The Hardest Job Everyone Thinks They Can Do

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This piece was inspired by a heated discussion I had with a man who believes that teachers have an easy job. Please feel free to share it with others if you agree with the message.

I used to be a molecular biologist. I spent my days culturing viruses. Sometimes, my experiments would fail miserably, and I’d swear to myself in frustration. Acquaintances would ask how my work was going. I’d explain how I was having a difficult time cloning this one gene. I couldn’t seem to figure out the exact recipe to use for my cloning cocktail.

Acquaintances would sigh sympathetically. And they’d say, “I know you’ll figure it out. I have faith in you.”

And then, they’d tilt their heads in a show of respect for my skills….

Today, I’m a high school teacher. I spend my days culturing teenagers. Sometimes, my students get disruptive, and I swear to myself in frustration. Acquaintances ask me how my work is going. I explain how I’m having a difficult time with a certain kid. I can’t seem to get him to pay attention in class.

Acquaintances smirk knowingly. And they say, “well, have you tried making it fun for the kids? That’s how you get through to them, you know?”

And then, they explain to me how I should do my job….

I realize now how little respect teachers get. Teaching is the toughest job everyone who’s never done it thinks they can do. I admit, I was guilty of these delusions myself. When I decided to make the switch from “doing” science to “teaching” science, I found out that I had to go back to school to get a teaching credential.

“What the f—?!?,” I screamed to any friends willing to put up with my griping. “I have a Ph.D.! Why do I need to go back to get a lousy teaching credential?!?”

I was baffled. How could I, with my advanced degree in biology, not be qualified to teach biology?!

Well, those school administrators were a stubborn bunch. I simply couldn’t get a job without a credential. And so, I begrudgingly enrolled in a secondary teaching credential program.

And boy, were my eyes opened. I understand now.

Teaching isn’t just “making it fun” for the kids. Teaching isn’t just academic content.

Teaching is understanding how the human brain processes information and preparing lessons with this understanding in mind.

Teaching is simultaneously instilling in a child the belief that she can accomplish anything she wants while admonishing her for producing shoddy work.

Teaching is understanding both the psychology and the physiology behind the changes the adolescent mind goes through.

Teaching is convincing a defiant teenager that the work he sees no value in does serve a greater purpose in preparing him for the rest of his life.

Teaching is offering a sympathetic ear while maintaining a stern voice.

Teaching is being both a role model and a mentor to someone who may have neither at home, and may not be looking for either.

Teaching is not easy. Teaching is not intuitive. Teaching is not something that anyone can figure out on their own. Education researchers spend lifetimes developing effective new teaching methods. Teaching takes hard work and constant training. I understand now.

Have you ever watched professional athletes and gawked at how easy they make it look? Kobe Bryant weaves through five opposing players, sinking the ball into the basket without even glancing in its direction. Brett Favre spirals a football 100 feet through the air, landing it in the arms of a teammate running at full speed. Does anyone have any delusions that they can do what Kobe and Brett do?

Yet, people have delusions that anyone can do what the typical teacher does on a typical day.

Maybe the problem is tangibility. Shooting a basketball isn’t easy, but it’s easy to measure how good someone is at shooting a basketball. Throwing a football isn’t easy, but it’s easy to measure how good someone is at throwing a football. Similarly, diagnosing illnesses isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure. Winning court cases isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure. Creating and designing technology isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure.

Inspiring kids? Inspiring kids can be downright damned near close to impossible sometimes. And… it’s downright damned near close to impossible to measure. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s test scores. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s grades. You measure inspiration 25 years later when that hot-shot doctor, or lawyer, or entrepreneur thanks her fourth-grade teacher for having faith in her and encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

Maybe that’s why teachers get so little respect. It’s hard to respect a skill that is so hard to quantify.

So, maybe you just have to take our word for it. The next time you walk into a classroom, and you see the teacher calmly presiding over a room full of kids, all actively engaged in the lesson, realize that it’s not because the job is easy. It’s because we make it look easy. And because we work our asses off to make it look easy.

And, yes, we make it fun, too.


