Teaching is incomparable – don’t make the mistake of thinking it is harder

So someone who was at the top of their game as an aerospace engineer at NASA after 6 years has gone into teaching and thinks their former employment was far easier than being in a classroom environment. I wonder what their ex-colleagues made of the write-up. The engineer-come-teacher still regards their previous occupation with awe and wonder, and is surprised (even in their 2nd teaching year) at the challenges faced in their new career – do they realise that each time they move school these challenges will continue to resurface? Design engineers have a different role to play compared with procurement or project engineers, stress analysts or system engineers. Those who work in the research or public sectors have different experiences of stress and pressure compared with those in manufacturing or business related environments, and so it is within healthcare and teaching. Why be so surprised at the difficulties faced in teaching after just 2 years? Teaching is a craft, a skill to be honed, a vocation to be nurtured, a passion to be kept alight. It is not a job you can walk into, ‘off the street’, no matter how well-educated you are, and think that because of your other life skills you are going to be the next best thing needed in teaching.

Many of us change careers – it is almost expected today that you are likely to change careers once, maybe twice; especially if we are going to have to work until we reach 70 years of age. We all go into employment for various reasons, and those who go into teaching as a first or later career are no different. It takes a brave soul to admit they wanted the long holidays, the good pension, or the familiar comfort zone of the educational environment; many just love their subject, but are not sufficiently academic to stay in Higher Education. I can’t recall anyone saying that they wanted to be surrounded by hormonal and truculent teenagers, or for that matter anyone who specifically wanted to clean up after primary youngsters (some of whom have not been house trained before starting school). A couple of individuals have said that they came into teaching because their children had suffered poor teaching whilst at school, and had let them down – they wanted to make a difference to prevent it happening to others. Perhaps that is more universal than people will admit to. Many parents and carers have stumbled into classrooms and offered to help with reading, or other voluntary work in school which may have progressed to a role as a teaching assistant, and occasionally the voluntary work will inspire someone to undertake the massive leap of faith to go into teaching full-time.

Seldom have I found in teaching, colleagues with  a true vocation for teaching, or a passion for education, children or educating children come to that. It is after all, just a job to many. Working to live. Doing something to sustain the life they want to enjoy. Teaching is fairly well paid, and in many families, the teacher is often the main bread-winner. Personally, I don’t think this is enough – our children are our future and deserve to be inspired, but I know it is difficult to source good teachers; still, I don’t think competent is adequate. Many young teachers fall into teaching because they want to live close to home, and there are few other suitable alternatives; some start off in the world of work, and don’t like their chosen career, so choose teaching as a back-stop, something comfortable and less threatening (!). Others come later into the profession for many diverse reasons – and after training, working through their NQT year and perhaps even another, quite a few leave teaching to return to an occupation related to the one they left. Some stay in teaching. It is not the cosy and easy profession which many looking from the outside imagine it to be – many are shocked at the workload, and work-life imbalance; after all when in the classroom, most of the preparation has already been done: for every hour teaching within the classroom, there is another in preparation, marking, contacting parents, analysing data, report writing, giving feedback, writing revision materials…. this can be very demanding, not to say exhausting when you also have to attend parents evenings until 9pm etc.

Teachers have a bad press all the time. Everyone who has been state-educated will recall the endless hours of boredom, learning irrelevant facts, memorizing and recalling for tests, examinations, subjective reports on progress and effort, good teaching, poor teaching, exceptional moments within a lesson, friendships, bullying, gossip, boyfriends, girlfriends, the food, travelling to and from…. and this list is endless. Sixth form students seem to think that teachers only teach their class, and are surprised when you aren’t available for tutorials when they have study periods, and they are in the same building as you – so it’s not really surprising that parents think you only teach between 8:45 and 3:15 and have the rest of the day for leisure time. It’s also ironic how parents complain about inset days and snow days and having long summer holidays which bore their offspring to death – how difficult can it be to occupy 2 or 3 of your own children compared to 25 or 30 in a classroom environment? So exactly why did you have these children I wonder? Teachers are not just babysitters, there to allow parents the joy of getting on with their lives without being encumbered by their own offspring 24 hours a day.

