10 reasons that teaching is tough (but enjoyable)

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

I’m now halfway through my first semester teaching at Pratt Institute, a small private college in Brooklyn focused on art, writing and design. My two classes, writing and blogging, one with 12 freshmen and the latter with four seniors. are going well and I’m loving the experience.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

But it’s a marathon.

When I stepped back into those two classrooms, I hadn’t taught in 20 years. I’d read everything I could about millennials, and arrived fearful of finding a room filled with entitlement and attention spans lasting mere seconds — a challenge with a two-hour class.

Here’s a sobering and powerful insight into how tough it is to be a student!

For any thoughtful teacher, it’s a cringe-making look from the students’ seats, and gave me a lot to think about.

From the Washington Post:

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way.

 

Here are ten ways I find this work challenging:

Teaching demands self-confidence

It takes guts to stand before a room filled with dubious/tired/hungover/distracted/nervous students, hoping to forge useful intellectual and emotional connections with each of them and to foster a collegial atmosphere among them. As someone who was badly bullied in high school, I find it stressful to be looked at and listened to, so the very decision to teach means facing and conquering that fear each week.

You also have to really know your stuff! When a student challenges you, hard, are you ready and willing to discuss the question with the full confidence everyone else is watching you as you do so?

Teaching demands stamina

It takes sustained energy — physical, mental and emotional — to teach a 15-week semester with consistent enthusiasm. You might feel ill or have personal issues distracting you. I have a 90-minute driving commute just to reach campus, then climb four flights of stairs to reach my first classroom, lugging books, papers and computer. I bring a large thermos filled with tea, and was heartened to see that another professor I know has an equally stuffed tote bag, including her large thermos of tea!

Teaching demands self-control

This is a big one. When a student hits one of my buttons — if I feel they’re being disrespectful, for example — it’s a challenge to remain calm and even-tempered. They’re young. Some are very immature. It’s my job to set the tone and keep things cool.

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955
“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Teaching demands self-awareness

Every week, interactions with students force me to reflect on my own emotions and sensitivities. I try to separate my feelings from my work, but it’s not always simple or easy. You have to strike a balance between being too friendly or too stiff. While I want to be warm and approachable, I don’t want to be someone they feel they can take advantage of.

Teaching demands exquisite attention to time management

This is a big one. I do set lesson plans, but also know that when things are going really well, it’s best to stay in the moment and enjoy it! I recently did a “rapid round” — asking each of my 12 students to share something surprising about themselves — and we did it four or five times. It took longer than I’d planned, but it was so much fun and we were learning a great deal.

Balancing the need to communicate enough timely specific material, while allowing enough room for students’ ideas and questions, is a challenge every single week.

Teaching means not taking anything personally

Another big one, at least for me. I grew up as an only child and have been working alone at home for the past eight years. I’m hardly feral, but I’m not someone who grew up with the rough-and-tumble of a large, close family, or has a collegial workplace where I can reality-check my experiences. Having other friends who are teaching to turn to for advice is extremely helpful!

Adjuncting — which leaves us wholly vulnerable to student evaluations for our ongoing employment, little contact with my dean and none with my fellow teachers — is lonely! I’ve leaned hard on others teaching writing as well, a friend in Tucson and another in Minneapolis, to help set me straight.

Teaching demands emotional openness and sensitivity

I don’t have children or nephews or nieces. and grew up in a family with little to no bandwidth for my own struggles, so facing students’ fears and worries is new for me. I’m glad when they feel comfortable enough to share those with me, but not always sure how (best) to respond. Parsing fear/bravado/anxiety in them is not easy.

 

Having written two books means I have some idea what I'm talking about!
Having written two books means I have some idea what I’m talking about!

Teaching demands a deep, broad knowledge of your material — and engaging students in it

I’ve been writing for a living since I was a college undergrad, and can both recall my initial nervousness about my career and my excitement as I realized I could make a living as a writer. I enjoy sharing my insight with those hungry for it.

But knowing how to make my knowledge comprehensible and immediately useful?

