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Friday, June 29, 2012

Are You Sure You Want to Do This?

(bit late to the party, sorry... been rather preocupado, although according to Dave Cox, I'm not allowed to complain unless I'm endeavoring to walk to Argentina, which I'm not, so I'll get on with it.)

Dear New Teacher:

Are you sure about this? I mean, I feel it's only fair to warn you. Older people in your life, parents, etc, have probably filled your head with silly notions about how teaching is a good job. It's rapidly becoming not that great a job.

Pension-wise, New York just went to Tier Six. SIX. I won't go into details, but Tier Six is pretty shitty. Granted, ten years from now, they will probably be on Tier Eight, and you will be feeling all smug to be on Tier Six. Tier Eight is going to be, like, a standard-issue leather jacket and spiky shoulder pads and lessons on shooting an automatic weapon out the back of a moving pickup truck.

Otherwise intelligent, nice people will assume you had to go into teaching because you are such a dimwit, you can't do anything else, or perhaps just misguided about what is important in life, namely having expensive stuff. You will hear some variation on the "If you are so smart, why are you a teacher?" question at least once every few months. From people it would be impolitic to offend with a smartass response, like your boyfriend's dad. Have an answer ready for that, one that is both diplomatic and speaks your truth.

You probably suspect the children will love you. They will not love you. Once you get decent at this, they will grudgingly respect you. That will take at least three years.

You will pour your every ounce of intellect and ability into teaching the Algebra 2 class of your life, and then the outside testing agency paid to test your kids and rate you based on their performance will write a lazy, error-ridden, confusingly-worded exam that only reflects about 75% of the standards they told you to teach. Some kids you really like, who you know learned a whole bunch in your class, will fail it. You will beat yourself up for the rest of the summer.

Your first year will be 50% drudgery, 45% heartache, and 5% awesomeness. After seven years I've gotten that down to about 40:40:20.

Okay, if you're still sure, understanding all that... you probably have a chance. And, given all that, this is the best job in the world. Getting someone else to understand something is HARD. But it's an intellectual puzzle that's worth building a career on.

I'm rooting for you.

But maybe open a 401k.

Update 30 Jun: Okay, to counteract the negativity above (even though all of it is totally true, and newbs need to hear it), here is a

List of Things That Are Awesome about Teaching that Politicians Probably Can't Screw Up:

1. You get to hang out with young people all day. Who are funny, idealistic, emotional, open-minded, and overall, a trip.

2. You get to learn all the new slang before other adults.

3. Office supplies.

4. You can propagandize for your favorite mathematicians TEAM LEIBNIZ!

5. You have the power to make a place where people have to spend 45 minutes a day into a joyful place of learning and safe risk-taking.

6. You get to play a part in what kind of people kids will turn into, hence what kind of world we live in.

7. Continuing to learn new things is a job requirement.

8. You will get to work with colleagues who are some of the kindest, smartest, most genuine people you have ever met.

9. That moment you find the key to that part of a person's brain that unlocks the thing you want her to understand.

10. That moment a class asks its own question and runs with it.

In a nutshell: you get to share the best of civilization with new humans. That will be enough to sustain you through a whole lot.


  1. I must say I really enjoy your witty sense of writing and demeanor. I wholeheartedly agree with you on the points you bring up. We need people to give people looking to go into this profession a true look at what being a teacher is like (such as this post). It is possibly one of the hardest, most underestimated career out there, but one of the most rewarding...even in those rough first few (10) years.

  2. I know that teaching is a tough job and that things are different for Canadian teachers like me compared to our neighbors to the south, however, I was disappointed to see such a negative and rather uninspiring letter to new teachers. Based on your blog you clearly love what you do for the most part, however, if I were to read that as a new teacher I would classify you as one of thosenteacherswho just complains and goes through the motions until retirement. I know that is not the teacher that you are and that your concerns about teaching are valid, but why not write a letter of inspiration for new teachers and not just doom and gloom? I like your blog but was disappointed to read your letter. I have read so many inspiring letters with this initiative that outline the pitfalls but also the beauty of the profession and this one fell short. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but I think it needs to be said.

  3. I don't mean to speak for Kate at all, but I want to say that I'm glad someone is speaking more truth than "inspiration". Teaching at the university level is a crappy, thankless job, and I can only imagine how it must be at the high school level.

    The problem with inspirational writings is that people who follow them will find the ugly truth eventually. They'll feel betrayed by the people who spoke so glowingly, and they'll wash right out in the first couple years when things get hard. Actually, that sounds pretty much exactly like the attrition rate we have.

