Fourth grade math teacher Helen Chan plays a song on a ukelele at the beginning of class at South Loop Elementary School as they enter on Nov. 15, 2023, in Chicago, Ill.
Teaching Profession The State of Teaching

The ‘Difficult, Beautiful’ Work of Teaching

By Madeline Will, Elizabeth Heubeck, Ileana Najarro, Arianna Prothero & Sarah Schwartz — March 06, 2024 26 min read
  1. Chapters
  2. 01.
  3. 02.
    Before the first bell
  4. 03.
    Keeping instruction engaging
  5. 04.
    Reaching all learners
  6. 05.
    Managing disruptive students
  7. 06.
    Expecting the unexpected
  8. 07.
    After the closing bell
Teaching Profession The State of Teaching

The ‘Difficult, Beautiful’ Work of Teaching

By Madeline Will, Elizabeth Heubeck, Ileana Najarro, Arianna Prothero & Sarah Schwartz — March 06, 2024 26 min read
  • Introduction
    • Keep the kids calm during a lockdown.
    • See a student’s face light up as they grasp a concept.
    • Redirect antsy students back to their classwork.
    • Have a spontaneous chuckle at a student’s quippy comment.
    • Resolve a conflict between two quarreling students.
    • Pivot teaching strategies—from lecture to discussion to guided practice—over and over again.
    • Work well beyond contract hours.

    It’s just another day in the life of an American teacher.

    Teachers have long had a dizzying array of tasks to keep straight every day. But their jobs have gotten harder in recent years, amid a staggering youth mental health crisis and lagging academic achievement. Teachers are asked to meet all students’ needs, often with little support, middling pay, and what many perceive as a growing public antagonism toward the profession.

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    Perhaps it’s no surprise that the first-ever EdWeek Teacher Morale Index stands at -13, on a scale of -100 to +100. The figure connotes that overall, teachers feel more negatively than positively about the profession.

    “I think because everyone has been at school, they feel like, ‘Oh, I was a student once before. Being a teacher is not that hard, because anyone can teach, right?’” said Helen Chan, a 4th grade math teacher at South Loop Elementary School in Chicago. “They always say that quote, ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ ... I just don’t think the public knows how much work and effort and heart we put into our jobs.”

    To understand the realities of the classroom in this critical moment of time, Education Week reporters spent the day with a half-dozen teachers from across the country over a five-week period last fall. Our goal was to understand and make visible the day-to-day experiences, mindsets, and attitudes of the teacher workforce—the backbone of one of our nation’s most vital civic institutions, public schooling. It is part of our commitment to covering the state of teaching in the United States.

    The teachers we observed teach different subjects and grade levels, across six states and diverse school settings. But their experiences highlighted common pressures and challenges: managing disruptive student behavior; tailoring instruction for students with a wide range of academic abilities; supporting a growing population of English learners, often without much training; and responding to countless unforeseen situations, both minor and serious.

    The Teachers in This Story

    • Sofia Alvarez-Briglie, a 7th grade science teacher at Alcott Middle School in Norman, Okla.;
    • Hana Boscarino, a physics teacher at Agua Fria High School in Avondale, Ariz.;
    • Helen Chan, a 4th grade math teacher at South Loop Elementary School in Chicago;
    • Jacqueline Chaney, 2nd grade teacher at New Town Elementary in Owings Mills, Md.;
    • Frank Rivera, a secondary English/language arts teacher at Chaparral Star Academy, a K-12 charter school in Austin, Texas; and
    • Griselle Rivera-Martinez, the English-for-speakers-of-other-languages teacher at Enterprise Elementary in Enterprise, Fla. (She is not related to Frank Rivera.)

    • Before the first bell

      It’s still dark as teachers begin arriving at school.

      Griselle Rivera-Martinez is already in the media center at 6:30 a.m., preparing for a mini reading lesson for 1st graders at her Florida school. Technically, her assignment is only to supervise, but Rivera-Martinez likes to turn every moment she has with students into a teachable one.

      She pulls out books that aren’t part of the formal 1st grade curriculum but are still aligned to state standards. She practices reading skills with the 50 or so children, such as identifying the story’s setting and characters and understanding its problem-solving arc.

      She walks through rows of students sitting cross-legged on the floor, drawing their attention to the little whiteboard in her hand. Her calm, steady voice helps them settle down ahead of their first official class period.

