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When Does Teaching Cease to Be a Challenge?

An interesting conversation about teacher retention emerged recently, beginning with Shawn Cornally thinking outloud about how to keep good teachers in the system, and later moving over to Dan Meyer’s blog where he discussed the twin pressures on novice teachers.

In describing how good teachers often ultimately feel a pull out of the classroom, Dan Meyer says

The job becomes untenable at about the same time that it becomes unchallenging.

The point he’s making is that teaching becomes easier, and as it does, it ceases to be a challenge for good teachers, who are then more likely to leave the classroom in search of other challenges.

There are valid, relevant issues raised here, but the suggestion that teaching ceases to be a challenge at some point sounds crazy to me.

Teaching is always a challenge.  Experience may make certain practices more efficient, but in some ways, that efficiency only makes the deeper challenges easier to see.

Consider the endless challenges offered by the three major components of teaching: knowledge of students, knowledge of pedagogy, and knowledge of content.

A good teacher must know their students.  Every new student, and new class, presents unique challenges to a teacher, who has to forge positive relationships and create productive environments.  This may get easier with experience, but it’s always a challenge, and can always be improved upon.

Since teaching is about understanding how learning happens, the fact that we don’t fully understand how learning happens creates another set of evolving challenges.  There are always new ideas to consider, new practices to try, new approaches to instructional design, and of course, new technologies to integrate.  Trying to figure out how learning happens is a daily challenge for a teacher, and it may never fully be understood.

And when it comes to content knowledge, no teacher could feel more challenged than a math teacher.  Some of the smartest people in the world spend their lives in a perpetual state of learning mathematics.  There is always more mathematics to study, new connections to find, new perspectives on old problems, and old problems to make new again.  Understanding mathematics is a never-ending challenge.

At some point, a good teacher may decide that these challenges are no longer meaningful enough to justify the great effort and investment that teaching requires.  It’s understandable, and in that case, leaving the classroom may be a courageous and noble decision:  walking away from something you do well in order to follow a deeper passion is admirable, and it also sets a good example for students.  But this isn’t because teaching ceases to be challenging; it’s because the individual no longer feels motivated by those challenges.

The task of teaching is infinitely deep and infinitely varied.  I often feel that, in becoming a better teacher, I simply become more aware of what I need to do differently.  Like mathematics itself, teaching becomes more complex the more you know about it.  What could be more challenging than that?

20 Comments

  1. Matt E says:

    I’m with you on this. I’m in my 13th year of teaching, and I don’t see it ever ceasing to be challenging. There will always be answers to the question, “How can I do my job better?” If your answer is, “I can’t,” well… Congrats on that.

  2. Liisa Suurtamm says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I have been teaching for about 17 years now. I continue to grow and learn and find new challenges in my job everyday. Now, I am fortunate enough to be in the role of math consultant in my board for the past few years, so that offers the additional challenges of how to support teachers. But I am in classrooms working with kids several days a week and continue to be fascinated and amazed at all that they can do. I agree that we still have so much more to learn about learning and so much more work to do to create those opportunities that allow students to really construct their own understanding of mathematics. I find that often teachers in their 4th or 5th year of teaching start to get bored. I think this is the point where they are no longer in survival mode. They think they have it figured out because things are running fairly smoothly, they may have even been able to teach the same course a few times. I think this is a critical point in many careers where they either start to coast or,because they have a moment to come up for air, they realize how much more there is to learn and really start to go deeper in thinking about teaching.

    • MrHonner says:

      Good points, Liisa. Teachers definitely hit plateaus throughout their career, and that early one–the one where you first really start to feel like you know what you’re doing–can be seductive.

      But students are the great equalizer in all of this. When I approach a class thinking “I’ve got this all figured out”, the students are usually quick to remind me that, no, I don’t.

  3. Dave Coffey and I want to get t-shirts: Teaching Hard

    I was a mathematician before diverging into math ed, and one of the appeals to me is the problem solving is so intense. Getting 20-30 diverse learners to the same set of objectives … fresh challenge every class and every course. Plus to be working in a time when our resources are different every time we teach… it’s hard to imagine ever being done.

    And then just the practice is so hard. I’m constantly having to relearn things I was working on a decade ago. Things I learn about assessment or planning or dialogue or gradual release. And then new wisdom and research on practice to take in and synthesize to that; endlessly fascinating to me.

