First-Year Teacher Probs

Hello from the end of a blog-writing hibernation! As usual, winter was a bleak season for me. There have been big happenings that pushed me through the gray months of January and February, namely buying an adorable HOUSE! But that deserves its own post. This-coming weekend, I am heading up to Virginia, reconnecting with the pieces of my heart that I planted in the Shenandoah Valley in college, celebrating my newly ENGAGED best friend, and attending a Rotary Conference where I will be a guest speaker.

If you’re ready for one of my novels, I’m posting the un-chopped version of the first-year teaching chronicles I began writing in preparation for speaking at the convention. My last post on teaching in November was also inspired by a video I made for Rotary (seems I don’t have too much self-motivation to write this year…). At that time, my teaching report was altogether positive.

Not the case anymore. Today, I feel like myself – balanced, sane, even hopeful. With that perspective, I look back on the last few months and it seems like a blurry, depressing pit of despair and helplessness. I am not being overdramatic. The way I felt scared me, and I didn’t know what to do, other than channel my energy into things I liked outside of work, talk to those I trusted, and cry a lot.

When friends asked how I was doing, I responded that life has been great, and teaching pretty miserable. Here’s the (really) full explanation.  If nothing else, it’s filed in my life archives:

The First Year Teaching

The first year teaching is ubiquitously known for being overwhelming, stressful, and plain tough. One of my best teacher friends looked at me squarely in August and said, “Get ready, you’re about to be drinking through a fire hose for nine months straight.” Teachers carry both the distinct privilege and high charge of molding and educating impressionable young individuals. Each of these students enter the classroom with their own learning needs and strengths, familial and socioeconomic backgrounds, behavior issues, and often-quite-heavy baggage. Their personalities and abilities span the gamut, and though first-year teachers enter the classroom with the most recent pedagogical understanding, they also only have a few months of student-teaching under their belt. On Day One, we are thrown into the same job description and expectations as veteran teachers who have been refining their art for years.

We all have our own schooling background and remember the teachers from our youth, so articulating this predicament isn’t unfamiliar to any of us. Experiencing it for oneself is something entirely different.

As this past summer came to a close, I launched into the first days of school with fiery enthusiasm, determination, and a healthy balance between knowing the circumstances of my school while also being blissfully ignorant of the additional challenges it realistically poses. At the induction professional development we had before school started, a seasoned educator from the district gave inspiring tips for how to thrive rather than survive. Now that I’m two thirds of the way through this rookie year, my conviction continues to intensify that throwing inexperienced teachers head-first into a confusing education system is bent toward failure, burnout, and increased teacher turnover.

I teach tenth-grade Humanities to a student body of at-risk youth: 100% of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and the school itself is eligible for Title I funding. My high school is also grounded in a project-based learning curriculum, which is supposed to encourage students to “acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems.” 

In total, there are four Humanities teachers that make up our team. All four of us are in our first year, and two are going through alternative initial certification while they teach. None of us really know what’s going on. We develop projects and make lesson plans and do attempt to teach the students, but I can’t help feeling that we’re doing it wrong, and doing a poor job at that. As my co-teacher put it a couple months ago, we are ducks on roller skates. For a Type A, achievement-oriented planner, these circumstances have made teaching this year particularly challenging for me.

When people ask how teaching has been so far, I compare it to a cliched roller coaster: it’s a topsy turvy vortex of ups and downs, but ultimately liable to leave you wobbly and nauseous. For most of first semester, I played my growth mindset mantra over and over. Okay, this is new. Everyone’s first year teaching is rough. No one on my team is an experienced teacher. Co-teaching and project Based Learning is different. This school is particularly tough. I will get better. Students will get better.

By December, though, I acknowledged that students did not behave or demonstrate learning according to my expectations. I have become increasingly disillusioned since.

At the start of fourth block a couple weeks ago, a student asked me, “Ms. Compton, are you okay? You’ve seemed kinda stressed the last two months.”

I responded, “How perceptive of you, Harold. I haven’t quite been on my A game, huh?”

Two weeks ago, I was a wreck. I felt numb. We wrapped up our last project and I feel a little more like myself now, but the overriding problems still haven’t changed. 

As I responded to Harold, what I was really thinking was: No, I’m not okay at all. I feel like crumpling up into the fetal position underneath my desk and escaping this war zone.

To the girl who, when I asked her to talk after several days of uncharacteristic attitude issues, told me, “No. We’re not doing this. Get out of my face. I DO NOT CARE. Leave me alone. Bye.” — I don’t know how to respond to and discipline you, while still encouraging you to learn and grow.

To the student who just walked out of the room after throwing his laptop across the table and a sling of curse words at me, — I know you’re angry, and I know it probably goes deeper than the lunch detention I just issued you, but I don’t have thick skin yet. I don’t know how to dish it back out. I’m not sure I want to. And though I shouldn’t, I do take it personally.

The following week after Harold’s question, I did indeed crumple up in a fetal position on my couch, and sob, and sob, and sob. The talking and chaos, the lack of structure and guidance, of being able to have a solid plan and actually teach it, and from there to see some results…it has pulled me into a pit of inescapable helplessness. I don’t exactly know how it happened, but the reins had somehow flung out of my control, and I became really on edge nearly all the time.

Why Teach?

As I’ve become more honest with myself and those close to me about the teaching struggles I have had this year, many of them have asked me why I chose teaching to begin with. Teaching combines many of the things I love most – young people, English, learning, planning, implementing, even, to a degree, I confess, being the “boss.” Teenagers are at this critical crossroads of determining their identity. I want to meet them there and walk alongside them, cultivating their capabilities into true abilities — to find extracurricular interests they really do love, to practice and discover the impact of community service, and to develop the skills of critical thinking, analysis, and communication. For me, the desires in that response still hold true. It’s just that I haven’t gotten to experience any of that fruit yet.