      More than 1,000 miles away, in Austin, Frank Rivera is multitasking—downing a Crackin’ Egg Microwave Scramble and coffee while studying Spanish on his Duolingo app in his classroom. He’s charging up in the quiet moments before the chaos of the day begins.

      “It’s just go, go, go,” he says of his schedule, which officially starts with a 7:30 a.m. assignment of welcoming students in the carpool line as their parents drop them off.

      The days are busy, and they’re also long. Teachers work an average of 57 hours a week, according to new national survey data from the EdWeek Research Center.

      Less than half of that time is spent teaching, with administrative duties and other demands taking up large swaths of teachers’ days. Asked which task they would like to spend more time on, the largest share said preparation on their own, followed by actual teaching time.

      Teachers fit in extra planning time where they can. Before the first class period begins at their Oklahoma school, Sofia Alvarez-Briglie and Rachelle Johnson, the school’s other 7th grade science teacher, plan out the continuation of a unit on chemical reactions and energy. The middle grades curriculum features hands-on exploration of scientific phenomena, and this week’s lesson has students working in small groups to design and then build flameless heaters, which will be used to make s’mores.

      Fourth grade math teacher Helen Chan stands for a portrait at the end of day outside of South Loop Elementary School on Nov. 15, 2023, in Chicago, Ill.

      In Chicago, Helen Chan takes the last few minutes before the bell to ready her classroom. She writes the day’s objective and a “do now” on the whiteboard, adding a reminder for students to turn in field trip permission slips. She shuffles desks around, putting her table groups back into place.

      One final touch: She flips on the string lights that line the whiteboard at the front of the class.

      “It’s like opening a store,” Chan says.

    • Keeping instruction engaging

      A switch goes off as students trickle into class. Teachers ramp up their energy levels, ready to pull out all the stops to keep students engaged and learning.

      Teacher Frank Rivera greets a student at Chaparral Star Academy in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 15, 2023.

      “Good morning, children!” Frank Rivera calls out as he follows the last of his freshmen honors students inside and closes the door. “We have a lecture today!” After he’s greeted with silence, Rivera prompts: “I don’t hear enough excitement!”

      Some students respond with half-hearted yays, a few with boos.

      “Today, we are talking about postmodernism,” Rivera says. The influential 20th century movement, which paired skepticism with self-parody and shaped the visual arts and literature, is a heavy topic for a Wednesday morning. But Rivera finds ways to make it relevant for teenagers today.

      Frank Rivera

      He walks around the room, one hand in his pocket, the other gesticulating, as he explains why the movies “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Detective Pikachu” are examples of postmodernism. His students track his movements with puffy, sleepy eyes, dutifully answering his questions in hoarse voices, except for one perky student who gamely offers this insight: “May I argue that the anti-meme is an example of postmodernism?”

      “That’s a fair argument,” says Rivera, nodding. The anti-meme could be an example of postmodernism, he explains, because it’s aware that it is a meme and is making fun of other memes.

      It’s back to a more traditional topic in his next class, Advanced Placement Literature. Rivera reads the John Donne poem, “Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three person’d God,” aloud.

      “OK, what is Donne arguing in this text? What is the larger theme?” Rivera asks the class, dividing them into groups to discuss.

      A male student with black, curly hair slowly spins a piece of paper on his desk as his groupmate offers an interpretation: “It’s purposely over-exaggerated. He over-exaggerates to make fun of things.” Rivera walks between the groups, listening in on students’ discussions, and nodding in approval.

      Rivera switches gears again an hour later for 7th grade English. The students enter Rivera’s class with a mischievous but good-natured energy. “You know, I forgot everything already from yesterday’s class,” one boy says teasingly.

      Frank Rivera’s 7th grade ELA class at Chaparral Star Academy in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 15, 2023.

      Today’s lesson: diagramming sentences. A few students groan. A student with a crop of curly hair and a smile full of braces sings “Merry Christmas to you,” not quite under his breath.

      With each period, Rivera’s energy changes to meet that of the class. Now he’s the taskmaster, keeping kids focused and moving them through their work—very different from Rivera the Lecturer and Rivera the Facilitator of earlier class periods.

      Rivera sees teaching like reading “Hamlet.” Each time he reads the play or teaches a class, he sees and learns new things. It’s clichéd but true, he says.

      In Maryland, Jacqueline Chaney searches constantly for new, creative ways to keep her 2nd graders’ attention. She often relies on group work to keep students engaged.

