What's it like to be a teacher in the United States?
January 31, 2010 4:48 PM   Subscribe

Are you a teacher in the United States? Do you like it? As always, more inside...

I graduated college in 2006. That's not so long ago, but since then I've lived on 2 continents and held half a dozen jobs ranging from the menial (Short order cook) to the mind-bendingly stressful (Online Marketing Manager) to the strange (English teacher in a Korean public school). They've ranged from "Put on a tie, be there at 8 AM, leave at 5, don't forget your 401k" to "Come whenever, we just need a hand, we pay in cash". In short: I'm looking for whatever it is I'm supposed to do.

That said, my current gig (English teacher) is probably the one that feels the most like something I could do for a long time. I like that it's got some virtue, I like that I get to talk and be active, I like that I have to creative. At the end of the day I'm tired, but good tired.

I like it enough that I've started to entertain the idea of looking into a teaching degree when I get back to the States. I know it's not all roses (My mother had worked as a School Nurse in a Public School for almost 25 years.), but I lack any real first hand experience. None of my friends went into teaching, so it's a little mysterious to me. I was hoping some MeFi-ites might have some tales to tell.

What I really like is this: Sweet vacation. I like to work, but I also like my free time. I like days off. I like to take a whole week and decide, "I will learn to play the tuba". Korea has afforded me this and I have nothing but sweet memories of summer vacation. My wife and I also love to travel. Every other job I had had lousy vacation (A week a year if you can find the free time to take it) and so we never got to go anywhere. 2 months every year? Sounds nice. Also, the pay isn't too awful (Is it?) and the benefits are good. I'm currently basking in the glow of national healthcare and it RULES. We were fully UNinsured before and it was a nightmare.

Of course, it's not all perks. I like this work. I just don't know what it's like in the United States. I'm teaching Elementary School right now and I love kids, but I'd also be up for something in Middle/High School. If you have experience in making the switch, I'd love to hear it.

I also like the idea of public school, but I'd love to hear from some private school teachers, also.

FYI: I have a BA in English/Philosophy, if it matters.

Okay! Thanks!
posted by GilloD to Education (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Several of my college friends did Teach for America upon graduation. Some very excellent experiences, some kinda meh. It might be a good program to look into though. They would train you, and at the very least you would get to talk to a lot of people who have teaching experience before making any huge decisions.
posted by phunniemee at 4:52 PM on January 31, 2010

Link: Teach for America
posted by phunniemee at 4:53 PM on January 31, 2010

it's not necessarily US-centric, but i found this Ask thread gave me a lot to consider about teaching.
posted by gursky at 4:59 PM on January 31, 2010

I truly don't want this to come off as snarky. But your post makes it sound as if the main reason that you want to pursue teaching as a career is having summers off. As a former teacher, I personally find that quite distressing. Teaching is an easy job to do poorly, and a hard job to do well. Please do not pursue teaching because of what you will be able to do when you are NOT teaching. Pursue teaching as a career because you enjoy children/young adults, because you feel you have something to offer them, and because you have loads of energy and creativity.
posted by bookmammal at 5:01 PM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

There was just a thread on the blue regarding Teach for America. Oh, and ...

2 months every year? Sounds nice.

Yeah, no. That's only for the students.

Department meetings? Professional development? Additional training? Lesson planning? Conferences and seminars? Summer school to pick up extra cash? Though this is anecdotal, I once had a teacher work at Wendy's over the summer to make ends meet.
posted by SpringAquifer at 5:03 PM on January 31, 2010

Response by poster: To clarify: I'm not just in it for the vacation. You couldn't convince me to go get an MBA if you told me I'd have 10 months off every year. It's just a nice perk that doesn't really exist in a lot of other fields. Like I said, I like this job a lot. I spend 3 or 4 hours a night working on materials for my classes, I'm not just here for 8 hours and then I turn off. I'm committed to it. I just wanted some tales about what it's like to "actually" teach, as I'm free from a lot of the administrative garbage that comes with the job.
posted by GilloD at 5:07 PM on January 31, 2010

(Typing this on a school computer while taking a break from writing sub plans for a required professional development day Monday...)

I have taught for almost 10 years (usually middle school) in California and Alaska. There are a lot of great things about my job- in my current position, I really truly love it and wouldn't change. If you really like kids, and you really love your subject, being a teacher can be a fantastic thing. The pay is okay but will never be spectacular, and knowing what you'll be making is never an issue- most US teacher contracts are union-negotiated, and most districts post their salary schedules online.

I wouldn't do it if the vacation/benefits are the major reason you are thinking about, because, frankly, it can also really (really) stink, and it is likely that your first or second or ? jobs wouldn't be great. My first 3 years were in ridiculously terrible districts teaching unbelievably undisciplined children. My administrators were awful, the school culture seemed unfixable and it was, all-and-all, totally miserable. I would have taken a 50% pay cut of my not-super salary to be working a regular 9-5 job where I interacted with actual adults who behaved like normal human beings.

Additionally, it would also be worth it to investigate the education job market of whatever place you are thinking of moving; in quite a few places, there's a glut of people certified to teach English/social studes/elective subjects/elementary ed, such that some people who were previously guaranteed jobs out of alternative certification programs (like the New York Teaching Fellows) haven't been able to find them- teaching has appealed to a lot of people who have been put out of work in other industries affected by the nasty economic situation.

