President's perspective

The complex job of teaching

Michael Mulgrew - 155 x 230 Our union and our profession have been under attack in the last several years. We’re told we don’t work hard enough, that our results with our students are not great enough, that our profession and our schools need to be “reformed” for the sake of our children. But those who attack us do not understand teaching, and they do not understand just how hard our jobs are.

I worked with at-risk students when I was teaching and had to prepare lessons that could benefit students with very different learning capabilities. Some of my students were struggling academically; others were struggling socially or emotionally. There seems to be little public understanding that teachers help students with their social and emotional development. But it’s one of the most important aspects of our job because if a child isn’t in the right state of mind, it is almost impossible for him or her to learn that day. Along with critical-thinking skills, it’s that growth into mature young adults that we strive to foster in our students through the lessons we teach them.

Many of us do this work very well, but even master teachers can improve their craft and anything we can do to help educators do their work will only help us to help children. That’s something we need to strive for as a union. And it’s why we are striving to implement a new teacher evaluation system despite Mayor Bloomberg’s resistance.

Education is not a simple process. Those who don’t believe in the value of experienced teachers who have mastered their craft think that teaching is simply a matter of walking into a classroom and delivering a lesson to students. But there is a complex cycle to teaching that takes place both inside and outside the classroom, before, during and after the lessons we deliver.

As educators, we know the preparation it requires to give our students the education they deserve and need to thrive. Our mission is not simply to impart to them knowledge but to teach them life skills and lessons that will serve them long after they have left school. Unfortunately, the general public — and, especially, the so-called education “reformers” who so often denigrate the work we do — do not know the intricacies of what we do, and we must do a better job as a profession of explaining it.

Teaching children isn’t about rote memorization, and it is sad that the high priority now placed on standardized testing has forced so many educators to spend so much classroom time preparing students for high-stakes tests. But even that preparation requires far more work on the part of educators than we are often given credit for.

Our work begins long before we enter the classroom each day and it continues long after we have left. As teachers, responsible for the future of our youth, we take our work home with us and never really put it down. And that’s what we need to make clear to the public and, most of all, to our detractors.

Think about all the work you do to prepare for class. Not all of the students in a class are at the same level so you first must assess where your students are in order to prepare a lesson that will address the needs of all of them, one that will challenge those at the head of the class while staying within the grasp of those students who are struggling. Then you must prepare your lesson itself, which may sound simple to noneducators but in fact requires a great deal of research and finding the proper materials.

Lessons are not static; they are living things, a dialogue between a teacher and his or her students, and no matter what we plan, things usually change during the lesson. At the same time, besides delivering the instruction, we also have to manage the classroom, which requires us to analyze constantly and make decisions all the time, changing everything according to the interests and needs of our students and how they are reacting.

And our work doesn’t end when the lesson does. In order to improve at our craft and better help our students, we teachers must analyze the delivery of our lessons, thinking about what went well and what we would change in the future. Assessing our students’ abilities after each lesson is also critically important.

It’s a very complex, complicated cycle called teaching, and we need to get better at letting people know how complicated and difficult our jobs are and how hard we work at them. We deserve — and receive — respect for the work we do, but that’s not enough. For our work to be fully appreciated, we must make clear to our friends, neighbors and communities just what it is we do and how difficult it is to do it.

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