      Jacqueline Chaney

      Students have designated seats, but they switch into small groups throughout the day, with little transition time. Some of Chaney’s groups are set, like those for reading, while others are impromptu. Students are assigned—or sometimes get to choose—their roles in the group. Members take turns being the leader.

      “Leader doesn’t mean boss,” Chaney warns. “I don’t want anybody to boss me around.”

      During whole-class lessons, Chaney asks frequent questions, checking for understanding. At the start of a 75-minute math lesson, she writes an equation on the board: 43 + 51 =

      “Somebody read this equation,” she says. “This is where I’m looking for good math vocabulary.”

      Students are paying rapt attention, raising their hands to answer Chaney’s questions, which aim not just at getting to the answers, but at the terms and concepts that underpin the math.

      “Anybody remember what the synonym for number is?” Chaney asks.

      “Addend,” they call out, immediately.

      Chaney has the students draw number lines on their desks with dry erase markers and then “jump” and “hop” along the lines to decompose numbers.

      As they work, she conducts periodic check-ins: “Thumbs up? Or I’m still a little lost in the sauce?”

      “You’re going to have to explain your jumps and hops, and how you got there,” she tells them.

      Jacqueline Chaney and her 2nd graders participate in their morning circle at New Town Elementary School in Owings Mills, Md., on Oct. 25, 2023.

      The lesson flows smoothly, belying the hard work that took place behind the scenes. Teachers have mixed feelings about professional development in general, finding much of it irrelevant and top-down, but many appreciate when they have the choice to target specific skills. Chaney regularly signs up for optional professional development to hone her teaching.

      “Teaching is a passion,” she said. “It’s more than a job to me. I want to be the best. You have to commit to that.”

    • Reaching all learners

      Teachers are serving a student body that’s increasingly diverse—not just socioeconomically or ethnically, but also in terms of academic needs. Teachers must differentiate their instruction to ensure all learners have the support they need.

      In Chicago, Helen Chan walks her students through the plan for the day’s math lesson. One group, the Lucky Charms, who are performing above grade level, will work in pairs on laptops in the hallway. The Super Lions, who are performing at grade level, will do a group lesson with Chan.

      Helen Chan

      The separate lessons embody Chan’s new strategy this year for addressing the varying math abilities in her classroom. The students in the hallway will listen to a pre-recorded lesson from Chan, and then do practice problems together.

      It’s a lot of work organizing classes this way, Chan says, but it’s the best method she’s hit on yet for meeting varied student needs. Chan developed the strategy herself.

      As the Super Lions take out their notebooks, Chan stands in the doorway to the hall, making sure that the Lucky Charms are getting to work. “Settle, settle, settle,” she tells them. The students are sprawled out in pairs every few feet, some sitting against the lockers lining the hallway, others lying down resting on plush star-shaped pillows.

      Fourth grade students work in the hallway during a math class taught by Helen Chan at South Loop Elementary School on Nov. 15, 2023, in Chicago, Ill.

      Chan heads back into the classroom to start a problem on the distributive property with the Super Lions. A few minutes later, mid-conversation—she had just asked the class, “Why do we use parentheses?”—Chan pops her head back out of the classroom door to check on her hallway group.

      “Are we still on task out here?” she asks. Most are focused on their assignments, but she moves one pair that hasn’t made much progress to a more visible spot in the hallway.

      Chan continues this dance between the hallway and the classroom, teaching the two groups at once, for the rest of her three math class periods.

      “I’ve been losing my voice—three times already this year,” she said afterwards. “There’s minimal non-talking time, since I’m constantly switching groups around to talk to.”

      Differentiation isn’t just about individual students’ skill levels and needs. It’s a must for a school-aged population that, like the rest of America, has grown increasingly diverse. The population of English learners in U.S. schools has steadily increased, but just 13 percent of teachers speak a language other than English at home.

      Chan has 18 English learners in her classes. She’s not certified to teach English as a second language and makes do with technology. At one point, while teaching a word problem, she types the problem into Google Translate on her phone and hands it to a Spanish-speaking student.

      English-as-a-second-language teachers can provide support. In Florida, Griselle Rivera-Martinez is in charge of about five dozen students who are identified as English learners. She also regularly monitors 11 students who tested out of the school’s English-for-speakers-of-other-languages program and no longer receive formal instruction or supports for their English.

