I am 85% certain I want to be a teacher
November 9, 2010 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I've been seriously considering becoming a high school math teacher. I have some experience teaching in a classroom, and lots of experience tutoring. What I'd like to know now - before I jump into an alternative degree program - is what it's actually like being a teacher day in and day out. If I'm not going to be able to hack it, I'd rather know now.

  • Energy Levels - What's it like being on your feet all day? Talking for most of the day? As an introvert, am I going to be wiped out by the end of the day, everyday? Does it get easier?
  • Bureaucracy - How bad are the school politics? Teaching to the test? Union issues? Is blogging under my own, googleable name (nothing I'd be ashamed of my grandma seeing) going to be a problem? Do schools have strict dress codes or other policies for their teachers?
  • Classroom Management - All of my teaching/tutoring experience has been with students who were there by choice, or at least their parents' choice. What's it really like working with students who don't want to be there and are completely unmotivated? As a short, young woman, am I going to have difficulty with discipline? (I've been fine in the past, but still...)
  • Life/Work Balance - I know teachers work a lot more hours than commonly perceived. How does this vary from 1st year to 2nd year to 5th year to 10th year (etc)? What's it like only being able to take vacations and travel when the schools are out? How much time does working with kids outside of the classroom (clubs, etc) and school evening events suck up? I'm thinking about have children of my own in a couple of years - how manageable is that, really?
Anything else I should know or be asking to really get an idea of what it's like to be a teacher? Any blogs or books I should read? I really want to go in with my eyes wide open, if I decide to make this jump.

Special snowflake details: I currently have a cushy office job working with excel all day. Good boss, great coworkers, 55 to 60 hour workweeks, 70k pay. Overall, not too bad for a 25 year old in this economy - except that I hate, hate, hate the work and dread coming into the office every day. My teaching experience includes TAing a college class and teaching SAT and PSAT math classes over a summer. I've tutored math forever, all ages. I don't have a math degree, but have taken a lot of college math courses, and have a master in economics. Right now I'm open to public or private school teaching (but would love to not take *too* much of a pay cut), and it'd have to be in the SF Bay Area, preferably South Bay. I'm aware that the job market sucks for teachers, but I'm hoping that teaching math (and econ if there's demand) + being willing to work in lower-income schools will let me find a job. Feel free to burst that bubble if I'm wrong.
posted by Gori Girl to Work & Money (30 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of experiences and challenges are you interested in? Teaching math in elementary school, middle school, high school, and advanced (IB or AP) levels offer drastically different experiences. It has to do with the students' motivation, students' abilities, and lots of other factors that have to do with age and social background.
posted by Nomyte at 10:04 AM on November 9, 2010

I think it depends on what kind of public/private school you teach at. I'm pretty sure working at an urban public school would introduce a number of pressures. Because there's more to being a teacher than just teaching--you have to deal with ridiculous principals and bureaucracy, lack of materials and resources, and all the rest.

I think if you got a master's in teaching of math from a prestigious school and got a job at a fancy private school, life would be so much better than dealing with a public school.
posted by anniecat at 10:05 AM on November 9, 2010

There's so much in your question I'll just cover a few highlights:

-as an introvert yes you will likely be a bit drawn out & need quiet time at the end of the day. But if you are talking all day you're not doing it right.
- you will definitely teach to the test in CA public schools. In math especially its all about the CAHSEE and CST. The bureaucracy will depend on the school.
- you will be eaten alive in any low-income school without good class management skills. Indeed, that is the crucial skill for beginning teachers.
- Teachers have 9 months to do a full year's work. Your total work hours may increase, and you will likely spend at least one weekend day grading & prepping for the next week. It does get easier after the first 2-3 years, so long as you stay in the same course. If you get a new prep (Algebra 1 to Geometry) it starts again. Depending on the school you may or may not get help from other teachers. Summers are good but many teacher work 2nd jobs to make up for the lower pay. Oh yeah, you can expect a 30%-40% pay cut.

tl;dr (from a HS teacher for 15 yrs): the job market sucks and won't get better soon. If you really want to know what its like, volunteer in a low-income school.
posted by TDIpod at 10:12 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

The job market is very bad even for people with tons of experience and qualifications.
posted by vincele at 10:16 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I just started teaching English this year and it has turned out to be A LOT more work than I had anticipated.

Lesson-planning alone is a huge task. Basically, you have to figure out what you're going to teach, when you'll teach it, and how you'll teach it AND make it interesting to a bunch of kids who don't really want to be there in the first place. Depending on your school, you may have specific, set projects you'll be required to teach, regardless if you agree with the way the concepts in the project are being taught or if you feel that the project is meeting is stated "objectives."

