I just finished a program where I taught two classes of high school seniors, two classes a day for four weeks, as part of my grad program. 

This experience was a lot of fun and it was rewarding, but it was really surprising, and even if only in small ways prompted me to update my beliefs about the experience of being a professor. Here are the three biggest surprises I encountered.


1: The Absent-Minded Professor Thing is Real

I used to be confused and even a little bit offended when at my meetings with my advisor every week, he wouldn't be able to remember anything about my projects, our recent steps, or what we talked about last week. 

Now I get it. Even after just one week of classes, my short-term and long-term memory were both entirely shot. I would tell students things like, "send that to me in an email, otherwise I'll forget" because I would. Now that the program is over, things are slowly getting better, but I'm still recovering.

I can't really tell why this happened, but there are two obvious theories. The first is just that two classes at the same time is too many names and faces (plus other personal details) at once and so much information just overwhelmed me. The other is that there's something unusual about teaching in particular. I noticed that I was doing a lot more task-switching than normal. Most jobs and most of my research experience involves working on projects for long blocks of time, multiple hours or sometimes multiple days with few distractions aside basics like eating and sleeping and commuting. But teaching involves changing your focus over and over. 

I've led recitation sections as a teaching assistant, but for some reason this was so much worse. That makes me think that it's more likely to be the task-switching. As a recitation leader, you have to remember a lot of names and faces too. But once you're outside of class you can mostly go back to work as normal, there's not so much task-switching. 

This project was in a high school but my students were all seniors, so I think this is what it would be like to teach college too. Most of them were already 18 so you can barely tell the difference. I was helping them with projects so I think it's a bit like being a PhD advisor too. So it could also be the load of keeping track of lots of research projects, more than just keeping track of lots of people.


2: Teaching Makes You Dehydrated

For this program I taught only two days a week, just two classes, on Monday and Wednesday afternoon. But even with only two classes per day and two days per week, I became seriously and uncomfortably dehydrated. 

This had all kinds of weird knock-on effects with my digestion and my ability to concentrate. It was really very unpleasant.

Part of this is that you have to be talking and meeting all the time. But mostly I got dehydrated because of the logistics. If you drink enough water, then halfway through the class you have to go to the bathroom and you're either super uncomfortable and distracted all session or you have to awkwardly walk out in the middle of class. 

Even if it doesn't hit right away, a 10-minute break between classes isn't enough time to go to the bathroom, especially since some students show up early from the next class and others stay late. So you're trapped. 

I had some success on days when I showed videos and could sneak out the back while they were watching. But overall this was bad for my teaching and my quality of life. 


3: Teaching is a Grueling Job Even Under the Best Circumstances 

I didn't really like high school. Classes were too easy and too boring, and even though no one was asking very much of me, I felt like I was being taken advantage of. 

Implicitly I assumed that the teachers were the ones taking advantage of me, so even though they didn't seem all that happy, I assumed they were doing better than I was. 

But in this program I still felt like I was being taken advantage of. But that didn't make any sense. I was teaching whatever I wanted (as long as it was roughly about the topic) and however I wanted. They didn't tell me what books to use or even ask to look at my syllabus. I made it as hard or as easy as I wanted. It was still really grueling, for me. Rewarding, yes, but grueling, kind of a pain.

This was the biggest surprise. I thought that school was mostly bad because teachers made it bad (skill issue?). But now I think there must be something inherent to school, or one of the assumptions we make about it (1hr 20min classes? class sizes?) that makes it a kind of miserable experience for all involved. 

Looking back at this list, the final surprise is that these are all much more negative than I realized. Weirdly though this makes me more interested in teaching in the future. Maybe I can come up with new ways of doing things that won't make me so burnt out and distracted next time. I'd welcome any comments or suggestions. :) 

New Comment
14 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

As a former teacher, I firmly believe that if we want to reform schools, we must reform the teaching profession and school management structures. At least, we should address the things that are most insane:

  • A school district is a big operation, with many having thousands of employees, and budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars. And it is usually run by literal amateurs. As in, the school board is a group of unpaid volunteers.
  • As tough as it is to be a teacher, consider what it's like to be a principal: You get the most odious parts of being a teacher (dealing with discipline, contentious meetings with parents), with a longer workday, shorter (if any) summer vacation, much greater responsibility, much greater public exposure (and corresponding chance of getting fired for some perceived failure), but not really that much more pay. It's hardly surprising that it's hard to find good people to take that job. So, as a teacher, you can't count on competent support from management. But, you really need it.
  • The teaching profession takes a lot of skills. Yet, the job description for a first year teacher, and the job description for a 30th year teacher are identical. Imagine hiring an engineer fresh out of college and asking them to do what a senior architect does.
  • But, from a practical standpoint, the job of the inexperienced teacher is often much more challenging. The experienced teacher gets to pick the honors classes, the electives, etc., to teach. The inexperienced teacher gets stuck with the remedial classes. It's not uncommon for a new teacher to get hired to teach class sections that were added at the last minute -- and those sections will be full of students who got put into those sections at the last minute, because they didn't have their act together, didn't pass, didn't register, etc.
  • As you discovered, an inexperienced teacher will find it a lot of work to deal with even one or two classes. Where I work now, if someone was asked to conduct a training session, they might spend a couple days prepping. We ask teachers to do 5, 6 even 7 of those per day, only not with well-mannered professional adults, but kids whose brains are not fully developed. And then grade homework, call parents, be hall monitors, function as social workers, etc.

I could go on.

There are many problems one could bring with various approaches to teaching. There are many challenges that teachers would face even in the best of systems. But fundamentally, there are some serious structural issues with the design of the system.

Related to your principals comment. I can’t speak too much about the situation. Though am close with a former principal of a mid sized rural town. A real tricky job, and they knew that taking it on. It happened to be a town that (if I understand correctly) our government was sending a lot of refugees to. This resulted in a school where a large minority couldn’t speak English. In top of that, it’s a rural school. Notorious for horrible shit. Anyway, this principal made a small slip up and publicly apologised in a video. It then went locally viral and the state wide news picked it up. This principle was dragged through the mud for half a year. They couldn’t go to the grocery store or walk down the street. The news just kept going. I live pretty far away from them, but people know I know them. I had people come up and give condolences because of how harsh the treatment had been in the media.

I’m not sure how much this adds to the discussion. But I hope it helps to update someone’s model. A principle is a public figure with power over a tiny domain. They are sometimes attacked in the same way as a politician, but without the defences that politicians have.

Absolutely, and all good points! But what kind of reforms would help fix these problems? You suggest that we could change the job descriptions of new and more senior teachers to give a better distribution of duties. But what could we do to fix the management problems you mention? 

Did the students really want to learn?

A few times I de facto taught a course on 'calculus with proofs' to a few students who wanted to learn from someone who seemed smart and motivated. I didn't get any money and they didnt get paid.  We met twice a week. I could give some lectures and they discuss problems for a few hours. There was homework. We all took it very seriously.  It was clearly not a small amount of work but I frankly found it invigorating. Normal classes were usually not invigorating.

I will say I found tutoring much more invigorating than teaching courses. When a student comes to you for tutoring they tend to REALLY wanna learn the material fast. Often there is a test coming up. They pay attention. If you are good they are grateful for your attention. And you feel grateful to them too! Its wonderful to see someone learn fast. Many students will be genuinely sincerely thankful to their good tutors. It makes sense the tutors were trying to help them learn as efficiently as possible!

I think teaching is soul crushing because neither the student nor the teacher is properly motivated. Teachers are not providing their students with optimal learning environments, they aren't even trying (where as a good tutor is actually trying. Even at a commercial tutoring center). And the students aren't trying all that hard to learn.

This is my usual conclusion but the issue is not lack of skill in most cases. Its lack of 'actually trying' and lack of 'minimal attempt at good practices'. Professors/teachers just have to teach whoever shows up and needs the class. This is true in tutoring centers too, to some degree. But in tutoring there is much more expectation students will find a tutor they vibe with. 

Education could be fun and invigorating for both sides if both sides came into the experience with a sincere attitude to try. But unless goals are aligned where could such an attitude come from.  And goals are often not aligned.