      Griselle Rivera Martinez (1)

      Each day, she pulls a wheeled crate, filled with books, paper, pens and pencils, binders of lesson plans, and an analog clock to keep track of time, across campus as she takes students out of their general education classes for intensive work building their academic language.

      Rivera-Martinez meets with the students in supply rooms that have been turned into makeshift classrooms, with extra school supplies and storage crates piled high on the shelves. Although she has a classroom space in a modular building, it’s all the way in the back of campus, so far from the general classrooms that Rivera-Martinez prefers the nearby supply rooms to preserve every minute of time for instruction.

      At the start of each class, she explains to her students what they will do with their time together and how their lesson and activities for the day align with state standards. This helps students and their families know why they are reviewing certain topics in sessions with her.

      In one such period, Rivera-Martinez splits four 3rd graders into pairs as they work to identify various components of a page in a civics textbook, including its headers, the text, and visual aids. One student is struggling with the assignment.

      “How do you say what this is?” Rivera-Martinez asks him, pointing to the bottom of the page.

      “Um, characters?” guesses Braisel Rosado.

      “No, this,” she points again. “It is a timeline. Una línea de tiempo.”

      The boy’s eyes light up at the explanation in his native Spanish.

      “Can you now say, ‘It is a timeline?’”

      “It is a timeline,” he repeats, carefully sounding out each word.

      Braisel’s partner steps in to explain how a timeline helps you understand the order in which events happen. He walks Braisel through this in both English and Spanish.

      Braisel, 9, recently came to the United States from Cuba, where he missed out on a lot of formal schooling due to pandemic-related closures. Rivera-Martinez can see, however, that when something is explained to him in Spanish, he catches on. It’s translating his knowledge into English where he needs more support.

      After the class period ends, Rivera-Martinez quickly gets the attention of Braisel’s main teacher, updating her on his progress and noting that he still needs linguistic support. His teacher shares that she has noticed him trying more in class. 

      There isn’t much time during the school day for Rivera-Martinez to more deeply discuss with her teaching peers how to best support English learners like Braisel in general classrooms. She squeezes in quick conversations between class periods to share highlights and observations. 

      Rivera-Martinez would like general education teachers to receive more training on strategies to use with English learners—a wish echoed by other teachers in interviews with Education Week.

      “It would give them that hands-on piece and that opportunity to clarify misconceptions,” Rivera-Martinez says. “Sometimes general education teachers mix [special education] accommodations with ESOL accommodations. Some are similar, but some are not.”

    • Managing disruptive students

      It’s Sofia Alvarez-Briglie’s first science class of the day, and a few students are flicking rubber bands at each other. Others are roaming the classroom and having side conversations, unrelated to the work they’re supposed to be doing.

      Such a scene takes place in classrooms across the country, with real implications for instruction: Teachers can find themselves sidetracked by students who are off task or disruptive. Student discipline problems have risen sharply since the pandemic began, making classroom management an increasingly key part of teachers’ jobs.


      Alvarez-Briglie’s students are supposed to be building prototypes of their designs for flameless heaters using a hodgepodge of materials, including plastic containers, Ziploc bags, baking sheets, tape, and rubber bands. (When they make s’mores later in the week, they will be using root killer and saltwater, along with aluminum foil, to generate heat.) The hands-on experimentation is exciting, but students have ample opportunities to get distracted.

      As Alvarez-Briglie walks around the room, giving groups feedback on their designs, she issues several reminders to students to stay on task. Then, she pauses the class and tells students to take a moment for mindfulness. They need to stay in their seats, she tells them firmly.

      If she had to rank their performance during the class period from zero to 10, she continues, “I would give us a six or seven in terms of how we followed expectations.”

      “That’s being generous,” one student responds.

      From now on, Alvarez-Briglie says, one person in each group will be in charge of collecting materials, and the rest will have to stay in their seats. She’ll keep the rubber bands with her, and students will have to check them out with their IDs.

      Students in Sofia Alvarez-Briglie's class test the design of their experiments during class on Nov. 13, 2023.

      The new guidelines help the following classes go more smoothly, but Alvarez-Briglie is wary going into her second-to-last period. That class, which takes place after lunch and recess, has been particularly disruptive lately.

      Alvarez-Briglie starts the class with a stern lecture: On Friday, the students had been so disruptive that at the end of the period, she and a student observer from the University of Oklahoma had turned to each other and exclaimed, “What was that?!”

      One student points to another, blaming him. Alvarez-Briglie shakes her head. She knows the norms for behavior are everyone’s responsibility.

