The Other Side of Teaching

I recently started substituting at a school. I hope to become a full-time teacher one day. So far this experience has made me ask myself “what am I actually signing up for?”. While this needs a multi-faceted answer, something has stood out to me so far: the emotional aspect of teaching.

While on the job, I was speaking to a colleague about her thoughts on substituting. She noted that before considering this job, she initially wanted to work as a social worker and even considered becoming a parole officer in a prison. But she noticed that she did not want to help people later on in their lives when their personal problems and habits had already taken hold of their lives. She wanted to get closer to the root of their issues. The thought of becoming a teacher entered her head and since then she has pursued that route. Teaching would allow her to hopefully make a positive impact early in a person’s lives and encourage mature development. However, it is in this sense that this profession becomes emotionally heavy and fatiguing.

Paradoxically, as a teacher gains the trust of his/her students, the students begin to open up to them about the non-academic side of their lives. While this personal connection can help support education in and out of the classroom it also means teachers indirectly start to become responsible for that part of the child’s life.

My friend continued her story and recounted to me an instance where one teacher was brought to tears after becoming immersed in listening to and bearing the problems shared by one of her pupils. Students may often share stories of abuse or dysfunctional families. Even if the stories they share are not as emotionally heavy as this, the mere frequency of being exposed to the slightly negative experiences felt by others can become an aggregated emotional burden. It is similar to holding 50 glasses of water, the total weight becomes too much for one person.

Additionally, it seems that this counseling side of teaching does not end after the child is no longer one’s student. One of my middle-school teachers recounted to our class about how some of his past students came to him for advice when they found out they became pregnant in high school. Add this to the fact that he is also caring for his current students, and is expected to teach classes: the job sounds increasingly intimidating.

At this point, I wonder if it is best for teachers to refrain from developing a deep relationship with students if one wants to avoid the risk of depression and psychological fatigue. But is an impersonal teaching approach best? This returns to my first inquiry, “What am I actually signing myself up for?”.

Admittedly, I do not have a complete answer. But, so far I am beginning to see that teaching involves greater responsibility and counseling outside the classroom. It entails listening to students to the level of understanding and bearing with their emotional/personal burdens. In many ways teachers are instructors who are part-time psychologists or counselors or even a parent. Teaching naturally forms a relationship between the instructor and student. The degree this occurs is subjective from person to person, but this connection is nonetheless inevitable. It is something to keep in mind when we think about our current and prospective teachers. I still do not understand the burden of this job, and am only beginning to understand its emotional toll. For this reason, among many, is why we should thank and appreciate those who have served our schools. Many have answered the call to take on this role, and I still hope to be one of them some day.