The First and Last Year of Teaching, maybe?
My first year of teaching, I had this little fantasy similar to the Christy books, but set in the inner city. I'd be in front of the class, and a roomful of adoring middle schoolers would be gazing up at me with admiration and respect. I'd be the white Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act II. I mean, why shouldn’t they adore me? I had worked in a homeless shelter with kids who loved me and in a church with teens who thought I was the bomb. So, I definitely had experience as the cool adult admired by young people. Ok, so the Christy scenario never quite came to fruition. Apparently, junior high students don't adore their teachers.
In the early autumn of 2001, I had the opportunity to teach 161 days of junior high. I was called by an associate of my mother's with the information that the school where my mom's friend worked, had an immediate opening in the music department for a choral director. I really did not want to be a teacher, but I figured it was only nine months and I wouldn't mind a steady job with a steady salary. But, let me tell you just how unqualified I was for this job!
I went to a Fine Arts college for five years to get a degree in vocal music performance. I've sung in choirs all of my life, have soloed all over the continent, performed in operas, musicals, choir concerts, solo recitals, weddings, funerals, in church, and even at random restaurants and coffee houses. The music and singing aspect was not a problem. I've even had a little teaching experience. I've led several small group Bible studies, taught private voice lessons, and was the diction expert in Spanish, French, Italian and Russian, so in college choir, I taught all of the international phonetics of the songs we sang. I've given speeches in church, in school, at conferences, and am comfortable in front of a crowd of people. I've even taught a kindergarten reading course in high school as an aide, and have spoken to junior and senior high students at conferences, as well as leading a high school group of girls in a Bible study. Ok, so I had some qualifications for the job, but no education degree, no teacher's license, and no classroom experience! But, I figured, I have this mostly unused degree in music, I am considered an expert in singing, I should be using this skill.
School had been in session for two weeks and my communications with the school had given me the information that they still wanted to hire an experienced and certified teacher before even considering me. This was fine with me. One, I was living 120 miles away in Indianapolis, two, I was quite content working as a temp in an office, and three, I didn't want to relocate as I loved my church and my close-knot group of friends. However, contact with the teacher who'd informed me about the job told me that there were 14 music positions open in that school corporation alone, so the likelihood of finding 14 qualified music teachers two weeks into the school year was not a possibility. So, I applied. Well, the school waited two more weeks before calling me for an interview. I brought a week's supply of clothing with me and stayed with my parents. On Friday, I interviewed, and got the job! I was given an emergency teaching license, hired, and shoved into the field of education, with no experience, no mentor, no help, and the added bonus of being hired after school had already been in session for a month.
I started on Monday, but on Friday, I met with the substitute teacher who'd been working with my new classes for a week or so, and he left me alone with the class! I worked with the soon-to-be-mine honors choir and led some warm-ups and songs and shared how excited I was to be there, as the substitute stepped outside to smoke a cigarette.
That Friday, looking out across the group of 30-something eighth graders, I met the curious faces of a mixed group. This class was about half black, half white, with a couple of Latinos thrown into the mix. Some were excited to finally have a real teacher, some were not. But, I was energized after working with them for half an hour and couldn't wait for the position to begin on Monday.
School began for me after the students had been in session for a month! Let me tell you, this is less than an ideal time to start teaching. The students, 200 7th and 8th graders in the choir program, had a variety of substitutes in 4 weeks time. One sub slept. One sub came in and immediately told them she hated junior high and was only there to fill in until a real teacher was hired. One sub tested voices and told the kids with little talent that they "sucked" and to never sing again. The subs came in and basically babysat, but didn't do any real teaching, except for the last sub who had started in on some music theory and had taught them one song. He was a young black man and seemed to work really well with the students. Most of them liked him a lot. However, he was also the one that told a handful of the kids that they sucked. He was a permanent in-school sub, and for a while there was a big struggle of the kids wanting him back. A lot of my black students felt he was better equipped to teach them because he was black, and I'm not. Anyway, in addition to the substitute situation, aside from not really teaching, the subs had also not laid down any ground rules. I came in after the kids had a month of running wild, and so for me to come in and tell them "here are the rules" was a little like lassoing and reining in a herd of wild mustangs. A task not to be taken lightly. And a dangerous one, at that.
