What is it like to teach?

Note: This is actually about The Challenges of Teaching. This particular essay does not cover the joys and rewards of teaching. But I liked the title “What is it like to teach” more than “The Challenges of Teaching”. My hope is that these points will be useful in conversations about changes in education.

Here are the challenges of teaching, in order of difficulty (for me):

1) The sustained mental exertion
2) The natural, staggering diversity of motivation, manners, and maturity.
3) The number of students
4) Cultural evolution

Let’s examine each:

1) The sustained mental exertion.

In one of my early years of teaching, I came across a study about stressful jobs. The study concluded that jobs deemed stressful required a critical decision every two minutes. Some jobs require few, if any, critical decisions. Some jobs involve doing the same task over and over or maintaining operations.

The study continued by saying that teaching required a critical decision every twenty seconds.

Is this lesson accomplishing the desired goal for these students? How do I engage that quiet student? How do I defuse that tension? How should I steer this discussion? Should I allow students to chase that “rabbit-trail”? Should I correct mispronunciations? When? How? How can I differentiate this lesson for the seven levels, for each concept, in this class? What question can I ask that will lead this student to discovery? How can I help that student identify their strengths? How can I use this moment to help that student move toward maturity? How can I challenge the students who are far ahead of others? What do I do with the students who have serious, immediate personal/family issues on their mind? That student’s unhealthy diet is dramatically affecting his ability; how, and when, can I help? How soon will I need to revisit this concept or skill and how can I fit that in? When will I have time to re-visit this concept with those 10 students who don’t yet have it?

It reminds me of a story: A couple of years ago, I was attending the appointing of a new minister at a church in town. During the ceremony, the minister took the stage (to applause), and in his remarks, he asked the people for extra prayer as the church would be holding a Saturday evening service in addition to the two Sunday morning services.

“Please pray for your pastors and worship leaders as they are going to be pretty wiped out on Monday.” he said.

There was much fervent nodding of heads.

I like and respect this man, but the first thought through my head was, “Shut. Up.”

He is going to deliver the same 45-minute message three times a week. And he will need extra support to do that.

That same week, I will deliver eight, unique 1 1/2-hour lessons. I will present each of them twice; sixteen total lessons. Each one must be highly interactive. Each one must rely on sound pedagogical theory. Each one must connect to a standard. Each one must ask for student product and be assessable. I must assess the product of each one. And, preferably, I will give individual instruction to 180 people during the week.

Back to the study. A summary could be: jobs are considered highly stressful when they require a critical decision every two minutes. But teaching is in its own category, twelve times as demanding as any job found to be “highly stressful”.

Additionally, one of the difficulties of the sustained mental exertion that teaching requires is that it extends into all 24 hours of the day. Some other jobs have easy days or easy weeks. Teachers get the summer, I suppose.

One Saturday years ago, before I became a teacher, I ran into a friend (who was a teacher) at the local mall. She was heading into a craft store. After greeting her, I gestured toward the store and  said, “So, do you have a project you’re working on?”

“Oh, no.” she said. “Just picking up some supplies for my class.”

Then she added, “Teachers are always in the classroom. Even when they’re not.”

I didn’t understand what she meant until years later when I became a teacher. During the school year, there is always something immediate to do. It is like building your own business. Except without any tangible personal payoff. There is no upward mobility or overtime pay. All the effort and sacrifice is for other people’s children.

Finally, one fact that has come from all of our exploration into the mind is that mental exhaustion takes longer to recover from than physical or emotional exhaustion. A lot of teachers are running their brains at red line. Perhaps that is one reason the attrition rate is so high.

2) The natural, staggering diversity of motivation, manners, and maturity.

The statement needs no explanation. Even those who have never taught can imagine the diversity in backgrounds, experiences, maturity, physiology, home-life, habits among even 30 children or adolescents.

I am not teaching 180 identical learners. Or even similar learners. I am teaching 180 individual learners. I liken teaching to parenting 180 children.

If a parent finds themselves in conflict with their one to three children, how is a teacher supposed to get 30+ children to work? By magic?

My wife related this story to me: She was with a group of medical doctors at an event. They were talking about their children (as parents do) and the topic of school came up. (Ken Robinson, in his brilliant TED talk, points out that people have strong emotional reactions to the mention of school.) At some point in the conversation, one doctor said, “I feel for teachers: having to deal with all those students.”

Another doctor snorted, “I don’t feel sorry for them. That’s what they’re trained to do.”

Ah, yes. That top-secret, magical training—kept from everyone but teachers—that enables any person to get large groups of children to engage in challenging work and focus on the task at hand.

3) The number of students

There is a raft of research that concludes that 150 people is the maximum that any one person can connect with. 150 is the maximum limit to any “tribe”. Not the ideal. Not the maximum for most people. Not a guideline. Not a limit that overachievers should exceed. It is the limit.

What this means, of course, is that teachers will not—cannot—connect with any students past 150. Not because they don’t want to or don’t know how to connect with all kinds of students, but because it is impossible and no one has ever done it. What it also means is that many teachers will try. Their heart will compel them to try, and they will go home each day frustrated, exhausted, or depressed.

Parenting 180 kids is not hyperbole. Also, it is not difficult; it is impossible.

Some people argue that there are large classes in college, so there are ways to make it work. However, we dare not compare grade school or high school to college for many reasons; chief among them is that the college drop-out rate would be unacceptable.

The number of students, at all levels (especially high school) has moved past “challenging” into “impossible”.

4) Cultural evolution

Evolution of culture is inescapable (and perhaps is, as some have proposed, simply the Cycle of Civilization), but like all evolution, the changes are incompatible with the previous culture. The incompatibility often manifests as apathy. Which, unsurprisingly, is one of the great challenges in the high school classroom.

As technology, economies, attitudes, and culture change, I fear that compulsory education is being left behind. And worse, becoming irrelevant.

Another interconnected factor is the public attitude toward education. Diane Ravitch, Historian of Education at NYU and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Said this in a recent interview:

I’ve been traveling this past year, since my book came out, I’ve gone to about 80 or 90 different places across the country, and the one thing I’ve learned is that teachers across America are demoralized… The whole public monologue for the last few years has been: blame the teachers for everything.


The challenges teachers face, by the minute, are as old as humanity. In 300 BC, Plato said that students will resist education, not because they are bad or dumb, but because we all are deep in Plato’s Cave. Plato said that a person only escapes the cave with great effort and pain, and when a person tries to help others out of the cave, that person will meet scorn, rejection, and violence.  In 1979, Dunning and Kruger said the less a person knows about something, the more they think they know. Finally, if we were to pick one phrase to sum-up human history, that phrase would be: “Nobody tells me what to do.” In addition to the myriad of personal obstacles and distractions, at some point students resist education.

Teachers face some daunting challenges.



  1. Wow… A heartfelt and moving treatise on what it is like to teach over the continuum of time and, most importantly, today. Everything you wrote is spot-right-on and a deep and abiding appreciation for teachers wells up within me.

    And do words have power? Consider the following:

    In the 1500s, two men stepped onto the world’s stage, armed with paper, ink, and a printing press. One was Martin Luther, the other, Niccolo Machiavelli. One wrote to educate the common man that the Word of God was written to be read and understood by everyone; the other wrote to a prince explaining that the way to govern was by force.

    May God bless you and each of the teachers. May He make (create) new ways to do the impossible and give peace and strength. Each are His specialty.

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