Why Teaching is Not Unlike Digging A Ditch




Here’s a little ditty I wrote to celebrate the trials and tribulations of working in an honorable profession like teaching.

Why Teaching is Not Unlike Digging A Ditch

After nearly thirty years of teaching and after talking to those who are still in the trenches, I had a Eureka moment the other day. You see, I’m constantly seeking good metaphors and this particular one gob-smacked me. Teaching is not unlike ditch-digging, and I’m about to tell you why.

Every year a teacher is confronted with a daunting task. There is a huge ditch to be dug that stretches from September to June. The only thing that you know for sure is how long the ditch must be. There is a beginning and there is an end.

ditchBut, because you’ve been digging these ditches for years and you’re energetic and enthused in the beginning, you are ready to jump right in and get started. After all, you’ve had the summer off to revitalize and recharge those batteries. Many of your friends and family keep telling you this, so it must be true.

You have your trusty shovel; the one that feels so good in your hands. And, although you are apprehensive, you are an experienced ditch digger; one that has developed good ditch digging practices over many years.
Of course, you have concerns. For example, how wide must this ditch be, or how deep, and what is the constitution of the soil that you must remove? Will the rocks be difficult to move, can you polish them into gems and can you accomplish all of this without running out of steam or burning out?

You are prepared for the heavy lifting. You know the pace and how to handle it. That’s what makes your job interesting and challenging every year. You are constantly told by your supervisors that you are a PROFESSIONAL ditch digger and, I guess, you should feel reassured by that.

So, you dig right in.

The first shovel loads are easily removed because you are working in surface soil and you’re just beginning to understand the consistency of the layers below. You are making progress, your ditch is taking shape and, you feel the initial joy of making a difference, and of moving forward.

There are many pitfalls that you expect to encounter. You fully understand that every ditch you’ve dug has been different and presents new challenges.

Some rocks are difficult to move, even stubborn. They need to pried and cajoled. Clay soil becomes difficult to dig and, every once in a while, the walls of your ditch tumble down to refill what you have already dug. But, you have a strong back and you are ripped with muscles because you have been laboring at this job for years. You’ve also developed a bevy of techniques that, when effectively applied, become efficient methods that tend to move you forward at a slow but steady pace.

June seems a long way off, but you are moving forward and you begin to see that you are much closer to the end and a lot further from the beginning.

At about this time, a voice fractures the very essence of your intense focus and your heavy slogging. This voice comes from outside of your ditch, far above you, like a voice from heaven.

“Excuse me, I’ve come to help,” the melodic voice offers. “May I have a word with you?”


Indeed, a little extra help is always welcome when you labor in a ditch. So you call out, “Come on down. Lend a hand. I’d appreciate that!”
“Well,” the voice replies. “I can’t do that. I don’t want to get my hands or my clothes dirty. You see, I don’t dig ditches any more.”
That’s when it strikes you.

Your visitor is a Consultant to the Director of Ditch Digging; someone from the head office, which is miles away both in distance and understanding. At this point, you mumble a curse word and climb out of the ditch.

“Hello, my name is Betty Betterment,” the impeccably dressed lady begins. “See! I’ve brought you a new and improved shovel. This shovel will permit you to dig faster, lift and remove heavier stones and dig the perfect ditch. We have new techniques and protocols that make this shovel a savior for efficient ditch-digging logistics. Are you interested?”imagesCAD8G0BZ

There is no doubt that she’s full of mumbo-jumbo but, you’re always willing to try something new. You see that shovel gleaming like a silver tea service. Compared to your ratty old shovel, this new shovel has the appearance of a technological epiphany.

“Yes,” you say. “Just hand it over, I’ll read the instructions tonight and give it a try next week.”

“Oh, no, dear, that’s not how it works,” Ms. Betterment continues with a grin and giggle. “We’re going to sign you up for a series of Silver Shovel In-service Sessions.”

Oh, God, you’re thinking. I don’t have time for this, I’ve got a ditch to dig, and even the slightest interruption will set me back. You remember what a wise old colleague once said to you. When the train has left the station, don’t ever jump off because you’ll never catch up to it again.

“Don’t worry,” Betty says. Her voice is as smooth as silk underwear. “We’ll give you “out-of-ditch time” to attend the in-services. Won’t that be nice? A little break from ditch digging is good for the soul.”

You are keenly aware; however, that the Occasional Ditch Diggers who replace you will leave a few stones unturned. You’ll likely have several cave-ins to re-dig and, the final result will be more of a one step forward and three steps back scenario. But, you have no choice; the Director of Ditch Digging has mandated your participation.

You might be thinking back to the good old days when your motivation to dig a good ditch was intrinsic, self-directed and driven by the desire to be the best that you could be. Nowadays, it seems, others try to accomplish the same for you with extrinsic motivation; pushing you on, giving you expert opinion and then demanding great chunks of your valuable “ditch-digging” time.

Nevertheless, you are a PROFESSIONAL, and you dutifully attend the in-service.

You are surprised to be greeted with coffee and nice goody table, but you wonder how a ditch digging company that pleads poverty can afford it. After all, they are also paying for that Occasional Ditch Digger who’s turning your perfectly symmetrical ditch into a gravel pit. No matter, you’ll listen to what they have to say and move on. You’ve been there and done that many times before.

