In just under a month, I will be greeting my new students for the year into my classroom, that I have hopefully managed to organize and prepare well. They will be middle school aged, insecure and angry, feeling that the world is perpetually against them. We all remember what that age was like, for better or worse.
I hold two Master’s Degrees in addition to my teaching certification for my subject area. Going into college, I had no grand vision of myself as a teacher. If you asked me, it would have been on of the last professions I would have listed, probably. Especially teaching middle school. But I find myself getting anxious already, thinking about what challenges I will face and the intense work load I will face once again. Everyone recognizes the importance of teachers and how hard they work; this is nothing new. I am not looking for sympathy- this is my own decision. However much we complain, however frustrated we get, we teachers desire to help our students make a better life for themselves, to prepare them for the next stage of their life. I want to inspire my students, and help them believe in themselves. I dream big dreams for them, even if they do not.
I love the subject I teach- reading and writing has always been a passion for me and come naturally to me. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything that wasn’t related to English. This does not mean it has been an easy decision for me to settle into the life of a teacher; I had other visions for myself, of course. I imagined writing and editing for some company or publication, large or small. And maybe I still will one day. Part of me still isn’t quite sure how I came to the conclusion that I could or should be a teacher. I knew my degrees only offered a limited number of career choices; I realized I would most likely get shoved somewhere along the line into a teaching position, I held onto a belief that I would seek options and I would somehow begin to slowly build a writing career. Perhaps our negative view of teaching comes from the old saying “Those who can’t do, teach.” We think that only those who were unsuccessful in their field end up as teachers. Another false assumption we have is that teaching isn’t overly complex. I admit, these thoughts were in the back of my mind as I accepted my first teaching job. I know reading and writing well, so surely I would find effective ways to help my students acquire these skills. I went into my first teaching position without having heard the term “classroom management” and without ever written a complete lesson plan. Needless to say, I had a steep learning curve to overcome my first year, and very little assistance from the school administrators or other support staff. Considering what I know now, the school (which happens to be a charter school) had extremely poor practices, and it was hardly an ideal environment for a first year teacher, let alone an experienced teacher. I don’t want this to turn into a rant or blame game, by any means. Sadly, my experience is hardly unique and it is a reality of our current educational system that we must face. Regardless of my extremely rough start, I still felt like it was a profession I wished to pursue, and one that i could eventually excel in, though if you had asked my why I felt that way I could not have given a very articulate, reasonable answer. I wasn’t renewed for another year, and I spent the first part of the summer frantically applying to job after job, and rushing from interview to interview trying to secure a new position. Eventually I did, though it was about an hour north of where I was living at the time. While I liked West Palm Beach, I had little qualms about moving and felt excited for a new year. I would be better prepared, I would have time to review the curriculum map and organize my lessons, and I would have much more support (or so I believed).
I still struggled a great deal my second year; my classroom management plan fell to pieces, in the face of challenging students who were well below grade level in reading, I was isolated from my colleagues though they were not interested in collaborating anyway, and the administration provided little guidance or enforcement of consequences for the severe behavior problems. I took on students for extra tutoring, and was still completing classes for my second degree, as well as other Professional Development classes required by the district. I quickly became exhausted and overwhelmed, somehow holding things together by a thin thread. In spite of the challenges at work, I had found a relationship that made me happier than I had been in quite awhile, I managed to make a few friends with other teachers in the district, and I adopted a new dog who was both a joy and a pain, as any pet can be. Somewhat ironically, I wouldn’t have met my boyfriend if I had not made the move to the new school. My classroom was an awkward shape that didn’t lend itself to any arrangement that make it easy to teach, and I had no real place to project my carefully designed presentations, nor did I even have speakers for sound when we needed to listen to a recording or watch a video (those I provided myself). Yet I had one class of advanced students who were a wonderful to work with; they were quick to grasp any new material or concept I presented, followed directions without need reminders to stay on task (generally speaking- they were still twelve year olds), and I built relationships with them, getting to know all about their lives and interests. Even though I was frustrated and at a loss of how to improve some of my classes, I saw what a real classroom could look like and knew I was getting close to where i wanted to be.