Grading is a pain. It might be easier since you're doing math and there is only ONE right answer. But you'll be grading ALL THE TIME. It never ends! I teach 44 students right now, so I get back 44 essays, 44 projects, 44 homework assignments to grace with my green pen every time something is due. If you don't keep up with the grading it will pile up into a hideous monster and you can abandon all hope of salvation.

Pay is also not v. good. I'm not sure that you'll make as much as you are right now with your "cushy" job. The pay situation is also worsened by the fact that you'll often have to pay for your supplies out of your pocket if you plan an activity that is less traditional, but that you feel would be really effective. I've had to bring in my own markers and crayons and paper for activities and that pinches, considering I'm not just a "real" teacher, but a graduate instructor. So I get paid v. lamely. Obviously, you'll be able to demand more as real teacher, but like I said, I don't know if you'll be getting close to what you're getting now.

Be prepared to deal with students with attitude! They pop up all the time and the whole class watches to see how you'll deal with them. They rarely have any "outbursts", but will drop the "casual" snide remark and you're left to either ignore it or deal with it. Usually I just tell the kid that if he doesn't like it, he can leave the class. (I teach at a university, so they really CAN leave if they want.)

Also note that you'll never really be done with work. 99% of the time you will be bringing your work home with you. It's just really difficult to try to finish up grading, lesson planning, etc at work. There's not enough time. Teachers really work 7 days a week. My colleagues and I often find ourselves grading papers on the weekend and scrambling to figure out what we'll teach on Monday.

I don't want to make you think that teaching is this horrible job -- it isn't, really. Most of the time you get really nice kids, who are interesting and unique in their own ways, and it's nice to know that you're contributing to their later success in life. However, I do think that a lot of people tend to underestimate just how much work goes into being a full-time teacher. It's not just stand in front of the class and teach. There's a lot of prep work that goes into it, a lot of formalities you have to deal with with the dept, and a lot of post work as well. And be prepared to have students who will try to share some of their personal problems with you! It's up to you to decide how you'll handle this, but when you are a nice teacher, some students will grow to trust you and choose to confide in you. This can be really touching or kind of awkward. Don't be surprised if this happens to you.

If you don't like your current job, I'd focus on having lots of fun outside of it. I know a lot of bloggers who write about their lives and all of the fun things they are doing and stuff they are buying, etc etc etc but aren't particularly crazy about their jobs and just view it as a paycheck -- a way to fund all of the fun stuff they are doing outside of office hours.
posted by joyeuxamelie at 10:26 AM on November 9, 2010 [6 favorites]

Weird suggestion, but you might look into the reality show "Teach" with Tony Danza. I was watching it with my teacher mom, and it was making her feel stressed out--because it's a pretty accurate reflection of a teacher's average day. Except Danza only teaches one class, and most teachers will be teaching about six times that many students.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:53 AM on November 9, 2010

I'm not a teacher but I taught a big college undergraduate class for a semester. 220 students, 5 2-hour sections that met once a week, 21 assignments and 3 tests to grade. Paper everywhere -- that's over 5,000 individual assignments. I was sleep deprived, took grading work home with me every night, did prep work all day, and still messed up a lot of stuff. A single mistake like leaving a pile of papers at home or a computer lab being out of order caused utter chaos. It was a big complicated deal for me to arrange enough time off to get my hair cut one Sunday. The textbook we used was not my choice and far too advanced for the students to understand -- even problem 1.1 was out of most students' reach by the end of the semester. There were literally 50 people in line to see me for office hours on several occasions.

The thought that all my high school teachers had just about that workload and had to teach all day every day forever makes me feel extremely guilty. You couldn't pay me enough.

Enjoy your cushy job and do what you love as a hobby!
posted by miyabo at 11:01 AM on November 9, 2010

I don't teach high school math, but I teach mathematics at a university, and many of the classes I teach are subjects that I learned when I was in high school or younger.

It is mentally exhausting. At least the college kids can come and go as they please. The high school kids are mandated to be there by law, so they will definitely be more resistant to learning new topics. Before and after each class I teach, I set aside a good 10 minutes just to relax before I have to speak to anyone again. So, yes, very mentally taxing in a way you might not be expecting.

If you do decide to teach mathematics, please understand that you must be familiar with the topics you are discussing at a level much, much deeper than the level your students will be learning them at. Many of my students have learned extremely bad mathematical habits from their high school teachers who clearly did not understand the topics they were discussing. It's frustrating for me to have to spend so much time getting them to un-learn these bad habits. Sometimes, they hold false propositions to be true based on what their high school teachers have told them.