But- I love where I live now, I love my students, I love my work, I love my subject. I never thought that would be the case, and it seems like a miracle most days of the week. You might find your zen, too.
posted by charmedimsure at 5:21 PM on January 31, 2010

The other downside of the school vacations is, those are your holiday times, like it or not. If we have a family event out of town or something, we can get two personal days a year for it where I teach. They can be stingy because you get March break, Christmas break etc.

I love the subject I teach, but I am in one of those markets where there is a glut and even with me having an in-demand specialty, it's still been tough and I had to settle for a job which pays less than it should because it was all I could find and I knew I should be grateful. Many people take the cert for the subject I teach just because it is the only way to get a job here and then find they don't like it or are not good at it. I am fortunate that I do enjoy it. But then I get annoyed when I think about all the people who hate it yet are occupying union jobs that a more passionate teacher could fill...

Your rather cavalier attitude makes it all sound very easy, and it really isn't. Jobs are hard to come by in many places and it might not be at all what you expect.
posted by JoannaC at 7:13 PM on January 31, 2010

Okay, some real talk: I'm not a teacher, but I've known a few, including my sister who quit after two years.

Yeah, you get summers off. Guess what, you take all your work home with you during the school year. Grading papers, reading essays, doing lesson plans, running to the supply store to buy a new Judy Clock (with your own money.)

Is that what you want to do?

The job breaks people in half. Look up attrition rates for teachers in the public school districts in your state. See what I mean?

It's a largely thankless job. Kids who don't want to be there, kids who lack basic literacy skills but have been passed up every year because you can't "leave a child behind, kids who beat the hell out of you with their fists, kids who bring guns and knives to school. Even worse: the PARENTS of these kids. You try to reprimand any of these kids and you're "messing with my son / daughter's education"!

I don't even know what you'd have to pay me to be a teacher. At a rough estimate, how about $250,000 per year, adjusted for inflation every year with a 5% annual raise on top of that. And a company car.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:17 PM on January 31, 2010

Another downside of the fixed vacations, coming from a family of teachers: prices are always higher during school holidays. As the non-teacher, I always had to compete with the parents in my workplace for that time off who didn't understand why that was the only time I could go on vacation too.

Why not stay overseas and work in international schools if you like the lifestyle you have?
posted by wingless_angel at 12:46 AM on February 1, 2010

You could always take a shot at the private/independent school world. I taught English, history, and creative writing for two years at a private school that liked the fact that I had an MA and didn't care that I had no credits in education courses. (Many private schools prefer it that way.) You will most likely a) make less than a public school teacher, despite the notion that private schools somehow have more resources than those schools when in fact, except for the most elite schools, they don't, b) have a 401k (LOL) rather than a real pension that public school teachers get, c) have smaller classes (a good thing), d) have a lot more expectations from parents paying the large tuition bill, to the extent that you should be prepared to have them call you on a regular basis when they want to complain about something.

Honestly, I had a terrible experience but it had a lot to do with the lies and incompetence of my boss, the upper school principle. The actual teaching? I liked it. I also had five preps a day -- not just five classes, but five different classes requiring planning. It was ridiculously stressful in the end and I felt bad that an assinine administration basically killed a promising independent institution due to mismanagement, mostly financial (e.g., building a new gym when what we needed were new computers).

So now I'm teaching in Korea myself, and I'm about to take a college teaching position which will afford me eight to ten weeks of vacation a year in a part of the world where I can easily get to Cambodia or China rather than more typical US destinations.

Vacation isn't the biggest reason you should consider teaching, but it's certainly a nice plus. Embrace it.
posted by bardic at 1:36 AM on February 1, 2010

You said that you have taught in Korea, but also that teaching is a bit "mysterious" to you. What, exactly, is mysterious that you hope our stories will clarify for you?

You say that you want to know what it's like in the United States, but there is no such thing. Teaching in inner-city Boston is nothing like the SF suberbs (where I teach), which is nothing like teaching in a small town in Alabama. The things that influence your teaching experience are what you might expect: students, parents, other teachers, school culture, and the school administration. And most of all, _how you respond_ to the different types of adversity or challenge you're likely to face from one or more of these factors. There are lots of challenges to teaching, but they're likely to vary a fair amount depending on the specific circumstances you're in; so to some extent it's a question of finding a school that has the kinds of problems that motivate you. If you think it would be helpful, I'd be willing to take a shot at sketching some of the broad possibilities here.

All that said, I think you must enjoy students to enjoy teaching in the long run. Every teacher I know has "why am I doing this?" moments every year, and if you don't have a personal commitment to your students, it will become harder and harder to find a good answer to that question. Are you the sort of person who can (and can enjoy) making that commitment to large numbers of young strangers? Maybe you know already, but maybe this is what further teaching experience can help you figure out.
posted by mathtime! at 3:35 AM on February 1, 2010

Consider college-level teaching. It's more likely to provide a genuine summer vacation (depending on your circumstances) and it's probably less chew-you-up-and-spit-you-out-y in most respects than anything K-12. (And yes, I'm aware that's a broad generalization.) At the very least: no parents...except the occasional freshman's helicopter parent.

If you're not tenured, the lack of job security kind of sucks, but that may be scarce in the K-12 world too.
posted by AugieAugustus at 5:14 AM on February 1, 2010

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