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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

2 Reasons Why Teachers Have It Tougher Than You Think

By Peter DeWitt — November 13, 2014 4 min read
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Teaching sounds all rosy, especially in elementary school. It must be easy to walk in the door around 9 am and leave at about 3. And the summers...oh the wonderful summers. The reality is that teaching is 24/7, and I’m not overly concerned if you believe it or not.

When I was young and fresh out of college, I wanted to be a 4th grade teacher. I student taught in 4th grade with the greatest cooperating teacher a young person could ask for, so I thought that was the grade that would provide the best fit. Funny how your ideal grade changes when you have college loans, and get offered a job teaching first grade in a city school in a city you never visited before...

I’ve been pretty open about my struggles as a student. Retained in fourth grade, lost my dad to cancer when I was in fifth, and then struggled through school to the point that I graduated near last in my class. I even had two failed attempts at community college before the right people, situations, and maturity all entered into my life.

Truth is though, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. No one knew what I had been through, so therefore no one could really tell me anything I didn’t already know. And then I had students walk into my classroom. Students changed everything in my world.

To protect the innocent, I will call one of them Tom. Tom had CPS at his house more times than I could count, lost his mom at a young age, and had two brothers who thought it was funny to turn on the stove and have him reach for a cup over it, not knowing the stove was on. After burning himself once or twice, he knew not to trust his own brothers anymore.

Then there was James. He had five older siblings with five different fathers. He was small for his age, but he had an attitude twice his size, and even in first grade he went after 4th graders to show he was as tough as they were. His mother was arrested for crack, and he still showed up to school the next day. Where else did he have to go?

I’d love to say that those are the only two examples of students with hard lives, but they are only a fraction of the students who came from backgrounds that I could never imagine. People outside the profession are reading this not sure they can believe it, and teachers, especially those in city schools, are reading this thinking, “Yeah, that happens all the time.”

Which leads to Reason #1...

Some students come from difficult places - There wasn’t a month in nineteen years where a teacher didn’t say that they wanted to take at least one of their students home. When many adults would walk away from a student in a bad situation saying, “Isn’t that too bad” teachers walk to the student and try to help them rise up above it all. Sure there are many students who come to school prepared, but there are more than you think who come from emotionally draining situations, barely able to keep it together, and it’s teachers who have to teach them a variety of subjects as well as life skills.

Change, Change, Change...There are no shortage of books that focus on change. In this era of accountability and top-down mandates, teachers are being forced to change more than any time before. It’s not that teaching and learning practices can’t get better, because we all signed on to a profession that is supposed to foster lifelong learning. It’s just that sometimes the politicians and policymakers telling teachers to change in ways that they philosophically oppose.

What’s the happy medium? How can we get teachers and leaders to always reflect and find outside perspectives that will make them better practioners, at the same time they work through changes they cannot seem to control?

Which leads to Reason #2...

Accountability and Mandates - They are not just buzz words. Depending on the school climate, the word accountability can have different meanings. In positive school climates, accountability can mean making sure that the practices we use are actually working. It can be transparent and safe, because it’s supposed to be about student and teacher growth. In other more negative school climates, accountability means the hammer for which the leader will use to slam teachers.

It’s probably easy sitting in the cheap seats to say it’s time to get over new accountability measures and mandates. It’s not so easy if you’re a teacher who has put your heart and soul into your profession for many years. So, what’s the happy medium when times are tough?

  • Try to step back and look at the changes being asked of you. Is there any good? Is there any way to change the things that you find negative?
  • Are you a teacher who feels like you have no voice? Is that really true? Are there still many positive things you can do in the classroom that you could always do before?
  • Do the changes allow students to have more of a voice than before? Have you ever really allowed/encouraged students to have a voice before?
  • Are the changes really as bad as you think? Or is this just part of the implementation dip?

In the End

Teachers have students who come from a variety of backgrounds. Some come from abusive homes, while others have social issues when they are in school to the point that they wipe their own feces on the wall. Yes, that is true, and it doesn’t matter whether they attend a city, rural or suburban school.

At the same time they are trying to help guide students through some of the hardest times they have seen, teachers are being asked to change practices and meet mandates, sometimes without the proper resources needed to make the changes. This is not a “once in a blue moon” type scenario. Teachers are working through these issues on a weekly basis every year they teach. And yet they proudly walk into school every day hoping they can make a positive change in a student’s life. Teachers have it tougher than most people think, and all they want is the respect they deserve.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.