They never tell you in teacher school. It’s rarely discussed and never, ever portrayed in movies and tv shows about teaching. Teachers don’t like to bring it up around non-teachers for fear it will make them look weak or whiny or inadequate.
A fundamental challenge of teaching is coming to grips with this:
There is never enough.
There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.
As a teacher, you can see what your perfect classroom should look like. You know all the work you should be doing developing lessons, creating rich assignments, covering a broad swath of material, providing deep and wide assessments and using them to provide valuable feedback. Plus, of course, being able to drop it all on a moment’s notice when a teachable moment suddenly announces itself.
You can see all this, but you can also do the math. 150 papers about colonial economic developments, at fifteen minutes each for a thorough reading and thoughtful response equals 37 hours. Designing six lessons a day for five days a week at five minutes per lesson equals two and a half hours. Quizzes to assess how students stand so that you can design a refresher unit to bring them up to speed (five minutes each to grade). You know that the quickest assessments to give and score (multiple choice, true/false) provide the least useful data; the best assessments are almost always essays, but they take hours to grade. You know about the power of one-on-one conferencing with students, but that takes a whole week of class time.
Sometime in the first year or two it hits you—you will not be able to have the classroom that you always imagined. You will have to make compromises. You will have to choose not to do things that you know you should be doing.
As you grow professionally, you get faster. You learn tricks, you learn which corners you can safely cut, you get better at assessing, you gather a small mountain of materials that you can deploy without so much prep time. You slowly manage to carry more in your teacher bucket.
Teachers spend their professional lives pushing against the limits of time, space, resources, and their own personal limitations. The best teachers can tell you right now a list of things they don’t think they do well enough—yet. Some teachers can never make peace with the necessary compromises; they burn out. But make the compromises, and professional satisfaction can come from feeling that, every year, you’re getting closer to that ideal classroom you envision.
Teaching (and, in fairness, a few other service professions as well) is a ten gallon bucket in which teachers are expected to carry fifteen gallons of stuff, and so they make choices (if they refuse to choose, things just spill anyway). And society is always trying to add more to the bucket. Need a new public health program? Let schools do it. People in this country don’t seem to understand some issue? Pass a law saying schools have to explain it.
(And no—pre-packaged materials don’t really help, because teachers still have to dig into those and customize them for their own classes.)
The pandemic has exacerbated the situation.
Teachers, you are now required to be able to run both in-person and on-line classes. Create packets for students who can’t do either. Negotiate mask and/or anti-mask policies with parents and colleagues. Take care of the social and mental strains that students are experiencing. Manage the safety of your classroom even as your district tells you that many pandemic safety measures will not be taken in your district; maintain social distancing with 30 students in your classroom. Also, there are some people outside who would like to yell at you about this week’s major controversy. And here’s a new list of things you aren’t allowed to teach, or are required to teach, maybe.
Dump more and more into that bucket.
School districts know that teachers are strapped and struggling, that many are not okay. But so are parents, and so are school administrators, and so teachers get morale “boosters” such as appreciation t-shirts and chirpy e-mails and exhortations to practice self-care, which is a nicer way to say “You’d better take care of yourself because nobody else is going to take care of you.”
Teaching is always performed up against the limitations of the work, but right now the limitations are greater than ever. The bucket is way past overfull. And teachers are becoming frustrated with the number of compromises they have to make, the number of things they know they want to do in their classrooms, but can’t.
What can districts do to help?
School leaders have always added teaching requirements and duties without taking anything away. Now is the time to take things away. The pandemic was supposed to prompt an examination of how normal schooling could be changed, and that mostly hasn’t happened, but there is still time for districts to ask, “What do we spend time and worry on that we could just let go?”
Now is also the time for district leaders to ask teachers, “What do you need? How can we help?” And then listen to the answer.
Free teachers from non-teaching duties and responsibilities. Be a buffer between teachers and the various stirred up controversies raging these days. Treat them with respect. Treat them like the solution, and not like the problem. Let teachers teach.