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 engineer happiness at WordPress.com. By night, I am a relationships and comedy writer, which can be redundant or an oxymoron, depending on your perspective. I am the creator of Musings, the blog you're reading right now, and LemonVibe, an anonymous relationship advice site. You can also find me on Twitter (I am not the creator of Twitter).

1,154 comments

  • I commend you on your accurate and eloquent description of your experience in teaching. And as a parent of a 2nd & 6th grader, I would like to say THANK YOU for teaching. It’s teachers like you who make the frustrations of dealing with the education system worth the fight! There are many amazing teachers out there like you who don’t get the thanks or credit they deserve. So I thank you!

  • I don’t wanna be be a teacher coz they are always whinnying.

    • Um, you’re in a stable not a school. Those aren’t teachers they’re horses.

    • they probably have something to whine about and to be honest with you I hear less whining from my school teacher friends than I do my other friends, in various jobs. I watch the teachers and I know most of these people work hard and enjoy teaching our children.

    • Wow! That’s great spelling. Perhaps you should try spending some time with teachers to improve your spelling and overall ignorance.

    • You should have paid more attention in your English class. I’m sure your spelling is making every teacher you ever had proud.

    • We don’t want you teaching, because you haven’t grasped your own language yet. Learn to spell.

    • You shouldn’t be a teacher because you can’t spell!

  • I spent over 30 years “teaching”, working mostly in the secondary schools. I enjoyed every day, and did have many that have been forgotten as being too painful to remember. As a retired teacher with a large Vineyard to run I find I also enjoy every day, and do hard physical work. My joy however comes when an adult on the street stops me and says” Jim remember me, I am now very successful. Thanks. Wine drinkers will never do that.

  • That’s funny. I’m glad that you don’t want to be a teacher seeing as you don’t know the difference between “whining” and “whinnying.” One is to complain and the other is an action of horses.

  • All I can say is Amen! I am a hard working principal and see the great things teachers do day in and day out. I would love to have some of the nay-sayers come in and teach a class or two. Kudos to our teachers – you are all golden!

  • I owned a real estate company and supervised agents, acquired my Series 7 (Stockbroker) and worked in investments, still hold my Psychologist license and do therapy, but NONE of these jobs compare to my 30 years as a teacher in the public school in terms of difficulty and satisfaction.

  • You hit the nail on the head in trying to describe the job teachers do. I’ve worked in other fields and in teaching. It’s not so much the hard part (though it is HARD), it’s the part about everyone else thinking they are experts in your field (especially politicians and billionaires).

    And that attitude is noticed by students. When I was in school, I knew that if there was a problem in the classroom, I’d get in trouble double at home. Today, the parents instantly want to know why THEIR little angel was disciplined, why THEIR perfect child has a C or why YOU are at fault for everything their son or daughter gets wrong on a test.

    Teaching is an impossible job to check off on a number chart for evaluations (it’s like evaluating a doctor based on their patients’ average blood pressure) — because it’s the teacher AND the student AND the parent AND the school system AND the community AND more than all go into a child’s academic success. A score on a test just doesn’t tell you what type of a teacher you have. The politicians and outside experts need to realize that and let the teachers teach and help them teach instead of labeling them as lazy or ineffective to score a few cheap points off voters who like an easy answer (must be because of bad teachers!) over a difficult task like changing the culture of the school, home and community to value learning.

    All that said, it’s the best job I’ve ever had. There are tough days but there are amazing days. I absolutely love it and don’t regret the career switch for a second. I can’t imagine a day in the future when I won’t come into the classroom each morning excited about all the joy, pain, tears, obstacles and triumphs each day brings.

    • Steve, for the first time in 20 years I feel it’s coming around.

      I start contacting parents with “red flags” the first week of school. Although there are 1 or two parents in denial (and they come around) I have found that the level of support has really changed, that parents, once informed, are willing to go above and beyond in disciplining their children and getting them to study.

      This often means late nights (in at 7, home at 9 p.m.) but it pays dividends in a more pleasant, more productive school day and year. Good luck!

      p.s. Great point about the patient’s blood pressure. Perfect.

  • I could not agree more! While I was never a molecular biologist,I have been a day laborer. garbage man, worked in all phases of construction from pouring slabs to nailing shingles, I have made a living as a potter (barely) I have held elected office and I have worked as an art director. All of these jobs were at times challenging and rewarding in their own right, but the toughest, job I ever loved was teaching for 30 years! People who think it is easy should walk a mile in any kindergarten teachers shoes and see what they say after the experience.

  • Very well stated,Dennis. I have taught high school, kindergarten and many grades in between over a 37 year career. High school is hard work. Kindergarten is even harder, plus you have to put up with well meaning, but clueless acquaintances saying, “Oh what a cute job. You must have so much fun.”

  • Teaching can be a million different things. It’s hard to lump them all together. I’m currently teaching English in China, and it’s rewarding, fun, and also (in part due to my personality) really really easy.

