One day at a drugstore, when the line was moving slowly, the woman ahead
of me began to heckle the pharmacist for taking too long. The pharmacist
lashed back: "I don't have to be here, you know. I could make more money
doing something easy, like teaching."
"How do you know teaching is easy?" I butted in. "Have you done any?"
"No, but it isn't rocket science," the pharmacist scoffed. "Anyone can
It's easy, right?
The pharmacist's words reminded me of my own (limited) experience with
classroom teaching. As part of a program called Think-Write, which
paired professional teachers with professional writers, I went into
middle schools and then high schools for a couple of years to teach
It should have been a milk run for a guy like me. I know a lot about
writing. I've done such a lot of it, and I run a writer's group that's
produced many published authors.
Instead, minutes after stepping into a sixth-grade classroom, I was
drowning. Luckily, a real teacher was standing by to save me! The kids,
you see, wouldn't do a thing I said. Some tried and couldn't, some
wouldn't, some went speeding off in the wrong direction, and some didn't
even notice I was there. Or care. Wherever I directed my attention was
the wrong place, because just then, chaos was breaking out somewhere
I got better at it, but never good, and I came away from the experience
stingingly aware that teaching is a discipline all its own. Is it easier
than other jobs? I wasn't sure, so I decided to get the opinions of
people who had done both teaching and another job.
Kate Roxas got her degree in accounting and worked as an auditor. The
money was good, but she ended up hating the job.
"The hours were horrible, the business world was so cutthroat, and I
never built up any cohesive relationships because I rarely had the same
client for more than a month. When I came home, I never had great
stories to tell because, well, there just aren't that many great
accounting stories," she says.
So she got a master's degree in math education and went to work in a
middle school. "Teaching," she reports, "is more fulfilling than
accounting, but not easier."
Roxas disputes the notion that teachers have cushy working hours. As an
accountant, she concedes, she worked more hours per day, but as a
teacher, she works more minutes per hour.
"I'm only in the classroom from 8 to 2:30, true, but I'm teaching every
second of that time. I have 160 kids in five classes and I have to know
each one. I can't go into a parent-teacher conference and say, 'I don't
know your kid!' As an auditor, I could space out sometimes, chat with
coworkers, use the phone -- I can't do that as a teacher."
Lives and emotions
"Don't get me wrong," she adds. "Auditing is intellectually challenging
and you need lots of knowledge to do it well, but at the end of the day
you can leave it at the office. With teaching, you can't do that.
Teaching is about people's lives and emotions. It's about relationships
and connection. That's the component some people have and some just
don't. You can be the best mathematician in the world, but if you can't
relate to kids, you're just a mathematician. You're not a teacher."
Former environmental engineer Suzanne Hoff also speaks of the emotional
stamina teachers need. Hoff used to work for a consulting firm,
overhauling old military bases, designing landfills, and such. Now she
teaches computer skills to students in grades five through eight. She
also consults on the yearbook, coaches track, and runs a computer club
at her school.
"For me," she says, "teaching is easier than engineering because it's
more fulfilling, but it's also more emotionally exhausting. You have to
play so many different roles. And you're always watching--to make sure
you don't hurt someone's feelings, to make sure you don't miss that
opportunity to launch a kid in the right direction, because everything
you say or do has such tremendous impact on them."
Another teacher I talked to left the profession to work in the insurance
business as a claims adjuster but then came back to teaching. "The
toughest part about this job," she says, "is keeping a classroom unified
and focused. Every kid is different. Every day with every kid is
different. If you have 25 kids in a room, every one of them is at a
different stage of personal and emotional development. Each one has a
different grasp of the subject. I can't simply teach to the whole class.
I have to teach to each kid in the class. I interact with 150 kids each
day, and I try to engage each one in a personal interaction, because the
lesson has to move every student forward from where they are."
The most important skill
Susan de la Vergne teaches in a different context to a different
audience than Roxas and Hoff. She worked long years as an information
technology director for companies ranging from banks to utilities, but
two years ago she decided to quit management and make her living
teaching what she knew, mostly to technical professionals in corporate
The most important teaching skill, she asserts, is listening. "You have
to pick up on what people already know, what they want to know, and what
they need to know -- what will be a real value add-on here. You need
listening skills to figure out how to fit your material into each
particular person's framework."
How to fix the schools
All this has implications, I think, for improving education. I often get
e-mails saying things like, "If only we could get real engineers
teaching physics in the public schools" or, "If only we had real
accountants teaching elementary school math!" The assumption seems to be
that there's nothing more to teaching a subject than knowing it.
Let me not be misunderstood. Obviously, no one can teach a subject they
don't know. But that doesn't automatically make the corollary true --
that someone who knows a subject can teach it. Clearly you need to know
enough about a subject, but that amount differs by grade level, and
knowing more than enough doesn't necessarily make one a better teacher,
because teaching is a separate skill in its own right.
In the wake of a 2006 report from the National Academies about the
shortcomings of science and math education in the United States, there's
a push to improve instruction in these areas by making science and math
teachers learn more science and math. But I'm thinking, to improve
science and math instruction, we don't need better-trained scientists
and mathematicians in the classrooms; we need science and math teachers
who are better trained -- and more inspired - -in the fine art of