Interview With a Teacher
By Justin Jobs
I am a public school teacher with two years of experience. On a typical day I’m responsible for teaching four subjects to almost 120 students, monitoring students in the hallways and cafeteria, and planning for lessons, quizzes, and tests. On a scale of 1 to 10 I would rate my job satisfaction as a 6 — it is this low because I teach in a really challenging situation, but if the community were more supportive I might rate teaching as high as a 9 or 10.
I teach in a rural school in a low-income community in Mississippi, where all of my students are African-American and most of my colleagues are women. As such, it is probably one of the few jobs where being a white male can be a disadvantage. I have experienced discrimination from students — including some who openly admitted they misbehaved so badly in my class because I am white — but I dealt with it by having a good sense of humor and being open with students about race.
I had to learn a lot of things in this job the hard way. Even the best teacher training programs don’t prepare educators for the challenges of low-income communities, and behavior management in my classroom has offered a great deal of trial and error. I approached those difficulties by being unafraid to innovate and try new approaches, keeping what worked and discarding what didn’t work. Some days everything I tried was a failure, but I kept trying until I found solutions. They don’t teach that kind of thing in school — finding a problem, generating creative solutions and trying them systematically to see what works — but it’s the basis of problem-solving in most professions, not just teaching.
I got started in teaching by joining Teach For America, which allowed me to transition mid-career into teaching. They gave me excellent training and provided incredible professional and emotional support during my difficult first year of teaching. I have no regrets about getting into this profession through Teach For America, and if I could go back in time I wouldn’t have majored in education in college — I learned a lot of leadership and management skills while working in the private sector and I brought those experiences with me into the classroom.
The strangest thing that ever happened to me was talking to my students about their personal opinions. Rural Mississippi is still very isolated from the outside world, so kids can have some strange ideas about the rest of the country. I keep track of some of the funniest things my students say, but probably the strangest thing was that the Mississippi River was going to flood our town and kill us all — despite being more than 70 miles from the river!
On a good day I can see my students’ success in the quizzes they take at the end of class every day. We grade the tests in class so they can see their scores and when most of class gets an 80 percent or better I know I’ve done a good job as a teacher. When things aren’t going well it’s usually due to student misbehavior, anything from refusing to quiet down to threatening or physically harming other students. All of this, plus the long hours of planning and preparation required to make significant academic gains with disadvantaged students, makes for a very stressful job. It is difficult to create and sustain a healthy work-life balance, especially in the first year of teaching, but organization and scheduling have made it easier. Even though school ends at 3:30 PM, I commit to staying and working until 5 PM every day which allows me to do all of my work at school and relax at home.
I earn $33,000 per year, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but I get 12 weeks of vacation every year. If I worked those weeks instead it would work out to a yearly salary of $43,000. That’s still not a lot given the responsibilities and workload of teachers — you could think of us as the managers of a small company with 120 disgruntled employees — but teaching has primarily non-monetary rewards by working with children.
My most rewarding experience was helping my students improve their ACT scores. Some of my students saw growth of 14 points, which could have a life-changing impact for them in college applications. Most days it is difficult to see the progress I make with students, but seeing growth like that on an exam confirms that progress is being made. The most difficult experience is the disrespect shown by students and frequently it is difficult to remember that they are still children and need to be dealt with patiently. It’s hard to remain passionate about work when the people you are serving can be so ungrateful — and often so mean.
To be a teacher you need at least a bachelor’s degree; most teachers have a degree in education, but others like me entered alternative certification programs like Teach For America that allow mid-career transitions to teaching for highly-qualified applicants. Successful teachers also need excellent managerial, organizational, and communication skills. If a friend were trying to become a teacher I would recommend putting aside everything she has ever learned about teachers from Hollywood movies. One of the biggest misunderstandings about teachers is that they can be successful with charisma and determination; while those are helpful traits, successful teachers are persistent and organized, able to find new solutions to old problems and try everything possible until something works. This job definitely moves my heart because I get to have an impact on the lives of children, but it doesn’t happen heroically like it does in movies.
If I could write my own ticket, in five years I’d like to be working as a school administrator in a charter school. Public schools have a lot of political challenges — superintendents are often elected officials, which can skew priorities away from student achievement and towards appeasing local voters — whereas charter schools are empowered to do what works to help students. I’m a good teacher but I think my greatest impact would be on using my managerial skills to help teachers and students on a larger scale.
Have you considered working as an Teacher? This interview will take you through the ups and downs you can expect in the position, what it takes to land the job, what you can expect to earn and more. This is a true career story as told to LatPro.com for its “What They Don’t Teach” series – a collection of interviews with Hispanic and bilingual professionals from a International Travel Consultant to a Process Improvement Expert, and everything in between.