My Advice to College Students on Teaching: Do It Anyway

Don’t be afraid of all the things people tell you about teaching. Or rather, be afraid … and do it anyway.

I’ve seen a lot of articles written by teachers or former teachers explaining why they would never recommend a career in education. I get it … their points are almost always valid. They point out that teaching is becoming an increasingly untenable career choice due to ludicrous policy, lack of autonomy and unrealistic expectations. That is completely true and desperately needs to be addressed by the people who run our education system. Hey, maybe they could even get some input from teachers on how to fix the situation! But I jest.

Despite the testing and the paperwork and the vilification by half the politicians and the smarmy false promises from the rest, I think there might still be something to this whole teaching gig. Maybe it’s got enough positives to make it worthwhile, even amidst the headaches and heartaches. If I hung out with the college-age set (which I don’t, because I’m not cool enough and can’t hold my liquor), here’s what I’d tell them.

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If you’re deciding between being a lawyer and being a teacher, and both careers sound equally appealing to you, then be a lawyer. You’ll make more money and have more freedom and you’ll definitely be able to make a bigger difference in educational policy, if that’s where your interests lie. If being a chef or a teacher both sound great, be a chef. And every now and then donate some really good pasta salad to the school near your restaurant. Teachers will eat the hell out of some pasta salad. And if you love working with kids, but you can’t decide whether to be a teacher or a therapist, be a therapist. If parents are paying you directly, they might actually listen to what you’re saying.

But maybe that’s not your situation. Maybe you’ve always wanted to be a teacher, but you’re terrified because everyone keeps telling you to turn back while you still can, like a scary bird at the edge of an ominous marsh. Maybe when you played school as a little kid, you wrote actual lesson plans because you knew you were preparing for the future, a future that now seems increasingly impossible. Maybe the constant refrain of “teaching is terrible” has made you doubt a goal you’ve pursued for decades.

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Well, here’s the bad news. Everything they’re telling you is true.  No matter what school hires you, you’ll have to deal with some cocktail of scripted instruction, over-tested kids, nosy parents, unsupportive administration, overcrowded classes, suffocating bureaucracy or incompetent leadership. You won’t face all of those things every year—if you’re lucky—but you’ll encounter some. You will find yourself limited by a lack of supplies and time and energy and autonomy every single day. You’ll have a breakthrough and figure out the perfect way to help that kid who just doesn’t get it … only to be told you’re not allowed to try it.

But, hey, at least you get summers off! Just kidding, not really. At best you’ll probably need a summer job to supplement your teaching salary, and at worst your school will make you sign up for professional development on how to teach phonics to beginning readers even though they hired you to teach ninth grade geometry. They might even make you pay for it out of pocket.

You already know all this stuff, though, so here’s the part that’s sometimes overlooked. It’s worth it. No matter how oppressive and overbearing your administration is, when you step through the door of your classroom, you’re free. You make a world for a group of kids; you have the chance to create what could be the only safe space they experience all day. You give them room to take risks and fail and you teach them to support each other and build each other up, and you see them come alive during that time, even if you do have to quickly revert to the script the minute your principal opens the door for an observation.

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This job will stretch every muscle you have, physically and mentally and spiritually. You’ll go home sore and hoarse for the first few weeks from all the walking and talking. Your brain will stay on high alert at every single moment, because you never know when the &!*# is going to hit the fan. Your carefully crafted lesson plans will fall flat and you’ll learn to think on your feet and fight boredom and apathy like a freaking gladiator, because it’s the only way to survive.

You will reach the limits of your patience and empathy and endurance every single week, and you’ll watch those limits stretch further than you thought possible. (But take it from someone who quit yoga after one class, stretchinghurts.) If you want a job that will make you rich, steer clear. But if you want a job that will make you grow,this is it.

I know you hear so much about how bad the public school system is in this country and what a terrible job our teachers are doing. And no matter the nobility of your intentions, sometimes you will do a terrible job. You’ll totally mishandle a topic, or a kid, or a parent, or an entire class. Sometimes you’ll get to February and realize that your year has basically been a disaster, and you still have four months to go. But in teaching, as in no other career I know, you get a fresh start every fall. You get an entirely new group of kids (except the ones that failed last year) and a chance to re-create yourself and your classroom. If you love the opportunity to try new things and completely reinvent the wheel in ways that you know will be either amazing or spectacularly disastrous, teaching is where you’ll find it.

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Don’t be afraid of all the things people tell you about teaching. Or rather, be afraid … and do it anyway. It is so, so hard, mostly because there are countless obstacles standing in the way of work that clearly needs to be done. You will want to help your kids in a hundred ways, and the current system will make 95 of them impossible. So do it anyway, and help your kids in five ways. They need you. Society needs you, even if they’ll see you as a pariah and the source of their problems. You’ll be just like Batman.

But don’t do it for the kids, or for society as a whole. Be a teacher for your own sake. Because you can definitely find jobs with better pay and more respect and less responsibility, but you’ll never find a career that’s more unexpected or challenging or fun or hilarious than teaching. There are a hundred excellent reasons not to be a teacher, but it you love it and you can’t imagine any other life, then do it anyway; it’s worth it.

Join our Facebook group WeAreTeachers—First Years! to connect with other new teachers, and learn more about how you can navigate your classroom and life.

Posted by Captain Awesome

Captain Awesome teaches seventh grade English at an urban charter school for refugee and immigrant kids. She is a big fan of books, social justice, holiday-flavored coffee creamers, righteous indignation, and Friday Night Lights.

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