Teaching means trying to fully engage a room full of strangers

By definition, we each bring different forms of intelligence and learning styles to class. It’s daunting, indeed, to discover that some of my students also struggle with dyslexia, anxiety, depression. Some are bored. Some are lagging. Some are happy to speak out, while others sit there silently, no matter how many times I insist that class participation is essential to their grade. I also think students need to own their education, not sit back passively.

I have to work harder to find ways to not just drone on and get them excited and involved.

Teaching means being able to pivot — whether mid-class, mid-term or mid-conversation

I handed out mid-semester evaluation forms recently to get a sense for what’s working, and what’s not. It helped a great deal and I made changes to one syllabus as a result. But flying solo means having to figure it all out on the fly.

Fellow teachers — and professors — what do you find most challenging?

How do you address or resolve those challenges?

49 thoughts on “10 reasons that teaching is tough (but enjoyable)

      1. It’s another reason why I’m taking a pass at graduate school for the moment. I really like school, but I’ve been in school since I was five, and I’d like to get out of the academic system for a while, maybe do something new in a new job or something. Maybe I won’t even go to grad school. You never know what sort of things might happen.

      2. Good idea! I suspect the world would be a refreshing change after four years of college….I freelanced from sophomore year on, so I was never 100% committed only to school, even if I should have been.

  1. Reblogged this on ohyesjulesdid and commented:
    Teaching also means advocating for the profession, even though it is constantly under attack and teachers are told daily what “protected for life” failures they are. It means being willing to stand up to that policy making bully who thinks they know more about a profession in which they never entered. It means trying to remember on a daily basis why you do what you do, even when those you work with make it virtually unbearable and your brain is so tired you can barely think. It means never giving up on yourself, your profession, your students, and your experiences.

    Many thanks to Caitlin for a thoughtful piece about what the inside of a classroom looks like.

  2. Sarah

    As a student teacher, I have learned that there is nothing more terrifying than a dead-silent class. Give me some input so I know that I’m not just talking to myself here! I always thought that a completely quiet class would be ideal, but now it drives me crazy 🙂

  3. I’ve been teaching college students for 28 years, starting as a grad student, through grad school and into the profession. I’ve learned only a couple of things that have stayed consistent through changes in culture, institutions etc. First, teaching is largely an acting gig. Before every class, I have to get into the persona of an outgoing, enthusiastic extrovert. I’m not naturally like that, but it helps me to face a roomful of people I don’t know well and try to lead them through challenging material. Second, paradoxically, over the last few years I’ve learned to allow myself to feel a little more while I’m teaching. I think now that three of my own four kids are in college I feel a little motherly toward my students and at first I tried to tamp that down. Now, I’ve decided to go with it a little bit and it actually seems to work, especially with students who are caught up in self defeating academic behaviors with whom I can be straightforward, as I would be with my own kids. Love the job, most days.

    1. Thanks for this perspective…One of my students, who I’ve gotten to know a bit, said “I know you’re kind”…which was good to hear. It’s a challenge to be kind and tough, empathetic but strict when necessary…

      I’m quite direct with my students. Some really appreciate it. Others aren’t used to it.

  4. Reblogged this on More at Forty (Five) and commented:
    A great blog describing the challenges and gifts of my profession. I don’t think about these things much consciously, but they are always on my mind subconsciously. And although I am full time at my university, I am also considered an “adjunct”, so the “lonely” comment definitely touched me. I am also inspired to have my students move more, talk more and engage more. Glad to have the motivation and inspiration.

    1. Thanks much! It’s really helpful to hear from fellow teachers (I do not have a Phd, and have been warned not to call myself professor!) what they have felt and feel as well.

      It surprised me, when I wrote this post, how many feelings very quickly poured out!

      1. That is kind of sad about the Professor thing. I don’t have a PhD either, so I tell my students not to call me Dr. for sure, but Professor is used at Community College campuses and many of them do not have PhDs. Definitions certainly do not deny it (a scholarly teacher or one who professes). 🙂 Titles are so difficult at times. I used to be a Lecturer, but then I moved to Part Time status (still full time teaching load but it was an HR move to improve some “efficiencies” with my job – e.g. job searches required, etc.) and now I never know what to call myself. Part Timer doesn’t seem appropriate because I am full time load. No one seems to like adjunct…who knows! But, yes, it is a place of much loneliness, so your post definitely struck a chord with many. Thanks again for writing it!

