What Makes Teaching Such a Difficult Job?

Imagine any job where the people who arrive at your workplace are so lacking in the skills needed to be successful in your unit that training them seems problematic. Imagine, further that the people you work with or serve, capable or not, are unmotivated to perform the work or activity that is expected of them; are unwilling or unable to conform to acceptable standards of behavior; have families that may or not be supportive or, in some cases, may actually interfere with what you are striving to accomplish; and, that the most important influence in the lives of the people for whom you are responsible is their peer group. If they must choose who to disappoint it will be you and/or their families, not their friends.

Your education and training suggests many management and supervisory strategies that work in some settings but seem to be meaningless in others. You have also been taught that some individuals need more patient time and attention in order to learn from the mistakes they make but in far too many settings there is insufficient time to give them. Part of the problem is that you are expected to conform to arbitrary schedules that require that you reach certain checkpoints within a predetermined period of time. You are also expected to comply with arbitrary standards of performance and production that appear to have been written by someone who has never actually done your job.

These arbitrary schedules, standards, and production goals might even appear to make sense in the abstract but when applied to your assigned work space and to the unique characteristics of the people to whom you are assigned, they make no sense at all. These challenges, viewed in the aggregate, are difficult enough but imagine that your work will be inspected, routinely, as will the production results of your people. It would be one thing if these inspections and production reports were adaptive to the performance capabilities of your work group but, of course, they are not. Rather, your efforts are evaluated within the context of what we are told is an even playing field that is as arbitrary as are the schedules, standards, and objectives against which you and your people’s performance is measured.

If this was not bad enough, imagine that when your results fail to meet arbitrary expectations, you are asked to accept responsibility. When the results in your unit are particularly disparate when compared to other workplaces filled with people with a diverse range of capabilities, imagine that you are asked to bear the brunt of blame.

Finally, when you are evaluated by your leaders, imagine that they view their job not so much as a support system to help you achieve your objectives but rather as an inspector to police your performance, seeking evidence that what you are doing is wrong or insufficient.

Imagine the evaluation coming to a crushing crescendo when you are told that the problem is that you are not sufficiently engaged with your people and that you need to work harder to build relationships with them. There seems to be little, if any, recognition that building relationships with each and every one of the individuals for whom you are responsible requires that you allocate more time; time that has not been allocated to you.

Imagine that when you strive to improve your level of engagement, although a few individuals may actually respond, that some of your people, if not the majority, are far more challenging than others and not only require more time and attention than you are able to give them but actually resist your efforts.

The icing on the cake or, more appropriately the thorns in your crown, is that, at the end of an arbitrary period of time, you are assigned responsibility for a whole new group of people with which one of your colleagues has had a similar results. This requires that you start from scratch and go through the same process over and over, again, with no reason to anticipate better outcomes.

Can you imagine any way the job you are being asked to do will produce quality outcomes, given the inherent deficiencies in the process?

The challenge is that the production, assembly, or service delivery process within which you are expected to work is neither tasked, structured, nor resourced to enable you to provide your people—a group with a diverse range of personalities and capabilities—with the time and attention they require to be successful.

When you suggest to your leadership that what you are being asked to do does not work for all or part of your people you are told to “work harder.” They tell us that, “This is the reality with which we are expected to deal,” and that “we must suck it up and do our best without complaining.”

If you and your colleagues are sufficiently brave to ask the questions “What about my well-being?” and “How am I supposed to find any job satisfaction in such conditions?” imagine that your leaders look at you as if you are speaking an alien language.

Finally, when you commiserate with your colleagues in the staff lounge, over a drink in a neighborhood bar, or at your union or association meetings nothing ever changes. Oh, forget what I said about sharing a drink in a neighborhood bar. You have work to take home! There is no time for a drink however much you might feel you need it.

If you want to hear the final irony it is that this environment in which you are asked to perform miracles, mirrors the environment that your students must endure, like a parallel universe. The difference is that, unlike you and your colleagues, many of your students do not care. They feel free to take the easy way out and just stop trying. This enables them to spend their eight hours a day, five days a week looking for ways to have fun and make your lives more interesting in what they perceive to be a consequence-free environment. It will only be later in life that they will discover how wrong they were about the lack of consequences.

My recommendation to you—and, yes, I know I’m an outsider—is to go beyond pondering the absurd idea that their must surely be a better way and ask your union and association leaders help tackle the challenge of finding a new solution. I can assure you that there is always a better way but all the complaining in the world will not help you find it. You might also consider going to outsiders like me who have been paid to find solutions to other dysfunctional workplaces very much like yours.

Consultants like me have the advantage of being able to step back to a point from which we can view your work place as an integral whole and apply the principles of positive leadership, systems thinking, and organizational development to find all of the “disturbances in the force” that make production, assembly, or service-delivery processes like yours dysfunctional. Software engineers do exactly the same thing in their very specialized field working with computer applications.

As it happens, I have the added advantage of having actually walked in the shoes of public school teachers while working as a substitute teacher in a diverse, local public school district. In fact, I have already applied my 45+ years of expertise and experience, along with two master’s degrees, to examine the education process I observed and to reinvent it to achieve the outcomes we are seeking.

I can tell you with absolute confidence that the education process I have developed, if implemented as an integral system, will work to create an environment in which your students can actually learn and in which teachers can find job satisfaction and take pride in their work. I will also tell you, with absolute confidence, that mine is not the only solution; there is always another way. The advantage of my re-invented education process is that the work is already done and needs only a little tweaking.

I suggest that you use the education model I have developed as a point of embarkation. Use it as a tool to help you challenge the fundamental logic and assumptions of the existing education process and begin to view it objectively as just that, a complex organizational process with which we are expected to teach our nation’s children.

Maybe you will discover your own solution and maybe you will come to believe that my model will work. At least you will be moving forward rather being stuck in complaint mode, where nothing ever changes. Beware of the temptation to take the easy route, however, and drift away from systemic solutions and opt for incremental reforms with new strategies and technologies. The latter are probably good ideas but I can assure you they will not work within the context of an obsolete education process.

In an earlier piece I used the parable of “new wine in old wineskins” to illustrate that the new ideas and technologies, however inventive, will not work within the context of an obsolete process. This is the reality you have today and you know in your heart that not only does what you are asked to do not work, you know that it cannot work. Even in some of our highest performing public schools there are students we cannot seem to reach.

You can visit my website at www.melhawkinsandassociates.com where you can examine my education model and an accompanying white paper, as well as my blog, Education, Hope and the American Dream with more than 150 articles about the challenges in public education and about the false promise of current education reforms.

You will also have access to my books, the most appropriate of which will be The Difference is You: Power of Positive Leadership, based on my many years of organizational leadership and consulting experience and my book on education, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America (REHAD). While the book has much to offer and I would never discourage anyone from reading REHAD, please know that I am now writing a follow-up book as I have learned a great deal from all of you over the 5-year period sense the REHAD was published. An expanded version of this blog post is one of the chapters in my new book.

Thank you, educators, for the heroic work you do and please cling to the hope that better days will come if you reach out for them. Here is a simple test of whether or not there is reason to hope. Do believe children are capable of learning? Do you believe you are capable of teaching? If you believe both are true then the reason your students are not learning has to do with the process, not the people. Fix the process so that it supports learning and teaching in every conceivable way and both you and your students will be successful and you will have the job you envisioned when you chose to enter the profession.

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