Good luck with your decision.
posted by King Bee at 11:03 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

My wife is a high school math teacher, but in a smaller community, and she's taught at the middle school level (well, it was a K-8 school, and she taught 7th & 8th graders) for her first student teacher. I'll see if she can add her own thoughts later.

* Energy Levels - you'll be beat for the first few months, but you'll get used to it.

* Bureaucracy - school politics vary greatly from school to school, and can change year to year. But this is reality in any office job. Dresscodes? Depends - some places it's laughable, with teachers in t-shirts and flip-flops, other places open toed shoes are forbidden. Dressing up a bit can impress kids, especially if you're worried about standing out as the adult in class. This can help for classroom management, and being taken seriously as a new teacher by more experienced teachers and administration.

* Classroom Management - my wife is amazing, she has the right mentality for teaching high school. She enjoys some of the stupid humor, can use peer pressure to get the unruly few to be quieted by their peers more often than by the teacher. I have no idea where she picked it up, beyond her own life experiences. But each class is different, as are schools. The broad mentality at a school will turn even the outliers towards a different path, for good or ill.

* Life/Work Balance - in the first few years, you'll be finding your pace, and adjusting for the classes. Once you have your patterns, it'll be easier. Use downtime during the day to grade, and you might not have much to do at the end of the day and on weekends, but there'll always be more grading. Depending on the school, the teacher involvement in extra-curricular activities could be up to the teachers, or expected at the school level. My wife tries to go to one event for each sport, play, etc., but that's something she likes to do, not something required of her. As for the holiday breaks being your only breaks - I think it works well enough, as the holiday breaks are usually a few weeks, allowing for significant personal time between things. You do get vacation time, but it's usually more work than it's worth, as your vacation days are days you're not teaching.

In private vs. public, and affluent vs. low-income, there's a difference in students and a difference in parents. Where a C+ on a test results in positive call home from the teacher in the lower income school*, the parents call the teacher in the upper income school with questions about a mysterious lack of books at home.** Parental involvement can be intense, or it can be non-existent, each with their good and bad points.

* the student was struggling with math, but she was improving, so my wife called home to tell the student's mom. Mom got her daughter flowers, and the student came back to school very happy the next day - no one ever called with good news before. It was really sweet all around.

** the kid somehow didn't pick up books the first day of school, and that worried his parents. He got books the next day, and he was able to borrow books while in class, so he didn't have to haul 40 lb of books to and from home.

If you want to teach in low-income schools, I think there's a good chance you can get your student loans forgiven for teaching in a "less desirable" school for 5 or so years. There can be more work with the kids, but there might be less apathy from the teachers. In the little school district where my wife teaches, the teachers at the "better" school are lazy because their students always do better than the other school. Except 1) this year, some math scores were better at the other school, and 2) their scores still aren't great compared to state averages.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:07 PM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I may answer this in better detail later, but I think it is absolutely worth pointing out that, in my fairly urban district with pay I'm pretty sure is in the middle of the range for the nation, the earliest you can possibly reach 70K/year is after 12 years of experience...and that's with 90 graduate credits past your bachelor's. Seriously. Most beginning teachers in my district start at about the 49K level and it creeps up incrementally from there with time.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:23 PM on November 9, 2010

Have you seen this?

I'm a teacher and I started answering your questions but then I thought that you should absolutely work as a substitute teacher at the level and area of your interest and only then decide if you want to continue.

While your experience is okay, it's nothing close to teaching a real class of kids. And you're no going to get close to 70k for a very long time. But you do have summers off.

It boils down to this...those of us who LOVE teaching wake up refreshed and excited daily. We do feel honored to be able to do this with our lives.

And we work with a lot of "I know English so I'm going to teach it" horrible teachers.

Memail me if you want to chat further.
posted by dzaz at 1:32 PM on November 9, 2010

In my experience, high school kids are great. It's not too hard to get them to be excited about mathematics. By high school, they're well used to the idea that they have to be there and do what you tell them to. If you give them something to do while they're there, you'll have no problems. I've had much more trouble teaching undergraduate classes, where attendance is kind-of-sort-of optional.

Grading is nearly in impossible task, just because there is so much of it. Most high school math teachers I know don't even bother to grade homework assignments. They give participation points and stick to grading quizzes and exams. You lose a lot of feedback that way, but it's all that you really have time for. Without that grading, it's easy to get out of touch with what your class understands and teach to what you think they understand instead.

If you really, really care about teaching math, particularly if you care about improving the math you teach, then your biggest difficulty will be with administrators and parents. Everybody has an opinion about how math should be taught, and it's usually of the form "math should be taught exactly the way I (learned/failed to learn) it 30 years ago when I was a student." This makes any time of innovation incredibly difficult and incredibly frustrating. You will meet resistance, not from the students, but from the people who have power over you (parents and administrators). People don't understand math, but they CARE about it anyway, and they want to make sure it's taught well, where "well" is filtered through their poor understanding. A common complaint I got from parents (passed down the chain of command third or fourth hand) was "Don't teach this way because I don't understand it, so I don't know how to help my kid."

