Most of the students in my graduate school cohort were psyched to become professors. Every one of them was gung-ho to shoot through a Ph.D. program and change the lives of students who would hang on their words the way that we hung on our professors’ words (when we weren’t hungry, hung-over, sleep-deprived, or just disinterested, of course).
But the reality of being in the classroom as a teacher is really different from what you might imagine it’s like when you’re one of the students. That’s not to say that teaching is a bad career or you won’t enjoy it, but it is important to realize that it’s different from what movies show or from what you’ve observed as a student.
Here are five things I wish I’d known about teaching before I began.
1. Your students will not be like you.
Shortly before I began teaching, a former professor of mine said this to me. At the time, I didn’t know what she meant. Obviously, they were younger and wouldn’t have the same interests. They would come from different backgrounds. I was already aware that living in the American South, I was different from most of my students and classmates in that both of my parents had completed not only college but some graduate work before having me, whereas many of my students would be first-generation college students.
But none of that is what she meant.
Although I finished undergrad with a 3.59 GPA, had been inducted into the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and Sigma Tau Delta (an honor society for English majors and minors), and was accepted into a graduate program, I never considered myself a high achiever. I looked at my record and saw room for improvement: the college algebra class I’d failed my first go-round, the science class I’d slacked off in while working too intensely on a class I found more interesting, the low number of extra-curriculars, the missed honors of magna and summa cum laude. There were many students who were better at being students than I was. I did well in my major because I had natural ability and liked what I was doing. I worked hard because I enjoyed it. Surely I was a middle-of-the-road scholar.
It was only after I began teaching that I realized how little effort some college students put in. Some students genuinely don’t care. They’re in college because they’ve been told to go, but they don’t have any personal investment in it. After completing K-12, they’re ready for something other than sitting in a desk. Others force themselves into majors that are a poor fit because they’re hoping to make money or get a job that’s prestigious. And of course, some have so much going on outside of school that it’s tough to bring their all to the classroom. There are a lot of reasons that 30% of freshmen drop out after their first year of college.
Regardless of the reason, if you are enrolled in a graduate program and planning to teach at any level, it’s safe to assume your dedication to learning is going to be much greater than that of most of your students.
2. Even at the college level, there are problems with emotional maturity.
Discipline issues have been rare in my experiences. Sure, there’ll be the handful of girls who chat or giggle, or the boy who is so engrossed in his laptop that he misses the content of an entire class meeting even while he’s present. And, of course, many students won’t put down their phones.
However, I have experienced the following: a student yelling at me in front of the class; a student throwing a desk out of frustration; a student cursing at me; a student offering sexual favors in exchange for a grade; a student trying to get me fired; a student having a breakdown in the middle of class; multiple threats of lawsuits.
Here’s the thing: students in their teens and 20s are still growing up. Legally, they’re adults, but the human brain doesn’t stop growing until our late-20s. As a result, sometimes students will do really stupid things, especially if they’re new to college. That’s part of learning and growing up.
When I first started teaching, I expected my students to act like adults. I expected them to make mature decisions. But the truth is, some of them are still learning how to behave in different settings, how to filter what they say and how they say it, how to manage impulses, how to navigate relationships, and who they are. For better or worse, those lessons cannot be divorced from their academic lives. They don’t get to leave their immaturity at the door. As a result, sometimes you have to deal with that.
The most effective teachers are those who learn to engage the whole student by meeting him where he is. That doesn’t mean coddling or making excuses, but it does mean occasionally having needed discussions about things beyond the classroom.
3. Most of the work teachers do is unseen.
You see the time teachers spend in the classroom explaining material or facilitating lessons. You know that they grade; you’ve probably even heard them complain about grading.
However, you may not realize how much time they spend preparing lessons and grading. On average, creating a new lesson plan from scratch could take me anywhere from 3-8 hours depending on whether I’ve taught the topic before or I’m teaching something I’ve never taught. This isn’t an unusual amount of time to spend on preparation before even entering the classroom. Grading can vary by subject and type of assignment, but here’s a snapshot of what it’s like for a typical English teacher in a composition classroom:
- 25 students in a class x 5 pages per paper = 125 pages
- 125 pages x 5 minutes per page = 625 minutes
- 625 minutes / 60 minutes in an hour = 10.41 hours
Yes, that’s right. Potentially, you could spend over ten hours grading one assignment for one class. For the record, a typical course load at a community college is 4 or 5 classes per term, and it’s not unusual to have 4-6 major essays in such a class.
Also, five minutes to grade an essay is a joke. From talk with coworkers, 15 minutes is considered a decent amount of time per essay, although it’s not unusual for instructors to spend more than that.
4. Teaching is only 1/3 of the job.
Besides teaching–which includes time in the classroom, prep time, and grading–faculty must complete a certain amount of professional development (research in their field) so they stay sharp on important developments. University faculty also have to publish in professional journals regularly.
Additionally, many faculty serve as:
- academic advisors, meeting with students to advise them on classes to take and making sure they make regular progress toward their degrees;
- committee members, helping make major decisions for the institution;
- faculty advisors for clubs and honor societies.
If you’ve ever passed a professor’s office and seen them napping under their desk, now you know why. All these responsibilities add up to a lot of hours spent working each week.
5. Just because you’ve sat in classrooms your whole life doesn’t mean you know how to teach.
The first time I sat down to grade, I realized there was a problem: I knew how to write a strong paper, but I didn’t know how to tell someone why their paper was or was not good. I also didn’t know how to communicate those ideas in language students could understand.
Similarly, deciding what needed to be taught, and in what order, and how, was something I had to learn over time. I was lucky to have professors who helped me when I was a graduate teaching assistant, and I have developed and maintained a group of supportive, like-minded instructors whom I’ve share materials and ideas with over the years.
But being a good teacher, an effective teacher, takes a lot of learning. If you major in anything other than education, then you’ll quickly find that you are a subject-matter expert, not a teacher; you know your subject like a pro, but you will become a teacher through experience and research, trial and error, and lots of reading about teaching.
And that’s ok. I’ve never met a perfect teacher at any level and I doubt I ever will. One of the great things about teaching at any level is you will never stop learning and developing. This is not a career you master. It’s a career where knowledge is limitless and always expanding. That’s one reason why teachers of every level reap many benefits from their careers, ranging from higher job satisfaction to a decreased likelihood of developing dementia.
None of this information is meant to dissuade anyone from a college teaching career. However, understanding what you’re in for can help you decide whether this is the right fit for you and how best to prepare for the challenges before you.