  • I think that teaching is the hardest job! My deepest thanks for all the teachers that teach my kids and haven’t pulled their hair out! And my kids know stuff that they’re suppose to know! I would be fired inside of a week if I was a teacher. I have no patience especially for preteens and teenagers. Again thank you for all your hard work.

  • From a varied background,I have ended up working as an academic in psychology, which involves much teaching on a daily basis. My fantasy that this would be an easier option than a career in research or as a clinician was sooo misguided. I teach every day and always feel the burden of this responsibility. We had a graduation ceremony today and even those students who notoriously sat at the back of the lecture theatre and whinged and snored were on display, with their mummies and daddies, and all of them said that the tenacity and commitment of the lecturers was, at times, what got them through. I get them at 18+ and can only imagine what it must be like to teach the litle darlings as adolescents. Hats off to all teachers and bollocks to anyone who ever again says,”Oh, but at least you get those long holidays”. Right, those’ll be the long holidays spent planning/writing lectures, marking coursework/exam scripts and running top-up sessions for the students who would otherwise fail their modules, or entire degree because they are enjoying those long holidyas without reading a single book/journal article. To all tachers reading this: we ROCK!

  • Teaching is not easy, and requires dedication and the ability to modify and adjust every lesson. Anyone who has taught knows both the challenges and the rewards of the profession.

  • First of all, let me say that I know I could not be a teacher, and I have the utmost respect for those teachers who do their job well. I have known many dedicated, hardworking teachers who are good at their jobs and are completely deserving of my respect. I do agree that one of the reasons teachers seem to get less respect than they deserve is because their skills are hard to quantify. I am the parent of a child with a neurological issue that makes learning certain subjects a challenge. I have encountered some truly brilliant teachers who were willing to make the modifications necessary to help my son succeed and who were willing to try anything to help him learn. I have worked with teachers who welcomed my help and were glad to have me as part of the team. These teachers are worth their weight in gold, and I don’t care how much money they make, it’s not enough. However, not all teachers are good at their jobs. Not everyone who teaches should be teaching. Throughout our family’s journey, we have encountered teachers who hated kids. We have encountered teachers who used humiliation and verbal abuse as teaching tools. Not everyone who teaches enters the field for the right reasons. I have met quite a few people who chose teaching because they thought it would be easy work with short hours and summers off. Then, when reality hit them in the face, they took their resentment out on the kids. Sadly, the administration is often very aware of what is going on, but they look the other way, because they know it is darn near impossible to get rid of a bad teacher, and there is no way to force those teachers to improve. I have the utmost sympathy for teachers who are deserving of respect and don’t get it, but part of the reason you don’t get it is that some of your fellow teachers are making the whole profession look bad, and there is very little that can be done about it.

    • Thanks for your comments about those of us who do a good job. Please let the administrators of those good teachers know how you feel – that little pat on the back is so needed. As for the idea that bad teachers are hard to get rid of, I have to say that isn’t true. While it is true that bad teachers rarely can just get fired on the spot, there’s a reason for that – the kids need continuity, even if there’s a problem. I realize that’s hard to understand. But unless there is a physical threat, it’s actually better to leave the teacher in place while either working to improve the teachers’ skill set, or find a better replacement. It’s worse to have a poor teacher leave and then replace with a sub that is just as poor – it means the kids have to adjust to that change without it improving anything. So, it is frustrating when a teacher isn’t doing a good job. I’ve actually had to report colleagues when I felt that they were so out of line that they needed to be helped. The admin reacted very quickly, and came to observe what was happening. I would go home in tears sometimes after being in the classroom with her. I ended up in the same room with her again later, but she was much better. I’m glad that she was given an opportunity to improve. There are other teachers I’ve worked with that are downright crappy, but the downright crappy admin wouldn’t do anything about them. The admin HAS the ability to act on poor teachers – it’s up to them to do it. If you encounter poor teachers, and the admin doesn’t seem to be doing anything, go higher on the chain of command. Be prepared with specifics, documentation, etc. The more prepared you are, the more the powers-that-be will be able to do, and more likely to do it.

    • I completely agree. There are many wonderful and passionate teachers out there that are committed to their students and know how to engage them and actually teach. However,there are also some teachers that pursued the profession under the false belief that it’s an easy job with great hours, pay & benefits. Having children that have attended schools in different states, my experience has been that in the states where the teachers are highest paid (seethroughNY.com allows you to see exactly what your child’s teacher in NY is being paid)there seems to be greater incidents of teachers who shouldn’t teach but choose to remain in the profession because they could not receive the same pay, benefits & hours in the private sector, and unfortunately it’s extremely difficult for school administrators to address the issue.
      Really, there are no easy jobs. The writer worked as a scientist before choosing to teach, obviously he prefers teaching to working in the lab. Doctors have the high cost of malpractice insurance and must treat X number of patients per hour to earn enough from the health insurance co’s to financially sustain their practice and pay off their 10+ yrs of college and training, nurses literally have to put up with crap; everyone who does their job well works hard at it.

