Why I Teach Secondary School

Melanie Barrett

November 15, 2020

Whenever I meet new people and they ask me what I do for a living, I respond proudly that I am a teacher.

The response is usually the same. Something along the lines of, "Oh, how nice. Working with children must be so rewarding.” Their faces sort of glow when they say this in their unnaturally sweet, high-pitched, voices. I swear, I can see the innocent kindergarten tots running around in their heads.

“No,” I say “I teach secondary school.

“Oh,” the faces grimace and the voices drop. They are crestfallen at the thought of working with teenagers. “That must be difficult,” they sigh as if expressing sympathy for the death of my soul.

This response frustrates me. “It is difficult,” I say. “There are many things I hate about my job: the politics; the constant changes in policy with every successive government; the focus on money by the higher-ups rather than what is good for learning; the successive initiatives that go nowhere because there is no time to implement them; the long evenings and weekends of planning and marking because there isn’t time in my day to do it; the increasing downloading of responsibility that means I have to be all things to everyone; the lack of resources and the money that comes out of my pocket to cover these costs; the rhetoric in the press; the knowledge that I have to constantly defend public education.” Of course, I could go on listing all of the things that make teaching secondary school the worst job. “But the students, they make all of these things bearable. They make me love my job, no matter how difficult it is. Working with teenagers brings me so much joy. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

It is not what they expect to hear. I am always puzzled by this. Anyone who teaches secondary school and doesn’t have a passion for supporting youth, doesn’t last in the classroom for long. And if they stay, they must be miserable. The pressures of working in education that make me, and all teachers, feel constantly on the defensive, overworked, overburdened and disheartened would be completely intolerable if I didn’t love being in the classroom with my students.

I feel so fortunate that I get to go to a job everyday that inspires me to be better, that encourages me about the future, and that stimulates me to see new perspectives, new ideas, and new possibilities to make the world a better place. I love that there are days that I know I have made a difference in one person’s life. There are other days when I feel I have failed or not done enough, but I try not to dwell on these feelings. I do my best to make my classroom warm, inviting, and safe. It is the best I can do and most days it leaves me feeling that in addition to teaching curriculum, I have taught lessons about life. Often, I go home feeling that my students have taught me lessons about life as well.

In my career, I have:
cried with my students
laughed with my students
grieved for their losses
burst with pride for their achievements
celebrated their successes
alleviated their fears
listened to their worries
encouraged their attempts
acknowledged their anger
found growth in their failures
supported their dreams
built their self esteem
. . . and let them know that I care.

While I know that I can never possibly connect with every student who comes through my classroom, those who have needed it have found an adult who feels deeply about their happiness, an adult who will be there, and an adult who wants to help guide them to be their best selves. I am a teacher who smiles when meeting them in their grade 9 youthfulness and cheers at the top of her lungs when they graduate as mature and capable young adults.

This makes teaching high school the most rewarding job I can imagine.
I wouldn’t change it for the world.