My First Teaching Job

As schools are wrapping up and summer vacation is starting, I know of many districts who are out interviewing new candidates for a number of positions. COVID definitely took its toll on the teaching profession, and I think there are more vacancies now than most districts counted on. As recent graduates look to step into a teaching position, I am reminded of my first job as a teacher. And honestly, it’s a story. 

When I tell my teaching friends at my current district stories about my first three years as a teacher, I get some shocked/confused looks. Those years were grueling, they were beautiful, they were draining, they were unsustainable, they were life-changing. Overall, I wouldn’t change those first three years for anything. But holy wow, am I glad I don’t have to do that all over again. It was definitely a unique experience that I hope most first year teachers do not ever have to face.

To start off, I graduated from college in 2013 and was not convinced that teaching was what I wanted to do. My college was getting rid of the education program so all of my courses were very small, and let’s just say my teacher education was lacking. I had also recently taken a big dive into my faith and was a little unsure about working in a public school where I couldn’t bring up God. I was a bit lost, so I moved to Grand Rapids where all my friends were, and started looking for a job outside of teaching.

I ended up landing a job as a parapro/online class monitor in a charter school. I worked with three different history teachers as a support staff (history was my minor and I also passed a test so I have a teaching certification in both English and history). It took a few months, but as I sat in their classes and worked more closely with students who had IEPs or were learning the English language, I realized I did want to be a teacher. When a student I worked with, who barely spoke English, scored an 80% on a quiz and asked me how to say in English that he was proud of himself–I literally couldn’t even. I finally fully knew that education was the field I was meant for.

That summer I began to scour the internet for teaching jobs. I applied literally anywhere and everywhere. A friend sent me her resume format that she was convinced got her her teaching job. I emulated it and edited the crap out of it, sending it to anyone who had a secondary position in English or History. I cast a wide net, but I honestly felt that God was calling me to come back to Grand Rapids. I had just gotten invested in my church and I was just starting to put down roots. I wanted to be back in the city, but I wasn’t sure where or if I could actually find a job.

Finally, at the end of July, I interviewed for a position at a small pre-k-12 public charter school in the heart of Grand Rapids. It was a group interview and I was so nervous because the other woman they were interviewing seemed much more experienced than I was. I did my best and was so hopeful on my way out. All I knew about the job was that it was a high school English position in Grand Rapids, which sounded perfect for me. As I was driving back to my summer job, I got the phone call that they’d like to hire me. I was ecstatic!

This school had two weeks of Professional Development before the school year started Unfortunately, during that time, I did not yet have a home to rent in GR–though I did have roommates I planned to live with. For those two weeks of PD, I couch surfed at the home of a group of my guy friends. Living out of a suitcase and trying to dress semi-professional, I thought two weeks of PD was normal. Turns out most schools with unions have only a couple of days for summer PD, maybe a whole week of meetings if they’re super intense. I thought two weeks must be normal, which now feels a little naive.

It was about the second or third day of PD that I was finally shown my classroom. I was so excited to decorate (always my priority) and I asked the counselor which English classes I would be teaching. It was then that he shared my schedule. I found out I was the only high school English teacher in the school. I must have missed it in the interview, or maybe they hadn’t even thought to clarify; but I found out I would be teaching 9th, 10th, 11th, AND 12th grade English. I tried my best to keep the shock and dread from showing on my face. I was then told that this year, they were going to try out AP classes. On top of those four classes, I would also need to teach AP Literature and Composition.

So I took a deep breath, trying to play it cool (I’m a big advocate of fake it until you make it) and I asked where the curriculum guides could be found. I could see piles of a few class sets of novels (like maybe four or five different novels) and I was very confused about where the rest of the class sets were if I was going to need to teach four different grade levels–maybe the books were stored in a book room somewhere? Turns out the only books to be had were already in my classroom. The counselor took a look at me, then glanced at the open door, and said, “Don’t tell anyone I said this,” (since neither of us work at this school any longer, I think it’s ok to share now) “but the teacher before you was great with kids, and terrible at teaching. You might find some curriculum on the drive, but you need to throw it out and start over.”

Again, I was playing it cool. But my heart had literally dropped to my stomach and I wanted to throw up. I had spent a little less than one semester as a student teacher in 9th and 10th grade English and suddenly I had been hired for a job in which I needed to write common-core-standards-aligned-curriculums for FOUR different classes? While also figuring out a course audit for an AP class (which admin at this school did not even know was a requirement)? And I had less than two weeks to do it? By myself? When I didn’t even know where I was going to be living???

I don’t think this is a realistic task for any teacher, let alone someone in their first year of education. Looking back, this is literally insane. But I also had no clue that it was such an unrealistic expectation so I just sucked it up and acted like I could do it. The way I looked at it, this must just be what teachers did (spoiler: this is not what teachers do). I guess that the real benefit of this insanity was that I could choose units and texts that I really enjoyed teaching. I had a lot of freedom. Admin had told me they would order whichever class texts I wanted. But I had so little guidance and so little help, it was all up to my own standards. Luckily I have pretty high standards, and the common core website became my best friend. It was super overwhelming though. There’s an old analogy that teachers use that has only made sense within the context of my first year of teaching. I was literally trying to build an airplane while already in flight.

