norms of the different types of students in the classroom, adjusting to keep the peace on multiple different levels. This includes setting boundaries for yourself, learning how to influence students without them resenting you (unbelievably hard), and navigating the complicated internal politics of the school and school system. You have to learn how to understand and influence others based on their psychology. The best teachers are masters at it, many teachers will never become good at it.

You’re constantly being lied to

This is not in any way meant to criticize my students. Everyone lies, and everyone especially lies when they are 16. The same goes for parents. Any good parent who loves and looks out for their kid will be subject to some level of self-deception. As a teacher you will have thousands of interactions everyday with different students, parents, administrators, and teachers. The trick is to find the will to navigate through the lies each day, figuring out who is lying about what, adjusting your actions accordingly, and getting through the year without building resentment towards others. It is very difficult, and it weighs down on all teachers at some points. The good teachers can tell a lie and respond to a student accordingly without calling out the lie explicitly. The amazing teachers can do all that while still being kind and compassionate towards their students.

You have to build cognitive stamina to make it through the day

I came into teaching after 4 years of relatively unstructured time in college. I would work all day but my work would go from 10 am to 2 am and would be filled with breaks built around how I was feeling. I would work hard for an hour or two, and then screw around for an hour. That worked for me, but you can’t do that during a school day. The school day demands full attention and awareness (in my case) from 7 am to 4 pm. I have to be 100% for back-to-back periods. The students are constantly changing and challenging you. If you’re trying to teach the entire time you will never have a full break and you will never be able to go on autopilot. Before this I worked in research, consulting, and healthcare. I have had a lot of exposure to the typical office. Teaching requires considerably more attention and overall cognitive energy due to the tight schedule and the nature of the work. My first few months of teaching absolutely killed me. I still struggle through a lot of days especially when I’m not feeling 100% physically and emotionally. But I’ve become much more resilient through it all.

It forces you out of your cultural and normative comfort zone

The only Trump voters I knew in 2016 were my direct family members. My college friends were uniformly educated, academically minded, and liberal. Most of my friends I met through rock climbing or research. I lived in a complete bubble of my own unconscious choosing. Leaving the bubble could be difficult for me. I was like a lot of liberals who couldn’t really understand how anyone could vote for Trump or think differently from me. Although this is common in any college experience, the transition from college to K12 teaching can be more intense than the transition from college into any other profession. In most professions you will end up working with people who think and act similarly to you, engineers get along with engineers, etc. This didn’t quite work for me. My background was in research. My norms for professionalism were built on that. Teaching comes with tons of different professional factions and professional norms that can be implicitly full of sexism, ageism, and other unintended forms of othering. To be honest I feel completely lost within the teaching profession. I have different personality characteristics and values than most teachers I know. I don’t find many people who relate to me outside of the general feeling of connection because we deal with many of the same day-to-day stressors. On top of that, your students expose you to cultures and ideologies that most people would never otherwise interact with. This is universally the case no matter what your background is. There are not many other real ways to have close and intimate connections to all the infinite multitudes of different families, classes, races, and backgrounds. If you try to connect with and influence students you will be faced with no other option than learning from them.

This is difficult and can be frustrating to navigate. What I consider polite and reasonable has almost no connection to what my students would consider polite and reasonable. For instance, my white midwestern background makes the displaying of wealth through clothes and jewelry in some ways disrespectful. That informs the way I see others, the way I dress, and the way I interact with class. But to my students, that isn’t disrespectful in any way.

I in now way mean for any of this to sound judgemental or negative. Although I both feel alienated within my current career and I don’t always fully understand my students, I don’t see these things as negatives. They can be tough to navigate but it all makes me grow as a person.

You have to gain speed in everything to be successful

I get hundreds of emails a day on top of constant deadlines for both my school and my graduate school program. I also continually have to make reasonable decision every second just to navigate teachers, parents, and students. If I leave any decision on the backburner or if I don’t quickly respond to emails, I fall behind. The job thrives on fast decisions, and most of the most liked and effective teachers within the school are the ones who are always on-time, always making deadlines, and always respond quickly to emails and conflicts.

You slowing start to learn how to better read emotions and understand how slight changes in your behavior impacts others

Everyone gets experience with this in their daily life. You can intuitively feel how your behaviors and appearance affects others, but it can sometimes be difficult to be continually aware of it when you have control around the structure of your day. When you’re in front of dysregulated kids for 8 hours a day, you have to quickly become cognizant of the ways that your appearance, tone, cadence, volume, and words affects each student. It is different for every single student. Your job is to understand each student well enough to be able to figure out the most appropriate way to convince them to do what you need whether that’s working in class, treating others with respect, or investing in their homework. Every little thing matters and teaching can be helpful in quickly showing you how to talk to and influence others.

You develop public speaking and your voice

This goes along with the previous point. Teaching is professional public speaking. You have to be aware of all the different qualities of your voice and modulate them to communicate information. It’s very difficult and takes a long time to learn. Teaching can be some of the best experience for learning how to speak well to crowds and your voice quite literally becomes stronger because you will arguably use it more than you ever had.

You start to better understand how other people think

Again, we unconsciously filter the people in our lives. For me, during college I filtered everyone out who wasn’t an academic liberal. I had a completely skewed understanding of thought processes and cognitive abilities. In teaching you are shown people of all capabilities and it can have a tremendous impact on how you see others and view the goals of education.

You learn to better navigate bureaucracy

The school system is one of the oldest public bureaucracies in this country. Many aspects of it are incredibly entrenched, and most of the norms for how things “should” be done are without reason. Navigating the different layers of the system can be brutal but it can teach you a lot about what effective management looks like (it should be said that I think my present school is very well managed, I’m fortunate in that respect).