    And I love what you brought up about the math content, Patrick. Probably they feel this way about other fields, but I am amazed at all the unsolved questions in math that are accessible at all levels. Really ripe for discovery.

  4. I agree with everything you’ve said here – I particularly like your comments about becoming more aware about what to do differently. I’ve clocked up 20 years in the classroom, but one of the great things about teaching is the fact that every day is different and every lesson offers new challenges. I like the fact that even if I’m reusing a resource or a lesson plan, there is always scope to improve. Of course, that means there’s also scope for it to get worse if we don’t keep on our toes.

    • MrHonner says:

      It’s not much of a challenge if things can’t go wrong!

      In any event, some of my most valuable teaching experiences have come from mistakes I’ve made. I’m sure lots of teachers would say the same thing. That’s reason to keep taking risks, and keep trying new things.

  5. Christopher Danielson says:

    Beautifully stated. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.

  6. I don’t have an interesting opinion about any of this, because I’m just rounding the corner on my third year of teaching. I’m likely wrong about all of this.

    But there’s challenging, and then there’s CHALLENGING. Right?

    Let me be entirely narcissistic here and talk about my own professional situation. Every day is not just a challenge, but a struggle for me. I’m not drawing from a wealth of successful lessons. Overall, my lessons are mediocre with a smattering of successful stuff that I’ve taken from others. When my lessons go poorly my kids are disruptive, so I know immediately when things are going well and when they aren’t. When students are disruptive I exert control, with is difficult and frustrating for me.

    Now, what’s likely to change as the years pile on?

    1. I’ll have more successes, get better at keeping rapt attention when a plan falls apart, etc.
    2. I’ll move to a school where there isn’t this constant subtext of extreme misbehavior.

    As you’ve mentioned in other places, different student populations face different challenges. And saying that teaching will be less challenging is not the same as saying that teaching poses no challenge.

    But won’t teaching be less of a challenge for me as the years go on? I don’t know how much less of a challenge it will be, but if it’s WAY easier, wouldn’t that reasonably impact whether I stay in the classroom?

    As always, apologies for the narcissism and ignorance. Thanks in advance for all of your patience.

    • Narcissism and ignorance? I wouldn’t say that – isn’t reflecting/discussing our own practice the whole point of these conversations?

      I’m not sure about less challenging, I just think it’s different.

      Trying to come up with 22+ hours worth of of interesting and inspiring lesson material a week is more than a challenge for new(ish) teachers – actually I think it’s an impossible task! But building up a repertoire of materials and stories that do the job is only the first stage. Taking the time to step back and reflect, thinking about the uncountable number of ways things could have gone differently, looking for new things to try – those things will always be there.

      I’ve worked at schools with & without the “subtext of extreme misbehavior”. In my current school (where it isn’t an issue), expectations on teachers are extremely high. I’m not taming lions in the classroom, but I’m finding it pretty tough to motivate the students who feel that they’ve done enough and interested in making further progress.

      Is it easier than in the first few years? well I stop work earlier in the evening and get more sleep, but I don’t think that’s easy, it just means I’m not burning out (yet).

    • MrHonner says:

      Michael-

      I think the issue is that you seem to equate “learning to manage a classroom” with “becoming a good teacher”. The latter requires the former, but it requires much more. And what I’m arguing above is that, potentially, it takes as much as you’re willing to give.

      Your honest description of your experiences resonates with me, and I’m sure with many others. Engaging students and keeping them engaged is an extremely complicated task. And yes, it does get easier.

      But engaging students is really just the first step. Once you figure out how to engage them, you then start thinking about the really important question, “What do I want them engaged *in*?”

      At first, for me the answer was simply “solving math problems”. But the answer has changed as I have changed as a teacher. At various times throughout my career, the answer has been: exploring connections between algebra and geometry; writing and communicating mathematics; constructing and analyzing logical systems; developing intellectual autonomy; constructing personal mathematical experiences; connecting computation and abstraction; creating through mathematics. And it continues to change and evolve, as I do.

      This process can begin only after a teacher figures out the nuts-and-bolts of teaching, like classroom management. And it will only stop when they want it to.

      • Love this: ‘Once you figure out how to engage them, you then start thinking about the really important question, “What do I want them engaged *in*?”’

