It has taken me eighteen—yes, eighteen—years to be able to write this. I started to put this story into words years ago, but I didn’t have the age or experience necessary to be able to accurately reflect. At 46, I’ve now been in the workforce for more than 20 years and am ready to re-examine why I left the classroom in May of 2000. This is my story.
I have wanted to be a teacher since I was in the 4th grade. It wasn’t until college that I knew I wanted to teach high school English, but nevertheless, I’d known for years that I wanted to teach. I was naive when I began my career, thinking I would change/save the world. I wanted to help kids, do better than some of my own middle and high school teachers, and inspire. I don’t fault myself for this innocence—I imagine all young teachers feel the same way, as they should. But I had a picture of what teaching should be like and what I would be like as a teacher. The truth is, even the best of colleges can’t prepare students for the realities of teaching. We learn through age and experience.
Beginning My Teaching Career
I graduated college with a BSE in English in December. The following spring, I snagged a long-term substitute job in the district where I had done my student teaching. I would be teaching Freshman and Advanced Junior English. I was elated—it was a step toward a real job, plus I’d get to do what I’d always wanted to do. I survived the initial six weeks and ended up getting hired at the same school when the year ended. It was all so easy, and I knew I was on my way to achieving my career goals. I was still so naive. Substitute teaching is not the same as teaching, and even though I was smart, resourceful, and enthusiastic, I was unprepared for the realities of life as a full-time educator.
I was 23 when I signed my first teaching contract, teaching the same classes I had subbed for during my long-term tenure. I thought it would be easy. I had visions of the “teacher of the year” awards I would win, the kids I would impact, and the parents who would love me. But the reality for me was this: Being a young, small, youthful-looking 23-year-old first-year teacher was hard. I was inexperienced, lacking in confidence, and unable to stand up for myself. So, my first foray into teaching was difficult. In fact, it ended with my resignation. For years after, even as I transitioned into a new career, I’ve struggled with this seeming defeat. I felt like a failure for leaving public education—a job I had wanted since I was a kid.
When I began teaching, I was wide-eyed and innocent. I thought teaching would be fun and enjoyable every day, and that the kids would love me. At the same time, I knew the current theory was “be a teacher, not a friend” to the kids. I worked so hard to be seen as smart and professional that I sometimes lost the ability to gain an honest rapport with my students. I did have my group of kids who thought I was funny and enjoyed my teaching, but back then, I took myself too seriously. I couldn’t laugh at myself, and when a lesson was flopping, I didn’t have the skills to know how to adjust or simply abandon the lesson. I couldn’t yet fly by the seat of my pants—a skill that is sometimes necessary in teaching. There were many lessons that didn’t work with the crowd I was teaching that both the students and I had to endure. And I can tell you, there is nothing more miserable for a teacher than a lesson that is bombing.
Taking the Good With the Bad
Even though I was inexperienced, I was still good in many ways. I wasn’t afraid to try new things, I enjoyed the process of learning the curriculum, and I was positive and upbeat. I did connect with some kids simply because of my age. I was able to try out a lot of things, like coaching different sports and heading up the Scholars’ Bowl team. I also tried different teaching strategies and projects, and was brave and enthusiastic in a lot of ways.
Still, the day-to-day challenge of teaching teenagers—some of whom resented me for my age and others who would never get to know the real me—took its toll. I was a bit of a pushover, and my voice would get higher when I got mad, which was fodder for some of my students. I struggled (although, who doesn’t) with classroom management and became overwhelmed with the rigor of grading, planning, and still being able to have a life.
My final year of high school teaching was a rough one. I had several classes that were tough. The students were disengaged and rude, and even my enthusiasm couldn’t win over these classes. I was feeling overwhelmed and needed some support—someone to observe me objectively and give me some suggestions. So I asked my assistant principal for help, and they told me this: “You can’t be their friend. You have to be a teacher first and not their friend.” I think that this comment was what broke me. I felt alone, lacking in real collaboration from my colleagues, and blamed. I had tried so hard to distance myself from my students, yet the administrators hadn’t noticed my efforts. Instead, they had assumed that I had only tried to be buddies with the students. I knew then that I had to make a change and resigned that spring.
