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 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.)


  • Lord love a duck, we need to get over ourselves.

    I was a teacher for 20 years.

    Regardless of what the OP says, which is true, it can be a challenging job, those like the author, are a bit thin of the ground.

    Most teachers I worked with were stunningly mediocre and seemed to equate their self worth with the value we place on children and adopted a sense of entitlement that exceeded the actual worth of their skills.

    And to be clear, I come from a family of educators. My mother is a former teacher and administrator. My father, a professor. Of their four children, three became educators themselves.

    I literally cringe when I hear some half witted plodder wax about how important their job is because it’s all about the children and the future…

    Let’s face it, folks, we, as teachers, play a big part in how we’re perceived and there’s a reason for that. Most of us are simply not that great at what we do.

    • Perhaps Dwayne’s response indicates a lack of self worth. If Dwayne does not feel that “he is not great at what he does” he should go back and work to improve his skills and attitude. In my immediate family we have over 100 years of teaching and administrative experience. I believe that most teachers are good and care about the success of their students. It is, sadly, the minority of poor teachers and administrators who get all the attention. Take the measurement of success based on test scores. Each state has a different level of measurement. What is considered highly successful in many states, is not even at sub-par in California. Work on your skills and attitude Dwayne and you will become a better teacher.

    • Fortunately Dwayne’s post does not represent most teachers. He definitely was in the wrong profession! No matter how many of his family members were educators does not mean it was the right choice for him. Glad it says he WAS a teacher which indicates he no longer needs to expose others to his pessimism and lack of faith in himself, his colleagues and his students (as in his statement “..not that great at what we do”) In any occupation there will be some who do not have adequate skills for that line of work. However, after 36 years of teaching I have found that by far most school teachers/administrators/staff do an outstanding job and give above and beyond. Thank you to all of the great teachers out there today who ARE doing one of the most important jobs. Remember, EVERYONE who is doing ANY job can thank a teacher for helping him/her pursue his/her goals and dreams.

    • Dwayne….Nows misses you

    • I am an educator as well.
      In Dwayne’s defense, there are many who ARE mediocre and get away with it. There are also those who spend all their free time and resources on their job. However, in the end they’re all grouped into 1 category. If you want to be mediocre, you can get away with it, and there are definitely people who do. However, that isn’t to discount the ones who spend all their waking moments in it.

      In the end, there are teachers who teach because its their passion, and then there are others who are in it because their original degree didn’t get them anywhere and so they needed “something”. All types, everywhere, but since the public cant pinpoint out who is who, we’re all grouped into one. That’s where I think (so this is merely an opinion) a good portion of the begrudging attitude comes from.

      There are many people out there, too, who also respect us beyond what we realize. We just only hear from the ones who want to whine, as is the same in every profession ever.

    • Thank God you are no longer teaching with that poor attitude. Especially admitting you weren’t that good at it.

  • I happen to agree with the author. Our job is the HARDEST JOB EVERYONE THINKS THEY CAN DO. In my district, we have not received a pay raise in 11 years while we are still expected to motivate student, raise test scores, and enhance self-esteem. I have been cursed at, spit on, hit in the face, and have had to break up fights in my classroom. I have spent thousands of dollars of my own money to build a library in my classroom so my students can have books to read and at times the books never come back because the students has taken the book home for a younger sibling to read. I have purchased paper, pencils, and I keep bread, peanut butter, jelly, lunch meat, and cup-o-soup in my room for students who are hungry because there just isn’t enough food at home to go around. And remember I am doing all of this while still raising my family and NO pay raise in 11 years. I love my job and I couldn’t think about doing anything else. It is that feeling when you see the light bulb go off because they got it or the first time they read a book from cover to cover. I am a realest and I understand there are bad teachers out there and there are teachers who work at rich schools who think they deserve everything. I am here to tell you that not all of us are this way and the next time someone tries to tell you how to do your job invite them to come teach your class for a couple of days. Best Wishes.

    • After 30 years working in business I stepped into teaching. I find that it is incredibly intense – physically, emotionally, intellectually – it just overtakes your mind and life. We can not underestimate the chance word that we say or the action we do has an impact on the student – positively or negatively. It is a responsibility. Unfortunately, unlike other jobs we don’t get to see tangible results in the near future – it may be 20 years later that it may impact the student and we are not around. Teachers have to self-sufficient and independant in their self-worth amongst the negativity, complaints and expectations from students and parents to be strong to be able to do their job. I had a CEO once tell me that Teachers just walk into class and talk and keep students quiet – how hard is that? and they get so many vacations. Wow! How far from the truth can that be?