Towards the end of the school year, my boyfriend and I purchased a home that was in between our places of employment. As it came closer and closer to my end of the year review and evaluation, I had a feeling in the depths of my stomach that all was not well. My principal wouldn’t speak to me or acknowledge me, and I could tell there was little chance I would be offered a position for next year. I took time to write up a full document outlining all of the different types of support I did not receive as I should have throughout the year (having a mentor that actually met with me and provided assistance was just one item on the list). For better or worse, I sent it to my principal, and never received a response. On the day of my final evaluation meeting, I wore my favorite skirt that made me feel truly grown up and a bit like I was someone from the 50’s or early 60’s, someone with a bit of class and style. Part of me hoped it would make me feel at least marginally better when I was finally given the news I knew was bound to come that day. The meeting happened between my first and second classes, during my planning period, so I had some time to collect myself and try to process the situation. During the meeting, I was suppose to receive the results of my evaluation and receive feedback; the meeting was less than five minutes, and there was no discussion. My principal gave me some excuse that they were changing the department for next year, meaning she had to reduce the number of teachers for sixth grade. Perhaps she was telling the truth, but it hardly seemed believable, and she wouldn’t really meet my eyes as she spoke to me. As unjust as I felt the decision was, a part of me still felt I needed to accept most of the blame and question my ability to be a successful teacher. The other teachers made it seem so easy. What was it about me that made me struggle with it so much? I followed all the advice given in my education classes, I structured my lessons according to “best practices”, I regularly contacted parents and filed discipline reports. What was I doing wrong? Was I just not meant to be a teacher? I had dedicated not only time but also money into getting my official teaching certificate and second degree, I had committed to the profession, and truly wanted to have a fun, engaging class for my students where they learned and thought critically and creatively. I just couldn’t seem to make it happen.
I spent about a month running around south Florida applying to jobs and attending different interviews, desperately hoping to be offered a position despite my own doubts. Rejection after rejection came, and I doubted even more my ability to remain in the world of education. Eventually, I was offered two positions, and one happened to be at the top rated middle school in the district of my city that is only about six miles from my house. I hadn’t expected the offer, and it had been a short interview. I felt like there were many things I had not said during the interview that I should have, about my passion for the subject, about my extreme dedication and work ethic, about my unshakable faith that all students can be successful, about designing creative assessments to provide students the best opportunity for demonstrating their knowledge, about being consistent with a discipline policy and about laying out expectations early and establishing routines right from the beginning of the year. Perhaps the principal could tell these things without saying, or perhaps we were both tired of the usual interview rig-a-morle. Maybe she was just desperate for a certified teacher at the last minute. Regardless, I am thankful for the position and another opportunity to establish myself in the field of education.
Like every educator, I am extremely worried at the direction education is headed in our country, especially under the new administration. Yet I don’t believe I could abandon my students; I do not hold any false notions of working miracles or creating radical change. Everyday, I will meet with my students and they may or may not retain any of the information I’m trying to teach them. I can’t force them to care about their future or the future of our globe. I still feel obligated to do what little I can. I can expose them to different perspectives, and do my best to show them that they are capable of great things. This is the dream and wish of every teacher, to some extent. At least that’s what I will let myself believe.
My students will not be perfect students, and I will not be a faultless teacher. I will have to deal with bureaucratic frustrations, parents would react irrationally at times or are not supportive, there will be days when I will want nothing more than to not have to face the classroom another day. But I want to be there for these young adults who will have to start growing up, and will eventually have to make a future for themselves. We often say that education is the most important thing in a person’s life, but I’m not sure we fully appreciate the difference it can make. There is no greater truth than that the future of the country, and the world, lies in the classroom.
In spite of everything, I am looking forward to beginning a new year, which is always filled with hope. I still have to go shopping for my “first day of school” outfit, though.