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Teacher in a Strange Land: The Mental Energy of Teaching

Interesting tweet from @EdFuller_PSU:

The one thing non-teachers simply do not and cannot grasp is how MENTALLY EXHAUSTING IT IS TO TEACH ALL DAY. There are very, very few jobs that require the constant mental attention that teaching does. I’d love to see all the people criticizing teachers to teach for a week. (Caps are Fuller’s.)

There are over 750 responses, running about 30 to one some form of confirmation, most of which are from teachers or parents. The odd pushback (i.e., @Angrydocsx: Surgery, nursing, working on an oil rig, construction, being a lineman, etc… Teachers are great but get over yourself.) are either from people who feel their jobs are equally taxing, or your garden-variety anti-teacher/anti-union/you-suck-so-shut-up tweets.

Side note: I think surgery and nursing are also incredibly demanding and find @Angrydoc’s immediate shift to oil rigs and linemen in cherry pickers—dangerous, outdoor male-dominated jobs—telling.

Fuller (who, not coincidentally, was a HS teacher before moving into higher education) puts his finger on the thing that makes teaching exhausting—you’re on all the time, making decisions on the fly and—if you’re doing the job right—taking sincere responsibility for teaching…something, to students who may not particularly want to be taught.

He did not say teaching was the most mentally exhausting job in the world—there are others where you can’t take a break or turn your back—only that the need to constantly pay attention and adapt were factors that many folks did not perceive, when they thought about teaching. A number of the tweeted responses, in fact, were from people who thought they’d give teaching a try, but concluded that it wasn’t the job they thought it would be.

Larry Cuban recently compared teachers’ decision-making to playing jazz and rebounding in basketball—two complex skills that depend on prior learning and practice for automaticity. He includes two footnotes about the number of decisions teachers typically make:

*Researchers Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson summarized studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.

*Researcher Philip Jackson said that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 exchanges with students every hour (between 1200-1500 a day), most of which are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teacher decisions, if not judgments.

Cuban notes that those studies are older, and invites readers to share any newer research—but those figures ring absolutely true to me. Interactions, decisions, re-direction, pop-up questions, wait time, modeling, judgments. On and on and on. Teaching is all about an on-your-feet response to whatever crops up. It’s the essence of unpredictability, and every day is exhausting.

What Fuller’s tweet and the plethora of responses clearly illustrates: There is no such thing as successful scripted teaching or “effective” fidelity to pre-constructed lessons. Also: the more you teach, if you’re paying attention, the more fluid the decision-making becomes, and the more tools in your mental (and emotional) tool bag. Experience matters. Perception matters. Judgment matters.

When I had been teaching for more than 25 years, I took a two-year sabbatical to work at a national education non-profit. There was an opportunity to pursue an alternate career in our contract language, but even though I knew I could return to teaching, I was certain that this new job was my off-ramp.

At first, it was great. I had my own cubicle, with a computer and a phone and–get this–a secretary. We took an hour for lunch, occasionally going out to a restaurant (and, also occasionally, having a glass of wine). We could use the bathroom as often as we liked. I could pop into someone else’s office and have a long chat about some issue that had arisen. I could leave early to go to the dentist. We were doing a lot of conferences and workshops—on weekends, because our clients were educators—and if we were in another city for the weekend, we didn’t return to work until Wednesday or Thursday: comp time!

I found the workload easy and the pace relaxed. I liked the people I worked with. But after the first year, I started thinking about going back to teaching. It took a long time to work through the reasons. Teaching offered less money, less prestige and way more what might be called mandatory time on task.

What I finally concluded was this: When I left the school building at night, and walked across the parking lot, I could describe the good I had done that day, things students had learned, progress made. I didn’t get that daily confirmation at the non-profit (which was much-admired). Lots of days were focused on strengthening the business end of the non-profit’s work. I didn’t get to hang out with kids, either.

I taught a lot of subjects and varied grade levels during my career, speaking of mental exhaustion. I taught large middle school and high school band classes (65+ students), and 7th grade math in the first year of a new, “connected” curriculum that the old math teachers loathed. I taught vocal and instrumental music in every grade from pre-K to 12. By far the most mentally challenging class I ever taught was general music to a group of 12 Pre-K children, mostly four years old, in my last year in the classroom.

These kiddos were all over the place, maturity-wise. My biggest challenge at first was getting them all to sit, not sprawl or run around, on the circular rug in my classroom. I had them for 50 minutes, twice a week (yup—too long, I know, but that’s the way the schedule was set up), so the first time they came to my room, I prepared a lesson plan with seven different activities, from listening to marching. Seven!

They ran through that plan in about 20 minutes. I remember thinking: I’m supposed to be good at this! I hope nobody makes an unscheduled visit to my room.

Although I got much better at teaching very young children, thanks to the generous suggestions of my colleagues, it was a mental attention marathon, day in and day out. Did they understand that word? Why aren’t his hands coming together when he claps? How much time is left? Wait— is she actually spitting?

When we speak of teacher professionalism, we think of content knowledge, instructional expertise, being a respected contributor to a school learning community. But a big part of professionalism is accepting responsibility for what happens in your worksite, for expending the continuous mental energy to create a successful and skilled practice.

The last word about the way the public sees teacher professionalism, from Jose Vilson:

Over the last few decades, pundits and policymakers have derided the professionalism of teachers because “accountability” or whatever. No matter how many degrees and certificates they get, how many years of experience they accumulate, or student commendations they collect, American society looks at teachers and says “Oh, that’s nice!” but also, “How do you do it? Couldn’t be me!” “You and your union make the job easy, right?” and my personal favorite, “I couldn’t stand me when I was a child. How does that work out with 30 of them?!” In other words, even though many people think only a special set of people can do the job, they also think anyone can do it.


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Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 199...