    • @LynneH — I’m sorry, but if you are a teacher you are part of the problem. It’s spelled “realist”, not “realest”. Also, this sentence is not even grammatically correct:
      “And remember I am doing all of this while still raising my family and NO pay raise in 11 years.” If you put that on the essay for the state teaching exam you would not have passed.

    • What a relief that I am not the only teacher feeding their hungry tummies as well as their minds!

  • I wish all teachers had the passion you do. Unfortunately there are some teachers out there who are either burnt out or weren’t cut out to be teachers. I have a lot of respect for teachers, and feel they are far underpaid. It is the future of our children that is in their hands and we should be grateful for that.

  • I used to be a biochemist in a hematology lab, and now I am an elementary school special education teacher–small world! With all due respect, elementary school, where you are responsible for the planning of six academic subjects each day and behavior management is handled almost entirely in the room–no “leave my room”, no detentions–is a bear. I wonder sometimes why it is that a high school teacher, who usually teaches multiple sections of the same lesson, gets paid nearly what teachers of lower grades do.

    • Hear, hear, JR, this is a little known or rarely publicized fact that you are bringing to light: the incredible responsibility encompassed by the job of an elementary teacher. I laud your effort and simultaneously celebrate my retirement from 25 years of a truly grueling job at the same time. I too came to teaching later from a science professional background and I think it helped my organizational skills as well as strengthening my common sense. Good luck and try to hang in there.

    • JR, with all due respect, this comparison seems somewhat ill-informed. Elementary and secondary teachers have different jobs with different challenges. While elementary teachers have an incredible amount of planning to do, secondary teachers in the average district see anywhere from 150-220 students every single day. I’m sure you can calculate the hours of grading, paperwork, phone calls, emails, meetings, etc. this requires. Additionally, it is extremely rare that a high school teacher is responsible for only one course. In some cases, teachers have four or five different courses for which they must plan. Rather than attempting to one-up colleagues, it may be beneficial to step back and respect the difficult work most educators do, regardless of whether they are elementary or secondary. Teach on…

    • Anonymous… Please tell me you are just joking. I am STILL working and it’s WAY past 3 p.m. Yes, it’s the end of the 9 weeks. I am continuing to grade/enter grades, make phone calls, have parent/teacher conferences, prepare presentations (for the faculty too), try to monitor and record each and every detail of our day, differentiate my lessons for my students on a 5th grade level to those on the K level, run errands to buy food for those who show up to school starving, etc. But I put my ALL in every, single day. Let me tell you, I do love every single minute of it.
      As teachers, there is no break in each day, whether for the bathroom, lunch, phone call, or a “brain break”. There is no summer, spring, winter break “off”. There is NO tenure for those “beginning” teachers – nor do I think there should be.

      However, I DO have to say to you, anonymous, I hope that your children never have a teacher that thinks that way …and of the PROFESSION that you call a “sweet gig”.

      P.S. paid health insurance….really?? First, PLEASE try to be offered a teaching job ….and then be successful.

  • Great read. I’ve always known teaching is challenging because I watched my mom teach for 20 some odd years. I have a much better sense of it since I started subbing though. Of course, substitute teaching presents different challenges than being a full time teacher. For example: walking a class full of exited first graders you’ve never met down the hall to an art classroom you have no idea where to find, opposed to spending hours after class is out preparing lessons. Despite the huge differences it has given me even better respect for how much teachers pour into just trying to keep their class under control much less educated.

  • I am an elementary school counselor; in a low socio-economic area; with at-risk children. And the risk is even higher because they are only ages 4 yrs. to 8 yrs. old. I am very forunately to have a principal who is supportive of my skills. We tackle mild, moderate to severe problems every day. We work with parents, teachers, social services, mental/physical health providers, and law enforcement. It is an extremely stressful job…and no matter what anybody says…it can’t be left at the door when we go home. Our teachers are wonderful and wear so many hats. Teachers don’t just teach academics…they teach about life…build on social, emotional, and coping skills. A teacher (unforunately) not only has the role of a teacher, but social worker, nurse, counselor, and parent. I can not say enough about the teachers in our school. The job is hard; it is emotional; it is stressful; and it is rewarding at the same time. They touch and change lives every day, and their only reward is the hope that they see in a young child’s eyes. God bless teachers for the hard work that they do.

  • While taking a break from working on lesson plans, I took a break to read this article. It is Saturday, and I find myself doing the same weekend routine: laundry, housework, lesson plans, and mothering. I never complain because I am doing the two things I always meant to do: being a mother and being a teacher.

