What it’s Really Like to be a High School or Middle School Teacher in a Public School

When I graduated from teacher school, it was an exciting time. I had lots of energy, inspiration, and so much love for my future students who I hadn’t even met yet. After 7 years of teaching, it’s mostly still true for me. I’m just a little jaded and my under-eye bags are bigger, haha. I know more what to expect from students, parents, colleagues, and administration. I can’t help but feel underappreciated considering the importance of my role as a teacher, but the seriously pathetic paychecks and the numerous hours of personal time I spend outside of school hours lesson planning and grading work. Whether you are a new teacher, struggling teacher, considering the profession, or just interested in reading more, welcome! In this blog post I’ll share some of the things that surprised me when I became a teacher, as well as some of the nitty gritty details that teachers everywhere are dealing with.

What is Teaching Actually Like?

Before I became a teacher, my perspective of school came from years of being the student. I had never actually thought about what it was like to be the teacher. I was like many of my students, who think their teachers are robots who power down at 4 pm and plug in to charge under their desk until the next morning, haha. My first day of student teaching felt like the movie Groundhog Day. I was like, Woah, this is trippy. There are different personalities and student contributions in each class, but I essentially teach the same thing 5 times in a row. It is repetitive. By the 4th or 5th time, I’m a little loopy and I’m like, Did I already say that? The repetition is great practice as a new teacher because there are multiple opportunities to rehearse and try things out. I’m always tweaking my lessons here and there to make them better from one period to the next. Sorry Period 1 Guinea Pigs, it’s just the way it goes!

Classroom Management

Before I became a teacher, I just assumed that everyone was excited to learn and wanted to be there. I thought that middle and high school students knew the drill, had learned to conform a little, and were prepared to come in and get to work. Boy, was I wrong! The importance of classroom management really took me by surprise my first year teaching. I came in with a false sense of security about my own classroom management skills because my master teacher had hers down and I had no issues teaching in her class. I didn’t expect that I would need to literally bribe my students with prizes and stretch breaks to get them to behave, focus, and listen to me. It’s kind of pathetic actually. And it’s crazy how a student can be totally defiant in one class, and then behave completely differently for another teacher.

When I was student teaching, I had a friend who was a first year high school Math teacher. The second week of school, she was in literal tears when she described how she could not get her students to stop talking and listen. She was frustrated. She was confused. She had the best intentions and she didn’t understand what she was doing wrong. She was hurt and she felt disrespected. Since then, I’ve seen this same scenario play out many times over with teachers of varying subjects, experience, personalities, and ages.

Everything That Happens in Class is 100% Because of the Teacher

Before I was a teacher, I didn’t know it was up to me to build everything from scratch. Worksheets, activities, discussions, presentations, labs, questions, they’re all planned and put together by the teacher. The only thing I am guaranteed to have to go from are the state mandated learning standards. Sometimes, depending on the school where I teach, I don’t even have a textbook to use as a framework or starting point. So that was a big surprise for sure. I spent over $1500 of my own money on resources from Teachers Pay Teachers. And when I’m teaching something new and I need ideas, I turn to Google for inspiration and to find resources that have been shared by other amazing teachers out there.

Colleagues who teach the same subject can be invaluable, but not everyone is willing to share or collaborate. One year I was teaching two different subjects at the high school level, Biology and Earth & Space Science. I felt like I was drowning in lesson planning. I could barely keep up with creating and teaching a lesson for one class, before turning around to plan for the other class the next day. I took so much grading home with me that year. I needed help. I expressed some of my struggles to my Science Department Chair, and I’ll never forget that her response was that I needed to, “Develop my own wheelhouse.” I felt unsupported and I was like, Dang, I want to be the kind of teacher who helps others when they need it. That’s one reason I started my blog: to share what I’ve learned in teaching and to help other teachers.

“Contract Hours”

Another reality of teaching is that it is a lot of work. There’s a lot of research, planning, and grading involved. It requires brain power and unfortunately for most, and for me, lots of extra time outside of the school day and your contract hours. For instance, most of my grading and lesson planning is done after school and on my personal time at home.

Something else I did not expect before I became a teacher is all of the extra responsibilities that take place before and after school. At every school where I taught, I had required adjunct duty. That could be hallway duty before or after school, giving up your lunch to monitor the quad or to host science club, managing the ticket booth for afterschool sports, or chaperoning the homecoming dance or prom. But don’t worry, they let you sign up for the duties that you “want.” And don’t forget about parent conferences, IEP, and 504 meetings. All of those responsibilities take place outside of your contract hours, which means you’re not getting paid for your time.