Addendum, 11/18/2013

Based on some of the commentary I’ve seen, I would like to clarify one point: For the record, I never said that teaching is the hardest job. I said that teaching is the hardest job everyone thinks they can do. The title is intentionally vague (and yes, somewhat hyperbolic), but I spend the entire post clarifying what I mean by it. At no point do I complain or claim that teaching is harder than any other job out there. If your comment is something to the effect of how hard your job is, and how teachers therefore need to stop whining, then you probably didn’t actually read the post.

If you’re going to respond, I think you at least owe me the courtesy of reading first, yeah?


Addendum, 6/30/2015

Since this post still gets so many likes and shares (thanks, everyone!), I decided it would be fun to create a custom domain for it. So, if you’re ever talking to someone in real life and want to refer to this post, just tell them to go to howhardisteaching.com. And then they can find out just how hard teaching really is. 🙂

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By day, I'm a marriage and family therapist. By night, I am a relationships and comedy writer, which can be redundant or an oxymoron, depending on your perspective. I'm the creator of Social Savvy Sage, a coaching service that focuses on developing social skills. I am also the creator of Musings, the blog you're reading right now. You can find me on Twitter. (I am not the creator of Twitter.)

1,159 comments

  • My daughter teaches 5th grade and I sometimes volunteer in her classroom. It is very eye-opening to observe a classroom and gives an appreciation for what the teachers go through on a daily basis. It’s like you are “on stage” for hours. Teachers must be on their game the entire day. I think it would be wonderful if parents had to volunteer one day a year to help in their child’s classroom. There would soon be more respect for the teaching profession.

  • I am in my thirteenth year of teaching in an urban school district. I honestly don’t know how first year teachers survive these days. I give them a lot of credit if they stick it out. Teaching has changed so much over the years. It makes me sad that so many people view us in such a negative way.

  • First, to Jenna. I remember my sophomore high school English teacher (’64-’65), he inspired me to become an high school English teacher. He was funny, inspirational, innovative, and I could not imagine any career that seemed to match my interests better than that of being a teacher. Those of us who are old enough remember vividly where we where when JFK was assassinated. I was in my sophomore English class. My teacher, who always knew what to say, could say nothing. We spent the hour with our heads on our desks.
    I became a teacher and was in a classroom for 18 years. I was a school-level administrator for 12 years and finished my career with eight years as a district level administrator. Nothing was harder than being a classroom teacher. I liked to compare it to being a stand-up comedian. But you had repeat your routine five times a day, not two, and you had to have a new routine every day. As an administrator, I worked with a lot of professionals who would come in to do presentations to the students. And, they were usually well perceived (in that position, I had great students), but they never understood that the 50 minute presentation they had worked three weeks on was a one time presentation. Teachers have to do it every day!
    After 40 years I retired, I am comfortable, but not affluent. I had wanted my daughter to become a teacher (she has all the attributes), but she told me early on that she had seen how hard I had worked (I usually worked on school work after she went to sleep to about midnight or 1:00 AM) and did not want a job that hard. I occasionally, not often, worked all night, never sleeping, and went to work the next morning. I have never regretted becoming a teacher, all it takes to tell me that it was a wise decision is for the occasional former student to tell me how important I was to him or her. How I inspired them or made them to see possibilities where they had not seen them before.
    I now have four grandchildren, with two more on the way, and one of my most fervent wishes is that they will have teachers who care, inspire, and encourage them to find their paths in this increasing confusing world.

  • Sorry, there was no way to correct my spelling and grammar mistakes in my post!

  • I say Amen to teachers!!
    And many many thanks

  • This is great! I just finished entering grades and have to plan for tomorrow or I would leave a more eloquent response. Let’s just say as a high school history teacher in his 7th year, this post already conveys how I feel perfectly. I will share it with my friends to save me the time and effort in explaining how I sometimes feel. Thank you!

