One of the biggest frustrations I felt while teaching during my first year was trying to explain to people what it was like to teach. There are many aspects of the public education system that can be improved, and I won’t get into that because I don’t particularly want to get political (and isn’t it funny that this is political now?), but I do think the way our culture treats and views education is a problem. There seems to be a social acceptance of looking down upon teachers, either in a mocking way or a pitying way. This is a pet peeve that I will return to later, but for now, I am mentioning it only to justify explaining an average day of teaching. Simply put, I just don’t think people understand what it’s like to teach in public schools from day to day.
Teaching is such a widely known job that people seem to have an idea of what it’s like to be a teacher, but that idea of often wrong. Even my father, who has been married to a special ed preschool teacher for almost thirty years, made some snide comments during my first few months about how I get summer breaks off, so I shouldn’t complain about my stress level. This isn’t to judge my father or people who view teaching that way: I really don’t think it’s clear to most of the country what teaching is like.
Let me also begin by stating, with no humble intention, that I was an average teacher in my first year. I was functional, but by no means a rockstar at my career. This is important to remember, because what I am about to describe is the minimum effort that is typically needed to do my job effectively.
An average day begins between 4:30 and 5:00 in the morning. The time differs whether I go to the gym in the morning or not. Although I consider myself an extroverted person, for the first time in my life, I found myself too drained after work to be around people; the profession of teaching relies so heavily on human interaction, and you’re so unaccustomed to it during your first year, that it often leads to immense difficulty in socializing in any form after work hours. (I will also say that the second semester is much better than during the first semester, and that in certain ways I pushed myself too hard during the first semester – but that is a different conversation.) After waking up and getting ready, I complete my twenty-minute commute to school and arrive somewhere between 6:45 and 7:00.
It is important to note here that this is not required. On my contract, my work hours are from 8:00 to 3:30. This is because my actual job description is to teach classes; the contract (as is true for almost every contract in the U.S. with teaching) accounts for teaching, and teaching only. It does not account for every part of the job outside of instructing students, parts of the job that can only happen when students are no longer in the room completing a lesson.
I arrive between 6:45 and 7:00, depending on the day, and work for about an hour before classes start. This may involve a wide variety of tasks on any given day: maybe I need to catch up on grading, or I need to complete a lesson, or I need to speak with the counselor about a student. The number of staff meetings will change depending on the school and district, but at my school, we have a monthly morning staff meeting which takes up the hour before classes begin, so I routinely come early for that as well.
The bell rings for first period at 8:15. In my school, classes are 70 minutes long; this is a bit longer than the national average of 45 minutes per class, though the trend is going towards longer classes. As I teach my class, there are several important tasks I must be completing at any given time. I need to ensure I am pacing the lesson correctly, so that it does not run too long or too short: obviously, not completing a lesson is not good, but it is also not good to leave a class of middle school students with 20 minutes of nothing to do, so pacing the lesson is critical. This means I am constantly checking my watch, and in the case of certain lessons, timing my students’ activities by the minute before moving on to the next part of the lesson. I need to be continuously scanning the classroom, on alert for the following: students engaged in the activity (a.k.a. actually working), students not distracting themselves or others, students who may be struggling, and students who may need attention in some other way. This task alone can be exhausting, and it comes with another important task, which is the decision-making part of each class.
When I say I need to make decisions in every class, I understand that this is vague. I’m not quite sure what the label should be here. But let me try to explain. Picture a teacher who is watching her students writing a paragraph. She is at this moment timing the lesson, so she is keeping track of the minutes remaining for students to finish their writing. She is at this moment scanning the classroom to see how her students are doing. For the sake of simplicity, let’s take my smallest class: this is a class of 27 students. She is watching these students, noticing that perhaps three students are completely zoned out; two students are trying to whisper subtly to one another; a handful of students are staring with scrunched-up faces at their papers; one student is rifling around in his backpack. The remainder of the students are working. Now, this teacher has some decisions to make. Does she go tell the zoned-out students to focus first, in hopes that her presence will jolt them into activity? Or does she go speak to the whispering students, who may be asking each other about the lesson (and therefore on task) or may be gossiping instead of focusing on the lesson? Does she instead go see if the scrunched-up faces are faces of confusion or concentration? And is that student rifling in his backpack looking for an eraser, or looking for his phone? Will talking to a particular student distract the students who are doing what they should be doing?
All of these questions are ones that I am asking at any given moment during a lesson, and the decisions I make in response to those questions will lead to a wide variety of situations. Because I am responsible for all of these students being on task, I am responsible for dealing with all of these situations at this moment in my classroom. The question remains hovering in the air throughout the lesson: who do I approach first, and who should I ignore for a few moments?
The final, and arguably most critical, part of teaching a class is dealing with discipline. Depending on the student’s behavior will lead to a variety of actions on my part. Let’s say a student just isn’t focused, not participating, clearly not engaged in the lesson. I’ll first speak quietly with the student at his desk and try to encourage him to participate. If that doesn’t work, I may have to pull him out of the classroom at an opportune time to have a better conversation with him. If it’s a consistent problem across several lessons, I may have to hold the student after class, call home, or ask for a conference with a counselor or someone else fitting for the situation. This all depends on the student and the situation, which relies on my judgement (which, for a first-year teacher, is basically nonexistent for the first few months, as every situation is a new situation that I have not experienced before).
If the student is behaving far worse than that – distracting others, talking back to me during a lesson, demonstrating explosive or possibly angered behavior – my actions have to be more severe, but still tailored to the student and situation. Perhaps I have to send a student to the office for her behavior; I have to decide whether to quietly give the referral to her or announce to the whole class that she must pack up her materials, and I have to ensure the rest of the class will not be a disruption in response to this situation. On a good day, this is not a situation I will have to deal with, but it is one that I have to maintain an awareness of throughout any given lesson.
I will be repeating this tiny process of scanning the classroom, timing my lesson, actually teaching the lesson, setting students on activities, and so forth for the full length of the lesson. The bell rings, and I let my students leave.
Passing periods are five minutes long. On a good day, where I don’t have to talk to students about something after class or run to the bathroom (check: sprint to the bathroom), then I have about two minutes to set up my classroom for the next lesson and open my door to students.
I have four classes every day. (This is a smaller than average number for middle and high school teachers, due to my long class times – most high school teachers have six classes). Teachers are given a planning period in their schedule, so that one class period during the day is empty for them; this is designed to give teachers time during their contract hours to complete all that is needed, but it is often inadequate, which is why I arrive at school an hour before classes begin. So to draw back and examine the full school day, an easier, less stressful day looks like the following: arrive at school an hour before classes begin, teach each class as what I’ve just described, have about an hour to do all I need to do, take a 25-minute lunch break (which on a good day is actually a break and not eating while sitting at my desk), and then hopefully leave less than an hour after school ends.