        I’ve been talking with a few other faculty lately about how to help graduate students become better teachers. Many of them are still trying to make it to that first step, and of those many aren’t even sure that’s what their goal is; teaching for them is just a duty of being a mathematician. But setting that aside (because many really do want to teach well), how can we move new teachers efficiently past the early stages of classroom management to the far more interesting and productive stages of shaping students’ mathematical experiences?

        • MrHonner says:

          I think classroom management is definitely one of those learn by doing skills, and for many teachers, it’s often a trial by fire.

          I don’t think there’s any secret as to how to expedite this process. Have new teachers work closely with experienced teachers (assistant teaching, team-teaching, observations, reflection), and watch them closely. You just need committed departments and teachers to make it work.

  7. I feel like I have some thoughts on this, but they feel scattered. Call this an allegorical first attempt.

    The space of teaching, and of teaching math, is infinite and infinitely rich. But each of us teaches in a much more limited space that’s determined by our schools, our culture, our own selves, and so on. Call filling up that space with good stuff the goal of a teacher in this allegory–an optimization problem, at that. At first that space is pretty empty and fitting more in it–though hard to do–happens easily enough. With experience, the room gets more crowded and the improvements are more on the order of tweaking. Sometimes there’s a perspective shift that gets you out of the local-maximum trap and on to more progress–metaphorically, some clever shift or twist that suddenly makes new space available. Maybe the chamber can even be expanded some through personal development.

    But as you start bumping up against the boundaries more and more, the clearer the source of those limitations becomes. Some of those limitations can be changed or affected, but others probably can’t be–at least without switching schools or a radical change in “the system” or something else.

    There are other options, of course. You can toss stuff out of the room and start from scratch–with a familiar course or a course that’s new to you. You can remove a few pieces and replace them with more recent finds or passions or technologies. You can enjoy the many other aspects of teaching and find satisfying challenges in other parts of your life. And there are probably many other reactions, too.

    But I think some teachers at a certain point start looking for ways to push those boundaries, either from within a school or without one. If you’ll allow it, they look to enlarge the problem space by searching for variations, extensions, and generalizations. I agree that people and pedagogy and content are endlessly deep, but to get at these, there must be sufficient space.

    For what it’s worth. (:

    • MrHonner says:

      Justin-

      Your remarks are both thoughtful and thought-provoking, but I don’t really see them as refutations of the basic premise of my essay that, no, teaching does not become unchallenging at some point.

      Yes, teachers may see the space around them as limited. They may believe there is nothing more to accomplish when it comes to understanding their students, or pedagogy, or mathematics. But these are perceptions, not, as I argue above, reality.

      And I’d say part of the on-going challenge of teaching is ultimately pushing against the boundaries you find, circumventing them, or, perhaps, realizing that they were never really there in the first place.

  8. Well put and my thoughts exactly. Teaching can definitely be a case where the more you know/learn, the greater the challenge. I appreciate everyone’s comments too.

  9. Angela Grant says:

    I think people leave professions like teaching and medicine not necessarily because it is not challenging but partly because the challenge has changed. For me, medicine was no longer about quality care for patients but rather tackling the Internet diagnosis, administrators, insurance companies and a somewhat thankless profession.

    The latter-thankless profession, lack of appreciation for going the extra mile – is a common and recurrent reason for people leaving many professions.

    • MrHonner says:

      I agree, Angela, and I imagine burnout is a big factor in both industries.

      And the parallels between education and healthcare are becoming more apparent–we’re starting to see merit-pay proposals in NYC for doctors. How would you like your pay to be partly determined by how healthy your patients are?

  10. I’ve been working in classrooms as a visiting artists for over 20 years. It’s a whole different world than being in the same school day after day, but, from the comments here, is sounds like there are similarities between what you do and what I do. One thing that works for me to stay engaged is to be deliberate about tweaking whatever I’m teaching so that it somehow relates to something that I am currently interested in. Sometimes it can be challenging to find something new in something familiar, but it can be done. Accomplishing this and becoming personally more engaged in the teaching is something students sense. Seems like the math teachers that my children worked best with were the teachers whose engagement and excitement was evident .

    That said, I totally sympathize with the commenter who is frustrated by classroom chaos. Having been in countless classrooms I have seen a huge range of classroom management strategies. Some teachers are seamless masters at working the class…and much can be learned from them.

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