Consultant Lady is dressed to the nines and speaks in a kind of cool edu-speak. You know the drill; she uses umpteen words you’ve never heard before, and even more of those handy acronyms. They’re thrown out like snow flakes in the winter. When it comes to shoveling, you’ve never heard of SMO’s , DDT’s or RRM’s. This is an alphabet soup of instructions, you decide.

Consultant Lady raves about how this new-improved shovel has made remarkable inroads in Australia. But, you are also well aware that soil type and structure is far different “Down-Under”. Hell, you know that in Canada there are differences in soil consistency district to district and even ditch to ditch. Somehow, Ms. Betterment believes that this new shovel is universal: tried, tested and true. By golly, she has all the buzz words to prove it.

It strikes you odd that Betty Betterment really never spent much time digging ditches in the first place and now she’s some kind of expert. You put this down to her aversion to getting her hands dirty. At least her fellow consultants, who smugly ring the room, nod their heads in support of everything she says.

As you know, there are many ditch digging consultants at head office. Many of these highly paid experts sit in their offices all day scanning the ditch digging periodicals for that “cookie cutter”  guru-driven methodology that will revolutionize your job. Unfortunately you know its pretty difficult digging a ditch with a cookie cutter.

After several sessions, you become acutely aware that implementing this shovel properly requires a whole lot of work and many changes to your shoveling regimen. The fact that you’ve been doing all of this extra work, then cleaning up after the replacement ditch digger, as well as reporting your progress to your Principal Ditch-Digger, makes you feel as if the end of your ditch has moved farther and farther away from you. Never mind that you also have polished some of your rocks and taken them to Inter-Ditch competitions on your own time.

You also understand that the younger ditch diggers, the ones without children or other commitments, will be on to this new shovel like butter on bread. They’re looking for a good shovel to get their brand-spanking new careers in gear. But, your life is already a balancing act of major proportions, so there must be sacrifices to the greater good, that is, if “Silver Shovel” implementation is to be successful.

18312_447837178597093_48576082_nSo, after it’s all said and done, you are ready to implement the new-improved DDT (Ditch Digging Technology). However, this new tool doesn’t feel right in your hands, your usual techniques have to be modified, and your back is beginning to ache as it has never ached before. You feel confident that your old trusty shoveling techniques worked well in the past. Indeed, the new shovel is becoming a time-consuming, technique killing, burden. You are getting behind in your ditch digging and those rocks are becoming harder to move. You find yourself running to catch that damn train.

So, what do you do?

Well, you lean that shiny new shovel to the side, and only use it on occasions where its usefulness is purposeful or when someone in authority is looking into your ditch. Betty Betterment is thrilled to see you with the Silver Shovel in hand on her infrequent visits. You fully understand that she is a busy lady and because she never really jumps down into your ditch, she doesn’t notice all the old tools you continue to use. But, they’ve never let you down before and you don’t expect them to now.

The new shovel becomes useful in some situations but, it is neither a panacea nor is it the “be all and end all” of ditch digging implements. You are able to integrate DDT into, but not replace that which has been successful to you. All of this takes time and energy. But you are, after all, an EXPERIENCED PROFESSONAL and cherry-picking is one the strongest assets.

You know, at some point, the Powers That Be will want to come out and measure and test your ditch, for that is what The Powers That Be like to do. But, you are a wise old ditch digger and you’ve made sure that your ditch is straight, the sides are perpendicular, the floor is level and all of your rocks are duly polished and organized so as to not impede your progress. You’ll even hold the Silver Shovel in your hands and smile.

All the while, those in the non-ditch digging world complain about you and your work. You are paid too much, your rocks aren’t polished to perfection and you have too many holidays. Sometimes you wonder if it is all worth it. But, you tarry on because every year gemsthere are more rocks to polish and shine and you take pride in that part of your job.

So, I think it is as clear as the nose on your face; teaching IS like being a ditch digger: difficult, laborious and draining.

Not only are you well aware that you can’t get blood from a stone but you also know that you will reap what you sow. There are gems to find and some of the rougher stones can and will be polished, and although others are unmovable, you polish them just the same. Your ditch is long and straight and you’ll get to the end in June, no matter the obstacles. You WILL be successful!


Because you’ve spent most of your life digging ditches, you know how to do it efficiently and with success, and you ARE A PROFESSIONAL.It’s not unlike what my first Principal said to me, “Your kids will learn in spite of what you do!”It didn’t take me long to realize that teaching isn’t about WHAT you do but more about HOW you do it. Ladies and gentleman, that’s what years of experience ultimately come down to – KNOW HOW!

Indeed, if you have been at the job for more than 10, 20 or 30 years you know how to dig a ditch!

Sadly, more often than not, the old”close the door and teach” advice quickly morphs into a reoccurring “revolving door policy”. And, if you are so unfortunate to be a public sector ditch digger there are politicians trying to find ways to get those ditches dug on the cheap.

This all brings to mind some of my favorite lyrics from Jimmy Buffet. The following example comes from the song, “It’s My Job”. I’ll leave you with this thought because I’m confident that you are very capable of listing all the reasons why you do what you do and, why you do it well.

It’s my job to be different than the rest
and that’s enough reason to go for me
It’s my job to be better than the best
and that’s a tough break for me

It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess
and that’s enough reason to go for me
It’s my job to be better than the best
and that makes the day for me



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