Teaching has to be one of the strangest professions out there. I mean, I know it probably doesn’t compete with a hair boiler or neck skewer, but it certainly is up there. It’s filled with extraordinary highs and lows, and a lot of misunderstandings about what the job entails.
One of the first assumptions people seem to make is that we get these gloriously long holidays. While one’s schedule does match the school holidays, this doesn’t mean the work is over. There is a lot of admin involved and a lot of marking. There are marks meetings, prep for the next term and any professional development work a teacher might do during the break. That being said, yes, the holidays are long. But, if like me in my initial teaching at BCIT, you are on a contract, that means three months unpaid, until the new term. And the terms are often so exhausting that you need the long holidays to recover!
“So… you only teach 12 hours a week? So, uh, what do you do during the day?”… <if you really want to know what I do during the day… see Meerkat Communications> Yes, physically we are in the classroom for maybe 12-17 hours a week depending on your load, but that doesn’t mean you only work 12-17 hours a week. First of all, those 12 hours I teach are 4 hours at a stretch of non-stop energy and being on the ball, which isn’t easy from 6-10pm at night. And scheduling means that during day school, there are often solid blocks of constant classes, which means no lunch break or coffee break. And you are constantly having to be on your game. There is no room for being slack or not concentrating, as, not to sound too dramatic, someone’s future is tied to what you are teaching.
When you add preparation and marking, especially when you are teaching a class that doesn’t involve multiple choice tests, then you are looking at a 50-80 hour week (which is not paid). Especially when you have close to 200 students, and no Teaching Assistant. Luckily, I don’t teach that many students any more, but I do usually have about 50 students at a time x 5 assignments each, with about 15 minutes for marking each paper (more for exams), adding insightful, useful comments for the students to be able to improve on their work… can you see how it adds up fast? And I’m just teaching part time!
If you want to be a decent instructor, you also don’t want to just churn out the same crap each term, so you need to spend time updating your work, creating new assignments and exams, designing new activities, and believe me, four hours is a long time to fill.
The other thing I find interesting is that people don’t realize how much time you also have to spend before, during, and after class on paperwork, emails, printing etc. I often have about 5-10 student emails a day with drafts of work to be checked (at about 15 minutes a piece) and other teaching-related queries to respond to. Then, there are the 20-30 minutes (if the equipment all behaves) of copying and printing to do before each class. Then, add in the walking time to fetch a projector and/or a laptop (and returning equipment after class), get set up and be ready before the class starts. I think people are surprised to find out that we can’t just waltz into the classroom and start teaching, although if it looks that effortless, then we’re obviously doing something right.
So why on earth, given all of the above, do we subject ourselves to this? I have encountered the element of the martyr in a lot of educators, so I think there is some of that ‘woe is me, I am a slave to my work but I daren’t slack off because I want you to feel sorry for me for working so hard and they couldn’t possibly survive without me for a day’ syndrome. However, the reality is that you often realize that if you are faced with missing a class through illness, it will be so much easier to just limp through the class, semi-compos mentis, than it will be to try and catch up the work (especially when you are only teaching a 12-week course). It is also really hard to have a cut-off time for work when you aren’t on a strict 9-5 schedule.
So why bother?
Well, when a student comes up to you and asks you if you are teaching the next level of the course because they really enjoyed your class, or that you were their favourite instructor, or you bump into them down the line and they tell you they miss you, or they refer their friends to your class, then all the hours of effort and of prep and marking and photocopying are suddenly worth it. Also, when a student suddenly “gets” it, and they leap from a C to an A, or a fail to a pass, it really an amazing feeling. And being able to share insights, spark debate, and help someone improve, is such a great reward.
I often think that teachers are not paid what they are worth, because it is so hard to quantify a lot of what we do, but really, being able to make a difference in someone’s life, despite the slog, is more than enough reward in itself.
*DISCLAIMER: These are my personal reflections and are in no way a comment on my employer. My perspective is also that of a tertiary-level educator; I have no experience teaching in K-12.