The biggest frustration is that there's just not enough time to do the job well. Teaching well requires good preparation, as well as recording and watching yourself teaching so that you can improve. You just don't have time for that. Good teaching requires being in touch with your class so that you don't assume they understand something that they don't and get ahead of them, but you don't have time to look at their work every day and really figure out how they're thinking. Good teaching requires building up math one idea at a time and make sure your students really understand it so that when they use it to build later ideas, they take it for granted, but real teaching is cramming all the topics in in time for the test.

Attrition is high. Most teachers quit their first year or or their first semester. Usually it's a combination of the workload, time pressure, and the lack of authority over you own teaching, sometimes it's problems with the students.

All that said, if you can manage your time well, and are good at dealing with people telling you what to do (even when they're wrong), then teaching is very rewarding and a lot of fun. It's very difficult to start out, but you get better at it.
posted by yeolcoatl at 1:36 PM on November 9, 2010

I'm a high school math teacher- let's switch jobs!:)
posted by bquarters at 1:48 PM on November 9, 2010

Energy Levels - If you're a slacker, your energy levels will be low. If you care, you will get caught up with your students and it will wipe out your energy levels.
Bureaucracy - Probably the worst environment ever. Arbitrary decisions made for reasons that have no benefit to the education of the students. And the environment of the adults will be like high school all over again.
Classroom Management - This is where most teachers fail.
Life/Work Balance - You're already working 70 hour weeks. What life do you have?

IANAT, but my wife is. She gets past all that stuff because she is passionate about what she does. She really, really loves to teach. If you really, really love to teach, you will do fine. If this is not your dream, then it will be tough to succeed. The one thing that really gets her down is the bureaucracy and politics. There are too many people making too many contradictory decisions, all of which result in more work for the teachers. It just saps her energy.

On the plus side, she teaches at a school with a lot of disadvantaged students. She can see what impact she has on their lives, and its huge. That gives her a lot of satisfaction. A teacher came from a more well-to-do district a couple years ago and was doubtful about the school. He quickly realized that at his old school, the suburban kids would do fine regardless of who the teacher was. At this school, though, a teacher can make a huge difference in the students' lives. It can be pretty heady stuff.
posted by Doohickie at 1:52 PM on November 9, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for your comments so far!
To answer a few comments that have come up here & on mefi mail - i.e. more snowflake details:
  • I'm pretty certain I want to teach at the high school level, but would consider junior high as well. As a math geek, I personally best relate to students who are also into math - the best job I've ever had was tutoring gifted & talented kids who wanted to be challenged more. That being said, I've had a lot of great experiences helping students "get" a math technique for the first time, and wouldn't mind repeating that in the classroom.
  • I know I'm in for a paycut. My husband is supportive of this possible career move and the cut in our household income. Between the two of us, we're doing well enough financially that we can handle the drop, but having my income go from 70K to, say, 30K (I understand private school teachers get paid thereabouts) suddenly will be a big pinch. 50K and small slow raises afterwards would be much more doable.
  • I created my own syllabi for the summer math classes I taught, wrote tests, graded problem sets & tests, etc, so I'm familiar with the amount of work (lots!) there. I'm not familiar with how it changes over time, or how burdensome it seems when it lasts more than a summer.
  • I'm currently working 10 - 12 hour days plus commute plus some weekends, so I'm not sure how I could work as a substitute or volunteer in a school, short of using up scarce vacation days.
  • Location is absolutely non-negotiable for the foreseeable future - we just moved to Silicon Valley for my husband's dream job.
  • I truly love math, and all of my teaching/tutoring experiences have been really rewarding so far. I know there's a lot of great benefits to teaching - I'm more worried about hidden negatives that I don't know about.

posted by Gori Girl at 2:31 PM on November 9, 2010

I truly love math

Yes, so do I. Much, much more than any of my students believe.

As was said above, this is not enough. Also, because all your teaching experiences have been rewarding so far, it may be more crushing when you have an experience that isn't. You will have them. You will have students who just refuse to listen to you, but you still have to grade their papers. This will infuriate you. You will waste your precious time on many a person who just doesn't care about mathematics the way you do (or at all).

Also, nobody really loves the kind of "math" that you'd end up teaching, right? Sitting around and adding fractions together all day long or simply "solving for x" certainly isn't my idea of anything interesting. However, as an instructor, you have to make it interesting for them so that they will try to learn it. Struggling with how to do that day-in, day-out is one of the negatives.
posted by King Bee at 3:18 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

50K and small slow raises afterwards would be much more doable.

