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What's It Really Like To Work as a Teacher?

Home > Ask the Guidance Counselor > Teacher > 7 Lessons About Being a Teacher

Before you can embark on a career as a teacher, you need to spend at least four years in college learning the ins and outs of how to be an educator.

However, even the best education degree program can't fully prepare you for the realities that await once you your get your first job as a teacher. We talked to three teachers to find out what things surprised them about teacher careers. Here's what they told us:

Lesson No. 1: Student teaching is a breeze compared to your first classroom.

Kami Goodwin, a 1st grade teacher at Eastern Hancock Elementary in Charlottesville, Indiana, remembers her first solo experience in the classroom being entirely different than her teaching internship.

"My student teaching intern experience took place with a seasoned teacher and during the 2nd half of the year so I didn't get to watch the routines and procedures get established," Goodwin says. "She also had minimal behavior problems." Meanwhile, Goodwin's first teaching job was in a low-income area of West Palm Beach where she had 27 students, including 7 with IEPs and others with behavioral issues.

New teachers don't necessarily get plum teaching positions. They may have large classrooms and disruptive students, factors that can make for a stressful first year. That's not to discourage people from pursing teacher careers, but veteran educators say those new to the profession should walk in with realistic expectations for what their first year could entail.

Lesson No. 2: You may have to move to find a teaching job.

To get that first job as a teacher, graduates may find they need to move.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports jobs for kindergarten, elementary and high school teachers should increase 6 percent from 2014-2024, but job openings will not be uniform across the country. Some states, such as Michigan, Delaware and Illinois, are reportedly producing significantly more teachers than needed to fill their openings. Meanwhile, other states - including Arizona, Nevada and Oklahoma - have a dire need for qualified educators.

As a result, new teachers may find they have to move elsewhere to get their foot in the door. Another option may be to earn a certification in a less popular subject. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a list, organized by state, of subjects facing a teacher shortage.

Lesson No. 3: Schools may leave teachers to sink or swim without much support.

Some teachers find they receive minimal support from colleagues or administrative staff. That was the experience of high school physics teacher Bill McLay when he showed up for his first teaching job in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"My department chair told me, I am sorry, but you are basically on your own as we have no other physics teachers and no one in the department knows anything about the subject," McLay relates. Despite not being familiar with the AP format, he was informed he'd be teaching two AP physics classes as well. "They also had no AP test materials for me to use or any lab manuals."

Not every teacher has a similar experience but new educators should be prepared for, as McLay puts it, "trial by fire."

Lesson No. 4: Behavioral issues could take up as much of your time as academic issues.

Goodwin says teachers must navigate a landmine of social and behavioral issues that a degree simply can't address. "[A degree is] training you based on many different individual learning styles, but I still wasn't prepared for that or the varying behaviors," she explains.

At her first school, Goodwin was confronted with children who were hungry, sleeping on the floor at home or struggling with undiagnosed learning disabilities. In some cases, parents were unable or unwilling to partner in their children's education which left Goodwin to try to compensate in the classroom for problems outside her control.

Still, Goodwin doesn't want that to deter other people from pursuing a career as a teacher. "It's a challenging job but I wouldn't ever think of doing anything else," she says. However, she adds the caveat, "If your heart isn't truly in it, then don't do it."

Lesson No. 5: Lessons rarely go as planned…at first.

Veteran teachers have the luxury of time-tested lesson plans. They've been through the process long enough to know which activities will be a hit with students and which will require extra time to master. However, for new teachers, every day is an experiment.

"My very first lecture, which I was sure would be hard for me to finish in 50 minutes, was done in 20 minutes, and [I had] nothing else planned to do," McLay says. "These are the things no one prepares you for."

The best advice for new teachers may be to always have a few back-up activities in the wings to fill time as needed. "Also, that first year may be terrible, but each year you grow and get better," Goodwin says.

Lesson No. 6: Long hours are the norm for many new teachers.

McLay says another surprise of teaching was how much time he spend preparing for each class period. If he wanted his students to run a 30 minute lab exercise, he might spend hours getting ready for it.

However, McLay says those long hours he logged the first year were well worth it. "The fact that I had to come up with my own labs my first year is one of the reasons my labs work so well," he says. In fact, he advises new teachers to ditch the materials that come with a textbook in favor of creating their own. "By doing it your way, you learn it so much better and it becomes a part of you."

Fortunately, once you get through that first year, you have your lessons in place and may only need to make minor tweaks in the years to come.

Lesson No. 7: You'll love your students like family.

Ask teachers what they love most about their job, and you're likely to hear them talk about their students. It would seem logical that teachers love their kids, but the strength of that emotion takes many new teachers by surprise.

"I didn't expect to carry so much of my students in my heart," says Sarah Walker Houston, a kindergarten teacher. "I didn't expect that I would go home and worry so much about my students, cry for them and wish I could do more for them."

Goodwin has had a similar experience. While some of her students have come from broken backgrounds and exhibit difficult behaviors, she loves them all the same. "You are like a parent to each of them and for many of them the only hug they get all day," she says. "You watch them grow, change and learn."

This last lesson, like the others listed above, may be something referenced in education degree programs but hard to fully understand until you get your first job as a teacher. It's also why so many people pursue teacher careers despite the long hours and sometimes difficult working conditions required of the profession.

The best advice for new teachers may be this from Houston: "Make sure you really love teaching and that you are teaching because you have a passion for it. If that is true, everything else will work out."

Sources:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, High School Teachers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm (visited January 22, 2016).
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm (visited January 22, 2016).
3. Teacher Shortage Areas, U.S. Department of Education, http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/pol/tsa.html4. The real reasons behind the U.S. teacher shortage, Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post, August 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/08/24/the-real-reasons-behind-the-u-s-teacher-shortage/6. Colleges Overproducing Elementary Teachers, Data Finds, Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week, January 22, 2013, http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/01/23/18supply_ep.h32.html

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