The #1 … (difficulty in being a teacher)

Number One** Not your ordinary, endless list – just what’s number 1.

The participation in the creation of something which is invisible.

There are so many things that make a teacher’s life difficult. To name just a few of the thousand: noise, planning, snotty noses, mouthy kids, stuffy classrooms, things that don’t work, things that do work but are just a pain in the ass, parents that don’t care, parents that care too much, bureaucracy driving you crazy, 24/7 on your mind, marking, judging, keeping up, poor food, lousy pay, being a prisoner to the curriculum, nobody sharing, nobody caring, a clock that ticks too loud, the memory of what could be ….. need I go on?

However hard all this is – it pales in comparison to what I think makes teaching so difficult – that it is essentially, “invisible”. You are participating in the creation of something so precious, so valuable but which so few will ever notice or recognize.

Before becoming a teacher, I spent a good 8 years building things. Houses, warehouses, factories and finally skyscrapers. Loved it. Loved mostly the sense of going there and there not being anything. And then, slowly, magically, through your own sweat and blood (and yes, I bled), there was a building, walls and doors and windows and a roof. It was uplifting, it kept me going.

But imagine creating kids you can never love?

Imagine creating something that always leaves?

Imagine even worse, enriching and nurturing life that no one sees?

Yes, we are artists of the invisible. Days of sweat and toil for something we can’t see – only that which we believe. And that is so difficult.

If someone near to you doesn’t recognize how valuable and how hard working you are – print this out and have them read it. At least this piece of paper will be evidence of all that you’ve invisibly and deliciously added to the world. Print this out to show the world that you have immensely contributed.

But it is hard – participating in “the invisible”.

I remember years later, as a teacher, driving by those buildings I brought to life. I’d smile every time. One time, a giant Toy’s R’ Us factory north of Toronto, I did go inside. I went and sat in the lounge and started chatting with some of the staff who were taking their coffee break. Amid our banter, I mentioned “I’d built” this building, spread out the blueprints and from what wasn’t there, made something appear. I asked them if they ever thought about who had sweated and worked so hard to make this building. They mostly grinned and said, “No”, “Oh my god”… Then they wondered/wandered back into their own thoughts.

It was hard that. That they could not see how much the steel men had contributed – Claude, my boss’ son even cutting open his leg after falling from the scissor lift. It was hard. But not near as hard as being a teacher, always saying good bye and always having so little to show others. At least in this case – there was a building.

Can you see the hidden tiger?


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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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7 Responses

  1. Tara Benwell says:

    Amazing post. I love the story of your life as a builder. I often think about past students and wonder if they think about me. I hope that I help build something in each of them, even if it is just an ounce of confidence or a dose of delight in the language.

    PS-Again I had that problem of not being able to leave a comment (via Google Chrome), but I tried in Safari and now I see the Anti-spamme word. 🙂

  2. Wow.

    I totally know what you mean.

    I’ve been in the more “practical arts” such as building before, and it’s a great feeling to admire a finished product. Teaching can have instant rewards that I never find anywhere else, though. Smiles. Laughs. When that light goes off and suddenly a student who couldn’t say THankyou spits out a perfect TH !

    It is fleeting, though. But really, what isn’t? Might seem buddhist, but what isn’t impermanent?

    It’s funny because what seems hard for you, is such a pleasure for others… not that there students will move on, but that they will give them a little bit of themselves, will participate in creation before they move on.

    Love the post. Cheers,


  3. Juregen says:

    Linked to your previous post, maybe you should combine the two ideas.

    As a teacher we have no direct tangible result, apart from the result that students “produce”. The essays they write, the comprehension answers they give, the words they use to talk, the scores they get from “independent” test takers.

    Even students themselves take greater pride in tangible results, even the most fleeting ones.

    So forgive the teachers who like to see “products” of their hard work, who want students to produce language.


  4. Devon Thagard says:

    Wonderful. One kind of great writing to me is when someone expresses something I’ve always felt but have never been able to put into words. This post does that. Thanks

  5. ddeubel says:


    Compliment graciously accepted. Yeah, often it is just about that one thing, one moment, that can have such an impact on a student. Kind of like the notion in extensive reading and the “home run” book, to make a reader.


    Yes, but the Buddha IS so hard to find. He who knows the buddha, does not know the buddha, Siddhartha said.

    I’m really fine with the ephemeral nature of teaching and in my spirit. I also get lots of satisfaction from teaching – that’s the rub, more difficulty, more satisfaction…. I guess I wasn’t so clear with that in the post. But I just write in one big puff of air, so it contains my lungs, guts and being…. so hard to control that. I guess I stressed to much the “sadness of ephemeral”, my philosophical anger at entropy. I think I really though, wanted to say that it is hard to be motivated as a teacher , when you don’t see something physically growing, added upon and piling up. I didn’t communicate that well.


    Coming from you, big compliment. And I agree, that is what good writing is all about. Making that invisible, visible. A kind of minor epiphany.

  6. @ David

    I hear you on writing in “one big puff of air”.

    I now better understand what you mean. In the longterm we don’t see the majority of our students really improve leaps and bounds. I did have a job for 2 years where I taught kids on the weekends and that was awesome. I’d teach them for a few months and then they’d be my little pals for the next few years and man would they learn fast.

    Now that’s a building that you can see grow!

    However, it’s not the norm.

    Thanks for sharing ! 🙂

  7. ddeubel says:


    I’ll have to post a link to an older post on the “ephemeral” nature of teacher… hopefully I can find it!

    You are right about “products” and students. I’ve found and came to use increasingly over the years – portfolios, bookmaking, posters etc… all those things that make a tangible product out of language and the comings and goings of the classroom. Mostly because I think many students found it nice to “see” and “have” a visible thing that represented what they knew and the success that had with language.

    Maybe time for a new methodology – product based teaching – PBT. My how our discipline loves those acronyms!

    Ah, found a couple of posts which do touch on similar things and written in a similar vein. Loneliness and the long distance teacher and The Unbearable Lightness of being a teacher

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