I work in a well-paid public district and first year teachers with a Master's start at 38k. 50k is probably not going to happen.

I truly love math

It's more important to love kids and to love teaching.

I'm more worried about hidden negatives that I don't know about.

I love teaching, but here are the biggest headaches:

*Arbitrary and unsupportive administration. Every few years there are initiatives that are nonsensical that you will be forced to adopt.

*You will be given curriculum that you may hate and you still have to get through so many concepts in so many days and unfortunately, some kids will struggle but you still have to keep plowing through.

*Rigid curriculum that you can't really make fun or accessible. You're not going to be able to write your own syllabus.

*Apathetic students and even worse, apathetic parents.

*Parents who always want to meet and discuss the difficulties of their precious baby who will take up all your time if you let them.

*You will probably have to teach to the test.

*Endless meetings where nothing gets decided or accomplished. Grade level meetings, team meetings, school-based meetings, district meetings, committee meetings.

*The social atmosphere can be very similar to that of middle school...incredible backstabbing, nastiness and quite a few coworkers who can only seem to grouse about "those lazy kids today;"

*Classroom management problems can destroy teachers because a lot of kids don't care about school, they don't care about what you're teaching, and they're used to much more immediate gratification playing video games. Some kids are shockingly rude and disrespectful and their parents will not be on your side, and the administration will blame you for lacking management skills. New teachers either err by being jokey and "cool" or by ruling with an iron fist that demonstrates no respect for kids.

*The hours are absolutely endless. Every lesson you taught could have been done better, there are always new methods to learn, countless ways to better reach the kids. You have to learn to let it go at some point.

*Lastly, the biggest problem I see with first year teachers is that they don't understand disabilities and how they play out in the classroom. It's possible that a full 1/3 of your class will be kids who have disabilities ranging from visually impaired to dyslexia to autism to Oppositional Behavior Disorder. You will be expected to know how to accommodate those students and help them learn without any support while you also teach the neurotypical kids.

I still believe that I have the best job in the world, but this is what teaching looks like.
posted by dzaz at 4:06 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty certain I want to teach at the high school level, but would consider junior high as well. As a math geek, I personally best relate to students who are also into math - the best job I've ever had was tutoring gifted & talented kids who wanted to be challenged more. That being said, I've had a lot of great experiences helping students "get" a math technique for the first time, and wouldn't mind repeating that in the classroom.

Last semester I student taught (in social studies) with a guy who was also student teaching in math. I was completely baffled by how hard it is day in and day out to simply get the students somewhat motivated because there was such a high resistance to doing math, more so than for any other subject. From the first day of class, many students come in with an indifferent or sometimes outright hostile attitude towards math, and many of my friend's students saw his class as a time to play around, text, etc. because they weren't willing to engage with the subject. There was a pervasive hostility to even the concept of math that he had to overcome before they could even really do any work. It would have been so emotionally draining for me, but it was completely his calling and he loved all of it.

A fairly significant part of your job will be about overcoming this opinion, because you can't teach it until they're willing to learn. Helping the gifted & talented students learn math is great, but recognize that that's a pretty small percentage of students. Do you also derive satisfaction from helping lower level students? Are you interested in convincing them why math is important as much as you are in teaching them about fractions? Will you be able to engage with a student who doesn't engage with you every single day? Would you enjoy teaching remedial math classes?

I would try to find as many opportunities as possible to observe classrooms before you take the big leap. That may involve taking a few vacation days to shadow a teacher at a local high school, or find a way to substitute teach. See as many different age and skill levels as possible. Those experiences will be the most helpful when deciding whether you want to teach.
posted by lilac girl at 4:11 PM on November 9, 2010

First year high school math teacher here. I teach in an urban, low-income (free lunch > 85%) public school and yes, I should be grading right now. ;)

* Energy Levels - I got used to being on my feet pretty easily: I am on my feet much of the day and walk about 3 miles in total to and from work each day. I've made sure to have good shoes! I am tired, but I think it's more mentally than physically tired. I teach two subjects (Algebra and Geometry) and approximately 90 students.

* Bureaucracy - This depends greatly on the district and the school. My colleagues and administration are wonderful. You will likely be teaching to a test. I do know of several teachers who do blog under their own names and do not have any problems. My school doesn't have a strict dress code for teachers. The students are in uniform, however.

* Classroom Management - I'd suggest volunteering a low-income, urban public school and observing several teachers. I knew I wanted to teach after volunteering in a math classroom. It can be rough working with students who are unmotivated. I've had some successes with students who had no confidence in their math skills (and were thus not terribly motivated), but am still working to engage many more. Your height and gender shouldn't play much of a role in your management; consistency (and a good teacher voice/look) will likely be much more important.