  • You made me tear up and it was very easy to do. We did not have a caring, engaging teacher last year. In the last eight years, that is the only teacher that has not mystified me, gave me joy and know they are there 110% for my children and would keep my child safe 110% of the time. We have an awesome teacher this year specifically for my son. The principal/district are not doing their job, but the teachers…they are going above and beyond what any parent could expect. Until we got really financially strapped and felt welcomed there by the principal, I made sure during teacher appreciation week that each teacher in the school was given a small something every day (had to be creative too)..even if we never had that teacher before. I sometimes ask, “do you have magic?”, or they just leave me speechless. I put teachers in very high regard and think they (the good ones anyway) should be given more power in making decisions regarding their classroom and school. They are with the children seven or more hours a day. They know the children the best. The principal and higher ups do not. They know what is missing and what is needed. If financially able or even find a creative way to do it, we should make it happen. I put them in the same category of respect as my doctor whom saved my life twice….that is how much respect I give to teachers.

  • I have never looked down on teachers. I believe even with there extra vacation they are underpaid. They are blamed when the parents really are the ones to blame. Yet why are teachers always focused on the words of a few when most people are on the teachers side? What do you care what others (a select few) think. Those who make others money will be paid well. Teachers do not make others money directly and therefore will never be paid well. You teach because you love to teach and therefore who cares what others say when you posses internal satisfaction?

    • I wish it were only a few that believe that teachers are undervalued. The majority elects politicians that put bad policies in place like No Child Left Behind. The majority elects school boards that believe that schools are broken and need to be fixed.

      Teachers don’t get extra vacation, they are actually unemployed for the summer months, yet often we are still expected to attend meetings, take classes and develop lessons during this time. Most teachers that I work with have to have summer jobs in order to make ends meet.

  • I could have written this. I too was a scientist with a PhD and did the extra study to do teaching after my husband died and I needed a job with less travel.
    I love my job. I love kids. I love watching the A-HA moment. I love that I have holidays off. But I work just as hard if not harder than I did in my old job. I work all weekends. Every weekend. I get paid less than I used to and I have simpletons explain my job to me.
    It’s frustrating as I KNOW that they don’t know.
    Thank you for writing this piece … I shall now share it far and wide!

  • I agree with the author. I will add that there are measures and effective data collection mechanisms that actually provide teachers, buildings, and communities the information needed to learn how easy or hard the profession is. And until educators embrace these measures and fill the void in the “not easy to measure” discussion with substance, instead of “you can’t do it” the better off this situation will be.

    • When something cannot be measured, it is usually something that schools/teachers do not have control over, like parent involvement, student effort, whether a student has food at home, etc. Can you be more specific about the measures that educators do not embrace?

  • If you give 110 percent in any job all day everyday that is the most difficult regardless what you do

    • So difficult, in fact, that it is impossible. You simply cannot give more than you have.

    • No anonymous, I’m sorry but you are wrong. How on earth can you claim that every job is the most difficult if you give 110%? Do you even know how many different types of jobs there are out there? Oh yeah I’m sure that model on the beach in the bikini pouting for the camera is having as difficult a time as the guy digging a ditch. Give me a break, that makes no sense.

  • I just want to say from one teacher to another – AMEN! Couldn’t have said it better myself!
    An honest reflective opinion about teaching! And yes it is a job that everyone believes they can do, well I always say: Sure I don’t mind, you can teach my class for a day or two and we will talk again. No takers on the offer….as yet!

    • Amen to Bronwen, I always say the ones who chirp the most are the ones that have never spent an hour, or day in a classroom. Remember the saying, walk a day in someone’s shoes before you make quick knock downs of how easy teachers have it.

      Thank you for a well written, honest opinion about the teaching profession. Finally!

