The Life Of A Teacher And Why It's Beyond Hard

Forbes.com

Posted April 3, 2022 by Mark Perna

Overworked and understaffed, many of America’s teachers are at a breaking point. They need the gift of time and something even more precious: support. Mark’s article, “The Life Of A Teacher And Why It’s Beyond Hard,” published at Forbes.com on March 28, 2022.

Teaching the next generation has never been an easy career, but the past two years have tested the education community like nothing else in our lifetime. Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come, as the challenges to effective education just keep piling up. “This is a great profession, and educators love what they do, but if we don’t start to treat them better widespread teacher shortages are likely,” says Dr. Lynn Gangone, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Of course, I am not an educator—just someone who gets to work with these visionary, world-changing people every day. I wanted to let teachers speak for themselves, and that’s why I was so honored when Wyoming’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Pierson, agreed to share what a regular day in her teacher life looks like. Pierson, who is about to complete her doctoral degree, serves on the State Board of Education in addition to teaching fourth grade at Cloud Peak Elementary in Johnson County School District #1.

She’s clearly an exemplary educator, but that’s just one of the ways Pierson exerts a positive influence in her students’ lives. Here’s what she wants people to know about the life of a teacher.

Why teach?

No one fully knows what they’re signing up for when they decide to become a teacher, says Pierson. “I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember—I even played school with my dolls as a child,” she says. “I wanted to work with kids and make a difference in their lives.

“To be frank, being an educator has changed drastically over the 17 years I have been in the profession.”

Instead of asking why educators chose their profession, Pierson says we should ask why they stay. For her, the answer is simple. “I stay, because it is the place I believe I can make the biggest difference,” she says.

Though she’s had opportunities to leave the classroom in pursuit of other roles, Pierson doesn’t want to leave. “Students are who bring me joy. It is their ability to grow and learn on a daily basis that inspires me to continue to do what I do. Watching them try and fail and then succeed is a gift that I get to witness every day,” she says.

“I stay because of the students.”

Just a day in the life

Pierson, who co-teaches in a 50% special education, 50% regular education classroom, arrives at school between 7:15 and 7:30 a.m. Before the bell rings at 8:05 a.m., Pierson meets with her partner teacher to discuss last-minute changes in order to meet all the diverse learning needs in their classroom. Sometimes she also has scheduled IEPs or staff meetings before the bell.

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At 8:05 a.m., the kids arrive and it’s go time. After the students fill out their planners (a communication tool that goes home with them daily for parents to sign), some go with Pierson’s partner teacher to work on life skills while the rest use the next 10 minutes to work on typing skills. The rest of the day usually looks like this:

  • Opening
  • Math
  • Specials (PE, Music, Art, Science, Guidance, Technology)
  • Recess
  • Reading Groups
  • Whole Group Reading
  • Lunch/Recess
  • Writing
  • Recess
  • Social Studies/Science

That’s the plan on paper—but of course, effective teaching requires constant calibration. “We are constantly looking back on small assessments or measures to make sure they are mastering content and that we are truly giving students what they need,” Pierson says. “Not to mention, if I start a lesson and determine it doesn’t fit their needs, I have to be able to switch gears immediately and make a change on the spot.”

Pierson’s lunch is usually spent preparing for the rest of the day’s lessons or tomorrow’s lessons. Teachers have 20 minutes to eat, then 20 minutes to prep or head outside for recess duty, which Pierson has twice a week.

Aside from actual time spent in the classroom, Pierson also has staff meetings on Tuesdays, team meetings on Mondays, PLC meetings on Thursdays during planning and LLI (leveled literacy intervention) meetings Thursdays after school. Plus she has IEPs, parent meetings, BIT (building intervention team meetings) every other week, as well as professional development and trainings squeezed in wherever there is space.

At 3:05 p.m., the bell to leave rings and Pierson and her fellow educators get to work organizing tomorrow. “We determine how to structure the next day’s lessons based on data we collected,” she says.

It doesn’t stop when she goes home. “Most nights I also juggle phone calls from parents as I am trying to cook dinner for my own family answering questions regarding medication change and effects on behaviors, make-up work, questions about schoolwork, problems with friends, et cetera,” says Pierson. “Most weekends I spend one day working at school to catch up.”