* Life/Work Balance - I don't know yet. I try to do one fun thing out with friends a week, normally Friday night or Saturday. I do spend most of my evenings and at least one day of the weekend planning and/or grading.

A few links to check out:
Math for America - non-profit dedicated to improving secondary math education in the US by recruiting, training, and retaining outstanding math teachers. There isn't a new teacher Fellowship in your area yet, but there may be soon. MfA also has great resources.
f(t) - Kate Nowak's blog (6th year HS math teacher)
dy/dan - Dan Myer's blog

Feel free to MeFi me if you have further questions.
posted by wiskunde at 4:39 PM on November 9, 2010

I've been teaching ESL for about 12 years, and there are a couple things I can think of that might help you

*Energy levels: being on your feet all day is at first, exhausting, then you get used to it. On the other hand, years down the line, you're going to feel the cumulative effects of standing. My knees no longer have a positive relationship with me, and I've never had any form of knee injury in the past. More importantly, teaching is very demanding mentally. I went from being a student to being a teacher, and the difference was exhausting. Students (and people who work in front of a computer) can freely zone out from time to time. They can take little mental vacations. Teachers can't. In class, they need to be 'on' at all times, actively paying attention to the class, all of the students, and the dynamics between them. It can be pretty tiring when you first start out.

*I can't say much about beauracracy, as I've never worked in the American school system.

*Classroom management: It's tricky. You need to find a balance between what your students feel is fair, and what you feel will help you run the classroom. A good number of your students will be bored, and if they aren't capable of dealing with that on their own, they'll actively seek ways to be less bored. Other students will profoundly not want to be there. And, with luck, you might have a couple students genuinely interested in the subject. Your job is going to be to try to get everyone interested in the class, and what you're teaching. It can be hell, but the first time you managed to capture the attention of the students who don't want to be there, it feels great.

As for rules and structure, you have to be fair. You can't under any circumstances let student A get away with something then come down on B for doing the same. You really, really shouldn't make changes as you go along. If the rules are always changing, students will get upset, or decide that the rules are meaningless, since they'll likely be different the next day.

*Life/Work: 5 classes a day? Homework everyday? If you've got a textbook, that's a help, but you still need to make your own lessons to make the textbook seem interesting. Planning lessons takes hours in the beginning. When I first started teaching, I was on a nearly 1:1 ratio when it came to planning hours and teaching hours. The thing is, it gets better. I've planned so many lessons on subject A that I can usually plan, create worksheets, and have materials ready in a fraction of the time it used to take me. The first year you will be swamped by all of the work, and to be honest, you'll be creating a lot of that work for yourself. The first year is where you make your mistakes, where you find out what works and what doesn't. The second year is about fixing those mistakes, improving lessons, and figuring out how to do everything more efficiently. The third year, and every year after that is more of the same, but hopefully easier because of the experience you're gaining.

I do enjoy teaching, but it's not an easy job, and if you're in the wrong situation, it can be hell. While you might hate your job right now, it's a pretty well-paying hell. Teaching can be heaven, but it's almost certainly not going to pay well, pretty much ever, and you will be doing something like twice as much work. Something to think about.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:08 PM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I taught high school math for the last 4 years in an inner-city school in NYC.

Specific Answers
* Energy Levels - Being on your feet all day is exhausting, as is communicating with people all day long if you're an introvert (which I am). Like others have mentioned, though, the real energy issue is the mental/emotional part. You are answering questions, making decisions, dealing with problems, etc etc all day long.
* Bureaucracy - School politics will vary from one school to the next. I have seen schools where the administration is terribly unsupportive and schools where the principal trusts and respects his teachers. Sometimes members of a math department get along, and other times they don't. When you're looking for a teaching job, this is definitely something to consider.
* Classroom Management - Like others have said, this can be extremely challenging and makes the difference between a great lesson and an awful one! There are somewhere around fifty billion articles and books that have been written on the subject (for what it's worth, I recommend "Teach Like a Champion"). You also learn a lot from student teaching/observing great teachers do it. I know lots of teachers who are great at it, and lots who are not so great...Personally, I fall into the latter group, not so much because I'm small and a woman, but more because consistency and discipline are not huge strengths for me. I did find success motivating my students, though, and keeping them on track, by sharing with them my enthusiasm for math.
* Life/Work Balance - The work load for the first year is unbelievable, because you are planning lessons and grading, for multiple preps probably, with limited resources in terms of previous years lessons to use. There's also all this other stuff that people don't necessarily think about when they imagine teaching, like having to call homes all the time, and do certain duties within the school, and attend lots of meetings, and work with student data. It's a very hard balance in that first year when you didn't realize you'd have all these responsibilities and suddenly have to figure out when the necessary stuff (the planning/grading) will fit in. Yikes. The second year is a little easier though, and by my fourth year I felt WAY more prepared when September came around.

