on difficulty

“I can raise twenty five million dollars in a depression, but I can’t take twenty five kids up to gym.”

So said a colleague of mine whose first two careers were in journalism and business, describing the trials and tribulations of his first year as a classroom teacher.

Teaching is hard. The first thing that hit in my transition to the classroom was the physical difficulty – the hours on your feet, the many flights of stairs, the constant bending and lifting. In my first weeks in the classroom I felt like I needed intravenous fluids and an athlete’s ice bath at the end of the day.

Teaching is intellectually hard – as well it should be. Planning lessons, assessing student work, choosing table seats that will actually enable work to get done. (That process, by the way, is like an old-school LSAT problem: this person can’t sit next to this person, but can sit across from them. Two others have to be separated, this one needs a reading buddy, that one needs steady neighbors to help with focus… and, solve!) In a constructivist classroom, you’re on all the time, guiding inquiry and discussion, helping students make sense of tasks and problems, and observing everyone at work. This kind of teaching, which I am fortunate to see and practice in my school setting, takes pretty much constant presence. 

Speaking as a 21st-century urban resident, being present is not something we do well as humans right now. Or, have good reasons not to do it. We tune out our subway commutes and wait time in order to spend the time on something (actually or nominally) more productive or pleasurable. But in the classroom, being present is vital to managing the relationships between yourself, the students, and the content. In essence, you have to be tuned in and reflective at the same time, thinking one step ahead interpersonally and at least two steps ahead in terms of content and pedagogy. [More here on the theory of presence in teaching.]

Perhaps because of that intense focus, it can be hard to step away for that half hour lunch break. It can get too easy to take poor care of ourselves, as measured in skipped meals, missed social gatherings, or abandoned workouts.

There’s also the fact that teaching is emotionally hard, which may be where it diverges most from other high-intensity professions. Teaching and learning begins with building relationships, and these relationships come with risk just like any other close connections. People mess up. People hurt each other, intentionally or unintentionally. People forgive each other, and themselves. As teachers, we may be the subject or object of those mistakes, the receiver of hurt or the mediator of it. We work to forgive ourselves, whether it’s for the noisy walk up to gym or the opportunity we missed to connect with a kid.

We don’t find the qualities that help with the emotional difficulty of teaching on teacher evaluation rubrics, although Sonia Nieto and others can tell you what should be on there: Courage. Heart. Empathy. Ability to improvise. Sense of mission. And, I would add: vulnerability.

When it comes down to it, the things that make teaching hard are the things I love about it. It should be hard in a way that’s different from fundraising; should be intense in a way the law isn’t intense. Maybe there’s a good reason there are so many stories of teachers who “cried every day” of their first year.

I come back to a poem that has hung on various corkboards in offices and classrooms where I’ve worked. It is W.B. Yeats’s The Fascination of What’s Difficult. Here it is, a late Teacher Appreciation Week gesture to those who give it their all everyday, and sometimes a bit more than that.

The Fascination of What’s Difficult 

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