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A polymath of all trades and master of one
These are the teachers I know.
A friend recently asked if I’d be willing to talk to her acquaintance about education work in Missoula. I told her sure, I could perhaps answer some questions, but I was not to be viewed as a provider of suggestions, job leads or hope. After all, I said, I barely found a new job myself.
Back in 2021, I was desperately looking for a way out of my school district. To be clear, I loved my community, and my school. I just really, really needed a change. In 22 years I had not only taught hundreds of students, I had provided endless professional development for colleagues across the reservation and the state, participated in national fellowships including one with the US Department of Education, advised educational arms of orgs like National Geographic, earned my doctorate, adjuncted in higher education, produced two TEDx events, co-authored a legitimate book, and picked up several teaching awards. You would think this might be interesting to employers.
By May I had applied for fourteen jobs, all but one as a remote employee in a national educational organization of some kind. I applied to work as manager of professional learning communities, learning designer, senior adviser to a national teaching program, senior manager of new teacher programs, director of professional learning, and more. Three of them gave me an initial interview but I was ultimately rejected by thirteen organizations. I landed exactly one offer, which is where I work now.
Looking back through my rejections folder for this piece, I am struck even now by the titles. How dare I think I could be a senior / director / manager? All I had really been, apparently, was a classroom teacher. My actual positions, not counting all the extra stuff I listed above, amounted to nothing beyond the first rung on the ladder. Picture a tree, where you can see roots, trunk, and branches. I had ventured along many of the roots, exploring different options, types of work, and topics. But I had never ascended even to the very lowest branch on that tree. No administration, no people management, no director of anything.
In some ways, I think teachers are much like other workers. They know their profession, and that’s basically it. I work with educators in outside capacities now and I often have to show them how to make an invoice, for example. It’s not their fault that they don’t know what to put on it, or how it’s used. That just isn’t a skill many teachers have had to develop. They appear to be the opposite of the jack of all trades/master of nonein that they master one trade. I suppose this was my problem – that, and not knowing how to market myself appropriately.
In reality, teachers do so much more than teach, even if many of them need to be shown this about themselves. Effective teachers are master jugglers of many tasks and priorities at once. And they are constantly on the spot: According to EdWeek and other sources, teachers make 1500 decisions every day as they move through different phases of working with students, about everything from the curriculum to interpersonal dynamics to what does this kid need to do before they can do the next thing to answering “can I go to the bathroom?” All day long.
I once subbed in a Kindergarten class for 30 minutes. There was mushed banana and endless bathroom trips and I had to growl like a bear. I barely survived.
Take, for example, the Kindergarten teacher who reads a story to miniature humans for ten minutes. A good Kindergarten teacher knows how to re-corral their tiny charges, how to say “no” to bathroom requests (which are frequent! And demanding!), how to make Taylor stop coloring on her paper and how to get Tanner to pick up the pencils he’s thrown down, all while keeping track of what spot they’re at in the story and also reading it backwards on the page and using colorful voice effects to keep attention.
Side note, I once subbed in a K class for 30 minutes. There was mushed banana and endless bathroom trips and I had to growl like a bear. I barely survived.
Or take the middle school art teacher who manages a multitude of art supplies with 15 kids working on all facets of a project, plus two girls who are deadly serious about crying together in a corner, a trio of boys who won’t stop kicking each other’s shins, all while assembling notes for an IEP meeting, taking roll and looking up Van Gogh’s greatest masterpieces on his classroom computer so that last kid can find inspiration.
How about a high school science teacher who has to walk lines between reality and what some people would like to fictionalize regarding evolution, climate change, environmental management, and human biology? That individual is a total badass of careful, thoughtful selection of words and materials. Not to mention managing teens: emotional, hormonal, rebellious, opinionated, experimental…all the things that make teaching high school both exasperating and fun.
I could go on, but do you see the themes here? Besides the multitasking, it’s also a lot – A LOT!!! – of people management. You can’t tell me these teachers wouldn’t shine in any kind of position that requires diplomatic balancing of people’s strengths and needs. They know a great deal about curriculum, living it every hour of every day. They understand the nuances of regulations around education, having navigated everything you have heard about in schools and a lot you haven’t, like student privacy laws, mandatory reporting, homelessness, special education, safety protocols, bleeding procedures, mentorship, Title IX, copyright adherence, and so much more. Many positions outside a classroom would be suitable for teachers, but it can be very difficult to represent all those skills on paper because they appear to fall under the umbrella of “teacher” on one’s resume and become invisible there.
And why? Because the general public does not understand what teachers do. Most people remember their own experiences in the classroom, but unless they personally know a teacher, such as a parent or spouse, they really have no inkling how cumbersome, how exhausting, and how perilous a teacher’s professional life can be. Teachers are workhorses, vast keepers of information about working in education, deft balancers of humans in all their quirks, and should be viewed as people who could perform myriad roles outside of a classroom.
In fact since COVID, organizations have begun to recognize teachers’ many skills and are looking to hire more of them. You can read more via a quick internet search, but basically it’s because of these qualities:
Teachers are problem-solvers. They don’t wait around for someone else to figure out how to make a larger work space; they pull the tables together themselves and arrange the seats.
Teachers are good presenters. They have learned how to read an audience and provide information in an engaging way because they did not want to be eaten alive by a classroom of adolescents (or Kindergartners).
Teachers are used to functioning in a highly structured environment. If they didn’t have all the 3rd graders’ coats zipped by 10:17, they wouldn’t be on time for PE at 10:21 and nobody wants the PE teacher mad at them. They will meet your damn deadline.
Teachers are hard workers. They just spent the last decade making 1500 decisions a day, using the bathroom once between 7a and 4p, and eating lunch in 22 minutes while supervising the cafeteria. Your 8-5 office schedule with modern, private restrooms and a quiet walking path outside is straight luxurious.
Teachers are used to operating with no resources. Enough said on that.
If nothing else, changing the narrative around the teaching profession could be beneficial in attracting more teachers to the classroom. Perhaps if people saw that teaching might lead to skill development beyond curriculum delivery and classroom management, or that those two elements are comprised of so many sub-skills it’s hard to list them all, they’d be more interested in entering education as a way to develop themselves. And then, if they decide to leave the classroom after a number of years, organizations might also know that narrative, and understand how those skills could benefit their mission.
The “jack of all trades, master of none” doesn’t work here because teachers are a master of one, but also they are the jack. Incidentally, here are some better words I found for “jack of all trades”: polymath, factotum, pantologist (as relates to the human aspects of teaching). I did have to look them up to verify. Please go into the world now and enthusiastically use one or more of these words because they are awesome.
Do you wonder why I use so many long sentences with lists of examples and few commas when I describe teaching activities? This writing technique conveys the sense of something careening along quickly with few stops and perhaps no rests and so much more to come. Like teaching.