One pro, however: Teaching is incredibly meaningful work. What you do matters to these kids, particularly in lower-income areas. The kids can be very challenging to work with, and give you a hard time, but when you are absent for a day they miss you and want to know where you were. They will remember you for years to come.

Also, I know people are saying that loving math isn't enough, and that's true, but I do think it's a great start. There are lots of math teachers out there who don't know math, don't care about math, or had bad experiences with it growing up, themselves, that then pass on misconceptions or negative thoughts about math to their classes. Loving math and being enthusiastic about math education is, I think, a great reason to get into teaching!
posted by violetish at 9:02 PM on November 9, 2010

Some previous questions may be relevant. Not to diss either teaching or your current profession, it sounds to me like you'd be jumping from one very substantial grind to another, while accepting less pay. There are tons of jobs out there that would probably offer a better work/life/pay balance and involve actual math challenges for you. And the cost to investigate those opportunities is really, really low.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:25 PM on November 9, 2010

Subbing is not the same as teaching. I know of one teacher who chose to be a professional sub, opting for the life of no homework to grade or classes to plan, but that is a rarity. Subbing means being thrown into a new class every day, or maybe having a long-term stint for a more serious illness, or even covering for maternity/paternity leave. The kids know you aren't there to teach a normal class, and sometimes they'll test you.

I think a better way to learn about life in the classroom would be to sit in on some classes. Given you're schedule, you'd need to take some vacation days, but if you could call around first and see two drastically different schools in a day, talk to some students, teachers and administrators, you could get a feel for what goes on every day.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:43 AM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, this question could not have come at a better time--this fall my husband made a major career change and abruptly began teaching high school math (9th grade algebra to be specific). It's been quite a thing to witness.

Lots of things. Others have mentioned the pay cut, and it's true, aaand at least where we are if you want to assuage some of your fears about the worst parts (horrible bureaucracy, lack of resources, standardized/factory unlearning environment hell, unmotivated kids and parents, etc.) and go for greater job satisfaction right out the gate by teaching in a nicer district or private school you take an even greater pay cut. My husband is an idealist still and was committed to teaching public school, and specifically inner city school because he went to a hoity toity all boys private school growing up and is against the notion. He makes a lot more than he would if he had decided to teach in the suburbs/county system or private, but the retention rate is predictably much lower where he is, and it's of course more stressful. Even given how much more he is making by making the hard choice, he still isn't making anywhere near what you mention you're making, and even once his masters is finished by next year and his pay goes up it won't be anywhere close. Someone upthread mentioned it could take a good 10 years to make 70k as a high school teacher; that sounds about right to me (my mother was a middle school language arts teacher for over 30 years and it was only in the last decade or so she was making around 75-80k, and that was after being head of a million committees, there for over 2 decades, and indispensable, etc.).

Lesson planning can consume you if you let it. A lot of it depends on what sort of worker you are in the first place though--my husband is treading water work-schedule-wise, but it's admittedly because he has ADD and has a hell of a time staying organized and focused, breaking tasks up into manageable pieces and plowing through them one by one. In my opinion, you need to be good at that sort of thing, as well as at prioritizing and realizing which sectioned off bits of work on your to-do list can be ditched first when you run out of time and resources, because you inevitably will, quite often. You will constantly be asked to manage a million different things at once from many different areas--parents, kids, principals, standards, board meetings, etc.--and you need to be able to figure out what you can let go of and what absolutely matters most. A good friend of mine who is crazy Type A and a very successful dedicated young teacher routinely stays up til midnight obsessively planning, and even she says you learn right away the first year just how much you have to be able to let go of some things in order to move on and stay effective.

You need to be mad structured too, especially the younger you teach--depending on your environment freshmen might still need a ton of the structure and subtle coddling you'd associate with middle school and junior high (a consistent way each day goes in terms of sectioned parts/tasks, specific way homework assignments are presented/recorded/collected, bell work, etc.). Someone on Mefi mentioned Teach Like a Pro to help provide an efficient, effective, energetic mindset towards tackling lesson planning and classroom management and it is really fucking good; I highly recommend it.

So really, are you the kind of person who doesn't mind the idea of like, 3 different planners/calendars going, filing work and documentation meticulously every week, keeping a record book of parent numbers and what you say whenever you talk to them, knowing every single day you walk in there will be a predetermined order to how things go, etc. If the idea of that energizes you or at least doesn't freak you out and overwhelm you, it'll be much easier. This super organized retrievable documentation aspect has become more and more of a big deal I suspect as teaching to the test and bureaucratic standards and all that have moved in...

