One of the best aspects of teaching are the people we teach with each day. They help us through the bad times and make the good times even better. For most of us, finding these people is pretty easy. We tend to stick together with the people who teach the same grade or same subjects we do. And that makes sense. We work with the same kids. We teach similar curriculum. That gives us a lot to talk about each day.
But what about teachers who don’t fit that mold? We talked to several teachers who felt like their positions made them just a bit different from the rest of the teachers in their schools and how that could sometimes be great and sometimes be pretty tough.
Meet the Unicorn Teacher
A unicorn teacher is an educator who is the only person in the building teaching a particular subject area or doing their work with students. They are the “specials” teachers—art, music, gym, and library. They are the world language teacher—even if the school has three or four of them, they’re likely the only one teaching their particular language. In some schools, ESL and special education teachers find themselves in this role. The title can even apply to people like speech therapists, social workers, guidance counselors, and nurses. They work with students every day but don’t necessarily have that built-in “community” of teachers like them in their school.
Why Being a Unicorn Teacher Is the Best
“I get to be super passionate about my subject area.”
When you’re an English teacher or a math teacher you have to teach all the stuff that goes along with it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like grammar, you still have to teach it. Hate geometry? Too bad. But as a librarian, I get to share my love of reading and books with every student in the building. When I do a read-aloud or help a student find the perfect book, students aren’t surprised when I talk about how much I love helping them. And if I’m lucky, I get to see one of my students discover their own love of reading. It’s the best.
“There’s a lot less pressure to teach to the test.”
I love that I basically get to design my own curriculum. Of course I make sure I’m meeting our standards and teaching lessons that are meaningful, but I don’t have to constantly worry about how my students will score on some state-mandated exam. When all the core teachers have to go to those meetings to huddle over test results and try to figure out how to get all the kids’ scores up, I really appreciate my position.
“For the most part, all of my students want to be in my classroom.”
As a band teacher, my class is an elective. This means that my students all chose to be there. I can’t tell you what a difference that makes. Sure, I get a few students whose parents made them play the clarinet when they really wanted to drop it, but for the most part, the kids want to be there. They want to play their instrument. They like band. It makes each day fun knowing I’m working with students who are excited and passionate about band just like me.
“Kids feel less pressure in my classroom so they open up and are more themselves around me.”
Yes, I give assignments and grades. But because art is a bit more laid-back, kids tend to feel more comfortable in my room. We talk about emotions and how to represent them artistically, so we end up having a lot of really good conversations. I feel like I really get to know my students. It’s one of the things I love most about my job.
“I get to work with students one-on-one and I get to see improvement in real time.”
As a speech therapist, I do some group classes, but for the most part I work with students individually. Because of this, I get to see the gains each student makes from one week to the next. It’s so rewarding to be able to see a student improve right away. I know sometimes teachers don’t know if they’ve made a difference in a student’s life until years later, if ever. When a student is dismissed from speech, I know I’ve played a part in helping them communicate with their peers. Instant gratification!
Why Being a Unicorn Teacher Is Tough
“It can be really lonely.”
I’m the only world language teacher in my school (I teach eighth grade). While I definitely have teacher friends and colleagues and genuinely love what I do, it’s definitely lonely at times. My least favorite days are professional development days when they ask departments to work together. I usually get lumped in with the English Department and just sort of listen to whatever they’re talking about. Sometimes I wish I could just use the time to work in my classroom, grading papers or planning my next unit, but I also know that if I did that, I’d never really get to know the other teachers. It’s hard.
“Our needs are never prioritized.”
When it comes down to budget, I know I’m not going to get new gym equipment before the math, science, and English departments get what they need. I understand that those programs are important, but it stinks when I see some great and innovative ways to get kids excited about physical fitness that I know my school will never invest in. I spend a lot of time repairing old equipment and searching the internet for ideas that don’t require money or resources.
“Not being considered a ‘core subject’ gets old really quickly.”
If we’re just talking definitions, something “core” is something that is the “central or most important part of something.” So where does that leave everyone who doesn’t teach a “core” subject? I understand that because of state testing, it’s important to focus on English, math, and science, but it gets really frustrating to hear your area of expertise continually diminished or pushed to the side in meetings and conversations. We may not be “core,” but that shouldn’t mean we aren’t considered a vital part of the school community that plays just as an important role for many of our students.
“I feel like sometimes I’m not taken as seriously as a teacher.”
As the Family and Consumer Sciences teacher in my school, I feel like sometimes I’m not really viewed as a “real” teacher. Some students don’t seem to take me or my assignments seriously, and I frequently have to remind them that this is a class just like any other. Just because we cook or sew doesn’t mean you can slack off and do nothing. Adults can be even worse. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a fellow teacher say something like, “I wish I could just cook brownies with the kids all day long.” It’s really dismissive of my degree and the amount of time and effort I put into planning lessons that teach students important life skills. Frankly, I’ve never needed to explain how plant cells and animal cells differ since leaving high school. No one has asked me to write an essay explaining the theme of a novel I just finished reading either. But I have had to double a recipe and resew a button. And that’s what I teach.
“They’re not just my kids, and I don’t have a magic wand.”
As an ESL teacher, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard the words “one of your kids.” It usually happens while a teacher is complaining about a student struggling in their room. And for the most part, I understand. It can be challenging to work with students who are learning the language and it is definitely my job to support teachers while they do that important work. But it often feels like the other teachers expect me to magically “fix” students. It doesn’t work that way and it stinks not really having anyone in my building who understands that.