After One Trimester as a Classroom Teacher
I am officially on Winter Break. I have completed my first full trimester (plus a couple weeks) of teaching. I have had 58 student-contact days. Not only is now a good time for me to reflect and report on how it’s going, I think it’s necessary.
This is my second attempt at becoming a classroom teacher. My most heavily trafficked posts are still those about my (mis)adventure in DC Teaching Fellows several years ago. I was advised then that I’d likely have more success in a traditional teaching program. So, that’s just what I did a few years later; I enrolled in and completed UOTeach, earning a Masters in Curriculum and Teaching. I did have success within that program. I was excited while in school and I was excited coming out of the program.
I was excited about getting my first job with a middle school that was focused on STEAM education. It seemed like the principal wanted to position me as a technology education asset within the school, for both the students and the staff. I was hired to teach math, science, and computer science. It was the dream trifecta assignment I’d been hoping for while I was in grad school. It was a bit unreal to get exactly what I was shooting for right out of the gate.
It’s bitter to be where I am now. Getting straight to the punchline: I am pretty miserable in teaching and I’m about 80% sure that I will not return to classroom teaching next year.
So, what happened, right? What happened to take me from feeling like this was my calling to feeling like there is no way I can keep doing this, that it is unsustainable?
As I’ve been thinking about it, there are a few constituent issues that ultimately make me want to give this up. There is the myth that “the first year of teaching is just hard”. There are a host of issues inherent to compulsory education. There is the difference between interacting with a middle schooler and running a classroom full of middle schoolers. Then, largely, there is my infidelity to my own goals and self-made success. This all leads to me focusing on surviving day-to-day rather than focusing on guiding the students through a unit, much less through the year.
“The first year of teaching is just hard.”
I heard this on the first day in UOTeach. I heard this regularly and often throughout UOTeach and then my teaching practicum. Then, I heard this as I got a job and began my first year of teaching. The first year of anything tends to be hard, so I took this as a self-evident truth. I thought of it as something that teachers tended to say with pride and as a way to encourage the rookies — “I got through it and so can you.” I didn’t realize what the reiteration of this phrase was actually doing.
By reiterating this bullshit phrase, people were not proclaiming a victory and issuing encouragement. No, they were passively rolling over and creating a reality in which hardship is the norm and thus hardship should be expected and endured without any thought of improving the very processes that are making it hard in the first place.
The first year of teaching is not universally hard. It does not HAVE to be hard. I’ve heard from at least a few teachers who said their first year was actually great. Furthermore, there are reasons that my first year has been hard. There are reasons I had daily day-long panic attacks for the first three weeks. There are reasons I lived marinating in anxiety for the first several weeks of my career. There are reasons I thought about killing myself more in those weeks than I had in the prior couple years combined. There are reasons why the work I’d done to see myself as competent and valuable and worth surviving unraveled.
Saying “The first year of teaching is just hard” dismisses all of those reasons. It says that it doesn’t matter what changes, the first year will just be hard, so we’re not going to do anything to make it less hard. What are these things that were unnecessarily hard? I’m glad you frakking asked.
That list was last updated at the end of October. After that I became too depressed and my motivation to maintain it flagged. Some of the items on the list might seem small, but they add up. They also might seem like things I could have just asked about. The problem there is I often didn’t even know what to ask about. How do you know which of the things that you don’t know are important. I often did ask when I realized that I needed information I didn’t have. I often felt foolish, though, asking about something incredibly basic in Week 5 that it felt like I should have known since Week 0.
I hate that I heard that bullshit, scapegoating phrase from my principal on more than a couple of occasions. You know what I’d rather hear? How about asking me what seems unnecessarily hard? And when I do talk about it, how about not dismissing it.
That’s not to say I didn’t have support. The teachers in my building are quite incredible and supportive. Many people popped in to offer anything I needed and a few still do check in on me regularly to make sure I’m okay. I don’t know what to ask of them. I’ve had a few really good conversations and that has helped ease some of the hardships. While I appreciate it, I am still frustrated that it’s all ad hoc and there is not some sort of organized system of teacher support.
