first year teacher

Reflections on a First Teaching Year, Part Three

In addition to the weird and the hard, there were good things about being a first year teacher. Some of them were small—bagels in the teacher’s lounge, watching the sun come up over Ladybird Lake as I neared the end of my morning commute. Other positives, though, mattered more:

Having a Purpose

It may not make doing the job any easier, but it’s a great thing to get up in the morning and know that you are going to do something worthwhile. You’re not making money for some anonymous corporation. (Except on testing days. They’re the worst—those are the days I really felt like I was just doing a job.) Teaching matters. Teaching college students matters, too, but I never felt it quite so urgently.

Of course, that’s also why you can never leave your work at work, and why you worry constantly about things you can’t change. Overall, though? Devoting your working days (and occasional nights and weekends) to something that matters is pretty awesome.

The Students

My dad liked people. In general. He enjoyed being around them, enjoyed talking to them and making them happy. I have never been like that; despite overcoming a good deal of my introverted awkwardness over the years, I’m still happier by myself than with most people. That doesn’t keep me from liking my students.

The best things and the worst things about middle schoolers are suspiciously similar: they have boundless energy that hasn’t quite coalesced around a definite sense of self. They’re fountains of ideas, but often challenged to figure out which ones are good. (Both of those are frequently double for the “challenging” students.) Over the course of a year, I got to see students figuring things out on their own, deciding who they are and who they want to be.

Whenever it isn’t the worst part of the job, working with the students is the best part of the job.

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Colleagues

Another cool part of being a teacher? Working with other teachers. I had fantastic colleagues at my school. When I was a kid, it wasn’t until high school that I really started getting along as well with other students as I did with (most) teachers. I got a lot of help from my fellow teachers this year—everything from feedback on lesson plans to loaned books to pep talks. I only wish I’d lived on the right side of town so I could have attended more of the social functions.

Teaching Writing

Teaching writing is my favorite. I think about writing so much of the time. I’ve taught it before, of course—many of the music courses I taught as a gradjunct were “writing intensive” and required significant doses of writing instruction alongside the musical content. That was all writing research papers, though. This year, I got to teach fiction and poetry and, yes, research. The cool part is that I had to think about writing in different ways, try out different explanations and different examples to get to students who do not all read, who do not even necessarily have much shared background in movies and television.

In terms of teaching—not of being a teacher, but of actual teaching—I think I learned the most about how to do it well by teaching what I love.

Paying it Forward

I spent many, many, many years in school. Along the way, I had some great teachers. I do not think anybody gets into teaching without having role models. In some small way, becoming a teacher myself pays them back for all the things I learned from them. So, in rough order of grade level they had me: Mrs. Christensen, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Strough, Mrs. Hotchkiss and Mr. Carter…and Drs. Hess, Macy, and Mazullo. Thank you for putting up with me, for teaching me, and for inspiring me.

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Reflections on a First Teaching Year, Part Two

The last post included some of the odds and ends of my first year of teaching—unexpected moments and ongoing background stories. This week, some of the more challenging parts of the year.

Commuting Sucks

Austin has bad traffic, yo. And I got to spend 8-10 hours a week sitting in it. Once in a while, 12.

It Doesn’t Stop

This, I think, was the bit I was least prepared for. Teaching is a job you cannot leave at school. It takes up space in your head. It eats up time you’re nominally not at work because there are lessons to plan and papers to grade. I’m not going to pretend that I was working sixty-five or seventy hours a week, because there were serious inefficiencies in my time usage. Especially in the fall, though, it felt like 65 hours a week. (In actuality, it is usually about 50.)

Teaching college, you’re working with adults. Young adults, yes, who often need help, but adults. You’re responsible for getting them the content of your course, and sometimes for some professional mentoring. You are not, as a professor, responsible for the students themselves. You bring home papers to grade. You have lessons to plan. You may worry about certain students. It’s much rarer to worry about whether they’re actually going to make it to adulthood with a reasonable chance of success.

Teaching middle school, that worry is constant. You’re not actually a parent to your students, but you worry about them in much the same way, whether you’re at school or at home.

My First All-Nighter Since Grad School

At the end of the first semester of my doctoral program, I discovered that it does, in fact, take longer to write a 20-30 page paper than the 10-12 page papers I’d written during my master’s. The upshot of this was a sleepless night, serious heartburn from midnight coffee, and (probably) some mediocre papers. While I had short nights during my other finals weeks, I did not again have one in which I called a 20-minute doze enough.

…until third quarter grades were due.

