Think Teaching is a Cakewalk? Think Again!

Of the constellation of characteristics needed by teachers, the capacity to endure stress is important, because teaching is a very stressful job.

We rush through our days rarely feeling totally prepared for all the classes and students we will teach. In fact, we can’t be prepared all the time, as our loads are too heavy. We have very little time to use the bathroom, let alone plan curriculum and address student needs.

Our busy days are full of human encounters, some of them pleasant, many of them charged – most of us interact with at least one hundred people daily; some of us work with three hundred people each day. Human encounters can be energizing, and they can also be exhausting. We have many of both kinds of encounter each day, and this adds stress.

Keeping students engaged in this day of the internet and immediate gratification and entertainment is also stressful – those of us who teach in the K – 12 sphere have to work very hard indeed to keep our students engaged – and if we lose their attention for more than a minute we risk major management events, which are difficult to endure placidly.

Most stressful of all, teachers need to be able to live with the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the stomach that results from never feeling they have done a good enough job, never feeling they have done enough for their students. Pangs of regret and anxiety punctuate our free time as we remember particular children whose needs we know the school has not yet met and likely never will meet, or particular academic goals we know we have not yet figured out how to help all students achieve. We live with the realization that time doesn’t exist in the days we are given to make a plan that will work for all students.

Teachers know the stakes are high, and this causes us stress. We know that lives and futures depend partly on how well we do our work. At the same time, we recognize that we cannot, within the troubled system in which we work, and given the human limitations everyone possesses, adequately help every student we teach. The odds of poverty, overfilled schedules, unreasonable teacher loads, and bureaucratic minutiae are stacked against teacher effectiveness.

The weight of all of this is compounded by the exclusion of teachers from the education decision-making table. We do not usually interact with those who have the power to make the positive changes in schools that will help more students learn, and this disenfranchisement is a hard burden to bear. We have no forum where we can share what troubles and stresses us and keeps us from doing a better job. Let’s not wait any longer to be invited to the decision-making table; let’s take the bull by the horn and find ways to tell others what it’s like to be a classroom teacher.


Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.