      “It was everybody. It was all of you. If you don’t want to accept responsibility for that, then we have other conversations to have.

      “You guys have got to chill out. We’ve had conversations about how it’s the time of day, but...” She takes a deep breath. “Today’s going to be a better day, though. I want it to be a better day.”

      Alvarez-Briglie has invited an instructional coach to today’s class for some extra support. As the class gets started, she and the coach walk from group to group, asking students to explain their designs and pointing out potential flaws in their prototypes. For the most part, the students are on task and engaged in the work they’re doing—a huge relief for Alvarez-Briglie.

      “Whenever my classes spiral like that, I instantly start to feel like it’s my fault,” she said of Friday’s class in an interview later. “What did I not set up correctly in order for them to understand what was expected of them?”

      She knew that students building multiple prototypes at once would be a classroom-management challenge.

      “Like I told some of my classes, I’m one person trying to execute multiple designs for you,” she said. “It takes a certain level of concentration to be able to do that and evaluate really quickly the constraints of each one of those designs. That’s difficult to do when you’re having to tell a friend to quit shooting rubber bands across the room, sit down, all those other classroom management issues.”

      In Facebook groups for the curriculum, other teachers have cited this as a flaw in the unit and have suggested doing a single class design instead. But Alvarez-Briglie believes that it’s important to give students the opportunity to engage with engineering firsthand. It’s worth the extra stress to see their faces light up when they realize their design works, she said.

      Teachers regularly brainstorm new tactics to squash behavioral issues and engage students—both on a whole-class level and on an individual basis.

      Fourth grade math teacher Helen Chan stands with another teacher to talk to the vice principal about a student’s behavior at South Loop Elementary School on Nov. 15, 2023, in Chicago, Ill.

      In Chicago, Helen Chan and her co-teacher head upstairs for an impromptu conference with one of the school’s special education teachers about a 4th grader who is having a rough day. They need to work on a new behavior plan for him, Chan says, because the current one isn’t working.

      “He’s a tough nut to crack,” the special education teacher says.

      Together, they come up with a strategy: For every five minutes that the student stays on task, he’ll get a sticker. Once he has three stickers, he will get a five-minute break.

    • Expecting the unexpected

      Teachers make at least 1,500 decisions a day, big and small. Many of them are the kinds of quick instructional pivots that respond to students’ needs and misunderstandings. But teachers also are responding to other kinds of unexpected situations related to students’ health, safety, and general wellness.

      An unexpected lockdown: ‘You’re responsible for everyone in your classroom’

      In Arizona, Hana Boscarino is in the middle of her advisory period when a recording plays over the loudspeaker: The school is now in lockdown. Teachers and staff, lock your doors.

      The lockdown wasn’t planned, unlike all other active-shooter drills. Boscarino and her students assume it’s real and spring into action.

      Hana Boscarino

      Someone turns the lights off, a student locks the classroom door, and everybody crouches against the wall in silence. Boscarino ushers students who are outside into the classroom and urges them to move quickly to a spot along the walls, away from the windows.

      Her voice is tinged with anxiety, but she remains calm and in control. The students follow her directions matter-of-factly, almost reflexively.

      About a minute later, someone comes on the intercom and gives the all-clear. A false alarm: Someone had accidentally hit the button that triggered the lockdown announcement.

      The experience, though short-lived, invoked anxiety in some students, Boscarino said later. It also reminded her of how high the stakes are as a teacher.

      “You’re remembering so many things, and you’re responsible for everyone in your classroom,” she said. “The moment that the lockdown is announced, I’m thinking, OK, I have to lock my front door. ... The window in the flex area that’s in front of my classroom is wide open, and anyone can see in. ... The door is locked, but I have to open my door one last time to pull in any extra kids. I’m opening my door, and I don’t know where the threat is, but I need to get those kids into somewhere.”

      The sheer number of responsibilities a teacher needs to fulfill at an instant is staggering, but Boscarino recounts them calmly, like clockwork. It’s ingrained in her mind, and in the fabric of the job.

      “You’re inventorying every kid that’s in your classroom. How many kids do I have in here? Did I let anyone out to the bathroom? Did I let anyone go get papers from another teacher? If I did, did they make it back in time? Are they in another classroom?” she continued. “Our lockdown lasted for a couple minutes, if that. And those were just the things that were going through my head. I can’t even imagine if it continued, what else I would be thinking about.”

