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I was recently engaged in a conversation with an old friend who took up teaching late in life and via a non-traditional path (read – no formal pedagogical training). He was discussing his mounting pile of grading and his complete disinterest in reading his student’s papers. I believe we have all engaged in conversations regarding the difficulties of teaching and the overwhelming workload, and often it just feels good to vent. I know I am guilty, and I’m not even particularly sorry that I sometimes need to just blow off some steam.

In this particular case though, I pushed back a little, and countered with, “Yes, but don’t you always really look forward to hearing what your students have to say? To finding out what they have learned?” You see, as an educator, I feel like my role as an evaluator of my students’ work is partly cheerleader and partly coach. I am energized and encouraged when I read their papers or hear their speeches, and I see creativity, ingenuity, emerging thought processes, and critical thinking. I also learn so much about the effectiveness (and gaps) in my teaching, and I use what I learn to serve my students better, both immediately and in the long-term. Without my students’ contributions, both formal and informal, I would not be the teacher I am today. I am eternally indebted to them for presenting me with their attempts at expressing what they have learned, and trusting me to use that information for both of our benefits.

I was flummoxed when he responded in the negative and said that he truly had no desire to read his students’ work and that he was certain he would just be disappointed. Maybe flummoxed is not the right word. I was grieved. The conversation proceeded from there to him sharing some of his grading practices, which I won’t enumerate here, but I can say, those practices likely feed into his distaste for his students’ submissions. I didn’t push back anymore; I wasn’t asked for any more feedback, and I have a personal commitment to not sharing advice that isn’t asked for.

In my nearly thirty years as an educator, I have been asked for advice many times by aspiring teachers on whether or not they should pursue this career, so I don’t feel like I am foregoing my rule by distilling some of that advice here. My number one question or piece of advice for those exploring a career in teaching comes from a dear friend and former colleague of mine. We were teachers on the same middle school team when I first began teaching in 1997. I was a first-year teacher. She had both a few more years of experience and a student teacher that semester who was constantly peppering her with questions. I was fortunate to just be near them much of the time, and during one particularly trying day, when the student teacher was questioning her own fitness for a teaching career, my friend said, “Do you love these kids?  If you do, we’ll make sure you get the practice and skills you need to manage the classroom and write quality lessons. If you love these kids, you’ll learn all of that, and this career will be wildly rewarding for you. If you don’t love them, then go ahead and let your university advisor know that you are rethinking your degree choice and they will help you figure something out.”

It’s been a long time since that conversation, and I may not have quoted it correctly, but the essence of the conversation is etched in my mind. I’m not sure at that point in time that I would have answered yes to her question. I was an English teacher. In high school and college, English was my favorite subject. I had a favorite English teacher in my own high school experience who had inspired me, and I wanted to be just like her. I wanted kids to love the books and stories I did and to enjoy writing the way I did. But I don’t think I ever considered what I would do when they didn’t rise to my expectations, produce excellent papers, or *gasp* hate the books I so dearly loved. I loved my content. I loved the idea of standing in front of a class and waxing eloquent on Shakespeare and the like, or leading lively conversations where every student gazed adoringly at me and engaged in witty repartee.

Anyone who has been teaching for any number of years will recognize the folly of my thought process, but perhaps you may not recognize what I realized about myself after eavesdropping on this conversation. I did not love my students. I liked some of them, but some of them annoyed the heck out of me. And if they did not love my content and do well on my assignments, I was inclined to like them less. Don’t be too hard on me; I think I’ve come a long way since then, and I can genuinely say that was a turning point in my relationship with my students.

I persevered through the early years of my teaching career with some successes and some failures. I call that moment in my first year of teaching a turning point, but it was really more gradual than that implies. I made slow, steady progress in caring more about my students and their growth than my beloved books. Along the way, I had to learn how to be a better teacher. This is that paradigm shift that many new teachers experience where they realize they aren’t designing lesson plans, they are designing learning opportunities. They aren’t teaching content; they are teaching people. Designing learning opportunities and teaching people is much more challenging than merely writing lesson plans to cover content. And coaching students, giving them feedback, and then helping them improve is much more challenging than grading their papers just to put a score on them.

You see, there are a lot of ways teachers can use their power and influence as weapons against their students. Making themselves seem smart at the expense of their students is one of them. Using assessments as tools of criticism and discouragement is another. I’ve done quite a bit of reading lately about transparent assignment design and Universal Design for Learning. There are many great theories and strategies about the why and the how of making assignments more accessible and equitable for students. I wish resources like this had been so easy to come by in the early days of my career. But I’m wondering how useful they would have been if I hadn’t been privy to that pivotal conversation that turned my attention to my students’ needs. I don’t think instructors go looking for ways to make their assessments more equitable unless they first care about their students more than they care about their content.

So I’ll repeat what my co-worker wisely shared so many years ago. If you don’t love your students, move along. This work is far too challenging to engage in if your greatest reward isn’t seeing them succeed. If you do care deeply about your students, and you just aren’t sure how to meet their needs, there are a wealth of resources and mentors who can help you grow your skill set to make your instruction and your assessments meet your students’ needs. And you just might enjoy reviewing the work they labor to produce. I know I do.

Sheri Popp

Sheri Popp, Adjunct Instructor, Graduate Counseling Programs, Columbia International University


  • Bill Badke says:

    Great post. I’d like to suggest that student research assignments provide a powerful way to show your love for your students, specifically by making research projects less a measure of performance and more a tool for instruction. By breaking assignments into facets and using comments to mentor your students on ways to improve their research skills, you can end up with products both you and your students enjoy. This site is content of a workshop on this that I did with our faculty:

    • Sheri Popp says:

      Thanks, Bill. It’s nice to make your acquaintance. I’m enjoying exploring the resources you provided.

  • Julia Johnson says:

    If every educator truly loved their students, our children would succeed so much more. Great read! And as a parent of 4, appreciate your heart and desire to truly pour into your students.

  • Jen Johnson says:

    Music teacher here! And Julia’s sister! 😉 Such great advice for teachers, and really, anyone who cares about children and investing in them. I pray you have many more years of pouring into others.