August 3, 2011
What People Don’t Understand About My Job: Social Studies Teacher

bbo13 writes:

I am a teacher. And I could easily write volumes about the variety of things about teaching in general that many people (particularly parents and politicians) just don’t seem to understand. For example, those couple of “free” months many (though certainly not all) of us might get in the summertime? Not so free. Many of us (though certainly not all) routinely work above and beyond a 40-hour week during the school year, and spend at least part of our summers in workshops or taking college courses. I promise you, the time off during summer and on holidays earned. With interest. Instead, I choose to focus on what people don’t understand about my job specifically: teaching social studies. 

Whenever I meet someone new, this exchange invariably occurs:

Them: “So, what do you do for a living?”

Me: “I’m a high school teacher. Mainly seniors.”

Them: “Oh, a teacher! Kids that age must be tough/crazy/scary. But at least you get all that time off! What subject do you teach?”

Me: “Social Studies.”

Them (looking like the just took a gulp of past-its-expiration-date warm milk): “I hated history. So boring.”

It never fails. “I hated history.” The rare times I hear any response other than this are when I’m talking to other social studies teachers, or folks who majored in something like history or political science. And the respondents often look at me in a way that seems to indicate they want me to apologize for their lack of interest in the subjects I love. Most times, I smile and nod, or chuckle politely, and the subject quickly changes. But this seems like the ideal arena for me to express the response I want to give these people:

First of all, “history” is not all there is of “social studies”, just like “geometry” is not the only thing in “mathematics.” “Social Studies” encompasses a variety of subjects, from Economics, to Sociology/Psychology, to Government, to Geography, and yes, a variety of specific histories categorized by subject and/or time period. Now, the most frequent complaint about social studies seems to be about the role of memorization—names and dates in particular—and the perceived “irrelevance” of this. While I do not deny that some teachers may take this approach, the good ones incorporate that “irrelevant” memorization as part of the larger lesson; namely, the “who’s” and “why’s” are important to the big picture. Put another way? Context matters. This is not an unimportant life lesson. But math, too, involves a good deal of memorization. As do language courses. But it’s social studies that gets the most grumbles about the practice. Why? Because learning math formulas and the basics of language appear to have practicalapplicable uses. Social studies does not. Right? 

Wrong. Social studies is at least as practical as these other subjects mentioned. Confused/frustrated as to why those people, over there, in some foreign land can’t seem to get it together politically/socially/economically? Social studies can help you understand why! How has their geography influenced where people settled and what they do with their environment? How has their history created the societal and religious conditions in which they live? How might their norms and values help determine what they choose to do? How does the interconnected global economy affect what they can buy or sell or trade? People are a product of their surrounds, physical and otherwise. Social studies can explain that. Heck, maybe you’ll even start to think of them as just people dealing with their own circumstances, just like you and I. Imagine that. Or maybe you’re more focused on a seemingly chaotic domestic scene here at home: frustrated with our politicians, or faltering economy, or muddled moral paths? Understand politics and government, and you’ll begin to see why our system is the way it is. Understand our history, and see how morality and religion have reached the points they have in our society, and why we live where we live and do what we do. Learn about economics, and suddenly the basics behind how America in its post-industrial phase relates to the rest of the world in terms of jobs makes a bit more sense, and how much a loan will cost you when you go car or house shopping will seem more than just a random figure forced on you by a financial institution. You might even be able to figure out what this whole debt-ceiling mess is all about! Social studies is the very definition of practical knowledge. But it’s not passive—it must be actively applied. And that doesn’t happen if you’re choosing to just “get through it” or watching the bastardized Hollywood version of events. Social studies can be as exciting as your favorite movies and as practical as addition and subtraction, but only if you allow it to be. And I, for one, love it.

What do people not understand or appreciate about your job? Submit a post, tweet your thoughts with the tag #AboutMyJob, or email us at

  1. thesecretnews reblogged this from theatlantic
  2. classroom-stu reblogged this from theatlantic
  3. hennethannun reblogged this from neutrinojourney
  4. wanderingphilosopher reblogged this from theatlantic and added:
    New favorite teacher rant. Read it, bbo13 is cool. :)
  5. coffeeandcleveland reblogged this from theatlantic
  6. theworldisnotenough1 reblogged this from theatlantic and added:
    Dude, can you come teach me social studies?
  7. mycommonplacecollection reblogged this from theatlantic
  8. skidoodle reblogged this from ellobofilipino
  9. phoenixfire72 reblogged this from theatlantic and added:
    Love it!
  10. neutrinojourney reblogged this from theatlantic and added:
    People who say they “hate history” are just fundamentally missing out.
  11. kosmosxipo reblogged this from theatlantic
  12. drwh0 reblogged this from theatlantic and added:
    I love this post, not only because I get some of this all the time, but because I teach sociology, not even “social...
  13. ohyesjulesdid reblogged this from theatlantic
  14. ellobofilipino reblogged this from theatlantic and added:
    Sharing something which I think captured the general sentiment of people towards social studies, history, society and...
  15. bbo13 submitted this to theatlantic