      After the lockdown, Boscarino’s students quickly got back into the rhythm of class, although the experience lingered with Boscarino for the rest of the day. After all, it was a stark reminder of the reality of schools today.

      Even though school shootings are statistically rare—Education Week counted 38 shootings on school grounds that resulted in injuries or deaths in 2023, and nine so far this year—they’re still an ever-present fear in the minds of students, educators, and parents. Lockdown drills are ubiquitous, with students and their teachers hunkering down in the darkness to practice for the possibility of a gunman roaming the hallways.

      “The kids are so used to that feeling of a lockdown occurring, or that momentary feeling of being unsafe, or even that panic that occurs,” Boscarino said. “I just think they’re really resilient. These kids, they’re able to adapt to whatever is thrown at them—including a surprise lockdown in the middle of the day, which they think is real.”

      Responding to serious situations: ‘How do I emotionally support my students?’

      In Oklahoma, the start of Sofia Alvarez-Briglie’s recess duty is interrupted with a text from her brother, a first-year teacher at Alcott Middle School. His girlfriend, who lives with him, has tested positive for COVID-19, and he isn’t sure what to do. As one of the school’s new teacher liaisons, Alvarez-Briglie helps tackle these kinds of logistical questions and offers support.

      Sofia Alvarez-Briglie, a middle school science teacher at Alcott Middle School in Norman, Okla., XXX on Nov. 13, 2023.

      She had just finished resolving that unexpected drama—running a mask and COVID-19 test over to her brother’s classroom—when she’s hit by another curveball. As soon as she gets outside for recess, a fellow teacher whispers that a student had a medical emergency in the middle of class that morning. The news is startling.

      Moments later, Alvarez-Briglie notices a girl sitting by the wall, crying. Her friends are looking at a phone and telling the girl: You need to report this.

      Alarm bells go off in Alvarez-Briglie’s head.

      She walks over to find out what’s going on. The details are muddled, but she gathers that this might be a situation of sexual assault.

      The student tries to brush it off, but Alvarez-Briglie tells her that she needs to report it—and it’s not OK. The teacher loops in the school’s counselor and student advocate, who bring the girl into the front office to talk more.

      Alvarez-Briglie pulls aside the other girls and tells them that she’s proud of them for supporting their friend and encouraging her to report the incident to an adult. But now, she reminds them, the best way to continue to support their friend is to respect her privacy and not talk about what happened to others.

      Later, a boy runs up next to Alvarez-Briglie and tells her about the medical emergency that took place in his classroom that morning. “I’m sorry you had to witness that,” she responds. “That must have been scary.”

      Sofia Alvarez-Briglie, a middle school science teacher at Alcott Middle School in Norman, Okla., supervises recess on Nov. 13, 2023.

      In an interview afterwards, Alvarez-Briglie acknowledges that hearing about the medical emergency and a possible sexual assault in a short time period was draining. At the time, she just had to power through.

      Unlike other professionals, teachers can’t take a few minutes to go for a walk or grab a cup of coffee to clear their minds in the middle of the day. Their days are scheduled down to the minute; they are forced to compartmentalize, tamping down any strong emotions until the day’s over and their students are gone.

      “How do I emotionally support my students, and the teachers—my colleagues—who find themselves in that situation?” Alvarez-Briglie said, reflecting on the events of recess. “In both of those cases today, I very much just kind of felt like a listening ear and somewhat of an advocate. ... And then later in the day, you start to process.”

      Never a dull moment: ‘It’s not for the control freak’

      Teaching, Frank Rivera said, is “not for the control freak.” There’s always a fire to put out, an opportunity for a life lesson, or an unexpected interruption.

      During Griselle Rivera-Martinez’s planning period, she receives a text from 1st grader Angie Olivas’s mom. Someone had called from the front office, but the mother trusts Rivera-Martinez and feels more comfortable getting the information from her.

      Rivera-Martinez calls both parties at the same time, juggling her cellphone in one hand and her office landline in the other, to translate the information back and forth between mom and the front office in real time. 

      Conflict resolution is also part of the job. Two girls in Helen Chan’s 4th grade class who were working together in the hallway come into the classroom to find Chan. One girl accuses the other of taking them both off task; her partner thinks she’s being overly critical. Chan pulls them aside to adjudicate.

      Frank Rivera’s 7th grade ELA class at Chaparral Star Academy in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 15, 2023.