    It is hard work. I spend a lot of my own time, and money making sure that all my students needs (not just academic needs) are being meant. Even in the summer, when people think I am off, I am attending professional development classes, and brainstorming ways to increase students’ success for the following school year. I find myself shopping, and thinking: “WOW that would be a great thing to have in my classroom.” I am teacher all year long. I have even been told I teach in my sleep.

    I agree with the writer, there are people who think they can do our job better. I have had my share of parents, friends and even family member think my job must be fun, easy and doable by everyone. That is fine they can think that. I don’t need recognition from them. My recognition comes from the smile I see on my student’s face when something they struggle with finally made sense.

  • If we reward good teachers with pay raises instead of giving mediocre teachers tenure for no reason at all (other than showing up, of course)…

    I wonder.

    • To clarify: because anyone can be rewarded in this position, it is not impressive (to an outside observer) to be a teacher. Hence the “everyone thinks they can do it” sentiment.

  • This is an interesting discussion with many interesting comments.

    In my humble opinion it will be better to ask ‘why teaching has become the hardest job these days?’

    The simple answer: the present education system!

    Don’t you think so?

    • Off at 3pm, no nights, al weekends, holidays, spring break and summer offf ( and summer paid for) union membership, pension,paid health insurance. Full tenure. No dealing with heavy labor, outside temperatures -all while making 100 grand plus here on Long Island babysitting 8 year olds. Yeah, I’d say its a sweet gig

    • Anonymous; of course you would want to be. Try it, I dare you.

    • To the person that said sweet sweet gig: try spending every summer working at a fish plant because you’re pay for being a teacher doesn’t go far enough to feed your family. Try being the parent, psychologist, and the teacher for each and every one of your students, because their parents and everyone else expects you to. Try feeding hungry children because their parents don’t. You have no idea what you’re talking about “Anonymous”…..might be why ya hiding who you are😏

  • Anonymous..I teach 8th grade science and my typical hours at the school are 8am to 8pm. If we only worked during the 8-3 school day when are we supposed to plan lessons or grade assignments? It is just that foolish kind of ignorance that the author is talking about. And during my lovely summers off..I teach summer school, of course!

    • Anonymous. Pay us ‘babysitting’ wages then, £10 per hour per child. You are so ignorant it is laughable. Most of us are lesson planning and marking till 12am. You have no idea what goes into teaching; the planning, marking, constant study/ self development to beyond masters level. I would love to see you in front of a class of thirty kids, some disaffected and some gifted and talented; differentiating for them, keeping them motivated, dealing with behaviour, imparting sound subject knowledge and ensuring progress whilst being observed. We deserve every minute of our ‘holidays’ and then some. Why are we even trying to justify ourselves to a complete ignoramus.

    • We are only at the beginning of understanding learning and all that it involves and touches. That said, teachers carry the torches from which each of us acquires the means to light our way to the future. We all need to look to the light, to capture it and to use it. Thanks for a good boost forward, Carla.

    • We do NOT get paid vacations. We are paid for two holidays: Labor Day and Memorial Day. I have been teaching for 25+ years and love my job. I detest the paperwork and the one size -fits- all testing. You would not go to a doctor with a swollen ankle, and let him/her use a thermometer to say “YOU’RE TEMP IS NORMAL SO YOU ARE FINE……


    I feel conflicted about this. Obviously, teaching and nursing/medical jobs are not easy at all and are two jobs where people are constantly treated like garbage. But a lot of jobs are hard and I bet there are a lot of jobs you think are easy but probably aren’t. I’ve also found that a lot of teachers I’ve met and nurses can be some of the biggest maryrs ever.

  • You cannot teach any student anything, period—-at best you observe your student carefully, and if you are lucky you figure out how to make it possible for that student to learn —– 39 years in math and science classes made it possible for me to learn that !!!!!!!!

    • Funny, this is an old post that I was just scanning through! FYI I always thought that my students taught me……I supplied the academics but they supplied their various lives and situations and reactions…….I guess it was a love story………44 years in the profession… various forms…….

  • Where did you get some of these analogies? I wrote some of the same words a few years ago and posted them in a speech i made !

  • Dennis, did you leave teaching to become an engineer? Loved your original post. I’m now a reading specialist with two master’s and two credentials. The learning never stops to become better at teaching! Just curious as to why you left teaching if in fact you did. Thank you!!

  • So good. Thank you from Mr. Ellison. 😎

  • The reason everyone thinks they know how to teach is because everybody goes to school in America. They don’t all go to med school or law school or are talented in playing sports. But because they have attended school for 12 years, they think they know how to teach. Standing in front of a classroom is easy; being a successful teacher takes a special talent.

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