And Then They Threw Condoms
My first day, I was excited to teach and on a block schedule had three classes during this "B" day. First period was seventh graders and we played an introduction game involving skittles and icebreaker questions. A child whose gender was not determined until three weeks later basically bounced off of my classroom walls and a war of flying skittles ensued. Second period, a predominantly black group of 8th graders informed me they wanted Mr. C back or else for last year's teacher to return. Fourth period was ok, but one girl glared at me from the back row with such intense hatred that I was very intimidated. I can't remember if I sent anyone to the office that day. I don't think I did, but during second period, there was an interesting incident.
Two students, male and female, started to bicker. I separated them to seats across the room from each other. Yet, they still persisted in hurling insults. "You smell." "You're a wet rat." "You have nappy hair." "You're ugly." When I told them to stop, the protest was "Well, I cain't help it if he smell!" and "But, she stank!" I treated them like children and sent them to opposite corners, where they repeatedly turned around and yelled at each other. This occurred for the whole 90 minutes of class! I didn't know what to do. After this class, I had a prep hour, and I told the principal about it. She called the students into her office. The next morning at 7:30, I had my first two parent teacher conferences with both students and their parents. This day was followed by many other random acts of chaos. From the class who threw condoms at me to the class who duct taped a student to a chair while I was writing on the board to the class where a boy grabbed a hold of a girl's birth control pills and took a couple.
Every day, an incident occurred, an argument, a fight, name calling, and I had little to no control over these rowdy kids, and lo and behold, they so did not worship and adore me. Within my first month, I, normally known for my poise, finally lost it and told one class to "Shut the hell up," which resulted in a stunned silence. This was followed by 30+ voices chorusing an "Ooooh, you're gonna be in trouble." To which, I replied, "I'll tell on myself" and dialed the office, telling the principal I was fed up. My principal was gracious and informed me that every first year teacher was entitled to one break down. Also, in that month, I ran out of honors choir crying and the principal had to come and take over for a while. She ordered the students to write me an apology letter and have it signed by their parents. At the time, reading those letters did not strike me as funny. The girls were vividly honest with comments “I’m sorry that I think you’re a b****. I shouldn’t have said it out loud.” to “I shouldn’t have said I wished you would die on a plane. Even though I think you’re mean…” The boys were delightfully clueless. “I’m sorry you cried yesterday. Did your dog die or something?”
I have never yelled or cried so much in my life as that first couple of months of teaching. I think I spent most of my time reacting rather than acting. That year, I was yelled at, cursed at, swung at, threatened and made miserable every day of my life.
Have you ever been in the class of a first year teacher?
Sink or Swim
When I first starting writing about my teaching experiences in my daily journal, it was all complaints and whining and how much I disliked the kids. October came and went and was a bust. November came and went and I was pulling my hair out. December came and went and I canceled the Winter Choral Concert because I still had no control over my classes. I tried begging, I tried pleading, I tried reasoning, I tried yelling, but all to no avail. Every day, I sent a handful of kids to the office, and every next class, they returned to me unchanged and still wild and untamed. I begged my administration for a mentor, but was turned down because the school corporation didn't want to waste money paying another teacher to mentor an uncertified teacher. Now, wouldn't you think that without an education background, I'd be the one who would MOST need a mentor? Hmm…don't get me started on the bureaucracy of education. Anyway, after several months, my administration also had lost tolerance for the many students I was sending their way and I was told that it was time for me to start handling problems on my own. I had my classroom evaluation, where I was called racist, unfair, and unable to control the classroom. Ow! My administration basically washed their hands of me and I was left alone. It was time to sink or to get creative and learn to swim.
The breaking point for me occurred in the staff lounge. I’ve always been prone to gossip and the negative atmosphere amongst my colleagues made discontent fester and boil over. Daily, I would hear their comments about the worthless students, the poor kids, the kids whose families were “uncaring” and other unkind things. On this particular day, I joined in. I mentioned a note I had confiscated from this girl that seemed to indicate she was sexually active. I was already burned because she was often snippy in class and I let me own malcontent spew to my colleagues. I just mentioned the note, but a chorus of comments rained down about this girl. She was “white trash”, “a slut”, “no good”, and so on. I let the words soak into me and allowed myself a moment of satisfaction that I wasn’t the one in the wrong here. I had to leave shortly after to pick up my class, and as I stepped out of the lounge, I met the shock of my life. The girl whose note I had confiscated was standing outside the door, a look of certainty that my teachers really do hate me and pain on her face. I was beyond mortified. I was shamed. I had hurt a child, a fragile being who did not have the defenses of adulthood to defend her actions or bolster her self-esteem. When I should have been the one catalyst that would bring her to growth and confidence, I was the paralysis that froze her into a state of disengagement and disillusionment. She never misbehaved in my class again, but she also never engaged with others. She just shut down.
