Let me first start with a disclaimer! There are LOTS of other challenging jobs out there. I truly appreciate that, and if I did one of those, I could write about it; but I am a teacher, so this is what I know about. If you are a stock broker, a brick-layer or a personal trainer, feel free to leave me a comment about the challenges of your work, and I will publish it here! I totally respect how hard most of us work to earn our paycheck.
I am always amazed at how ready for every Break I am when it finally rolls around. I love the work that I do. It energizes me to create and teach lessons that will meet the needs of my students and help them learn the content of history. But, it is also a job that drains me to my core. To be a good teacher is to be on a daily vigil. Teachers must keep so many balls in the air all day long – weekdays and weekends – when they are in school. To drop one ball means that some student is not getting the best from me. While I am realistic enough to know that I drop balls all the time, my goal every morning is to be flawless, to keep my eyes on all the separate parts and make them work together as a whole.
The first focus is the class as a whole. How do I gather and hold the attention of the group? I need to very quickly assess where they are as a class when they come into the room. Have they gotten enough sleep? Are they arriving bored from a day that has already been too long? Are they dividing into groups that leave other students out? How do I direct their attention and generate some enthusiasm for what I want them to learn during my class? I always have the agenda on the board, so they know what to expect, even before I tell them, which helps for some of them. I greet them by name, so they know that I see them as an individual coming into my classroom. In the first moments, I try to find a source of humor to make the group share in a funny moment, as a means of creating class unity, usually at the expense of myself. And when desperate, I have been known to revert to a session of calisthenics – “Touch your nose; touch your toes, turn around three times” – to get some energy in the room. By the time I start the lesson, I have already used up my Wheeties from breakfast.
The next focus has to be on the lesson for that day. What are the skills the students need to learn in this 40/60/90 minutes today? How can I connect this lesson with yesterday’s? How much review is necessary to remind them of where we have been and to explain where we are going? On a good day, when they are awake and “with me,” all those are quickly dealt with, and we can move on. On a bad day, the lesson plan goes out the window, because they left any memory of the past lesson on the floor of the room before they left last time and have only open stares when it is referred to.
Therein lies one of the most draining times for a decent teacher, the “Dear God, they have no idea what I am saying!” or “This is not connecting, and they are not interested.” Or “I have no idea why, but this wonderful idea I had is NOT working!” At those moments, my brain goes into hyper-drive. Because I have done this long enough, my heart no longer starts to pound like a Conga drum, but it did that for years. The adrenalin starts to flow, and it is a “Man the Battle Stations” time. While all learning is not going to be “fun,” it must engage the students, otherwise they leave without learning. Their brains must turn on, and when I notice that they aren’t, I have to change the lesson on the spot. When you have taught a lesson more than once, it helps, but there is always the internal pressure to change it, and to change it fast. Do that a few times a day or a week, and the end result is a need to regenerate.
The greatest challenge, however, is in remembering all of the individuals in the class. While the first two areas, the class as a whole and the lesson that I want them to learn are like two big balls that are revolving in the air, the particular students are like 18 different colored, smaller balls racing among the larger ones. Keeping track of their movements strains all of the senses. Who forgot their homework last class? Who has the difficult home situation? Who failed the last test and is very discouraged about learning? Who wants to take a nap, no matter what the activity? Who did I establish a “special routine” with – a tap on the shoulder or a special look – that I now need to remember, while doing the other tasks? It is my job to maintain the swirling rainbow!
These are the tasks for when there are students in the room. There are all of the other jobs that come with being a teacher: preparation for the class, reading, making up worksheets, grading the papers, collaborating with other teachers. Then there is the work of being an active member of a school community – committees to serve on and meetings to attend. Sometimes, I fantasize about a job where the work stays in the office, but I know that I would never love that as much as I love what I do now. So I juggle on while in school, and rest and rejuvenate while out!
(Of course, it is Spring Break now, and I have spent hours on a new curriculum – because there is room and energy to do it!)