Every semester a student asks me the question, “Should I be a teacher?” The answer isn’t a clear “yes” or “no.” It’s a hard profession where you’re under constant ridicule from parents, students, other teachers, and society at large. Most days, you will go home exhausted. But, when you truly touch a student’s life in a meaningful way, suddenly it all seems worth it.
Are You Ready to Work Hard?
When I started teaching 20 years ago, the statistics were daunting. More than half of all K-12 teachers stayed in the profession less than two years. No one is sure of the reason. Some think it’s because new teachers underestimate the amount of work it takes to teach effectively.
Sure, you might get to go home at 3 p.m., but you have to be at school around 7 a.m., and chances are, you’ll spend your evenings at home grading papers and preparing lesson plans. You’ll spend your weekends binge watching Netflix while grading essays. You’ll spend holidays planning for your next semester. Every new teacher underestimates the amount of planning it takes to teach effectively.
In truth, even I left K-12 teaching after three years. I finished my first master’s degree and became a community college professor and instructional designer. I didn’t want to leave teaching—I wanted to leave parents. College teaching is just as hard and don’t let anyone tell you differently. But, I can stand behind FERPA laws and avoid talking to parents, at least, most of the time. I did have a 30-year old’s mother yell at me for flunking her daughter for plagiarizing Wikipedia in a final essay.
These days, teachers need specialized teaching courses to land the best jobs. Competition is high in some areas, and low in others. If you choose to teach in a rural or high-need area, there are benefits like student loan forgiveness. Still, it’s hard work, and if you’re going to survive, you need to have clear expectations.
Why Do You Want to Teach?
Teaching is not an escape hatch you jump into just because you can’t figure out what you want to do with your career. It’s not a “just pay the bills” job. Those who are successful at teaching do it because they can’t see themselves anywhere else.
Some people come into the profession because they like being students and don’t know what to do outside of academia. Just because you’re a good student doesn’t mean you’ll be a good teacher. It’s a labor of love. It’s an uphill fight to do what’s right for your students in the face of all adversity.
If you think you’ll retire rich as a teacher because you read in The Millionaire Next Door that the largest group of self-made millionaires is teachers, you are delusional. Those who retire rich pick up side jobs in the summer, publish books, and hire financial advisors to make sure they’re saving all they should.
As for me, I have other skills that I’ve been able to use to supplement the ridiculously low wages teachers are paid. When you read statistics about how teachers are paid $30,000 per year or less in a lot of areas, believe them. Don’t buy into the BS about how teachers “only work 9 months per year, so their salaries are fair.” Teaching is a year-round job, even when you’re not in front of your students.
While I’m on my soap box, shame on every politician who doesn’t work to raise salaries for teachers and improve the conditions of schools for students.
The right reason to want to teach is because you want to become the champion for your students’ education. You want to inspire your students. You want to support them through the challenging days and rejoice with them through the victorious ones. You have to want to put your students first, even when standardized testing, pushy parents, burned-out colleagues, and administrators who have never taught a day in their lives do everything possible to distract you from your purpose.
It’s not for everyone. For most of us who do it well, it’s a calling.
Can You Explain Things Well?
Teaching means finding new ways to explain tough concepts. When a student doesn’t “get” something, you have to find alternate ways to explain and demonstrate a concept until you find common ground that the student can grasp.
This is especially tough in black-and-white subjects like math. Math teaching jobs are some of the easiest to find because they are tough, and not everyone loves math. Think about what you’ll do when a student doesn’t understand a math problem. How many different ways can you find to explain it? You will need real-life examples for a lot of learners.
Never forget: Everyone learns by doing. Never be the teacher who just stands up at the front of the room and talks. You have to engage your students and challenge them to try what you’re explaining. This can take unbelievable patience.
Do You Have Patience?
You will need more patience than you can imagine. You will need the patience to listen to your students when they come to you with a problem. You will need the patience to not to scream at parents when they tell you their child doesn’t have time to do your homework because they have baseball practice, cello practice, or have to water the plants when they get home.
You will need the patience of a saint when the principal pulls you into his office to discuss why your test scores are lower than the national average, when your class came to you with reading scores two years behind where they should be.
I’m not going to lie to you. There will be days when you go home angry. There will be days when you can’t do anything at all to help a student in a bad situation and you will cry.
Are You Empathetic?
If you teach K-12, your teaching job is far more than imparting knowledge. Teachers spot health problems and anxiety in their students. You have to be on the lookout for signs that things at home might be putting your students in danger. You have a legal responsibility to report signs that your students may be abused. So, the question is, can you recognize signs that things aren’t quite right with your students?
Beyond our legal responsibilities, empathy is important for watching the room when you’re teaching to try to gauge how well your students are grasping the lesson. You should be able to spot when a single student is struggling so you can reach out to him individually.
Can You Juggle it All?
The final question you should ask yourself before committing to the life of a teacher is, “Can you juggle all it takes to be a good teacher?” At school, you are mentor, confidante, champion, shield, endless grader, endless planner, and yes, sometimes you are a babysitter. But what about at home? Can you juggle all that being a teacher entails on top of your home roles like mother, father, wife, husband, and child taking care of elderly parents?
Some teachers have an innate ability to turn off their teaching role outside of the classroom. I never found that, and honestly, the best teachers I know never find that either. If you’re thinking about committing to the life of a teacher, you might do best to find a partner who understands the demands of your career.
Should I be a Teacher?
If you feel called to be a teacher, realize that it comes with a huge weight of responsibility. The good days are the best of your life, and the bad ones are some of the worst. It won’t make you rich. But, about ten years into your career, you’ll start to see the impact you have on other people’s lives. Your former students will thank you at their graduations. They’ll credit you as their inspiration. You’ll watch them step into their careers as strong, beautiful people that you had some part in creating.
The best part will be the former students who, inspired by your passion and dedication, follow in your footsteps to their own classrooms, where the cycle starts all over again.
If you’re still not sure, try a Career Fitter personality and career test to see what careers would work best for you.
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