  • I’m a teacher. Its a holiday weekend. Let me tell you about my last two days, today, and the next two. On Wednesday I was at school at 07:12. I assessed advertisements and written critiques of the ads. until 08:00 when students started coming through the door and asking for help. Classes started at 08:30, and I taught 3 of the 4 periods prior to lunch. The one planning period I had I lost 1/2 of since I had a meeting to attend. The other half of the period I prepared for what was happening after lunch. During lunch I met with 2 students who struggled with an Excel record they were keeping for a learning task. I didn’t get to eat lunch. At 12:30, I started the first of my 42 back-to-back parent conferences, which lasted from 12:30 to 9 PM. My 20 minute break was taken up by a parents who couldn’t schedule a conference, since there are only 62 slots, and I have 91 students. I get to do the other 29 conferences next week, before school and after school, on “my time.” I went home on Wednesday at 9:15 PM. On Thursday I arrived at school at 07:05, corrected papers, and then did 4 hours non-stop of back-to-back conferences. I had to do two others after 12:00 since parents were late, and missed their scheduled times. The missed times didn’t turn into a break for me since other parents were lined up at the door and ready to go as much as 30 minutes early. It would have been difficult to force them to follow the schedule and actually take a break. I had to excuse myself from starting one conference on time to go to the toilet. I had coaching to do at 12:30, so I didn’t get to eat lunch. I coached from 12:30 to 2:30, then my girls team and I helped the ES PE class who was doing a basketball unit. The first graders loved having us as guests. I finished this, then I was able to eat lunch at 3:30 PM. I went back to my room, answered about 15 emails from parents, students, and other teachers/admin. I managed to leave school yesterday at 5:10. Today is a holiday! Yea. I got to sleep in until 07:00. I’m about to leave for school, and it is 09:05. I have work to do. A game at 1 PM, and then I referee at 3 PM. I think I’ll get home about 5:30, if I’m lucky, and today is Thanksgiving! Tomorrow I’ll be up at the normal time, another game at 09:00, then refereeing at 11:00 AM. I’ll be tempted to do more corrections, since I know that students will want their papers/ads. back on Monday, and when they evaluate me at the end of the year one of the criteria is “returns student work on time.” If I don’t do it quick, I run the risk of losing my job. Don’ believe me? Guess again! Day after tomorrow is Sunday….yes, a day of rest! No, I must referee two games on Sunday. Our school is lacking facilities, so we have to schedule games any day of the week. We lack qualified referees, so I end up doing a lot of it. I do get paid for it…about $10 an hour. On a Sunday? Yes. Your day off? Yes. Your only day off? Yes. School admin. cut referee pay this year due to budget issues. They didn’t tell us about it, but we learned about it last week when we got our “Fall Season” referee pay. Thanks! Did I mention that next week I get to fit in 20+ conferences I was unable to do this past week. Did I mention that 4 of my planning periods, among 5 of them, are lost to meetings and bureaucratic nonsense, as usual. Need I continue? I admire the work of non-teachers. It takes all kinds of work to make things happen in the world. I get to take a part time job this summer to make ends meet. Maybe I’ll take up molecular biology!

  • Simply…well said. I am a retired educator. I was in the classroom for 17 years and an administrator for 13 years. A teacher and those who appreciate teachers will understand what you are saying. Those who look down on and criticize teachers don’t and never will. Again, well said.

  • I think what people need to remember is that all jobs are challenging and certainly teaching isn’t easy.

    It’s emotionally and mentally difficult because you do invest time in the lives of hundreds of kids a year. I can’t tell you how my heart sinks when one of mine fails their test or assignment or simply refuses to work because they can’t understand why an assignment has any value. You try to take the kids who need the help and give it to them, control the troublemakers, keep the gifted kids challenged, help the ones with challenges and more. I often cringe when parents criticize – I don’t know sometimes if they realize that lots of times their child’s teachers wipe tears from that child’s face when they’re upset at school, go that extra mile just because you KNOW that child can succeed and know exactly who your child hangs around with (even though you told them not to hang around with that person, I bet if you asked the teachers they could tell you a different story). I wish more people understood that work that goes into this profession.

    I think this article says so much right in its intent. I know I work hard for my kids/students, I take lunch hours, preps, time before and after school just to help those who need it. I work 12 hour days, lose preps to meetings or other duties. I don’t want a applause but some general appreciation from a public that forgets (lots of times) that teaching doesn’t end at 3pm would be nice. (And no, those PD days are not days off for teachers!)

  • 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 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.

  • All I can say is THANK YOU!!! I am not a teacher but daughter and a wife of teachers. I have a hard time just getting adults to listen and read (as you can see from your responses), let alone adolescence. Keep up the good work. I appreciate what you do!

  • I am an 8th grade teacher who switched careers 7 years ago. I absolutely love my job even with the long nights of grading (just finished a stack of papers) and difficult kids and sometimes parents. I do get frustrated when people belittle my career choice but really, that’s their problem! I love my job and the kids I work with. It doesn’t get any better than that. Lucky me.

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