    If I go into teaching after someone says "you're going to get kicked in the teeth", and then I get kicked in the teeth, I'll say "well, they said I'd get kicked in the teeth, so let's get on with it", not "OH MY GOD THEY SAID IT WOULD BE SUNSHINE AND PUPPIES NOT TEETH-KICKING I AM SO OUT OF HERE."

  4. When I was in high school, I was a math nerd, and hung around with the other math-y/science-y nerds. Now-a-days, 5 of them are doctors who finished residency last year, two are architects, three programmers making a ton of money, and a couple who are PhDs looking at major universities.

    I don't begrudge them their successes, but I do get frustrated with the comments and questions about why I didn't go into a more challenging/lucrative/prestigious field. My job pays the least, but I have the same (or more!) years of graduate education. My job isn't easier just because it pays less.

    Complaints aside, though, it's a blast.

  5. Kate, I loved this post. I didn't find it depressing at all - in fact, the opposite.

    As a new teacher, I want so hard to square what I'm putting in with what I'm getting out, and the math just doesn't always come out. I'm working all the time, physically exhausted, constantly having friends/family question my choice (you're smart enough to do something else) - I feel like I need to be CHANGING LIVES ON THE DAILY to make it all make sense, and instead I just feel mediocre.

    You gotta know that you're in for feeling that way. You gotta know that other smart, creative, talented humans have been there. That there is drudgery and heartache, and it DOES NOT GO AWAY.

    I think you need to be honest with yourself about all of these things when you choose to teach. You can't expect that there will always be some grand emotional payoff that will tip the scales to make your choice make sense. You've gotta take the rest of it away and see what you're really doing, put in perspective, and decide that it's what you want.

    "if you're still sure, understanding all that... you probably have a chance"

    And you've gotta keep deciding to teach. Because even if you really believe that what you're doing really matters, you're going to need to be okay with some self-doubt and you're going to need support and you're going to need to know that nobody else has it all figured out yet, either.

    Kate - knowing how much you love what you do (see: the list on your updated post), and how that love is grounded in reality and struggle - that's truth AND inspiration. Thanks.

  6. first anonymous must not have been reading this in his/her 'half-joking, but no seriously' voice ... loved the nutshell ... don't underestimate the power of awesome list #2 in helping you still feel relatively young for the first 5-8 years

  7. Hi Kate,

    I was surprised of your reply to my comment about your post. (I posted the first anonymous comment) First of all, I did not ask nor expect you to change your letter nor did I dispute what you said. I clearly stated that I was disappointed to read your letter knowing the type of teacher that you are.

    I don't understand what you mean by me lacking courage. If it is because I posted as anonymous, then let me clarify that. My name is Brian and I teach in downtown Toronto, Ontario. I have taught for 9 years and love my job. I share the same frustrations as you but also love my job like you do.

    I do not, however, respond to critism like you do. I did not post to be mean spirited nor to blast you. After following your blog, I was surprised to see a letter that contained very little positive messages. I don't disagree with anything you said, only that this is how you would introduce teaching to a new teacher. But hey, others disagree with me and that is fine. I don't take offense to their disagreement with me and am glad to see people voice their opinion.

    What I do take offense to is how you belittle me with your comment. It doesn't lack courage to disagree with someone. I did not say that you were wrong in what you said, just that it seemed so negative. All negative and no positive? Then why teach? Balance is what I was seeking. But then again it is your blog and you post what you want. I only made an honest comment on it, like you do about other peoples blogs.

    Now here is where I think you will take offense, but I will say it anyways. I cannot but wonder how you deal with disagreement in your classroom when you so openly speak harshly of me. Please tell me it is differently. Like I said, I did not mean to start a firestorm and would never have posted if I knew you would reply in such a mean-spirited manner.

    To be honest, I don't know why you posted my comment if all you were going to do was to publicly shame me? As I said in my first post I know you are a great teacher and I enjoy your blog, however, you have definitely changed my personal opinion based on how you reacted to me.

    And just to be sure, I posted the first anonymous post but not the second one so please don't try to put them together to create an argument against me people.


    Toronto, Ontario

  8. I did think posting a critical comment without signing your name was cowardly. I think most people who have spent some time reading blogs and comments would agree. Though I appreciate you introducing yourself now.

    I read your comment as pretty harsh. But I also thought you had a point that the post could have had some more positive to go with all the negative. So that's why I added a list of things that keep me teaching despite everything. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. As to the rest of it, I don't think anything productive will come from engaging on having my character questioned. I'll take out the sentence you found so offensive and leave it at that.

  9. You get office supplies, you are so lucky.


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