Go back to the engineer for a moment. The first thing to go in a recession are the manufacturing related jobs – and there are lots of engineers, who through no fault of their own, lose their job in a downturn; how many teachers lose their jobs in recessions? I have never known a client be satisfied with casual statements of the kind ‘I hadn’t thought of that problem, let me get back to you’ – quite often, that sort of lack of attention to detail would result in a contract being withdrawn, someone being demoted, or losing their job. A difficult moment in engineering is of the type where a fleet of aircraft is down because of a part failure and everyone is waiting for you to tell them why it failed, so the aircraft can get back in the air again. A difficult moment in engineering is when the latest defence audit puts your contract in jeopardy, and your business on the line. A difficult moment in engineering is when something goes pop and everthing on site come to a stop, the site is declared unsafe until the problem is sorted out. Six years of working in engineering and you are unlikely to be anywhere near prepared to deal with the responsibility which comes from having to deal with those crises unblinkingly.

As for teaching – if you continue to progress and take your continuous professional development as seriously as those say, in the IMechE, then the sense of awe and wonder will come not from outside necessarily, but from within your own community – youngsters know whom to trust, they spread the word regarding your abilities and qualities as a teacher, their respect is without parallel, but remember  – you are only as good as your next lesson! Every lesson should be a success for every student participating – their parents entrust each student into your care believing that you will nurture each one to the best of your abilities. There are far more successes every lesson than an engineer can experience in a week. That a student teacher can think, never mind print, that “In teaching, a person can be extremely competent, work relentlessly, and still fail miserably” then I go back to my argument that co-teaching is possibly one of the most effective methods to ensure that all pupils receive a good educational experience, to ensure that each and every lesson counts and is not wasted. We cannot continue to expose students to those not yet fully equipped to take on classes by themselves – team teaching is a better way to develop teachers and ensure all students receive the best education we can give them.

Every young person in school should be empowered by the time they leave, to make better informed decisions; be better able to choose their future; and have the self-confidence and belief that comes from being supported by a community that has done everything possible to support them whilst growing up. Change the interaction within the classroom, and inter-teach with the students too – this allows students to develop their curiosity and their engagement:

In order to do so, teachers also must be prepared to share authority. For how could students become active inquirers if their ideas and solutions were not taken seriously, accepted if plausible and well defended, and rejected only if demonstrably implausible? If academic subjects are to be taught as fields for intellectual adventure, students must learn how to become competent adventurers–that is, inquirers. They must learn how to frame problems and decide disputes rather than learning how to get the right answer. They must therefore be encouraged to assume the authority that comes with intellectual competence, rather than to fly blind on the authority of text or teacher. When teachers embark on an adventurous approach to pedagogy, then, they open up an entire new regime, one in which students have more autonomy in thought and expression, and much more authority as intellects. But such autonomy and authority are difficult for many students and their teachers. They find it unfamiliar at least, unsettling, and even threatening. None of this is required if teachers proceed in the standard instructional format: They can rely on the authority of text, or on their official position, to cope with uncertainty or dispute about knowledge or procedure. Another feature of adventurous instruction, therefore, is that teachers must depend on their students much more visibly and acutely. For if students are to become inquirers, if their knowledge is constructed rather than merely received, they must take a large responsibility in producing instruction. (3)

Teachers are required to possess a far wider variety of attributes than ever before – academic understanding, proficiency in instructional practises, a deeper understanding of pedagogy in their distinct teaching area. They are expected to know how to mentor, coach, arbitrate, persuade, lead, have extremely good social skills etc. Perhaps of all professions at this moment in time, teachers have the brightest futures – the landscape of education is changing (strides rather than baby steps, not yet leaps!), there are huge developments in shared thinking and collegiate support globally, and our powerbase is growing.

Teaching is not harder than other occupations – just different – after all, until you have done a job and given it your all how can you justifiably say you can compare it with others?

(1) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/12/27/how-hard-is-teaching/

(2) http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2013/12/teaching_in_america_s_highest_need_communities_isn_t_rocket_science_it_s.html

(3) http://education.msu.edu/NCRTL/PDFs/NCRTL/IssuePapers/ip883.pdf

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