Whenever you see a painting of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates teaching, he's always perched on a rock in the countryside with his students gathered about him like they just finished a picnic.
Doesn't that sound idyllic? No rules or restrictions, just a free exchange of ideas and information – the teacher imparting knowledge and young minds soaking it up.
Well, Socrates never had to answer to a principal or a school board, but every teacher since him has!
Learning where you fit in
To be honest, I have some hesitation when it comes to writing this article because I'm afraid that it will be a little bit of a downer to idealistic new teachers.
But I've been answering questions from new teachers on social media for a long time, and I know that every one of them would really have appreciated a little more background knowledge before being caught up in school politics and bureaucracy.
If I don't tell you now, you'll find out on the very first day you show up to school. So let's move forward with the understanding that I'm not trying to discourage you; I'm simply making sure that your eyes are wide open.
Unless you are homeschooling your children, your teaching career will be spent inside of the education System. And yes, that’s “System” with a capital “S” because it is a big, complicated machine that will work its way into every detail of your classroom experience and even into many parts of your personal life.
Bear in mind that when I'm discussing this system, I am primarily talking about the United States, although I would be very surprised if it doesn’t exist in nearly the same form in other countries.
I’m also talking about an average of the entire country; you may find that your local district varies in both positive and negative aspects.
Let’s start by hearing from a brand-new teacher who has suddenly found herself inside a teaching environment that she didn’t even know existed when she was job-hunting.
Recently, I heard from one of my followers who was super-excited about getting job interviews and starting her first position. I gave her advice through that entire process and celebrated with her when she landed her first job as a Special Education teacher.
A few short weeks later, I heard from her again. Her message was filled with a dismaying list of the challenges she had faced. She ended with this question:
“It's only been four weeks, and I can't believe the conditions that they are expecting me to work under. I have all of these kids with IEP's whom I quite literally cannot service because of a lack of Special Education curriculum and the fact that my principal keeps using me as an in-building substitute teacher!
“I hate to say it, but I'm already looking at job openings in different districts. I don't see how it could be much worse, and I don't know if I can spend the whole year working under these conditions.
“What do you think?”
Here's part of my response:
“I'm so sorry that you have had to experience such highs and lows in such a short period of time. Now that you are part of the system, I need to share some thoughts with you.
“Here's the difficult part of teaching: No matter where you go, there will be an administration. And sometimes you'll find admin that is excellent and has the best interests of the kids at heart.
“And sometimes you'll find admin that considers the kids an unfortunate aspect of running a school. Most often, they'll be somewhere in between: their hearts sort of in the right place but their brains more concerned with politics, appearances, test scores, and budgets than individual student success.
“So, ultimately, you have to do what you think is best. Just be aware that sometimes the fire you are jumping into is as hot as the frying pan you are jumping from!
“I'm sorry that this wonderful opportunity is turning out to be not quite so wonderful. No matter where you teach, all you can do is your best for the individual kids under your care.
It will be frustrating because you cannot give them the best services for their needs, but I guarantee that you will make a difference in the lives of several children every single year.”
It's because of Debra and all of the hundreds of other teachers whom I have heard from over the years that I have created this website. The education system is the result of very complex interactions among a wide variety of factors, many of which are not readily apparent at first glance.
So, let’s dive deeper into this system and shine some light on how it works.
Why do so many people care?
Teachers will often complain that all they want to do is to be left alone to teach. “Is that so much to ask?” they wonder. Well, frankly, yes it is.
You see, whether you are working in a public or private school system, you are teaching other people's children. That alone is going to ensure that a whole bunch of adults are going to be in your business, so to speak.
When you add in the fact that these adults are paying for the system (including your salary) through taxes or through private tuition payments, then you can be certain that you will never simply be “left alone.”
People take the education of children very seriously, and they all – from parents to politicians – have very strong opinions about how it should be accomplished.
On one hand, this is great because it means that the public is constantly engaged in the quality of our education system. On the other hand, you will find that there are a lot of people with no classroom experience at all who are firmly convinced that they are better at your job than you are.
How did we get here?
The unfortunate truth is that, in spite of the efforts of the education system for many decades, there has been a lack of results (such as low graduation rates and decreasing math ability) in many portions of the country. This is what is driving the intense pressure that school systems and teachers now feel.
“But wait,” you say, “have poor results really been the fault of teachers? Teachers just kept doing what they’ve always done while society changed around them! You know… single-parent homes, poverty, and everything else that occurs in the great ‘melting pot’ of the United States.”
A very good question. You won't find me saying that teachers had no role to play in the results coming out of their own classrooms, but I will heartily agree that the teaching landscape is infinitely more difficult to navigate than it was a few decades ago.
There is lots of blame to go around for the difficulties that our education system has experienced, from changing social values to different concepts about childhood discipline to extensive lack of funding.
Regardless of the causes, the public has demanded huge changes from politicians. Without being certain as to exactly what they want, parents everywhere desire for schools to “work better,” and that is precisely what politicians nationwide are setting out to do.
In a few states – very few – they are addressing the lack of funding (albeit, not with very much enthusiasm).
Teachers in the cross-hairs
So, what else can they do to make schools work better?
Well, it's pretty obvious that politicians have no control whatsoever over how children are raised at home. In fact, we really don't want them to have any control over that, do we?
So guess who’s left directly in the cross-hairs of every policymaker from your local principal up to the President of the United States? You.
You are the only thing besides funding that politicians can control. That’s why 99% of the stress of improving education outcomes falls upon the classroom teacher.
This is not fair, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have thought long and hard about it, and there's really no other approach that “society” can take. There are only a few levers that can be pulled, and the biggest lever in the education machine is labeled “classroom teacher.”
And, boy, are people lining up to pull it!
The impact on you is that, from the moment you step foot into your first school – even before you get your classroom full of kids – there are going to be a multitude of people who are thoroughly interested in every little thing you do.
You will find sky-high expectations and a frustrating lack of time, resources, and support with which to achieve those expectations.
I truly hope that you find a little piece of the system that does not follow this pattern. However, in a long education career, I would bet any amount of money that you will experience your share of system-induced stress.
So much for the background. But it’s not enough to know generalities. Click here to read about the realities of the education system and how you will be personally affected.