Finding My Path in Education
The next few years took me in many directions. For about 18 months, I worked as a Director of Education at Sylvan Learning Center. I taught Adult Basic Education/GED classes, tutored a student in algebra, and then went back to school to get a library science degree. Six years after leaving public education, I re-entered the workforce as an elementary librarian. Since leaving my first job in 2000, I’ve had some epiphanies and am able to look at my first five years in this field a different way. Instead of feeling like I failed, I now feel like these first five years were valuable in guiding me to become the educator I am today. Here are some things I’ve learned about myself and my teaching throughout my career:
- Kids won’t care about what you teach until they know you care about them. In fact, this is an unspoken motto of my current school. Rapport is a must. I have to share my authentic self with my classes, and I have to show that I care about the lives of my students. This doesn’t mean that I overshare or act like a kid; this means that I am truly interested in my students. I wasn’t able to be authentic as a new teacher, but I now know that my students today know me and know that I care.
- Age and experience count. Being older doesn’t necessarily make me a better teacher, but it does mean that I have developed more confidence. I don’t get as flustered when things go awry in the classroom. I have more tools in my toolbox, and I know how to re-imagine a lesson on the fly. I have also learned not to take student behavior personally—when my class acts up, I understand that it is kids being kids more than it is the kids “doing this” to me. I know that I could walk into a high school classroom today and, because I’ve had more life experiences, my teaching would be different. Better. More real. This confidence has come from my past experiences and my years of living and teaching, and I am a better teacher because of said experience.
- I thrive in a collaborative work environment. My first school did not feel collaborative in spirit. Instead, teachers were somewhat guarded. Each department (sort of) worked together, but there was no mixing. And even within my own department, I felt like teachers would get a great idea and keep it to themselves—as if great teaching is to be kept secret rather than shared. Thankfully, on my second foray into public education, I landed at a school that excels at collaboration. Even though I am a one-man show at my school, the only one in my role, I know that I can ask anyone in the building for help and I will receive it. The collaborative spirit of our school makes the me feel less isolated and more productive.
- I prefer to work with low-income kids. This may sound snobby, but I don’t mean it to be. When I worked in a mostly wealthy suburb outside Wichita, many of my students often didn't understand what it meant to go without and didn’t appreciate their learning opportunities. In the low-income school where I now teach, the students seem to have a different attitude. Many of them understand that we teachers care about their well-being, and they want to do well. What’s more, their parents truly seem to appreciate our hard work. Even though these students have a lot of other struggles, I enjoy working with them. Every day, I leave feeling like I’ve really made a difference.
- It is important to take time to talk with co-workers and students. My first time around, I was overwhelmed and busy. When someone popped by my classroom, I was inclined to rush them off because I had work to do—planning, grading, the usual teacher workload. But I think that it’s important to build relationships with students and staff. So today, even if I’m busy, I try to be present when a colleague comes by and wants to talk or when a student stops by with a problem. An important part of teaching is fostering relationships, and this can’t be done if I’m rushing people. I try hard to listen and put off my to-do list until a later time.
- Even though it didn’t feel like it at the time, I did make a difference in my first five years. This is evidenced by the relationships I still have with former students and colleagues. In fact, I was discouraged one day recently and posted a quote about frustration on Facebook. A student I had my first year replied and said, “Didn’t you know I basically made it through high school because of you?” I didn’t know this, and it meant a lot to hear it. I’m sure there were more kids I impacted—kids who didn’t have the words to tell me. As the years have gone by, I’ve learned to be gentle with myself. I no longer feel like my first five years were a bust. I feel like they were wonderful years of learning where I made lifelong friends with co-workers and kids.
- Sometimes a job is a stepping stone to where a person is really meant to be. That’s what this first job felt like to me. There were lots of parts of teaching that I enjoyed, but there were many parts that were hard. I spent years figuring out what I did and did not want in a job. Through persistence, hard work, and a lot of luck, I ended up in a really positive, healthy working environment. I love my job and what I do, but at the same time, I keep my feelers out for my next step—my next “right thing.” As an educator, I’ve grown and changed with time, and sometimes that means changing jobs to align with my current passion. Will I go back to the traditional classroom? Will I work in education, but outside of the public school setting? Will I go back to school so I can teach at the college level? Or will I simply move to middle school for a spell? I don’t know, but I know the answer will come in time.
Let me end with this thought: Teaching is a hard job. Teachers get tired, feel down, and need support. And sometimes teachers even need a change of scenery. When a teacher decides to take a break, it is not necessarily a bad thing. In my case, my short break from public education led me to a job that I love—and where I'm loved. Every day I try to be thankful for the lessons I’ve learned through teaching. If I hadn't gone through the struggles of my first foray into teaching, I would not be the educator—and person—I am today.
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