      2. I was not aware of this distinction so I am careful never to refer to myself as professor — my students might use it and I do not correct them, as it’s a title of respect and I don’t want to be first-named. I also doubt that any undergrad knows what an adjunct is (I didn’t) or cares for the academic points of difference. My challenge is managing my out-of-classroom time (while being available to read and respond to their emails and have one-on-one meetings as needed) in addition; they expect “full service” with no idea (and likely no reason to care) that some of their “profs” are part-timers who can (and are) fired at a moment’s notice.

  5. Caitlin, great reminders of that “walk a mile in another’s shoes” maxim.

    For me, because I was teaching internationally, the challenge was teaching western concepts like management decision making in a foreign language. I had three languages to work with (Russian, Azerbaijani/Turkish, and/or English), in hopes that one or another would give the right equivalent phrasing to get the point across well enough to discuss.

    Like you, I came home exhausted after classes each day. The mental fatigue was toughest- just let me veg out, not talk, over dinner!

    But seeing where some of those kids are now makes it all worthwhile. That and the $250

    1. 🙂

      I am in awe of what you did! I’m finding the much larger challenge is not teaching how to write better —- but how to think and behave professionally, i.e. to be a writer worth taking seriously.

      1. Yes, yes! I totally agree!

        I found that by teaching business skills, I felt like I needed to up my game in my own business- to be worthy to teach, to be the “expert” the university selected to share knowledge. I found that a serious responsibility.

        I learned much as many students did just by articulating the principles and having the discussions.

        Awesome way to grow ourselves to a higher level while bringing our students along on the discovery journey.

        BTW, I’m in awe of all you’ve accomplished…and that you continue to strive to improve your craft! People pay for online coaching from those they feel are worth taking seriously! 😉

      2. Thanks! It is a huge responsibility! I feel that every time I walk into the classroom….and the tuition at Pratt is a staggering $41,000 a year. Good heaven.

        I also have to factor in how utterly different in every way my own experience of university was. Profs didn’t know us at all or care to. That is not the expectation of this generation.

  6. I love learning (well, most of the time: I did write a rather dejected blog post about college last week. It took me a while to transition into the new semester) but yes, sitting still is exhausting. Fortunately, most of my classes have gaps in between. But I have one day where I have four hours almost back-to-back and I always need to make sure I drink plenty of water and eat something nutritious in order to keep my attention from wandering. Water (and coffee!) fuels me when I’m studying. 🙂

    This post was a really interesting insight into teaching. As my goal is to be a lecturer (or college professor, as you say on the other side of the pond), it’s great to think about what it’s actually like to teach. I’m sure your classes are great!

    1. Thanks!

      One of the things that has helped me a great deal is speaking at length to a young friend of mine (23), i.e. a recent grad, about what she loved and hated about college (journalism student) and to others as well. It is a huge leap of faith to hope — with no formal pedagogical training! — I am able to usefully transfer some of my knowledge and skill. I also have asked some of my students what they dislike about other prof’s there — and make sure NOT to do those things.

      Jose (my husband) came to class last week, and he enjoyed it…it was helpful to have fresh eyes and feedback.

  7. Our high school switched to a block schedule a few years back which meant students went from daily 50 minute classes to alternating 90 minute classes. We had workshops on changing our teaching style to include movement in our lesson plans. It is tough to sit. Yawning, zoning out, and distracted is what I see as I watch my seniors struggle with the pain of learning. Doesn’t sound like it changes all that much when they get to college.

    1. Our class is 1 hour and 50 minutes and I generally do not include a break — it’s 10:00 am so they are fresh…I also switch up the content and teaching style every 20 to 30 minutes as well. This week we’re sitting on the floor for a surprise — playing Bananagrams…there is a very clear goal in this (work fast, break things as you go, don’t get stuck on one “perfect” idea or word)..and it will shake things up. I hated university for its passivity so am very sympathetic to how boring that one lecture style is.

  8. I have been through this. I taught grad students in NYC and undergrads in Brazil! In Portuguese. Every one of the points you made about what teaching demands of us is spot on. I applaud you for returning to and tackling it. It is not for the faint of heart! Great post.

