First Person

Teaching Never Gets Any Easier. But It Gets Better

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I used to think that at some distant point on a shimmering horizon—five or 15 or 25 years into teaching—suddenly it would get easier.

I would know exactly how to teach struggling readers to read. I would handle misbehavior with the masterful, no-nonsense tone of Mary Poppins laying down her expectations for Jane and Michael Banks. When I got a new student with out-of-control behavioral issues, I would jump at the chance to stretch myself for a new professional challenge.

Once that distant day arrived, my face would no longer flush with awkwardness and self-doubt each time my principal walked into my room to observe a lesson. I would never again see glazed boredom settle over each student’s face like a limp rubber mask. I wouldn’t once lose my temper, no matter how many times my students refused to listen or work quietly at their desks.

When that long-anticipated day arrived, I would wake up to a magnificent transformation, my methods suddenly as effective as fictional karate master Mr. Miyagi’s, my demeanor as jolly as a Tibetan monk’s.

Here’s the harsh truth I have finally accepted, this year of all years for some reason, two decades since walking into P.S. 192 in New York City as a 22-year-old first-year teacher with a heart full of good intentions and a badly knotted tie: That day will never come.

This job is never going to get any easier. I am who I am. Teaching is what it is. Like two long-married people who aren’t compatible but love each other too much to leave, this difficult profession and I are stuck with each other for the long, arduous haul.

Why It's Still Hard

I still struggle to help some readers unlock the baffling intricacies of print. I still stifle an internal sob when I get a new student whose misbehavior defies both kindness and stern words.

Heat still sears my throat when my principal walks in with a clipboard at the worst possible moment. I still watch my students get so bored that they gaze at the cracks in the ceiling rather than pay attention to my lesson. I still get so grumpy with them some days that I sound more like the Soup Nazi in “Seinfeld”—“No reading on the class couch for you!”—than a jocular Tibetan monk.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching or how much you care about children. This job is hard. Especially if you teach children with special needs or kids living in poverty. Especially if you’re one of those teachers who finds no comfort in the mantra “I’m doing my best” when your students aren’t making the growth they need, and instead you hear Winston Churchill’s gruff voice in your head: “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”

Why We Shouldn't Quit

It won’t get any easier. It will get better, though, because you will get better.

You’ll learn to look at your class and see each individual clearly: that entire evolving constellation of needs, strengths, interests, and personality traits within every child.

You’ll learn to balance responsibility with delight—to make sure your students work hard each day but get to laugh hard each day, too.

You’ll get better at both the art and the science of teaching. Knowing when to follow your instincts and when to question your beliefs, when to trust yourself and when to ask for help, when to give your methods time to work and when to try something different.

You will bring your thousands of hours of experience to bear on each new situation, whether it’s a child who still can’t read or a child who won’t stop crying and come out from under her desk.

You’ll stop seeing all these tests, rubrics, and standards as an end in themselves, and recognize them as the means to a greater end: helping children live the lives they dream. Helping them find joy and meaning in the imagined worlds within books, the orderly possibilities of numbers, the elaborate architecture of the natural world, and the mysterious galaxies within themselves.

You will teach little brothers and sisters of former students whose families have come to love you. You will be standing in line for movie tickets when you hear a timid, delighted voice say, “Mr. Minkel?” and you will turn to see that the marvelous boy you taught in 3rd grade has grown up to be a marvelous man.

You’ll learn, like Odysseus does in Homer’s Odyssey, that the trials of a day, year, or an entire career can become sweet in the telling—that the absurd situation that made you gnash your teeth this morning is kind of hilarious as you tell your loved ones about it over a glass of wine tonight.

You’ll discover, as Henslowe promises in "Shakespeare in Love," that it really will all turn out well in the end—Pritha will learn to read, Abigail will stop crying and come out from under her desk—though just how it will work out is always a mystery until the end.

What We Can Do

When author Marie Mutsuki Mockett lost her father, she kept waiting for the grief to abate. Finally she realized that it never would. She told NPR:

“What I learned was, it wasn't really possible for me to miss my father less. But ... that world, the backdrop against which I missed him, could be larger, which had the effect of making that pain feel less. And the only way to do that was to sort of open my heart up more.”

A new school year will arrive in your fifth or 15th or 25th year when you realize that the answer is not to try to make the job any easier, but to open your heart even wider.

Children you have come to love will still struggle through abuse, neglect, learning disabilities, systemic racism, and poverty. You will still confront the pressures and demands of a job that often feels impossible. You will continue to doubt your abilities, the strength of your spirit, and your decision to become a teacher more often than you want to admit.

You will never manage to reduce the magnitude of those hard things through effort, skill, or years of experience. But you will do something even greater. You will make your love for these children and this work so vast that all the frustrations, failures, heartbreaks, and exhaustion become smaller in comparison to the mass and gravity of that mighty love.

That’s all we can do. It’s enough.

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