My husband hasn't any problems with things I would find daunting, like yeah, standing in front of people all day without being drained physically and emotionally, or coming up with helpful and creative ways to get kids interested and explain things clearly. That's the part he loves and he says all the time once he gets his shit together after the first couple years re: planned lessons, he knows he'll love teaching a lot because he'll be able to focus on the spontaneous interactive part he thrives on.

A lot of it is a crapshoot re: social environment, you'd be surprised. We weren't sure what it was going to be like because of stories friends who made similar career jumps slightly earlier described; it varies wildly. You can't take things personally, especially if you're somewhere seemingly socially rough or totally alien, but you should have standards and a cool, calm sense of what is appropriate and what is not, boundaries etc. You need to be able to assert yourself without getting emotional.

We were surprised because the parents really, really respect education and treat my husband almost reverently, they're so respectful. If he calls and tells a parent a kid isn't achieving or is misbehaving or whatever, it's crazy how the very next day the kid will be totally different, you can tell the parent really talked to them and made it clear how important it is. It varies though, and it's hard to know how that's going to go until you're in it--other friends have had the exact opposite experience in similar communities, where they can't get a hold of anyone, and if they finally manage to the parents are pissed they've been bothered, or even drunk or high or whatever, something that makes it crystal clear why the kid's having problems in the first place, where it's a wonder they even make it to school...

You might be able to get a sense of the administration though. That's been huge for my husband--despite the city district's frustrating bureaucratic inefficiency and all that, his actual day to day coworkers and bosses all have his back for the most part. You can sort of grok this when you go job interviewing, and from talking to teachers beforehand.

Right now, my husband's work/life balance is all out of sorts with no end in sight anytime soon. But again, part of it is a lack of organization on his part, aaaand he's still finishing up his master's degree at the same time. But you can very easily tell that if you really do the work of making decent flexible versatile useful lesson plans the first year or so, and get a system down for how you juggle the other stuff as well each day in under X amount of time, it could become a very, very manageable, even peachy job work/life balance wise. Just not for at least a couple years--I'm glad we're not, you know, having a baby right now, if you get my drift.

This isn't an issue for many professionals, but it was for us--having holidays off just as a given no matter what is so, so nice.
posted by ifjuly at 8:23 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I meant to say too he's looking forward to teaching AP math in a few years (the policy where he is is you have to teach a couple years first and then get certified specifically for that). Things like that--where you have to pay your dues like any job, but if you do and have your eye on the prize work life could be pretty sweet.
posted by ifjuly at 8:24 AM on November 10, 2010

And I agree subbing is not teaching. I subbed years back and it was awful, and I have three friends now who have subbed regularly for at least a few years. One did it with teaching in mind later and the experience put her off it entirely; the other two did eventually transition to teaching and were relieved at what cake it was relatively. Subbing is torture on so many levels, and the skills needed to be decent at it (thinking fast on your feet, flexibility, spontaneity) are entirely different from those of a good teacher (meticulous planning!).
posted by ifjuly at 8:26 AM on November 10, 2010

And yeah, the one close friend who went from subbing to teaching and liked both was subbing all year for maternity leave, so it makes sense he didn't hate it as much as my friend who does the whole "get a call each day where to go" deal. (shudder)
posted by ifjuly at 8:27 AM on November 10, 2010

And oops, it's not Teach Like a Pro, it's Teach Like a Champion. The author has videos online of examples of effective teachers too; we found out after my husband was directed to them in a workshop (I feel so validated as I'd bought the book for him way before that, ha).
posted by ifjuly at 8:42 AM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and to keep yourself sane re: grading (bc as mentioned it adds up insanely if you're not careful) make sure you've got a homework system down that's efficient in motivating your students to do it and get it right without requiring you to collect assignments constantly. Usually this involves an element of uncertainty--will they or won't they collect it today, or call on me to answer or demonstrate my work and grade my participation, etc.--as well as in-class review.
posted by ifjuly at 10:18 AM on November 10, 2010

Yea, I would recommend subbing too. I explored the idea of teaching a few years ago when I was between jobs. I'm an introvert and got really good classroom management training through a education-based placement agency, but I could only handle going in 2-3 days/ week because it was pretty draining to me (although I'm a pretty anxious person too, so that may have had something to do with it). I loved being in school again and when I had the energy I loved interacting with alot of unique, amusing, nice kids, but I dont think I could do it full time because of my need to work on my own to keep my batteries charged.
posted by theNeutral at 1:52 PM on December 7, 2010

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