What I Love

There is a reason I chose to teach at my school, and there are aspects I still love about it. I knew that change had been happening — graduation rates had risen over the last five years, and press coverage was positive. The administration team is strong, and I feel supported and cared for by them. My principal has a sign on his door that says “Every child deserves hope.” I believe that is true, too, and I am grateful for leadership who approach their job centered on students. I do love the students themselves. I am drawn toward justice and serving those who don’t have an advocate; most of our students don’t; they are limited by a vat of financial opportunity and cultural capital.

One of my goals was to start an outdoors club. I started helping with Eco-Avengers, our environmental science club, and in February, we organized a local hike, and we have a couple more outdoor adventures planned before the end of the year. I am energized by the time outside the classroom with conscientious students- whether it’s weeding in the garden, hiking on the trail, or planning a fundraiser.

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When I get really excited about teaching something, I like lesson planning and preparation. I like seeing students engaged; every once in awhile, I see the light bulb turn on. In December one student got up to use the bathroom when we were reading The Kite Runner. We were nearing the climax of the story, and he just stood by the door, ready to leave, but so drawn in that he continued to listen. Unfortunately, those moments are rare.

Frustrations and Apathy

However, there are so many more things about teaching this year that frustrate me, too. PBL itself is really difficult to do well. I’m not confident in how to plan or execute it effectively, and I get dragged down by the lack of guidance.I crave a mentor who can instruct me this year and tell me the best ways to teach PBL. Sometimes it feels like we get wrapped into a cycle of work and grading without any real learning taking place. Students won’t do any work outside of class, so if we’re reading a text, it often becomes storytime. I teach the same 90-minute class three times a day. That’s great from a planning standpoint, but it’s a strange dichotomy to have the monotony of a poor lesson for the third time, with the challenge of student behavior.

Direct instruction is difficult because talking and chaos pervade. Independent work is just as troublesome, since it’s nearly impossible to keep students accountable to staying on task and using time efficiently. With many still reading on an elementary school lexile level, I haven’t really seen us get much past comprehension questions this whole year, and I feel like the things we have attempted, even just understanding the basic plot line of a story, have been spoon-fed. We don’t get to dig into the life lessons in literature and the beauty of language, and that saddens me.

I came across this comic recently, and the attitude sums up the majority of my students. Just as I love the students, they are also the source of my troubles. I have the non-honors “reluctant learners,” and it’s hard to get them to care about anything we teach.

I do understand their perspective, too. Most teenagers are uninspired by tenth grade English. If their goal is to graduate and go straight to work at a blue collar job, where is the motivation to learn MLA citation or living conditions during Industrial Revolution?

They can tear up a lesson you put a lot of time and thought into. The kids are experts at sensing fear or uncertainty in a teacher and capitalizing on it. Anger seems to emanate from some of the students. Maybe it makes them feel better to drag someone else down since that’s what has happened to them most of their lives. I know I’m not a student, but I am human. When they put forth so little effort, I’ve noticed that my own caliber and quality for teaching can dip. It is a toxic posture, and sometimes it makes me not care as much. But deep down I still care so much. So I live within that tension of my reality and the hope and expectations I still hold for them and myself.

I do fear that somewhere along the way my drive for excellence has declined, that I have become a little more apathetic alongside the students, that cutting off on the weekends or “leaving work at work” has actually turned into a form of escapism, in which I am enduring and surviving, rather than addressing, the problems I face everyday. The less I really teach, the less confident I am of my very content, too. Do I actually know all that much about reading, writing, and analysis??

Ultimately, what I do isn’t actually teaching. It’s attempted teaching with constant behavior management. Even that is just an attempt, though. The usual environment is generally loud and energy-draining. Their noise and chaos seeps into my soul; I’m left empty instead of fulfilled.

Envision each of these challenges as massive building stones — namely project planning and implementing PBL, teaching an integrated course, too many novice teachers, the lack of parent support inherent to a poor demographic, and the shocking student behavior. When you stack them on top of each other, the barrier to success is just too high to overcome.

I am almost certain I will not be returning to my school next year. I don’t see quitting here as a failure, because as I’ve wrestled my situation, incessantly chewing on these issues, and talked to other co-workers, my conclusion is that there is no room for true success. I know that every first year teacher has to figure out behavior management and planning, but my situation feels exceptional.

?????

I am left blundering with a merry-go-round of revolving questions. Am I rejecting God’s will if I leave this school? What if I really should be here long-term? Where is my grit? How many of these hardships would I still experience at other schools? Should I try teaching somewhere else? Which problem is potentially driving me out of the profession? What else would I be good at? I’m only 25 once. How do I spend these years of autonomy to take risks that will best use my skills and talents for others? And also make me happy?

I still believe in service over self. I still can’t imagine a profession in which I am not helping other people. In the core of my being, I still think teaching is a calling for me. Simultaneously, it also scares me to think I may step away from teaching altogether if it is my calling. But I need to be with people who want to help themselves, too. I need to be working in an environment of success, achievement, and competency.

Despite some experience student-teaching, I sincerely believe that all first-year teachers should be apprentices for a full year, paired with a veteran teacher who introduces the novice to the nuanced landscape and unique characteristics of a given school and curriculum. Leadership can then progressively shift to the new teacher until she is running the class by the end of the year. In almost any other profession, there is significant training and on-boarding. I wonder why this isn’t uniformly the case in teaching.

Right now, this is where I am — grappling with the convictions I still hold for why I intentionally chose teaching as a career, and perhaps a calling, and the reality that this year has not just been “typical first year teacher” challenging, but depressingly difficult. I am holding on in the limbo of figuring out my next steps, and I have come to no clear conclusions yet.

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