by Benjamin M. G. Walker
Heading into my student teaching semester, I was already heavily leaning toward going to graduate school outright and pursuing teaching in higher education. I was hesitant about the K-12 system because of the lack of public support as well as the emphasis on standardized assessment and bureaucratic red-tape involved in most day-to-day things. And frankly, I was passionate about competitive college speech. But since I had to complete student teaching, I figured I’d give it a fair shot and come into it with an open mind. Maybe I would find it to be everything I had hoped for and nothing I had feared. Maybe the experience would be transformative. Maybe . . . well, I wanted to leave the option open for “maybe.”
I could give you the complete narrative of my experiences, but I’ll save you from that and give you the abridged tale. As you can probably guess, it didn’t work out. Yes, I got through the semester and I even taught the following semester as a long-term substitute. So I guess I was doing a decent job. I enjoyed the lessons and the students (for the most part). I always had great stories to tell at the end of the day. But what drove me from that career path wasn’t what I thought would. And maybe I was naïve, but let me say this for those that have never taught in the K-12 system:
The bathrooms made me quit teaching high school.
I am not talking about the cleanliness, although that is a commentary in itself. Ask the average office worker when they can use the bathroom and they will most likely respond with something like “whenever I need to” or “when I get a free minute.” That sounds fair. As a high school teacher my bathroom time was set aside for me every day. I had lunch and my prep-period. That’s it. Which means if I had the sudden urge to drop a deuce during 4th period, I had to wait 3 more hours before I could excuse myself.
Why? Well, the system is set up to herd students like cattle. And you can’t have cattle unless you have someone watching the cattle. And the cattle must be watched while in their cages . . . er, classes, as well as when you shuttle them to the next destination. It’s my ass if one of the cattle bullies another cattle, or if one cattle wants to write cattle-swears on the board that I don’t understand. Essentially, I was always on duty.
But it was more than not being able to visit the facilities during the day. It was the fact that kids are everywhere. Again, maybe I was naïve but the cold reality of having little privacy, or “me-time,” smacked me in the face hard.
Teachers can tell you that when you start teaching you turn on “teacher mode.” Eventually, Teacher Mode becomes something easily switched on. I didn’t have a problem turning on the Mode. I had issue with always having to be “on.” The social performance was constant. I was physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of each day.
Now, we can probably all agree that this isn’t a problem for many teachers. And that is fine. If their personality can handle the Mode all day, I applaud them. But that isn’t me. Never has been and probably never will be. I saw greener pastures in higher education and I sprinted for that open field.
I am someone who needs time and space to unwind. Sure I can think when the cattle are around, but I can’t relax because the cattle are staring at me! Ok, well they might not be staring at me but I can feel the eyes. Someone is always watching. I only relax when I am with friends and family or at home. By myself. Where no one can see me be imperfect. I sometimes wish I wasn’t like this, but I am learning to appreciate myself for who I am. And who I am doesn’t want to worry about whether I smile enough, make enough eye contact, make the right joke, teach the lesson well, or eat the right food (what? Cake for lunch is legit!). But I can’t help but feel the judgment coming from other teachers and from the blood-thirsty, waiting-to-pounce-on-my-latest-mistake cattle. It ended up being crippling. And because I feel this way to a socially defined extreme, I definitely had issues with teaching in a high school.
If you are considering teaching K-12 or just wonder if you’d be a good fit for it as you daydream on your couch, please consider what I did not: what are your social limitations and how will they react to your working environment? This is critical. Or at least it was for me.
Figure out what your bathroom issue is. Teaching is hard enough with all the hurdles being thrown our way. Knowing how you will react to the hurdles can help you either cope or get the heck out of Dodge. What’s your bathroom?