    • Hello, I am not a teacher. But I’ve been a substitute teacher, a teachers aide & a volunteer in my kids grammar school. Their all grown but wow they’ve all done amazing. The two oldest have masters degrees & the youngest who’s 27 didn’t do the college thing but is happy and successful. My daughter who is 31, married and a new mom is a 9th grade teacher for English.
      She was hired & had a job waiting for her after she graduated. I want to say I think that teachers are exceptional people. Everyday they go in to work & try to motivated children that have an attitude they can fly by the seat of their pants and when they realize that’s not happening they act shocked like they did the work but they didn’t. And it doesn’t end there they also have to deal with the parents which is not pleasant. They would not assume it was their precious baby that never did homework, never studied for a test or didn’t turn in a project. That is so frustrating for teachers no matter what subject they teach. I think they deserve the medal of bravery. How they never know if they are the next columbine. That has not turned my daughter sour to being a teacher. She loves it and she’s great at it. When she decided on teaching all I could say was “Do you remember what you were like in high school?” All you teachers out there god bless you. And I don’t think people are aware their days don’t end at 3pm. They take home grading they have too. If they didn’t have holiday breaks to regroup we wouldn’t have any teachers at all. They have summers off because if they didn’t they’d probably lose their sanity.

    • Another amen. I subbed 4 years, got my credential, taught 3 and got laid off, subbed 2 more, got hired back and am in year 3. As a sub, I taught everything from K-8 including SDC. As for my own classrooms, I’ve taught a 1-2 combo, 2nd, 5th and 4th. Every year things change. This year, our district is adopting common core, but with no new texts. We are using what we have and googling the rest. I’m working 10-12 hour days all the time. Add to that kids who don’t do their homework, parents who never check backpacks, and Fourth Grade Girl Wars. I do enjoy it, but we all think it’s getting harder all the time.

  • I did 32 years in the military, 2 tours ‘nam, Desert Storm, Iranian Hostage Crisis, SpecOps, SpecIntel, etc. I lasted nine months as a 6th grade school teacher – it is a very difficult job and (as in my case) some people are just not “molded” to function well within a classroom setting. I do however have EXTREME problems with a union that is more concerned with protecting teacher’s employment safety net than in giving quality education to the students (at least here in California and most notably in LA and the SF regions).

    • How can a union give quality education to students WITHOUT protecting teachers’ employment safety net? It seems pretty clear from the original post that you need a feeling of job security to do well at this difficult job.

    • Simon Burns get a grip on reality please. What the original post said was that some people are not suited to teaching, that has absolutely nothing to do with job security. I agree with him I think the union is the worst thing to happen to education. I can’t tell you how many teachers I know who are HORRIBLE at their job and awful people who ridicule students and cause suffering and will never be fired because they have tenure. Why should you be rewarded for poor performance? The best performers in any job are those with competition, because competition breeds perfection. If you can’t do your job well you should be forced to improve or lose your job. Human nature is such that extreme job security causes laziness and apathy.

    • OK……I must comment here…..Please don’t jump on the bandwagon of blaming unions for problem teachers! When administrators have the courage to do their job and document issues, it isn’t a problem. Poor teachers give the rest of us a bad name! Sadly, most building administrators are so busy running to mandated meetings, it is difficult to spend a lot of time in classrooms. Then, of course, there are others who just don’t have the backbone to require quality. The administration must show just cause, but a bad teacher will provide plenty of evidence for that, right? If your district isn’t dealing with these teachers, take a look at what administrators are not doing………their job.

  • Back in the 80’s I taught US and Virginia Government in the northern Virginia area. For several years the Board of Supervisors (the local governing body) had not given us a raise. The local professional organization of teachers invited the Board members to spend a day as a teacher. Each member was told to prepare a lesson and they would spend the day as a teacher.
    My Board member thought he would spend the hour answering questions from the students, even the Redskins if they wanted to talk sports. Those students had been taught exactly what his job was and they peppered him for the entire hour on local issues, the school budget, the traffic and road conditions, development issues, etc. At one point he said he had to leave to make a phone call, I reminded him that he could do that during his lunch period, he said he had to do it “now”. He had quite a time regaining classroom control when he returned. He didn’t say much at the end of the day, just rushed out of the building.
    We got our raise that year.

  • Well said. While it is the most exhausting, soul-destroying job I’ve ever done, there’s no other that can beat it for job satisfaction in the long haul. Having taught, I would never do anything else.

