Not Knowing What We’re Doing

The more I teach, the more I realize that students don’t really know what teachers do, and neither do the adults they grow up to be. It wasn’t until I was in my senior year in teacher school that I started to really grasp what exactly this job entails.

I can remember having my first inkings of a desire to be an English teacher in seventh grade. That became my default answer when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. At that time, my understanding of what that actually meant was completely wrong. What I imagined that teachers did was a complete caricature of the profession. I thought homework was arbitrary and teachers just said whatever they wanted to say during each class. I had no idea about the planning, research, and careful judgement involved in every step of creating and presenting each lesson.

Even when I was in teacher school, it wasn’t until I’d spent years studying what teachers did and started to do it myself that I could say I actually understood teaching. And I’m still learning what it means.

I spend most of my time speaking with teachers. Literally every one of my friends is a teacher, and so is everyone I interact with on a regular basis. This is why I wind up totally blindsided every time I hear something negative about teaching from someone who has clearly never taught. There’s a usual list of scoffs: teachers get three months of vacation (in the US), we get out of work around 3, we only teach a fraction of the class periods in a day, and of course there’s the oft repeated “those who can’t do, teach,” etc. (To that last one, my reply is just to add “poorly” on the end.)

Anyone who’s been a teacher knows that “summer vacation” isn’t actually a vacation for most teachers, it’s common for teachers to work 9-15 hours a day (I do) and take work home with them, and planning periods are not “free time” in the work day.

Still, the people I actually teach show a tremendous amount of ignorance when it comes to what I’m doing. It seems that though teaching is what we do, its not what we’re teaching. I’m starting to think we should. A relatively small number of students will go on to become teachers themselves, but most of them will go on to become voting citizens and parents who will make decisions about educational policies.

And bad educational policy can be doom for us all.

Previous post

A Rose by Any Other Name...

Next post

Virginity tests, out-of-state students, Big Brother U., first-gen troubles, PR and research findings, and early ed in Silicon Valley: Required Readings, 02.01.16



Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.


  1. January 31, 2016 at 9:54 pm —

    I started teaching college courses two years ago, and more and more I realize how much work goes into teaching as I have to learn how myself*.  And I have the benefit of having students who have been in the system for a while — often not even college freshmen,.

    * And that includes summer seminars.   As a lecturer, I’m not even employed once grades are turned in until Week of Welcome starts in the fall, though the university will pay me a stipend for its own teaching programs.  But if I want to attend something at another university, it comes out of my pocket.

    • February 1, 2016 at 2:10 am —

      Yes, it’s really difficult to fully wrap your head around what this job entails until you have to do it. The required continuing professional development often winds up being an out-of-pocket expense to be done in “time off” instead of a paid part of the job, even though it really is a part of the job.

  2. February 1, 2016 at 10:49 am —

    In Germany there are similar prejudices against teachers. They are lazy, overpaid, 6 weeks of holiday, yadda yadda…

    When people start like this I usually ask “so why didn’t you go into teaching?” Then people start to backpaddle: Oh no, not me, I couldn’t deal with all those children, all the parents, oh my god, not me!

    • February 3, 2016 at 8:15 pm —

      The ones I worry about are those who don’t say that out loud, who just go on believing that teachers have such an easy job that it would be fine to cut school budgets and pass more demanding educational policies. The people I don’t interact with are the ones who can threaten my society the most.

Leave a reply