I don’t like grading. I understand that grades have uses. Importantly, they’re a structure that keeps students accountable. Work that’s not for a grade usually doesn’t get done. None of that means I like grading. Because I dislike it, I tend to put it off. (Building grading into my schedule and getting it done sooner is one of my main goals for next year.) When I put it off…I get to spend an evening…and a night…and a morning catching up on grading. It was complicated in the third quarter by some inclement weather days and the usual mess of students turning things in late.

Next time I’m up all night, I really hope it’s for something more entertaining than middle school essays.

Perpetual Emergency

Standardized tests have higher gravity at low-SES schools. The administrative response to this was to declare an emergency in February that never really went away. Students at risk (or at perceived risk) of failing their STAAR tests were pulled every which way but loose.

My interventionists and inclusionists were rescheduled so many times that, occasionally, nobody in the building knew when they were actually supposed to be working with my students. On a related point, I had no input on most of the changes, including which students would be pulled. The situation was spectacularly frustrating for everybody involved.

Between the time that the scores for the reading test came back and the re-test for students who failed, I had a number of students who received three hours of English intervention every day. Because of the way that intervention was scheduled, I did not see some of my students at all for five weeks. A few of my other students spent half of their days doing only English (three hours in the morning with the interventionist, 90 minutes with me for normal class time, and 90 minutes of previously scheduled reading enrichment).

On a related note, I was asked to sacrifice some of my ELA time for students to practice for the STAAR science test. I did not especially mind this, because it was swapping one technology mandate for another—they went from working on the digital reading learning platform to the digital science learning platform.

We spent almost half the year in an “emergency.” It reminds me of this SNL sketch about terrorist threat levels.

Did I Mention the Testing?

Even assuming that we can get students to do meaningful work in the afternoon when they have been testing, I lost about 14 days of instructional time to actual and practice testing. Get rid of that useless assumption, and it’s more like 20. Then add to that a few days that were mostly lost because I taught at 5-12 school and we spent a few days sequestered because of high school testing. It adds up quickly. The tests interrupt instructional time, make it harder to complete meaningful projects, and stress everybody out.

The only people I’ve heard enthusiastically defend the amount of standardized testing we put students through are politicians and testing companies.

You See Failures Immediately, and Successes (Mostly) Later

I can’t tell you the highest quarter grade I gave this year, but I can name every student who failed part of my class, and every student who is doing summer work to try and get to high school after failing standardized tests. The class with the discipline problems occupies more headspace than the one where most students are well on their way toward college. The students who keep you up at night are the ones you’re still trying to figure out how to help…or the ones you worry about not being able to help at all. As a teacher, you just have to wait and see…and often you don’t get to see.

Next: the fun stuff.

Reflections on a First Teaching Year, Part One

Friday, I turned in keys. I turned in the laptop and bag that have kept me company on most of the 9,000-plus miles I’ve commuted since late September. I gave a few bags of miscellaneous inherited office supplies to the secretaries up front. I made an enormous pile of desks and shelves and cabinets in the middle of my room, because apparently my school plans to start summer by repainting the walls. I signed more shirts than yearbooks, and said numerous goodbyes to colleagues and students.

…and that was that. I had survived my first year of teaching full time.

My first thought is to say “Oh my FSM, was it hard.” It was hard. There were a few days I came home and cried. There were others that I definitely wanted to. More numerous were the days I just came home exhausted. Spending your days surrounded by the raucous emotional tumult of thirteen and fourteen year olds is tiring on its own, never mind trying to get them to learn something.

I’ve posted before about how much energy I put into splashing rather than propulsion. That got better as the year went on. I got much faster at planning lessons. I figured out which students needed which kinds of warning to get them to actually be quiet. With the help of my awesome co-workers, I got better at sorting bureaucratic necessities from bureaucratic niceties. I got (slightly) better about putting off grading too long.

There was testing. So much testing. The scheduling of said tests invariably worked out so that I spent the most time with my most challenging section, trying to keep them doing something productive on days when all of us were already tired and cranky. The test scores came out okay—I surpassed the goals my administrators set and almost all of my eighth graders will get to start high school in August.

Part Two will go into more depth about what was hard and what I learned about doing hard things. There was so much going on in the background, though, that became part of the year’s scenery…

—A fellow teacher’s transnational relationship trying to weather visa woes and the general hazards of long distance relationships.

—Pregnancies and house purchases.

—Repeated “opportunities” to be part of presentations various faculty and administrators gave as part of their work on master of education degrees and principal certifications.