Compulsory Education Means Selling People Something They Didn’t Ask For
Way back when I worked in retail banking, one of the requirements that made me most miserable was the push to sell products and services to people whether or not they needed or wanted them. That’s a bit what it feels like I’m doing as a teacher. Students have to be in school. Since they have to be in school, they are subject to the whims of the district and school they go to. So, if the district says they must be in Math five hours per week, then they must whether they want to or not. And then it is my job to sell them on it once they’ve already been forced into it. What do you mean you don’t need this additional checking account? It comes with this tiny benefit that we’re over-hyping and which is only meaningful for this narrow band of people who we designed it for. Besides, I’ve already set it up for you. You should be grateful.
So, they have to be in school, they have to be in classes they expressed no interest in, and then they have to endure being told it’s for their own good. Gods, I’m reminded of why I hated school so much when I was enduring it. Alright, they are in math. Maybe they can at least get something useful out of it. They can learn about the numeric requirements of the world they are very soon going to have to navigate on their own. Mmm. No, not right now. That’s not in this year’s standards. They should have already learned about money. Now we have to focus more abstractly on arithmetic with decimals. Besides, we can’t spend too long on any one topic because they have to stay on pace with the curriculum and get through the whole book and set of standards.
Oh, here’s a student that is unsurprisingly struggling in this class for which their disinterest has never been validated. You know what’ll work? Let’s make them take an additional five hours per week of it. You know what helps someone get over their dislike of swimming? Drowning them. Works every time.
Don’t worry, it has practical usefulness. It prepares them for Algebra, which they’ll need in order to graduate high school. Don’t laugh. Graduating high school is meaningful. Well, no, not outside of the importance the school system creates for it. But we’re within the school system, so if we say it’s important, it is. And the students swallow our dogma, so that’s good enough.
Turns out that the most pressing problem that math helps students solve is getting the frak out of school. I guess it is useful.
A Classroom of Middle Schoolers is Different from Many Individual Middle Schoolers
I have never had any desire to have authority over people. In fact, it makes me feel gross for people to do what I say because they feel compelled to by the imbalance in our power positions. Now, mind you, I have no problem giving strong advice and communicating how compelling I think my advice is.
In a classroom, though, there isn’t a lot of room for even one student to go rogue. So I’m put in this position where I have to enforce my instructions. Who the frak am I, though?
I want the best for my students, because they are people. They are new people. They deserve the best. None of them has yet done anything that should diminish anyone’s compassion for them. We all deserve several years of grace where we’re allowed to make even the most heinous mistakes and given the opportunity to learn from them with a degree of protection. They are still well within that grace period.
I genuinely believe in the value of education. By education, though, I mean the cultivation and growth of curiosity by the satisfaction of that curiosity.
Being this person, is it in my students’ best interests to follow my instructions? Is it in their best interest for me to enforce my instructions? Probably yes. And so, I do make efforts to enforce my instruction. I try to do that mostly by cultivating buy-in, rather than relying on the authority afforded to me by the power differential. This belief in my ability to deliver on the best interest of my students means, though, that I am incredibly frustrated by those few students who distract, derail, and diminish the opportunities of our class time for the the class as a whole.
I currently do not know how to reduce the impact of those students. I do not know how to convert them into believers in the mission of the classroom. I do not know how to sell them something they seem to be saying that they do not want. Certainly, I can learn this. It is, though, a struggle I will have to endure every year. I’m not interested in that.
I’m not good at teaching self-centered proto-people to truly see the other people around them. To care for those people. I would like to be good at it. Ultimately, that is why I want to teach, to help us all see each other. Those were my favorite moments when I was tutoring. When I could strip away the contrived curriculum and the pretenses of performance for evaluation, and connect to my student-clients as people and reflect on the world and we could see a little more of each other and I could help them see a little more of the people around them.
As a classroom teacher, I feel like I have to make a choice between teaching recognition of the personhood of others or teaching content. Technically I’m paid to teach content. My administration, colleagues, and the parents make it clear they want me teaching content. That leaves me only sneaking in hints that there is something more important I’d like my students to learn.