    • Teaching my students feeds my soul every day. What destroys my soul is the school’s demands for meetings, documentation of every behavior, inflexible pacing, elementary class sizes of 35, no pay adjustment for years and the expectation that I’ll work 12 hours a day with no aknowledgment or appreciation.

  • I firmly believe that you cannot criticize a person’s job until you have walked a mile in their shoes. Respect is something that is missing these days. Especially respect for people and their jobs. I am a retired secondary school teacher in Ontario, Canada and know what it is like to constantly hear how easy my job was. Kudos to the author on an excellent article.

  • I used to think first grade teachers..easy, cut and paste. Then I had to teach a random , in every sense of the word, group of six year olds, hardest job of my life. I walked through the halls after school, of course all the teachers are still there working, poked my head in all 1st and 2nd grade teachers doors and apologized to them for my prior perspective. Think Kindergarten Cop, Arnold S. collapsing on the bed after his first day.
    I teach 8th graders inner city now;
    developmentally concrete cognition, hormonally changing, add the stress of passing 4 state tests for promotion..
    I believe legislators and citizens voting on our Education system should substitute for a day to get valuable perspective.

    • Having subbed a total of 6 years, everything from K-8, including several long-term assignments, I think first grade is the most difficult. It might just be that it’s “not my niche,” but it is seriously a difficult grade. They come from kindergarten where there is a lot more movement from table, to floor, and back again, although K has gotten more rigorous in the past couple of years. But in first, they are at a desk, have a full day (our district still has some half day K), and are asked to do much more. As a teacher, you are changing activities sometimes every five minutes, especially during some language arts blocks. In our area, class sizes are very large now (34 in some at my school) and it is exhausting to meet all the needs of these very young children.

  • I taught swimming lessons, which is in no way comparable to teaching children in a classroom, but it was unbelievable hard none the less. Trying to occupy 6 children aged 3-6 and teach them to not only love the water but to float, kick, blow bubbles, glide and eventually swim on their own is not an easy task. The hardest part was the parents, who would pull their chairs right up to the side of the pool and stare you down, then criticize you and explain why they could do such a better job than you. The up-side to my short lived swimming lesson career was that the children, and parents enrolling their children, were under no obligation to attend the class, it was entirely their choice. Most high school aged teens to not have a choice, they MUST attend class, and they will be miserable doing it. Respect to the teachers who have devoted their lives to inspiring future generations.

  • I am a fellow career switcher. I was a clinical microbiologist and Administrative Supervisor of a hospital laboratory. After my husband joined the military/had kids/moved around, I wanted to go back to work but still be there for my kids, so I did a Career Switcher program. I work way longer hours, worry more, get more frustrated, and way less respect than in my former field. However, I know that I have touched lives of children. I have students sign up for my Anatomy class so they can have me again as their teacher. I hear general biology students tell me that this is their favorite class and they like science. I know I have made a difference in their lives.
    But..no raises, being judged on how well they pass a test, and trying to quantify what I am teaching frustrates me to no end (and as a scientist, I know how easily data can be manipulated to show the results you want!)

    Thanks for the article. I have shared it with co-workers and family!

    Thanks for this blog…it is awesome

  • I taught at a community college for about a year, had 2 night classes with high school graduates and one day class with high schoolers. I’m an expert in the field I was teaching, ex-military, computer geek, high IQ, have managed departments in fortune 50 businesses and built my own businesses; both successful. I cannot express how unprepared I was for the challenges I faced teaching. It was not just the endless paperwork, the required testing, the 9 year old text books, the 15 year old who was late or absent because she had to care for her baby (would’ve been nice to know going in). Communicating what I thought of as elementary concepts to kids who were taking my class voluntarily worked me as hard as any other job I’ve ever had. I should mention that I had very good help (when they could stop laughing) from several professional teachers. Didn’t have administration breathing down my neck or federal & state testing to prep for and I only taught four days a week one class each day. Many different subjects over five semesters but nobody needed me to run the drama club or go to games. I admire one high school teacher in particular, he taught six classes a day, was dept. head, ran two clubs and made time to give me some pointers. I learned much but don’t ever want to work that hard again.

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