Emails and Communication

I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but the idea I had of teaching was that I would interact with my students all day and we would do cool and interesting science things. I did not anticipate the volume of emails, phone calls home, and meetings that are required in teaching. Almost all outside of contract hours, too. Discipline issues, truancy, and low academic performance can be rampant, and those are the communications teachers need to make first. I wish I had more time to make positive phone calls home for improvements and good behavior (those are the best)!

One reason I went into teaching in the first place was because of my prior job experience as a project manager in the science industry. In that job, I conducted a lot of my work through an inbox, and I did not enjoy working through a screen and all of the email communication that went with it. I wanted to do something meaningful and make an impact. I wanted to be creative and use my brain. I do those things every minute as a teacher, but the emails and communication were eye opening and they can get out of control. I don’t know how teachers are expected to get to it all, or how this became the norm.

The Students Have Really High Needs

The last thing I’ll tackle in this blog post is how students are really struggling and they need a lot of help, support, and guidance. Their problems are bigger and more complex than solving Punnett Squares. But science problems are what I’m most qualified to help them with. I’m a teacher. I know science and learning, and after 7 years of teaching I know a lot about classroom management, too. I’m not their counselor, therapist, social worker, parent, or friend. And I’m not a bouncer or police officer. One of the hardest parts of teaching is the daily distractions that arise from all of these big problems that my students face. Mental health issues like anxiety and depression, substance abuse, trauma, poverty, gang violence, family problems, friend drama. Poor sleep and addiction to cellphones are ruining their health and making them feel unhappy.

Teach the whole child is a philosophy out there in the teaching world, and it recognizes all the social-emotional areas of a child’s development and learning. But teachers cannot tackle all of the issues and do everything themselves. Yet, this is what is expected of them and this is what students desperately need. Guidance counselors just don’t have the time to meet with every student one-on-one and provide some of these supports. Interventions for extreme discipline issues or low academic performance require a lot of time, input, and attention from teams of teachers. They can’t do it for every student. Teachers want to help kids and be there for them, but they may not know how to help with these big and serious problems. And teachers are struggling, too. I often feel overwhelmed in my job and the pressures from my job have led to Burnout and my own mental health issues (like having a panic attack at school).

Once You’ve Taught the Same Subject for a Few Years, it Gets so Much Easier!

I taught at 4 different schools in 7 years, and I made teaching a lot harder on myself than it had to be. Not only was I changing schools, but also grade levels and subjects. Every other year it was like being a new teacher all over again. The constant lesson planning took so much of my time, and it was often too much to keep up with.

On the bright side, once I teach the same subject for a few years, it gets a lot easier. My teacher friends with 10 years of experience make it look so easy. It really does get a whole lot easier with practice. I don’t need to lesson plan every single night. Lesson planning becomes less demanding because I can make minor tweaks and improvements to my favorite lessons instead of reinventing the wheel every night. The grading, meetings, and communication are a lot more manageable. With less balls in the air, it really becomes so much more fun. I can focus more on making connections with my students. There’s more of me to go around.

If you’re a new or struggling teacher, don’t despair! If you are thoughtful about your classroom systems, routines, and you have a commitment to providing a rigorous and engaging learning environment for your students, you have a great starting place to build from. It takes time and effort, but if you are dedicated to your work and to your students, it will show and you will build trust and respect. If you went into teaching because you love a particular subject, you enjoy kids, and you want to do something that’s not a desk job, teaching can be super fun and rewarding.

Teachers are changing the world every single day! I’m hopeful that we can come together to make necessary changes instead of continuing to drive talented educators out of the field at an alarming rate. New teachers especially need the advice and expertise of experienced teachers. I don’t know if I would have lasted this long in teaching without them.

What surprised you when you became a teacher? What are things about teaching that people outside of the profession may not know? Let me know by leaving a comment, I would love to hear from you! To read more about me and my classroom, check out my bog posts below!

Published by How She Teaches

I teach Biology and Earth and Space Science in high school and middle school. I want to share my personal experiences and teaching milestones with anyone who wants to learn.

16 thoughts on “What it’s Really Like to be a High School or Middle School Teacher in a Public School

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