I started this craziness by deciding which two novels/dramas I would do each semester for each course. I laid out an idea that I thought would work and figured I could tweak it as I went. I then tried to think through what type of test or essay I would do for each and tried to align standards to each unit. It was overwhelming because I also knew that I would need to fill in each unit with activities and projects. I tried to ignore that for the time being though. I then reached out to my old high school teachers to ask if I could beg, borrow, and steal their AP course audits. They graciously emailed me copies and added some encouragement. It was so kind of them. The real negative of all this was that I was trying to write curriculums for students whom I had never met. 

In retrospect, that whole start I had is a terrible way to approach curriculum maps. I had no idea what my students’ gaps in knowledge might be, what their interests were, or which books they had already been exposed to. When it was all said and done though, the curriculum maps that I created (by the end of the year of course. No surprises it was slow-going when I was also trying to prep a classroom and teach students) were really not too bad. My assumption was that I had done a terrible job since I’d done them on my own with so little experience. And while yes, any curriculum benefits from multiple perspectives, the curriculums I came up with were fairly rigorous and did actually hit most of the standards (I couldn’t hit any of the standards that required technology–we had very limited access to technology at my school).

As you might imagine, I sat through PD from 9-3 each day and not much of that time was given to teachers to work in their rooms. So I’d arrive around 8 each morning to get a head start. Then I would hang around until 4/4:30 each afternoon before heading back to my guy friends’ house for dinner, rental home hunting, and more school prep work throughout the evening. I had literally no life outside of work (which, to be honest, was a theme for me throughout my years at this school).

A saving grace during this time was meeting a few coworkers who are still close friends today. My favorite moment was about a week before school started when we had a chance to be in our classrooms. The Principal brought the middle school English teacher down to my room to meet me. She is an amazing woman who had literally come out of retirement to teach the students at this school. But at the time, all I saw was a veteran teacher who I was worried might be a little old-school in her approach to teaching. Boy, was I wrong. I found out later that she was also wary of me, because she was worried I’d be like the previous teacher who had hardly taught–specifically refusing to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. She came down with the principal to persuade me to actually do some teaching; but as soon as she asked about the texts I was thinking of teaching, I enthusiastically jumped in with how excited I was to teach novels, including To Kill a Mockingbird. We hit it off right away talking about which texts would be great in 8th grade versus 9th grade. 

The principal, whose experience was in elementary education, quickly made his exit when he realized we got along and he had nothing to contribute to our conversation. It was pretty well known throughout the school that this middle school English teacher was a force to be reckoned with. She is one of the greatest advocates for students I have ever met, loving them while also holding them accountable. And she sure wouldn’t beat around the bush to put someone in their place who wasn’t working for the students’ best interests. We became fast friends. I learned so much from the way she approached education, and I attribute much of who I am as a teacher to her. She really is my educational role model. Meeting her during my scramble to figure out what and how to teach may have been the silver lining of the whole experience.

I also met the high school social studies teacher and became good friends with him. He was also new that year, and the two of us teamed up to really get our high school students writing. Every day, I’d arrive at 6:45 (school started at 8:00) and his car and the middle school English teacher’s car would already be there. 

As the year got started, I also got to know the middle school social studies teacher. We hardly ever worked with each other until our second and third years (our classrooms were on opposite sides of the building), but every night when I walked out of the building at 4:30 or so, I’d walk past his classroom and he’d still be there. We were usually the last two cars in the parking lot. We’d wave at one another–both in misery. 

They say misery loves company. And I would definitely add that misery breeds friendship. I’ve been friends with those three teachers since 2014. One of their daughters was even the flower girl in my wedding. Those three got me through three very challenging years, and I am so grateful to them for that.

Anyways, the two weeks of training trickled by, and it was about time to get the year started. I learned that 100% of our students received free breakfast and lunch. I learned that we offered an alternative school to the schools of GRPS, supporting students who were failing at GRPS schools. I learned that 75%+ of my students were ELLs and a number would not speak any English at all. I learned that we had had a lot of behavioral problems and some gang issues in the past. 

I realized that I would have A LOT to learn.

The weekend before school started, I was thankfully able to move into a home with three of my friends. This was a great relief, but also meant that I would miss out on some work time as I juggled trying to move all of my belongings into a new home–which included assembling bunk beds in my shared bedroom.

Yes. I was a professional starting my first real career, and I had bunk beds in my room. My three roommates were seriously amazing and such a great support during this time, but the bunk bed thing is still hilarious to me. We saved a lot of money that year in rent, but that house was a pretty tight fit.

School started and I stepped into my classroom. I wore a pencil skirt and a button up with (fake) pearls on my first day of school–a nod to my sorority years in college. My curriculums were maybe a third of the way drafted, and I basically had plans for just the first day of school. I arrived early to school and for the first time in my life, I stepped into a room as the teacher.

And thus began three years in which I constantly felt like I was not doing enough. Imposter syndrome hit hard and I kept waiting for the principal to realize I wasn’t the right hire or enough of a teacher for this position.

I have so much more to share, but this is already too long. So “to be continued” on my actual classroom experiences (find it here!), but that was how I kicked off my first year–absolutely, and unrealistically overwhelmed. I was trying to figure out lessons for five different classes each day, with five hardly formed curriculums, while getting to know students who were immediately suspicious of an overly optimistic, smiley, white girl. 

If you are currently in that position, overwhelmed with what your first year of education will be like, take a deep breath. You have people who love and support you. I hope that you will find amazing coworkers like the ones I found. Our coworkers are our best resource. Rely on others and you will get through this. I promise.

As for me, I was definitely fumbling through that first year and faking it hard–and you know what, that was really ok. Because I was giving it my all and trying to help out my students. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.


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