Why Being a Teacher Sucks (Sometimes)

My holidays are almost over and once school starts, I will probably return to more thought pieces on school and general things. But to get ready for school and after Detachment, I thought I could spend two posts on reflecting what exactly I like and don’t like about being a teacher. And as I dutifully learned in school, I start with the bad things now and continue with the good things on Sunday. I heard this will strengthen my conclusion. So, in no particular order and without an end in sight as I write this now, some of the reasons what’s bad about being a teacher (and if you haven't seen, I explained why I'm a teacher already).

1) Grades: I often tell students that grades are my biggest curse as a teacher. Since I am interested to connect with my students and to actually teach them something, I learned quickly that grades are the thing that most often stands in the way. Grades make students lose their interest in anything, because they learn quickly that they only have to take care of their grades, thereby not focusing on their interests anymore. Grades are supposed to be the objective measurement of students’ achievements but of course they are not objective. For students they are just numbers that judge them, without any insight what went into making them. For teachers everything they know or feel about the students goes into them, because teachers are humans. Despite all the emotions connected to those numbers, they still put a distance between teacher and student that harms any learning process. Nothing is worse than oral marks, because assessing how well a student performs in class can have such varied aspects, it’s hard or impossible to find a comparable measurement.

If you study for grades, you don’t learn anything because once you have your grade, there is no need to remember any of the knowledge you acquired. It becomes temporary and leads to the circle of “learning for the next test/exam” instead of the supposed “learning for life.” This becomes never more obvious as when the time for grades is over and a wave of relief and indifference goes through the students. All the teachers tell each other how terrible it is and how they wait for this phase to end, while no one questions the purpose of grades and the terrible effects they obviously have. We made the students this way by emphasizing the importance of grades. Of course they don’t care anymore once that pressure is lifted off of them.

2) Time/Stress: If you enjoy being a teacher you mainly want to teach. But this becomes hard because so many things are asked of you besides that. First of all, if you want good lessons, you need to prepare them. Sure, you get into a certain routine and not every lesson needs to be meticulously laid out (well, no lesson must really), but still you need to be ready, you need to know your material and you need to know what to do. And if you want to get all of that right, it takes time (I actually enjoy it, but not under time pressure). Then there’s correcting, homework, tests, exams. Again, if you want your assigned tasks and exams to have a purpose, you must put some time and effort into correcting them. This often leads to multiple choice tests or corrected texts without any helpful comments, so that no improvement can be expected. Additionally, you are expected to take time for your students, to see their individual problems, to respect their personal issues, to deal with their parents and to give them feedback on their progress. Then you also have to attend conferences that often are no more than information lectures. There are often discussions, but mostly you’re just told what’s new, what you’re supposed to do and what you shouldn’t do, please don’t ask any questions. They are very time-consuming and mostly pointless. And then you constantly have to deal with additional projects and tasks: organizing class trips, school festivals, taking care of exchange students, collecting money for books and administrative business, supervising special projects, meeting with colleagues to discuss problems, offering extracurricular activities, writing additional exams for assessing the students’ skills and school festivities of all kinds. A lot is demanded from teachers and it’s easy to see why so many fail.

3) School Administration: This is a difficult issue because it entirely depends on the school you’re at. They can leave you alone or they can make it hard for you. I’ve seen all kinds of treatments and it often boils down to them having to fulfill expectations and quotas themselves, passing their pressure on to the teaching staff. Complaining about the administration is almost a reflex for most teachers, no matter if it’s justified or not. But one thing is clear, if they do want to make your job difficult it can be hell.

4) The Curriculum: Luckily, at least in my case, the curriculum allows lots of freedom (because I teach English and German) but there is still something inherently problematic with setting out from the start what is important for young people to know and learn. My biggest problem comes when the books you have to read are set, canonizing novels and plays for reasons unknown and not because the students really benefit from them. I’m struggling with Faust not so much because I don’t like it, but because it is supposed to be so essential to any knowledge of literature if you’re a German student. But it’s not. You survive life without it, in fact, without Goethe altogether. Yes, it’s true! Again, that doesn’t mean it’s harmful reading it, but why should it be compulsory? How can anyone say that any piece of literature (or knowledge for that matter) is more essential than any other? Why should anything be set in stone? The curriculum is supposed to set standards, but really to which avail? This problem is continued in the textbooks that are used in school, as they limit even more what students can learn and know, while the older they get, the less identification a student can see in them. Not even acknowledging the many mistakes those books often have.

Granted, the curriculum has gone through many changes and is now much more general, talking about "competences" mostly. Which doesn't make it any less pointless.

5) Class Sizes: This point is common wisdom, since on so many levels, having 20-30 students in one room makes things difficult. Real communication is basically impossible as is any attempt for the teacher to take care of individual needs. I know there have been studies that this assumption is wrong, but there are also studies proving the opposite. And of course class size isn’t the only thing that matters and having a variety of students can have interesting effects on your lessons. But going in-depth on subjects and making sure that students understand everything, can only be achieved if a teacher has fewer students to deal with.

There are of course many more annoying things, but nothing that seems big enough to mention here. And again, as I’ve stated many times before, I’m not complaining about being a teacher, I’m complaining about all the factors that make it hard to enjoy being a teacher. I’ll explain in two days why the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for me.