Someone asked me the other day, “What is the hardest part of teaching?”
My initial reaction was that it’s managing, grading and recording the students’ assignments and tests. It’s not my strongest suit, but I do try to be careful, because a trivial error can cause major problems for both student and teacher. It’s not really hard though. It just takes an obnoxious amount of time and attention.
Care and feeding of the administration is certainly one of the most annoying parts of the job. But as long as I show up for class every day, turn in my paperwork on time and cause no more trouble than necessary, the university administrators generally leave me alone.
Maybe it’s curriculum design, I thought. The selection, sequencing and depth of the material taught can have a huge impact on the students’ understanding and retention. After 23 years in the classroom, I think I do a good job of it, but it is something I will never master. There is always some new wrinkle or approach to consider. In fact, it is one of the more interesting and enjoyable parts of the job.
Classroom management can be a challenge. Dealing with a difficult student can drain the life out of the teacher and the class and, in some teaching situations, it can be a major issue. And yet, I’m lucky enough to teach in several of Tokyo’s top universities. Almost all of my students are good students and nice people.
Dealing with the diversity of learning styles in the classroom? As long as I provide a good mix of methods and modes of engaging with and understanding the material, I think the issue is overblown.
In the end, I find myself left with only one possible conclusion. The most difficult part of teaching is simply being more interesting than whatever else is rattling around my teenage students’ brains.
It’s being able to grab and hold the students’ attention, engage their interest and motivate their study efforts – to make a 60-90 minute lesson fly by – while planting concepts, relationships and structures in their heads that will frame their thoughts and shape their actions, both now and in the future. That is what separates great teachers from average ones.
In the end, it turns out, being a great teacher is a lot like being a great speaker.