Why Is Teaching English Language Arts So Hard?

If the title of this post is what drew you here, just let me say: I feel you. Teaching English Language Arts is hard. Like, super hard. To be fair, I’ve only taught in three different disciplines: English, social studies, and theatre arts. But in comparing those three, English takes the cake.

So why is that?

If you talk to teachers of other disciplines, particularly those who teach outside the humanities, they’re likely to feel the same way about their own discipline. And you know what? They’re right. Each subject area has its own challenges. I almost break out in hives at the thought of being asked to teach science, so while the challenges of English language arts are real, I’ll take them on any day.

But here’s why I think teaching English is so hard:

Mandated Literature

Now, don’t get me wrong - I actually love most of the literature that has made its way into the English teaching canon. Lord of the Flies? Yes, please! To Kill a Mockingbird? Never get tired of it. But then there are the works of literature that your school or district insists on, that you just can’t stand. For me, that’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And before you freak out at me, yes I know Mark Twain is brilliant okay I just have never liked this exact book.

The problem here is, mandated literature takes away your choice, and it takes away your students’ choice. And you know how teenagers love to have choices taken away from them… What this means is that you often have to get pretty damn creative in teaching these canonical works so that your students (and, let’s face it, you) stay engaged.

Grading - so much grading!

The insane beast that is the grading load of the high school English teacher is often the elephant in the room, in my opinion. For some reason, we often don’t feel comfortable a) bitching about this problem, or b) coming up with creative ways to solve it. It almost feels like we’re expected to just suck it up - because after all, it was our choice to teach English, right? We could’ve chosen to teach a subject that doesn’t involve the frequent assigning of 10-page papers.

But when you’re using your sick or personal leave to take grading days (as I know some of my colleagues have done), there’s a problem.

You just can’t give meaningful feedback on student work, in a timely fashion, while maintaining rigor, while using the traditional grading system. At least, I can’t. I've tried.

Differentiating Instruction

Okay, so this is actually a really hard problem to solve in any classroom, at any grade level, in any subject. I know that in my college education classes, we didn’t learn any strategies in differentiation, and that’s really too bad, because differentiation can make the difference for a lot of students.

Trouble is, it’s kind of difficult to differentiate when you’ve been told that every student has to read Fahrenheit 451, and the reading levels in your class range from 6th grade to post-college.

Student Motivation

This one actually drives me the most crazy as a teacher. There are just a lot of kids out there who think they don’t like to read, don’t like to write, and can’t be bothered to think. And that makes your job really hard. This is where I fall down in my ability to empathize with my students, because I was never bored by school. I can get excited about pretty much anything.

But my students? Hoo boy. They sit there, staring at me, and it’s like they’re daring me to find anything interesting at all about this book we’re reading or this essay we’re writing.

I’m sure most of us can relate to that awful feeling of dragging a class through the reading of a novel, or the writing of a paper. It’s excruciating, and it can really make you question why the heck you’re doing this job in the first place.

Yeah, But Now What?

While it may feel validating to have someone else echo your concerns and frustrations, we also have to be ready to do something about it. So here’s my dynamite advice for you:

Go find your people.

This is your first step. Go on the internet, to the sometimes-scary world of social media, and find your tribe of people. They’re out there. Guess what? There are literally thousands of English teachers, like you, frustrated and over-worked, who need colleagues and friends to talk this crazy thing through with.

And guess what else? Some of them have actually found some pretty good ways to deal with all of the problems I wrote about in this post. And they’re willing to share them with you.

More specifically, I recommend getting on Twitter to start with. Create a username for yourself. And then start following some hashtags like #elachat, #pblchat, #colchat, #flipclass. There are dozens of Twitter chats going on each week that have to do with teaching, and they are treasure troves of sympathetic ears and good advice. Make some new friends who will help you do this thing. Oh - and when you get on Twitter, find us! We’re @ogybuns and @techteachtravel, and we would love to chat with you.

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Erin Dickey