More than just teaching

What many people don’t realize is that teaching is just one role teachers fill in the course of a normal day. “It’s not just academics that we worry about or can only focus on,” says Pierson.

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Kids spend hours with their teachers every day, and (as any parent can attest) they need much more than just academic instruction. “Demands are placed on teachers to help students solve problems with peers that occur in the classroom and at recess,” says Pierson. “Help students find a coat, because it is 0 degrees and they didn’t come to school in a coat. Listen as students recount their night when Dad didn’t come home. Feed them when they are hungry.

“We are teachers, counselors, nurses, parents, mediators, custodians, cooks, friends, safe havens, disciplinarians and ‘future citizen’ creators.”

Staffing struggles

As they juggle these many and demanding roles, most teachers in America find themselves with little to no support in the classroom. With two certified teachers, a paraprofessional and a deaf educator in the room, Pierson’s classroom is unusual in its wealth of staff. “It allows us to really hone in on the learning needs of each group of kiddos and meet them where they are at,” she says. “Not every classroom has this luxury.”

If effective teaching is hard in well-staffed classrooms like Pierson’s, imagine what it must be like when you’re the sole adult in the room—tasked with educating, managing and, somewhere in the day, attempting to inspire a roomful of children.

Pierson recalls her time as a solo teacher, where it was more difficult to make sure group work remained on task. “I had to use vital instructional time to set my classroom up for success and practice the skills they would need to be independent on work when I was not with them,” she says. “I had to creatively design lessons that would help enforce a skill, but not be too difficult that they couldn’t figure it out without more instruction.”

Even in well-staffed classrooms, the demands are still taxing teachers to the limit. “There have been a number of polls suggesting that many teachers are at their breaking point and are planning to leave the profession,” says Gangone. “It is heartbreaking.”

Teaching for the test

Another struggle Pierson shares is the constant balance between teaching the material and teaching how to take a test. Though she strives to create lessons that allow her students to grow in problem solving, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity, she admits that it’s becoming more difficult.

“As much as I fight it, as much as it hurts me to say this, we are constantly preparing students to take a test at the end of the year that tells us if they have mastered everything they need to know for fourth grade,” she says. “A test that I truly don’t believe actually represents the skills or knowledge that my students have mastered. A test that doesn’t assess their problem-solving skills, creativity, communication skills or how they work with others.”

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What teachers need most

I asked Pierson about her biggest need as a teacher, one thing that would help her do her job. Her answer was instant: “I need the gift of time, or something taken off my plate.”

However, more time is just one part of the bigger picture of support. “I also need parents, legislatures, administrators, school board members and the general public to trust me to do my job,” says Pierson. “Trust that I am the expert in my field, that every decision I make is in the best interest of the students I am teaching.

“As a professional it would be nice to be trusted.”

Pierson is quick to add that she doesn’t believe evaluations of educators should be eliminated. “Reflecting on my practice is something that helps me grow and that I need in order to stay on the cutting edge of my profession,” she says. “However, when people constantly criticize, degrade or insert their agendas into education, ultimately it prevents educators from doing their jobs and it is the students who suffer.”

Instead, communities should rally around their educators. “Write things in the paper that elevate the teacher’s voice, that showcase the amazing things educators are accomplishing,” she says. “And if you hear a rumor, instead of blindly spreading it, talk to an educator and most of them will candidly answer your concerns with reasons to back up their thinking.”

Gangone agrees: “We need to speak out for ensuring that teachers have the support they need, including adequate compensation and school funding.”

The future of teaching

The shortage of people entering the field of education predates the pandemic—which of course has only made things worse. Record numbers of teachers across the U.S. feel overworked and burned out, and every day, their students see it.

Though the life of a teacher is clearly challenging, Pierson has nothing but encouragement for young people considering education as a profession. “Do it!” she says. “I love learning more than I love teaching and, in this profession, you constantly have to keep learning. Be ready to fight for what you believe is right throughout your career.

“You will have some precious people who are counting on you.”

Read at Forbes.com


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About The Author
Mark Perna
Mark C. Perna is an international speaker and bestselling author. He also serves as CEO of TFS Results, a strategic consulting firm at the forefront of the national paradigm shift in education and workforce development.
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