Teaching: The Hardest Job?

In this blog post I will argue that teaching is one of the most difficult jobs there is, and lest you think this will be one long moan about workload etc, let me assure you that I am writing in the spirit of celebration of what we do in the classroom, day in day out.

Last Friday, a colleague asked me if I had enjoyed my first half-term of teaching, and I had to be honest and say “not really”. That is understandable. As a new teacher at my school, I have had to learn so much, absorbing masses of new information to the point of cognitive overload. I have had to try to juggle lots of this information in my mind whilst trying to teach my lessons.

Teaching is a performance profession – when you perform, you cannot easily stop and check your notes to refresh your mind on what you should say or do next. You have to be prepared to think on your feet and react quickly to changing situations without the benefit of time to mull things over. It is a tricky thing to do, especially if you do not know the curriculum inside out and you are having to manage the behaviour of 30 not always co-operative children.

Now I am perfectly prepared to believe that this gets easier with time and experience. A seasoned teacher will have built a repository of phrases and responses to given situations. They will have built up a reputation within the school, making it easier to manage behaviour. They will have developed curricular expertise and have the correct terminology to hand, as well as tried and tested methods of explanation. All this makes the process of teaching easier, although it never becomes a walk in the park.

Michael Fordham argues in his blog “Teaching: a very natural act?” that fundamentally teaching is a natural act that all humans have evolved to do.

Humans have been teaching one another for as long as humans have been around. Children quite naturally teach one another (the rules to a game, the words to a rhyme) and they do not need any particular training to do this. In this sense humans are teachers by nature: without much prompting, we teach one another.

He goes on to say:

teaching is, quite simply, a matter of communicating something I know to someone who does not.

How beautifully simple and true! We do have a tendency to over-complicate it sometimes. And it is this simple and straightforward definition of teaching that initially drew me into the profession. I started by tutoring my boy at home, trying to help him move into a higher ability group. I bought maths and English booklets and worked through them with him in short evening sessions. His rapid improvement and increased confidence as a result of this tutoring gave me much satisfaction. It spurred me on. I wanted to help communicate knowledge to other children, not just my son. I walked into teaching thinking it would be an amplified version of what I had been doing at home with my son. But it was not.

I return to the wisdom of Michael Fordham. He argues that although teaching is a natural act, it is not easy. This is because the things we are teaching are complicated, unlike the rules in a playground game.

None of these things are natural: to the contrary, all are recent inventions in the greater scheme of things. Grasping the content and structure of these practices in such a way that you can explain it clearly to someone who knows less takes a great deal of time to learn. Working out the lynchpin ideas, finding the powerful examples, knowing how one concept rests on knowledge of another: these are the things that require a great deal of thought and consideration.

As I knuckle down to teach mathematical concepts or literary devices, I am reminded of this more than ever. It takes an immense amount of expertise to be able to convey complicated and sophisticated knowledge to pupils – particularly when one factors in the practical logistics of having to teach these to a large group of children.

It is unsurprising therefore that I have found the last 7 weeks less than enjoyable. I am having to do an extremely difficult job and I am not yet proficient at it. It is hard to find joy in a lack of success – particularly if you are a certain age and have been used to being good at most of what you do. Yet it has not been unalloyed misery either. One of the delights of teaching is working with young people, getting to know them and developing strong, caring relationships. I look forward to greeting my class every morning. I have had some mishaps – such as regularly walking into furniture – but I am learning to make light of them –  and each time I overcome an obstacle, such as last Friday’s technology fail, I am a little more empowered. I am also incredibly lucky to work with supportive colleagues who are doing everything they can to help me get better.

So let me say this, which I am sure most of you know already. Teaching is an incredibly hard job. It may not be valued societally as it should be – entry level civil servants earn more than teachers and have far less workload/stress. My big shot lawyer sister gets more kudos and respect for the major multi-million pound cases she works on. And yet, hand on heart, I believe my job is more difficult than hers. More difficult but also far more rewarding. As I plough on through the obstacle course that lies before me, I need to remind myself that my job is not easy and that when this is taken into consideration, I am doing very well indeed.