Are You Tough Enough to Teach?

Everybody and his pet rabbit wants to become a teacher. Around this time of year, at least three students tell me they want to become teachers. Later in the year, I often discover, more future teachers pop out of the woodwork.

With eyes that seem to look towards a utopia, these students tell me they want to teach. They tell me they want to share their love of Shakespeare. Biochemistry. The finer points of geography. And they want to inspire. They want to, through their gentle lovingness, spark the latent fire of intelligence and humanity in teenagers obsessed with spinners and dabs.

Some of my wannabe teacher students have less than noble intentions. They want summer vacations. They want to lecture from behind a desk.  They don’t know what else to do. These students – and the way they imagine teaching to be—make me laugh.

What I want to ask these future teacher students, but never do, because I don’t want to stomp on their dreams is this:

Are you tough enough to teach?”

That is the question no one asks.

Years ago, I thought that all I needed to be a great teacher was passion and love.

But I was wrong, and someone should have told me:

To be a great teacher, you must be tough.

As a teacher, you need to be tough to deal with parents.

Most parents are lovely, but some will feed you to eels. They will pounce on you if you discipline their child, raise you voice at their child, assign too much homework, assign too little homework, teach grammar, fail to teach grammar, teach a book they hated, deduct 1.5 marks on their child’s project for errors, and so on.

And these parents won’t pounce on you nicely. They will complain to the principal instead of you. You will need to face these parents with the calm of Buddha.

You need to be tough and deal with your administrators.

Most administrators get it. They were teachers not long ago. They remember washing down a ham and cheese sandwich with cold coffee while hunting the lunch halls for half-eaten bagels, orange peels, granola bar wrappers, and their truant owners.

At one time, these administrators experienced the dread of marking overwhelm and the pain of the flopped lesson. They know what it is like to be treated as a child, not a professional. They even remember the district’s initiatives and buzzwords being recycled every few years and the loud, excited talk about “a new, transformative initiative!”

These administrators have memories. But, as soon as they get into power, some administrators lose their memories. I don’t know how this happens. We’ve got to find a cure. In the meantime, you’ll need to face the contradictory initiatives. And the paperwork and the plans. You must face them with the composure of Seneca.

You need to be tough and deal with students.

Though you may love them, and some students will love you back, many of them may will hate your guts.

They won’t like that you ask them to say “please” and “thank you.” They won’t like that you deduct marks for grammatical errors. They won’t like that you assign reading from The Scarlet Letter for homework. They won’t like that you don’t show many movies, or that you don’t tolerate their bottles flipping and their spinners spinning or their rudeness.

Students will resent lunchtime detentions, calls made home, and requests to cover up belly buttons.  Young and naïve, most students will not recognize your attempts to civilize, to better them. But they will notice the word you mispronounced,  your wrinkled button-up shirt, and your coffee breath.

And they may very well tweet  or snapchat about it. And God give you strength– you must face their hate like Jesus would: with compassion and forgiveness.

You need to be tough to deal with other teachers.

Yes, I said teachers. No profession is immune to the few bad apples and grouches that pull down other crabs in a bucket. You are a crab. They are crabs. You’re in a bucket. As you claw upwards, some crabs will try to pull you down. Crawl upwards anyway. And please– don’t become a crab.

You need to be tough to deal with yourself.

Socrates once said, “Let he wants to move the world first move himself.” You can tell Socrates was a teacher. He had to deal with his own weaknesses, cutting them down like weeds in a field, and so will you:

You will have to stare your ego down on a daily basis. Will you do what your students want or what they need? Will you do what is right, or what is popular? Will you assign homework or avoid it, just to win the approval of your students, who might enjoy ease and comfort, but certainly will not be bettered by ease and comfort? Will you show a movie because it will make you cool, or because this movie is what your students need? Will you do what makes you look good but doesn’t work in the real world with real students?

You will have to do battle with your laziness. Students are not the only ones who can be lazy. You can, too. You will become painfully aware of this when faced with piles of assignments to mark on the weekend and the allure of your favourite coffee shop, like a siren shining above treacherous seas, calling out to you. Will you go to the coffee shop and read your favourite book, or will you mark your students’ work to return it on Monday? Will you whine or get on with it?

You will have to do battle with self-pity. On weekends when you are marking instead of reading and eating macarons in coffee shops like your other friends in non-teaching professions, you will have to fight self-pity.  You will be tempted to mope and complain. But you know that complaining is not noble or right or useful. Can you suck it up?

The reality is that to be a great teacher, you need to be tough.

You need to be tough and strong like the most famous teachers in history—Jesus, Buddha, Seneca, Socrates, and others—and accept your fate with aplomb.

Jesus was crucified; Buddha was hated; Seneca was exiled, and Socrates was sentenced to death. But they were great teachers. So can you be.

We need to stop letting future teachers get their ideas of what teaching is from inspiring movies with snapshot struggles and Disney endings. We need to talk more about the teachers who struggled, persisted, and made a difference. Even if teaching pinched them all throughout.

Yes, teaching is tough. But the right person, with the right mindset?

That person should make a go of it.

Have a great week tough teachers,

P.S. Please do the future teacher in your life a favour and send them this article.