      She suggests that they talk about how the other made them feel and try to work together again. Partner work is hard, she tells them, but you have to learn how to do it.

      Teachers find opportunities throughout the day to weave in those types of character-building lessons. In Oklahoma, students are playing lacrosse in the gym period that Sofia Alvarez-Briglie teaches every day. The game is intense, and Olivia, a cheerleader, asks to quit and sit on the bleachers with her friends, who are nursing prior injuries.

      “Did you try? I feel like you gave a 10 percent effort,” Alvarez-Briglie responds. She wants the girl to go all-in before she sits out the game. A compromise is reached: Olivia can stop playing after she engages with the ball at least twice.

      Olivia rushes back onto the court with a renewed sense of purpose. She makes contact with the ball, and Alvarez-Briglie gives her the OK to join her friends. She tells the group: “Olivia did awesome! I’m just happy she tried. That made my day.”

      And then there are the funny little interruptions, the kind that can only happen when working with kids.

      A student from another class shows up in Chan’s doorway, interrupting her math lesson to ask for a Ziploc bag. The girl grins and points to the empty spot in the top line of her smile: a lost tooth.

      “Ava, slay!” exclaims another girl. “Congratulations, Ava!” Chan says, handing her a container to keep the precious cargo safe.

    • After the closing bell

      As the last bell rings, students rush out the doors, and the teachers exhale. A sense of peace descends. But the day isn’t over yet.

      In Florida, Griselle Rivera-Martinez sits back down at her desk after eight hours of crisscrossing campus, walking nearly 4,000 steps, or about two miles. She’ll be at the school for another half-hour yet: Twice a week, Rivera-Martinez volunteers to stay after school to help a paraprofessional tutor English learners. She’s not paid for this work. (Since this classroom visit, the school has hired someone else to lead the tutoring.)

      At home, Rivera-Martinez will review all the paperwork she didn’t get to during the school day, such as notes from parent-teacher conferences, and files from students who enrolled after the start of the school year.

      Fourth grade math teacher Helen Chan talks to parents and students at the end of day outside of South Loop Elementary School on Nov. 15, 2023, in Chicago, Ill.

      In Chicago, Helen Chan heads back into her classroom after shepherding her students to the grownups who are waiting for them. She makes note of a late homework assignment turned in and entered a few grades on her laptop. She erases the whiteboard at the front of the room, writing tomorrow’s good morning message. Then she makes a few notes for the next day, recording which students still need some help with concepts learned in that day’s lessons. “There’s so much to keep track of,” she says.

      Nine hours after she arrived at school, Chan leaves the building at last. Before heading home, though, she spends another 10 minutes sitting in her car, finishing up a few last emails on her phone.

      In Maryland, Jacqueline Chaney heads home after her students leave. She will keep working at home, planning lessons, grading, and sending parents updates via Class Dojo.

      “If I don’t work every night for at least an hour, I get backed up,” she said. “On the weekends, it’s two to three hours. If not, I play catch-up. It snowballs.”

      Sofia Alvarez-Briglie, in Oklahoma, gathers her things to pick up her son Leo from day care. After only a couple hours at home, she heads into her evening class at the University of Oklahoma. She’s earning her Ph.D. in science education with a principal certification—a personal goal of hers, and also the first step toward a potential professional pivot within education.

      Sofia Alvarez-Briglie, a middle school science teacher at Alcott Middle School in Norman, Okla., picks her son up from daycare after school on Nov. 13, 2023.

      But in the meantime, she’s enjoying what she calls the rollercoaster ride of teaching.

      “It’s so difficult in a lot of ways, ... but it’s so beautiful in a lot of ways,” Alvarez-Briglie said. “Today I spent how much of my day laughing? These kids are goofballs. ... Anytime those lightbulbs go off, anytime they invest in the lessons that you’re putting together, it feels like you hit the lottery—literally. You feel like you’re making such a difference in the world.

      “There’s going to be ups and downs. You’re going to get frustrated. You’re going to get rip-roaring mad. Sometimes personal boundaries will be crossed, but for the most part, you’re going to have a really wonderful time.”

      And it starts all over again tomorrow.

      Before You Go...

      We’d love to hear what you thought about this story. Take a brief survey to help us improve our content and resources for the teaching profession.

    Kaylee Domzalski, Video Producer contributed to this article.
    A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2024 edition of Education Week as The ‘Difficult, Beautiful’ Work of Teaching


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