You learn self care or you don’t make it through the year

I tend to shudder at most articles about self-care. There is so much BS that is peddled about this topic. But the difficulty of teaching means that every teacher has to take this very seriously. Urban school systems are especially difficult to work in. Teachers frequently don’t make it through the entire year. Part of the reason for that is that there can be a lot of emotional toxicity in teaching. On top of just having a generally stressful job, many teachers deal with their frustration through alcohol and gossip. Happy hour culture is common and it can often feel very cliquey especially if you are in the out-groupIf you fall into the inevitable pit of alcoholic escapism, you will lessen your chances of getting through the year. The difficulty of it all means that you have to be very careful about getting a grip on your personal life and building a schedule of self-care when you leave work.

I don’t bring work home with me. I am in a kind and supportive relationship that allows me to avoid emotional volatility. I workout a lot. I am careful of alcohol. I try to eat right. And I leave the city frequently to spend time with family and friends. I built these habits out of survival because I would not make it through the year without them.

You learn budgeting

This is a sad reality of making teacher salary in an expensive city. As a Nashville public school teacher, I make almost $30,000 less than the city’s median income. In the grand scheme of the entire world I am still in the upper 1% for income (even if everyone’s whining about their lives making $32k means you make more than 99% of people on this earth). In some ways my current financial status helps me better relate to my students who also know what it’s like to be barely making rent.

Financial instability is awful and unjustifiable in the wealthiest country in the modern world. I will not defend that. But I will be honest about the fact that my current financial situation has forced me to quickly mature in my personal financial practices. I’ve learned to budget and save and (somewhat) participate in city life. That’s a valuable lesson that I would not have learned as quickly if I had chosen a more lucrative path post graduation.

You better understand how other people actually see you

When I signed onto TFA I went to get advice from one of my favorite teachers from middle school. He was very well liked and his class felt like a warm and safe place. He was also a white, 6’3″ Navy veteran who had the largest shoulders, chest, and arms I’ve ever seen in person. He told me that the key to teaching and classroom management was just “positivity”. Positivity helps but it can’t be your entire theory of teaching if you’re not his size and stature.

I learned pretty quickly that being a boyish looking 23-year-old white man meant that my interactions with my students and their parents was going to be pretty tough. I couldn’t have the same persona as black teachers. I couldn’t have the same persona as older white male teachers. I had to figure out how to dress, act, and talk in a way which gained respect and some air of authority even despite the fact that my appearance would make people otherwise dismiss me. That’s a valuable thing to experience and it has made me considerably more aware of both my privilege in certain contexts.

You build self-esteem in your image or you fail

I get made fun of by students, parents, and, occasionally, other teachers. It’s like I’m in high school again. Everything I wear and every way I talk can get judged. I had good self-esteem going into teaching, but I’ve learned to build it up even more out of necessity.

You see nudging and the importance of incentives in real time

Everything about teaching is psychology. Everything in the classroom is about behavioral economics and developing good choice architectures to make the desired outcomes for my students more likely. I’ve written about this before here, but suffice it to say that it can be very difficult to properly incentivise young adults to make good academic decisions for themselves. In some ways that’s my entire job.

You have to build patience

There’s that definition of insanity about doing the same thing multiple times and expecting a different result, well that’s teaching. My students frequently refuse to do work and often don’t do what I would consider to be the minimum for success in my class. Despite this I keep having faith in them and pushing them to do more. I’m basically insane, but I also know that real change takes a long time. So instead of hoping for a lot moment-to-moment, I’ve learned to accept marginal revolutions. That’s taught me patience more than anything else before.

You learn how to navigate conflict

I was an older brother so I learned to navigate a lot of conflict with my siblings. Everyone gets practice with this, but some people just get a little more. Because I am so young and boyish looking, I feel like I’m mostly seen as a big brother to my students: they know that I have authority in the classroom but they don’t see me as a real adult and they don’t treat me that way. That’s hard sometimes, but my job is mostly about being a professional conflict resolver(, or, more likely an amateur or semi-professional conflict resolver). I am constantly having to attempt to mediate conflict between students along with conflicts that students have with my class. If they aren’t working hard, turning in their homework, or being respectful of others, it’s my job to attempt to resolve that conflict.

Not many of the conflicts are that bad. At most I’ve been threatened with violence and cussed out, but the majority is just low-level pettiness. Once again this isn’t about being judgmental, this is about being honest about the fact that the bulk of a teacher’s job is mediating 1,000 small social conflicts every day.

You learn how to deal with tremendous daily structure

If I don’t make it to school on-time, I’m liable for what happens in my room. My day is massively structured and I have very strong incentives to be at certain places at certain times. I like a lot of flexibility in my day so this sort of schedule is very difficult for me. But my experience in the school has likely prepared me for being successful in other area.

Conclusion

I am happy to be a teacher. It’s a very rewarding job and although I am frequently frustrated, it’s still very important to me to serve my students as best I can. I am a proponent of TFA, I don’t think it’s appropriate to use TFA or teaching as a just a jumping board for a better job but TFA provides a valuable service to school districts who can’t otherwise find consistent applicants to fill teaching positions. So even if someone isn’t going to be in teaching after the 2-year commitment, there are very good arguments for why that can be totally defensible and even helpful to the current state of education.

So while I think it is most important to be invested and interested in education, there are clear and important benefits to teaching that will undoubtedly change people for the better. I feel very lucky to both serve and benefit my students while still getting all of this career and cultural experience that I wouldn’t otherwise get.

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