    1. Beth, thanks! I’m in awe of anyone who teaches in another language — I would love to teach en francais!

      It is indeed not for the faint of heart but I was so boooooooooored sitting alone at home cranking out copy. This is, for me, so much more fun and so challenging in so many ways. I learn a great deal, selfishly, from each class as well.

  9. all of what you said is so true, at any level. for me, it sometimes feels like being in a broadway play, live, night after night, and you must always ‘be on’ and ‘giving your all’, even when you aren’t feeling it or have things going on in your outside life. the challenges for me, come with not being to reach everyone i want to, those who need more, but the reward is at least reaching some and hoping i make a change in their life for the better somehow. with the little ones, that can be reaching the family, the child, or their approach to life. i love what i do, so it doesn’t feel like work at all, and maybe that’s why i feel it at such a personal level, for good or bad –

    1. Thanks for sharing…I was thinking of you and several other regular readers and commenters…as you live it!

      I am struck by the most difficult ones, as those are the ones who clearly need the most help but who are also really getting in their own way with behavioral or attitude problems. And all I can do, kindly and firmly, is offer the most help I and the school can…and the rest is up to them. Immaturity is a real problem for some.

    1. It’s actually not distance — but traffic!

      It’s NYC, so on less busy days, I’ve arrived inbound in as little as 60 minutes and, heading home at 7pm I get home in 45 minutes….which is not bad at all. My gas costs per round trip are about $10 to $12 for a quarter of a tank; plus $16.25 (!!!) in damned tolls.

      1. doctornitro

        I visited NYC last year and was enthralled. I would seriously consider moving to Manhattan once my masters is finished.

      2. Bring very large bags filled with money!

        Many of us who live and work in the five boroughs of NYC do not actually live in the city, and esp. not in Manhattan, where $1m to buy an apartment is now considered entry level for many people…

      3. doctornitro

        I would love to someday…but I would probably rent. I’ve looked around on craigslist before and found boxes for as little as 800 a month! That was on the upper east side. If I’m going to do a city, and a big enthralling one, it would just have to be Manhattan. Trying to live in one of the boroughs seems like such a tease. Go big or go home! Hahahahaha.

      4. Yes and no….living in a borough also might mean you may have more free income (i.e. not just paying rent) for film, theater, concerts….all the $$$$ things come of us come to NYC to enjoy.

        I have never lived in the city but in a suburb 25 miles north. I am in midtown within 40 minutes and we pay (owning a large, sunny one bedroom with pool, terrace and tennis court) less than the rent for a nasty shoebox anywhere in the five boroughs (except possibly Staten Island, which is just not an option for me.)

  10. Self-control and not taking it personally…hard sometimes to achieve. Especially when your students are too young, or don’t have enough finesse of the English language to sound polite when frustrated or asking a question. But that is what a caring teacher is there for. To teach students how to ask for help, to teach them to be better with critique, to teach them. I knew you would be awesome!

    1. Not sure I am awesome, but trying hard! 🙂

      It’s really tough when they act out or project their frustration onto me…like I have the bandwidth?!

      The teaching, as you know, goes way beyond the actual subject matter of the class…much modeling of behavior. I did not expect that.

  11. Reblogged this on prior probability and commented:
    We are reblogging Caitlin Kelly’s post on the demands and rewards of college-level teaching. Although we would spell out the word “10” and replace the word “that” with “why” in the title of her excellent post, we concur with its substance.

  12. I teach creative writing workshops where students often have to share their work and receive feedback (criticism!). It can be daunting for a beginning writer to feel so exposed and they haven’t yet developed the confidence in their own work to know which comments to weigh more heavily than others. I think part of my job is to create a warm environment where students feel comfortable sharing some intensely personal writing.
    Great post!

  13. I used to teach college sociology and loved it. Keeping current was always a challenge and learning the ever-changing technologies used by text-book companies and “smart” classrooms.

    I found that the most demanding part of teaching was the “performance” part. It’s exhausting to always be “on your game.” Plus I gave lots of written assignments. Students wanted timely feedback. Working at night to get papers not only graded, but annotated with my comments was grueling.

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