That day ended my association with the staff lounge and the next day, I walked into the lunch room and took a tray of food. As I walked around, feeling an awful lot like I was back in middle school, one of my “worst” students yelled out for me to join her table. I blinked in disbelief, and her friends also echoed the invitation. I joined and this first connection was the real ice breaker that started to change me into the teacher I could become.
I learned temper control that year. I also learned that I had to break some traditions and start my own to start making headway. I started talking to the kids, asking their opinions, relating to them, picking songs for them to sing that they liked, having treats (ok, so bribery CAN work), setting up competitions for the best behaved class to win a pizza party. When a class came in and most of the kids seemed stressed, I would have impromptu stress sessions, where we'd all take 10 minutes to rant, scream in frustration, or vent to a friend non violently to get the garbage out. My room was in the back of the school so our stress sessions were unheard. The kids welcomed a chance for these sessions, would thank me afterwards, and class would actually resume with a better attitude. I started the "vent" journal, and kids having a bad day could spend time with the journal, writing about their feelings, and choose to either tear up the paper, give it to me, or keep it. I allowed kids every once in a while to take a friend to a private place and share with that friend if a hard day was in process. I joined my students for lunch, instead of eating in the staff lounge and listening to the other teachers vent about how much they hated the kids. Eating lunch with the students got us out of that adult authority role and into more of just an adult who wants to get to know them role. I'd invite students to my classroom for picnics during lunch. I invited the classes to share their favorite singers with me in a show and tell type setting. I took a class caroling on Christmas and baked cookies with another class. I started to take a look at myself and evaluate each day with the comments, what went well, what went poorly, and what could I have changed by a different attitude or response or reaction? I started listening to what was going on around me, listening to the kids' comments, concerns, problems, issues. I became teacher, coach, big sister, cheerleader, and role model. I started to admit when I was wrong, apologize to my students when I'd messed up and admit to my own mistakes. I started making changes in my attitude, in my behavior, in my classroom lesson plans. I started giving more praise, allowing more time for laughter, calling parents at home to tell them something positive about their kids. Some of these kids had never had a positive comment from a teacher before. I had to notice things they were doing right and not concentrate so hard on the things that were going wrong. Slowly, in small steps, I started seeing a change. Three classes came around and became almost stellar, and were the classes I had the most fun teaching, the most laughter in, and the most students who liked me. The other three took a longer time to get to that point, if they really ever got there exactly.
The End of the Year...Finally! but.....
My journal entries started to change, too. There were much fewer gripes and more incidences of personal victories, breakthroughs in a child's behavior and attitude, and a recognition that I was starting to succeed. By Spring of that year, I had won most of the students to my side, my classes were better behaved, fewer students were acting out, and I started to think, hey, I could get to like this teaching gig. I had gone from wishing that year would end and be my first, only and last year of teaching, to hoping I'd be there the next year. That Spring, I also received my next evaluation, which was a vast improvement. School ended with lots of hugs, signing of yearbooks, and nice comments from my students.
In Summer, I was told I was being transferred to another middle school within the corporation. I took what I had learned that first year and reviewed my game plan. Things that didn't work, I changed. Things that worked, I kept. Things that could be improved, I improved. I no longer had a temper problem, no longer argued (well, not much, at least), and went in with a good idea of how to get through to these students. My first week, one of my seventh graders from the previous year had transferred as an 8th grader to my class this year. That week, as I went through the rules and expectations for the class, some kids started to snicker and roll their eyes. This girl, who was a big discipline problem the previous year for several months, sat up straight and looked me in the eye. When I turned away, she quietly told the kids around her, "she's serious. She's strict, but she's cool, too. It's your choice to make this year good or bad." My eyes widened and I turned back to her and she said, "sorry for talking. I won't do it again." That incident began the next year of teaching and has been followed by many other successes, challenges, tears, victories, moments of laughter, hugs, and every once in a while, I get to be adored and worshiped. The first and not quite last year of teaching found me settled into a niche, of feeling that this is where I was meant to be, this is what I was meant to do. I'm a teacher.