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Tony Davis recently asked me to answer the question on Quora. As a new school year approaches, it was a great exercise to reflect back on my first years teaching as compared to my current experience. Here is my best attempt to list what I wish I knew back then.
1) Teaching is not all about you
Contrary to popular belief, you are not there to save people, or to rescue them, or to fulfill every media inflicted Hollywood stereotype. This feeling usually comes from a position of privilege and power. You are there to build relationships with students, to empower them, and to help them learn (with may include some traditional teaching). Teaching is about the students, the community, the structures, the colleagues, the content, and...you.
2) Teaching is hard, very hard
I was not always the most charming student in school. After my first week teaching, I sent an email to a few of my teachers to apologize and to thank them. Teaching is not sitting at a desk stamping papers. Teaching calls for professionals to juggle instruction, collaboration, assessment, counseling, development, learning, paperwork, and much more from minute to minute. Add long hours, lots of stress, taking work home, long hours, ever-changing demands, relatively low wages, and long hours to this beautiful concoction. Did I mention long hours?
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3) Teaching is a profession
This may seem obvious, but few people really know (and appreciate) how much education and practice it takes to be a teacher. In the United States, we have a population that claims to hold teaching as a respected career, but then requires ever more education (which is expensive), standardized tests and evaluations, and constant defamation of inadequate teachers. Perhaps you have heard "Those that can't do, teach".
Just because everyone attended school at some point, it doesn't make them a professional teacher. Look at the bios of teachers at your local school. See how many have bachelor's degrees from top universities. See how many have master's degrees (sometimes multiple). See how many have doctorate degrees. This does not even take into account the many certificates, professional development days, and continuing education courses teachers take. Most of all it doesn't include the professional experience gained by years in the classroom. Teachers are really good at what they do and have as much right to be called a professional as people who manage our money or pass the bar. Teachers are the experts!
4) Teaching is social
The last thing you want to do as a teacher is stay within the walls of your classroom. I think many beginning teachers believe teaching is an isolated profession. I certainly did. On the contrary, everything about teaching is social. From the social relationships with students and families, to socially created knowledge, to connecting with other educators (both online and offline), teaching is not about a sage on the stage barking out content within four walls. Teaching is about interacting and learning with others.
5) Teaching is part science, part art
This is related to all the points above. I thought I had a special personality that would instantly engage students and transform their experience. I did not. Instead I taught the way I was taught. Part of being a professional is knowing what types of activities, instructions, and pedagogies actually work. Flying by the seat of your pants and printing worksheets while making students laugh doesn't cut it. The very best teachers constantly search for what works while being passionate, fun, and engaging. Did I mention teaching was hard?
6) Teaching is worth it
It's a great job. Hang in there and stick with it. Failing is okay. Failing to learn from failure is not.
Teaching is political:
I don't want to belabor the point. Read Freire and others. We teach with our biases, our judgements, our conditioning, our beliefs, even if we claim to be neutral.
Extrinsic motivation is overrated:
As a society we place way too much emphasis on rewards, punishments, and shinny stickers. Teachers can be some of the biggest offenders in advancing wrong assumptions about motivation and creativity. Read Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink.
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