When my husband decided to go back to school to be a high school English teacher, he didn’t do so without understanding what he was getting into. His dad was a teacher, and so was his mother-in-law. He knew it was going to be hard work.
He thought it would consume him, but in a good way. He’d have a place to put all of the passionate energy he’d always had about learning and about empowering kids to articulate their thoughts. Heck, maybe he’d get a few kids to memorize a line or two of Shakespeare or to write their own sonnets.
We were newish parents when my husband went to teaching school, and we thought it would help create a good work/life balance for someone like him who was a super-involved, dedicated dad. He remembered his own dad coming home by 3 or 4 p.m. each day and having loads of time for his kids.
Yeah, we didn’t expect to be rolling in riches, but we knew he’d have a chance to make a decent living, with built-in raises and good benefits without having to work insane hours or take on an ungodly amount of stress.
After a tough year or two of searching, he found a job. It was a good job — a job with an amazing staff of teachers and principals who genuinely care about one another and are actually friends. The kids he works with are, well, teenagers, and they don’t always have the enthusiasm for literature and writing that he wishes they did, but they’re good kids, and they appreciate what he brings to the classroom.
And yet, the working life of a teacher is much different than he thought it would be.
His students are only in school for 6 hours a day, but my husband spends 10 to 12 hours a day working. He’s up at 5 a.m. so he can get there early to grade papers and prepare his lessons. He teaches a full schedule, and the limited prep time he has is used for more grading and lesson planning. He barely can take a lunch break.
Then, he stays after school for mandated meetings and professional development, as well as endless phone calls to students’ homes and participation in after-school clubs. Often, he stays late just to do more grading and preparation.
He usually gets home by 5 or 6, but by that time, he is fried. He adores our two sons, but he has little patience for the witching-hour crankiness that he walks into. He’s just trying to make it to bedtime without losing his mind.
It’s not just him, apparently. American teachers overall spend much more time with their students compared to other teachers internationally, leaving them little time during the work day to tend to the other aspects of teaching like lesson planning, grading, and the insane pile of paperwork that passes their desk daily — requiring them to complete all that after hours. (And no, most school districts do not pay overtime.)
And do you know what all of this leads to? Stress. A whole lot of stress, coupled with dissatisfaction with the job, burnout, and frustration.
A Gallup Poll from 2014 found that half of all teachers reported high levels of stress. That beats out our nation’s doctors in terms of reported stress, making teachers just about the most stressed professionals in America. In addition, the poll showed that 70% of teachers don’t feel engaged in their work.
That’s a whole lot of teachers — the ones who are responsible for teaching our kids today — feeling high levels of stress and discontent. It definitely makes you wonder how the whole thing affects our school-age kids.
My husband, as well as most teachers I know, will tell you that it’s not the students they feel frustrated with. And most teachers take care not to let out their frustration with the profession onto the students.
It’s the system itself that’s to blame.
The Washington Post reported on a survey of 30,000 teachers from last year, finding that the majority of teachers’ stress stemmed from, “having to carry out a steady stream of new initiatives — such as implementing curricula and testing related to the Common Core State Standards — without being given adequate training.”
Boom! It’s hard enough having to keep up with lessons and grading, but having to constantly change your curriculum, and always needing to “teach to the test” is stressful, time-consuming, and just not right for teachers or students.
Most of the teachers in the survey said the increase in stress and the drop in enthusiasm for the profession happened in the past two or three years, which is when many of these initiatives began.
Sadly, this is exactly around the time that my husband started his teaching career. He’s worked too hard to quit at this point, and as hard as the whole lifestyle of a teacher is, he cares deeply about his school and his students.
But boy, is he burning out already just a few years in. And he’s not alone — many, many other teachers feel this way too.
So what is there to do? Elect officials who care about teachers — officials who will vote to update their contracts, give them raises, and overturn some of the ridiculous initiatives that are plaguing teachers (and their students) these past few years.
Also, take some time to thank your kids’ teachers — and not just at the end of the year or during the holidays. A simple acknowledgment of how hard they work and all they do for your kids will go a long way in keeping up their morale and making school a happier experience for all involved.