Selling Out My Success to Legitimize Myself
So far, this is all incidental to teaching. Anyone else starting out could likely say the same things, but there are lots of teachers who stick with it, who endure and wait for it to get better. A lot of my unhappiness stems from the reasons I decided to go back to school and pursue classroom teaching again, the reasons I put myself in this situation.
When I applied for UOTeach, I was supporting myself as a contract tutor and with contract consulting jobs. I was completely self-employed and I really loved it. I got to make my own hours and I got to directly help and benefit people. I got to solve problems and teach people how to do things. A lot of my consulting gigs ended up being about making technology accessible for people.
There were some things I didn’t like about this arrangement. I wasn’t reporting all of my income and I didn’t like that. I figured out how to start filing taxes as a self-employed independent contractor, though. And I’m boss at keeping records. So, I had a goal of making all of my income legitimate.
As a private tutor, I was starkly aware that I was part of the problem of education inequity. Only the people who could afford me benefitted from my services. Boo, Capitalism. I had a goal of dedicating a few hours a week to either free or low-fee tutoring, though. Then, at least, I could make tutoring assistance available to someone who otherwise might not be able to access it.
I wanted to improve what I was doing, make it the best it could be, because I really loved it. I loved that I built it, that I made it happen for myself. I had an idea, I put it out into the world, and I pursued it to success. It was agile and dynamic. It challenged and rewarded me. Importantly, I was good at it and it was work worth being good at.
So, I stopped doing it.
I changed course and went to grad school so I could become a classroom teacher. The reason I did that is a source of regret. I didn’t feel like the work I was doing was real enough. A bias in me always translated “self-employed” as “unemployed” and so I saw myself as unsuccessful. I felt like I was letting people down by not having a “real job.” I saw two options: continue to get better at the work I was doing (including creating a business to do that work under) or go back to school to pursue a real career. Since I didn’t believe in the work I was doing as a legitimate and responsible option, I chose grad school and teaching.
Now I find myself with that more legitimate career, but deeply unhappy. It seems pretty clear that I made the decision I did for the wrong reasons and that that decision was a mistake.
Where I am and Where I am Going
It takes so much energy to get out of bed each morning, to get myself to the school, to get myself through the day. I waste so much of my time distracting myself from my anxiety and from the deep feelings of inadequacy that accompany thinking about teaching now. I would so like to plan out an entire week. I would like to really plan my learning targets, plan my assessment, then teach authentic lessons that prepare students for an authentic assessment.
Even more than that, I’d love to scrap the curriculum and have an honest discussion with my students about what the world is going to ̶a̶s̶k ̶demand of them. I would like to give them practice navigating those demands. The closest I get to that is teaching Computer Science. It feels like the purest teaching experience. I get to decide with the students what we work on. It feels honest. They are pursuing an interest and we get to discover more about that interest together. There’s no selling, there’s no distraction from practical application.
Both cases — planning thoroughly or scrapping it in favor of something real — require the energy and the concentration that I don’t have because it gets pulled from me just getting from the beginning of the school day to the end of it.
I’m not saying teaching isn’t worth it for anyone. I see the teachers around me who have been doing it for years and come in day after day. They found some way to pull themselves into more of this. They don’t necessarily seem happy, but they found some reason to keep doing it. Right now I don’t have that reason. I’m getting nothing out of this (really, I’m barely making enough money to even survive).
My conclusion, then, is that this isn’t right for me. I’m in the process right now of really evaluating what I should do after this Summer. I’m trying to focus on what I actually want, what would be the most meaningful for me, and where I have the best chance for both happiness and success. I’m still trying to be good at teaching. I have a ton of goals for Winter Break focused on coming back to teaching with new ideas and fresh approaches. While I’m doing this, I want to be good at it. The students certainly deserve the best I can muster.
The images of handwritten text are snippets from my first year teaching journal. I write a page each day that I am in contact with students.