Why teaching is terrible…

… and why we do it anyway.

Is the subtitle of a knockout book on what teaching is actually, really like. If you have children, if you plan to teach them, or are the survivor of thirty years of teaching, or are simply baffled by children, READ THIS BOOK (if you come from the UK you might want to check out the ages of the different grades in the US).DSCN8791 - Version 2 Searching for Malumba is written in intermittent diary format running from 2000 to 2015. Each entry comes hot, often scorchingly so, off the keyboard and varies from hilarious to heart-breaking. You read this with your mouth hanging open in shock about where these kids are coming from and what kind of homes they go back to. You also read it with sympathetic fury at the authorities wilful misunderstanding about testing, teacher pay and worst of all the nature of children themselves. In contrast, you also read with delight and outright laughter about children and teacher’s successes and gaffes.

Children en masse scare me and so, although I have worked with them in schools, six at a time is my maximum.* I made things easy by doing workshops which the kids thought were games (and even included some board games). I also tested kids for my PhD thesis (and discovered how some relished, and some were terrified of, tests). All children need sensitive, perceptive, firm, fair, patient and compassionate handling and that’s before you can actually teach them anything. When you get to teaching bit, you need another whole set of skills… I won’t even start on these, because I know I lack them.

I am in total awe of someone who can handle 30 plus children at any one time, many with built in challenges – physical, mental and environmental AND succeed in imparting information to them. After following Luther Siler’s blog Infinitefreetime.com for at least a couple of years, I know him as a superbly entertaining, passionate communicator. He has principles I agree with, he writes with insight and empathy about the different experiences of being male and female, and he has an astonishing breadth of education and experience. Oh, and he writes and publishes science fiction too.

Teachers are secular saints. I repeat, READ THIS BOOK, you will laugh and gnash your teeth, but you will enjoy it.


* Well, with one exception. I was asked to do something with the kids in the local middle school (ages 8 to 10) on dinosaurs for National Reading Week – even though, back then, I was a sculptor. The local museum lent me a couple of real dinosaur bones and the local hospital gave the school many packets of out-of-date plaster bandages. Over the course of a week most of the kids in the school passed through my makeshift workshop in their dining area and produced this… Linton Heights dinosaur 1991It was scary and exhilarating. Was I in control or teaching anything? Not really. I acted more as a circus ringmaster with the entire menagerie, clowns and animals together in the ring. We may have broken several health and safety rules, we made a godalmighty mess, but every child impressed themselves by their achievement. (The big round lump is a dinosaur egg about to hatch).

41 thoughts on “Why teaching is terrible…

  1. My mother was a teacher–first middle school and then eventually a college professor. My sister and sister-in-law are teachers. It’s a difficult job, and the stories they tell amaze me. But it’s rewarding for them too. Three cheers for teachers!

  2. I especially like the sub-title of this book. Teaching is indeed terrible, and indeed we do it anyway! As a life-long denizen of schools, on both sides of the desk, I came to the conclusion that I love to learn, but I hate being taught.

    (That is one great-looking dinosaur!)

    • As a perpetual student, I guess I must like being taught. Though learning as an adult is infinitely more fun than it was as a child (for me). I certainly prefer it to teaching.
      As an art-work the dinosaur hardly makes the grade, but I discovered months later that the museum that had lent the bones (which I returned) came and dismantled Mrs Dinosaur and set her up in their museum. She is long gone.

  3. Pingback: Why teaching is terrible… | Infinitefreetime.com

  4. I shall have to take your exhortations seriously, being both a teacher and a parent, and read this book. I fell into teaching special education quite by accident but I love it. Hard and sometimes heartbreaking work but enormously rewarding.

    I wish I’d been in your dinosaur class – looks like a lot of fun!

    • Do read it, I think it is different and quite special. I had to read some other books (for deadlines) while I was reading this and every time I couldn’t wait to get back to it.
      If you like making (white) mud pies you would have enjoyed the dinosaur, though there was nothing as organised as a class.

  5. Teaching was very difficult for the religious teacher at my high school back in 1955 or so. He was a black robed priest. He kept on teaching about the love of God and how we should keep Faith. We were yawningly indifferent and it was not the subject but the man himself. Perhaps he was doubting his own faith. I mean a man dressed in black, joined to a religion excluding and banning his desires for the opposite sex (or same sex) forever. In any case, one boy when asked about his love of God, answered ‘the atom bomb’!
    The poor teacher-priest lost it. He went through the rows of boys swinging his fists left right and center. A berserk priest as never before. His head bobbing between his shoulders, sobbingly mad. That was the last we saw of him.
    Teaching is an art and should be rewarded much more.

    • What a memory! I spent three years in a Belgian boarding school convent where the nuns thought nothing of slapping us around, but no berserk priests! Teaching is indeed and art, few people seem to understand this, they think it is about knowledge.

  6. My husband retired from teaching last fall. 28 years in an urban high school with a huge population of English-as-a-second-language students as well as a large portion from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. We were at a Christmas party with some of his co-workers and it was as though his self-censor button was turned off when he retired and the stories he told I’d never heard before were disturbing and sadly comical and sometimes frightening. I don’t know how he managed for so long. This looks like a book he would enjoy.

  7. My daughter, Tasha, is a teacher. Peggy was a teacher and her mom was a teacher. And from what I can tell, all very good. Peggy also worked at as an Elementary school that among other things had 19 different languages spoken. As you know, I spent my two years in Africa as a teacher, and it forever gave me a respect of just how challenging the profession is, and how important. –Curt

  8. I’ve had some fabulous teachers 😊 I used to love art projects like your dinosaur, I made a wicker deer once, creativity opens the mind, figuring out how to keep it upright and balanced must have been difficult.

    • I used to play board games about art, that were really sneaky maths lessons, and practice in turn taking. Mostly I tried to free them from expecting to turn out replicas of real life. You are right about the dinosaur. The kinds were always 10 steps ahead of me piling weight onto the metal armature as I added another prop here or reinforcement there. It was not very stable.

  9. Having taught for thirty three years I am now avoiding books on teaching but might try that one. Opher another blogger wrote one about his time as a headteacher. Agree how the system seems to undermine the morse important dynamic between child and teacher, understanding and then the mix of so much patience, fairness and firmness. I needed to be very determined and then found my students would also be to learn. It is great when creative things really take off. We went for some walks in a local nature reserve and the students wrote and drew some fantastic stuff.

      • Yes, I will have a go as I wanted to write my own when I just left and then found other stuff to write here. I wrote a bit and that was cathartic for me and I then wanted to focus on my new life and nature. But I always keep up with what is happening in Education in the UK and still have friends teaching. I fear for the young teachers and burn out.

  10. I did my time too for 7 years, and I don’t want to be a proclaimed saint 😀 This was fun to read, Hilary. You kept them interested and engaged and I think it is not possible without breaking a rule or two. I bet you are glad you had that experience in your life.

Leave a Reply to Paula Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s