—A surprising amount of faculty turnover as some people left and others came on to assist with the constant stream of “emergency” interventions that began in February.

—Students searching for novel ways to break the dress code, including one student who spent six weeks in a wig because she was told her (expensive) blue dye job violated school rules.

—Shifting patterns of students (especially the girls) ganging up on each other about self-proclaimed “drama.” This eventually led to a student being suspended for cyber-bullying, which of course kicked off a whole new cycle of shenanigans.

—On two different occasions, my class being disrupted because somebody decided English was the perfect time to ask out a crush.

—The surreal moment when I was listening to “Achy Breaky Heart” in Spanish while eating doner kebap while surrounded by teenagers.

—Racing my principal on an inflatable bungee run (at his behest) on what I believe was my ninth day on the job.

—Lines for the microwave in the teacher’s lounge.

—Chocolate-covered espresso beans becoming occasional life savers (and occasional crutches).

—Learning more than I’d ever considered there was to know about Mexican candy…and, to a lesser extent, Mexican pop stars.

—Tying somebody else’s necktie, and having to explain that it was only barely going to work because it was a child’s tie and too short.

—Explaining to a girl how to fix her bangs after she’d allowed another student to mangle them.

—Saying things in German just because my students asked me too.

—The time I danced at the dance I was chaperoning in exchange for a promise that a particular student would finish all of his missing homework.

—Explaining to students that it was not, in fact, cold. At all.

Finity

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Humans are bad swimmers.

The shape of our bodies lends itself to climbing trees, running long distances, using tools…and creating lots of turbulence when we propel ourselves through the water. Even Michael Phelps expends a fair amount of energy that doesn’t move him forward.

Being a first year teacher is like learning to swim: you splash and flounder and far, far too much of your energy is spent on turbulence rather than propulsion. You’re inefficient—dreadfully inefficient—but you’re in deep water so you don’t really have much choice but to keep swimming. You expend enormous amounts of energy on the little things: keeping track of papers, filing lesson plans, attending meetings. Then, too, there are the more important things that aren’t directly part of teaching content: classroom management, staying on the same page as your administrators, understanding how the standardized tests work. It’s all turbulence and splashing. There is not, as a first year teacher, that much energy left over for propelling yourself and your students toward actual content knowledge.

We do it anyway, though. How could we not? We love our students. Whether we’re fresh out of school or fresh out of an alternative certification program, we’re teachers because we care about the work. We can wear our cynicism about the system for everybody to see, but it hasn’t had time to deepen and become bitter. We give teaching everything we’ve got.

Here’s the thing, though: that extra energy? It has to come from somewhere. Whitman wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” First year teachers put most of our internal multitudes to work on teaching. We get a little boring. We do things like eat raw almonds for lunch because we didn’t make it to the grocery store or because we were thinking hard about the day’s lessons and forgot to pack a proper meal. We don’t get enough sleep. We have to remind ourselves that our kids at home are not our students. Sometimes, we have to hunt down that one of our multitude who washes dishes and does laundry. (That one is really good at hiding.)

Our multitudes are finite. Our energy is finite. For me, writing is one of the things that slipped for a while. NaNo was a bit of a train wreck—I didn’t have a plan when I started, spent the first weekend writing some game stuff, and was still at zero words of actual draft two weeks in. By the end of the third, I decided that continuing to gun for 50K was not going to be at all fun, so I stopped. I did write a few thousand words more before November was out, but it was back to writing for fun. There will be Camp NaNo in April and in July, and (shockingly) I don’t require it to be NaNo to write.

I do require time and energy. I have to find space in the finite. I have to decide, day to day, whether I’ll get more out of washing dishes or writing a few paragraphs, whether to spend a spare twenty minutes jotting down ideas for lesson plans or character development (or sleeping). I have to remind myself that I’m more likely to waste time playing games when I’m tired, and that those twenty minutes would almost always be better spent sleeping.

And teaching never really goes away. It’s nearly as bad as grad school for thoughts of “I should be working” lurking always in the back one’s mind. It doesn’t feel as much like being stalked by a monster as the dissertation did, but it still takes a remarkable amount of headspace. There are constantly things to fix, different points to emphasize, procedures to tweak to make things run more smoothly. I think about particular students. I think about particular lessons. I try to figure out different ways to explain things to my ESL and SPED students…and how to give my GT students something that will actually make them think. Teaching, like art, will fill as much space as you give it.

Finity is a bitch. But I’m learning to be a better swimmer.