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The Truth About Teaching

By Marty Nemko

It would seem that classroom teaching is a terrific career. It seems to offer the chance to change kids’ lives, provide stable benefited employment, a short workday, and a 180-day work year, including the summers off. Plus, we’ve been told there’s a teacher shortage.

Alas, that’s not the whole story.

Some teachers do change kids lives. I continue to hear stories of teachers who enliven previously dulled kids. But many teachers struggle just to avoid classroom chaos. Most schools don’t group classes by ability, so most teachers have gifted and special ed kids, native English speakers and newcomers, in the same class. Keeping them all interested, let alone getting them well educated is—to use today’s jargon—challenging.

In education today, the mantra is “All students will learn to high standards.” This means that even kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are expected to learn things that even above-average students just a generation ago didn’t learn. For example, here’s a sample item from the exam that every high school student in California will be required to pass starting in 2006: “What is the prime factored form for the lowest common denominator of 2/9 + 7/12?” That was an item rated as of average difficulty! By the way, why does everyone need to know prime factored forms when we allow kids to graduate high school without decent conflict resolution or money management skills? But I digress.

If a student doesn’t learn, the teacher can no longer get away with blaming it on the child’s background. The buck stops with the teacher. That forces teachers to focus relentlessly on academics, usually shortchanging the parts of school that many students (and teachers) like best: theater, art, and music. By the way, I believe that theater and debating may be the most educational school activities of all.

While it’s true that some veteran teachers dance into school at 8 and dance out at 3 not thinking about school until the next morning, most teachers put in fully corporate hours to try to make magic happen in their heterogeneous classrooms.

In recent years, teachers’ paperwork has vastly increased. For example, teachers must comply with the state’s Coordinated Compliance Review: a comprehensive self-evaluation followed by a site visit from state regulators. The process is so complicated that the state conducts two-day trainings just to explain it. In addition to the CCR, teachers must contribute to their schoolwide plan, and to painfully detailed Individualized Education Plans for every special education student. And now there’s talk of requiring teachers to write an individualized plan for each and every student.

Even that vaunted attraction of teaching—the summers off—isn’t what it used to be. Most teachers end up having to take summer courses on how to implement the state’s and fed’s latest edicts. That can eat up big chunks of what used to be beach time.

So, it’s not surprising that 30% of teachers nationwide (21% in California) who enter the teaching profession, quit within three years.

Yet, there is no teacher shortage. A visit to, which lists most California public school teaching openings, contains very few Bay Area job listings, almost all of which are in science, math, and especially special education.

Projections are, however, that many teachers will retire in the next five to ten years, which should create many new openings K-12, in most subject areas. Teachers who are unafraid of computers—able to use spreadsheets to chart student progress, scour the Internet to find material to enhance instruction, etc.--will be in particular demand.

Also on the upside, today’s teachers have more support than they used to. In many districts, new teachers get a peer mentor, visit each other’s classes, and learn the practicalities of teaching they should have been taught but were not during their university-based training.

Advice I’d Give My Child

Don’t think that because you were good at tutoring, you’d be good as a teacher. Teaching 20 students let alone 30 (the norm after the third grade) all day is completely different from tutoring one child for one hour. So Amy, first, try out classroom teaching: ask one of your teacher friends if she’d let you teach her class a simple lesson or two. If the kids behave for you and remain interested in your lesson, you’re probably a naturally talented enough teacher to go for it. If so, you’ll work harder than you might imagine, but the rewards will likely be worth it. If however, you don’t fare so well in your little trial, I wouldn’t bet on a teacher preparation program turning you into a good-enough teacher. I’d pick another career. Good alternatives for those who like the idea of working in schools: school psychologist, speech/language therapist, and school social worker.

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