I will say as a professor I also wanted to help my students. But the obvious way to help them was to uhhhhh 'give them as high a grade as I could possibly get away with'. If I could id have given them all As but the amount of flexibility I had varied. But it was just too soul crushing to not go into teaching with a sincere desire to help my students not judge them.  

This thread honestly reminded me I live in a college town. I wonder if anyone needs high quality help with their analysis or algebra classes. I could probably charge some reasonable rate and im a very good tutor if the student has the right vibe. and by right vibe I dont mean exceptional ability I just mean something like 'gets along with sapph as a person. Sapph is good natured but very high energy and clearly a little insane. Ideally the student finds this charming'

Yes, I often thought of this as a potential explanation before, but in this experience the students definitely wanted to learn. It was basically an elective and they're all seniors already on track to graduate, so they were under no pressure. They just wanted to learn! So in this case it wasn't soul crushing because the students weren't properly motivated, they were absolutely motivated, and so was I. In fact, I think it wasn't soul-crushing for the students. But it was still a little soul-crushing for me! 

You absolutely should try tutoring! I'm sure you could find some students who are a good match and who would really appreciate it! :) 

Former teacher here. Like avancil said, education is organized by amateurs. Having it organized by non-teachers has its own risks (optimizing for legible goals, ignoring all tacit knowledge of teachers), but there should be some way to get best practices from other professions to teachers. Also, university education of teachers is horribly inadequate (at least at my school it was), and the on-job training is mostly letting the new guy sink or swim.

To handle multiple things, you need to keep notes. As a software developer, I just carry my notebook everywhere, and I have a note-keeping program (cherrytree) where I make a new node for each task. So if I was a teacher again, I would either do this, or a paper equivalent of it. (Maybe keep a notebook with one page per student. And one page per week, for short notes about things that need to be done that week. I would just start with something, and then adapt as needed.)

Yeah, the inability to take a bathroom break when you need it can be really bad. There should be a standard mechanism to call for help; just someone to come and take care of the class for 10 minutes. More generally, to call for assistance when needed; for example what would you do if a student got hurt somehow, and you need to find help, but you also cannot leave the class alone. (Schools sometimes offer a solution, which usually turns out to be completely inadequate, e.g. "call this specific person for help", and when you do, "sorry I am busy right now".) There should probably be a phone for that in the teachers' room, and someone specific should be assigned phone duty every moment between 8AM and 3PM, and it's their job to come no questions asked.

Debates about education are usually horribly asymmetric, because everyone had the experience of being a student, but many of them naively assume they know what it is like to be a teacher. Now you know the constraints the teachers work under; some of them are difficult to communicate. I think the task switching is exhausting in a way that is difficult to imagine if you haven't experienced it. (Could depend on personality, though. ADHD?) New things keep happening all day long, and you have no time to process them, because you keep switching tasks according to a predetermined schedule. For example, once I taught as a part-time job only one day a week, and it was a completely different experience -- I had enough time to prepare for the classes, and to reflect on them after the day. But try teaching 20+ classes a week, and it's like drowning in a river.

The moment that I dread as a teacher and that has happened to me a few times. Is when the students realise that your authority is totally made up. I guess this is why we don’t teach philosophy in schools. I have never figured out a way to recover from this blunder. If anyone has any advice, I’d love to hear it.

how old are your kids? (also how much experience do you have, how many times has this happened?)

I don't have advice-born-of-experience, but I have some guesses that depend a bit on the context.

That’s a great question! I’ve been teaching arts classes for a youth charity for 5 years now. Ages range from 5-18. I myself am 23.

I’d say this has happened twice? I’m counting a one off lesson with some 16-18 year olds a few years ago. And a series of weeks in which I had extremely little control over some 8-10 year olds. In that case I was able to control individuals if they had my full attention. But would ‘lose’ them when I focused on the next kid.

Your question caused me to think of why these things may have happened. Though I’m curious to hear what you think before I spill my guts.

Curious to hear your thoughts on my sequence

I'm going through a theoretical redesign of American public education, and I'd appreciate the feedback from a teacher's perspective.

broken link

Thanks, it's my first time linking to my own sequence. I fixed the link to the first post in it.

Yes, I will take a look! :) 

What are your goals when you teach?

What gives you pleasure when teaching?