What It's Really Like to Be an Elementary School Teacher
by CTI Career Search
Throughout the past year, CTI Career Search has conducted interviews with dozens of elementary school teachers to assemble a real-world view of the profession. Recently, the web site published a free 64 page eBook called Being an Elementary School Teacher: Real-World Tips & Stories from Working Teachers that provides a summary and presents a representative sample of 25 of these interviews. The included interviews are those judged to be most helpful to prospective teachers.
The following excerpt- Chapter 3 of the eBook -presents the summary of findings, including:
the best and worst parts of the profession,
tips on teaching and preparing to become a teacher, and
general insights into elementary school teaching.
Teachers are not in it for the money
Most of the teachers whose stories are included in this eBook didn’t see their salaries as an issue and found rewards in other aspects of the job. Many seemed to see it as a calling—a way of “making a difference.” “It’s not a job to do for the money,” said one teacher bluntly. You have to “have a passion for what you teach.” “I stopped teaching for several years but missed the interactions with students,” wrote another, who took a better paying day job in the interim. “I don’t make more money and I have less time for myself, but I wouldn’t trade any of that. I love meeting new students every year and I thrive in an atmosphere of change and flexibility.”
Kids are the best
Students emerge as both a blessing and a curse—not a huge surprise, really. What’s more surprising is the degree of unanimity among teachers about the things that keep them going: the thing about their jobs that they like best. Summer vacation? Not even close. For nearly ninety percent, it was the kids—even, on a couple of occasions, for those who said they also didn’t like them all that much. “Do not become a teacher,” wrote one hardened campaigner “because you think it will be easy, or because you ‘like kids.’ It is not easy, and you will not like kids when you are finished.” The thing that he liked the best about his work? “Watching students make discoveries on their own”—the kids, in a word.
Others tried to explain this seeming contradiction. A second grade teacher from the Boston area wrote: “The best part of my job is also the worst part: the children. It is an awesome responsibility working with small children who can be so easily crushed, but not necessarily so easily motivated. The sum total of their needs is a heavy burden. Yet when one of them really gets something (the ‘ah ha!’ moment), there is not a better feeling in the world. It is too bad it comes infrequently.” This “ah-ha” moment—“watching the light bulbs come on in kids’ eyes when they get it,” as another teacher put it—was of the main reward for a number of teachers, for which “the kids” was simply shorthand. Teachers like teaching but mostly when it works and when they can see it succeed, and they are just as frustrated as anyone else would be when they see their energies and talents being squandered.
Now for the bad news
The teachers weren’t quite as unanimous about the things they didn’t like. Parents made an appearance. “Teaching is not for the faint of heart,” bluntly advised a teacher from North Carolina. “Parents are becoming more and more belligerent as their kids get lazier.” Administrators, other teachers, the workload, the kids even standardized testing came in for criticism. “I can’t believe how quickly the focus of education has changed in the 10 years that I have been teaching. It is so test-driven and performance-driven and this goes against EVERYTHING that children need!” one teacher argued.
But the real villain for many of them was the paperwork: not just grading and correcting homework, but writing student assessments, creating independent education plans, and filling out mandated forms. Meetings to discuss and plan curriculum (and other school related issues) were another inescapable irritant and a cause of considerable grumbling, and the two were often lumped together: paperwork and meetings, like heads and tails, a losing coin toss either way. One fourth grade teacher warned “that teachers rarely teach any more”—due in part to all the paperwork—and went on to bemoan “the politics, isolation, pay raises, lack of time, lack of support from government, endless paperwork, things that take me away from teaching, pay cuts at the 11th hour, large class sizes, lack of job security, lack of professional development and support.”
Tips on becoming a teacher
How best to prepare for all this? Teachers were generally in agreement that shadowing a teacher, working as a teacher’s aide, student teaching, and even substitute teaching were the best ways to prepare for the profession and insure you possess the “right stuff.” One science teacher went even further: “I would even suggest that you become a teacher’s assistant for a year before deciding to go into this field. This will give you a real glimpse into teaching. I would also suggest sticking it out for at least four years. After your fourth year of teaching, it gets so much easier. You know how to read the students better, you have learned to tweak lessons.”
Tips on teaching
The teachers’ suggestions were interesting and varied when they talked about the ways to make the teaching go more smoothly, and ranged from the dewy-eyed to the hard-boiled -and occasionally the downright eccentric. Pragmatic suggestions included the following:
“Use the Internet and make technology your friend.”
“Create a notebook of ideas that work and don’t work.”
“Be creative with supplies because money is always an issue in schools.”
“Take a classroom management course. Collaborate with other teachers in the school. Learning from experienced teachers can help you tremendously.”
“It is very important to set up a routine and stick to it! The students at this age crave structure and knowing what is next. It is also very important to tell them what you expect from them and never assume they know not to do something!”
Other suggestions were earnest and memorable but vague. “Teaching is a hard job, if you do it right. And, if you’re not willing to do it right, kids suffer,” wrote a teacher. “You teach students, not subjects!!!” insisted another. Still another, run ragged on the playground at recess but borne along on a swell of tough love: “The army is wrong…THIS is the toughest job you’ll ever love. Don’t go into it if you are not tough, caring and have a lot of love and compassion to spare!”
A number of teachers insisted that a sense of humor was a linchpin of classroom success. “Teaching isn’t for everyone,” one librarian and reading teacher wrote, “but if it’s for you, it’s one of the noblest professions. [Still,] patience and a pretty darn good sense of humor are most helpful too!” Many teachers noted that the children were fun and often funny as well. “Kids say the funniest things,” was one typical comment; “so just stop and laugh. You’ll feel much better and your students will see you as a happy person.” A second grade teacher called “the sweet and funny things the kids say” the best part of her job.