Starting to Thrive During my First Year of Teaching

Welcome back to the insanity that is the story of my first three years as a teacher. In case you missed it, here is how my career began.

And now, on we go! During that first week of teaching, I met my students and realized that they hated me. Ok, a better way to describe it was that they did not trust me yet. Later, they would tell me that they took one look at me in my pencil skirt and decided I wasn’t going to make it at that school. They thought I’d be gone within a couple months. As I came to understand their stories throughout the next couple years, it makes perfect sense that they wouldn’t trust a new person like me. 

I also realized how much the previous teacher (and/or teachers as many of our students came from various other schools) had failed them academically. When I started to ask my juniors and seniors to write a paragraph for me, the response was immediate and nearly violent. I thought they just didn’t want to write, but I came to learn that they just didn’t know how to write a paragraph. And since I did not expect to need to teach them those basics, I hadn’t built in the appropriate support. So I butted heads right off the bat with a number of students because I seemed too demanding–in reality, I was just clueless. I started to learn that there would be strange gaps in knowledge that I would need to find and address. 

One day for example, I was working with my AP class–students who had been hand selected by the school counselor to take a challenging course. We all had packets of Hamlet that I had copied and stapled together one morning at 7:00am since my books hadn’t arrived yet. We were reading through the “To be or not to be” soliloquy and I asked my class if anyone could see a metaphor in it. The class stared at me blankly. I tried to kind of lead them toward an example by directing them to a specific group of lines in the text, but still, nothing. After a couple of minutes, one of the bolder students asked, “Miss, what’s a metaphor?” When the rest of the class looked at me expectantly, ready to take notes, I realized that previous English teachers hadn’t taught them some very basic literary devices.

These were the brightest and best students, who really were brilliant, they’d just never been taught what a metaphor was. I realized I needed to throw out my plans for the week and change directions. I needed to lay a stronger foundation in literary terms before I asked them to analyze literature–while simultaneously trying to plan daily lessons for four other classes and write down a curriculum map that I thought my principal was demanding I have done (turns out very few other teachers even had solid curriculum maps. So I really didn’t need to have prioritized those, but in the end, I guess it was good that I knocked those out early).

The behaviors were another thing altogether. We had an RTC at the school, a responsible thinking center, where we could send students who were being too disruptive or disrespectful. Unfortunately, I had the mistaken understanding that sending a student to RTC was admitting defeat. I wanted to be able to be that teacher who could reach each and every kid and manage each and every behavior. Now that I understand the effects of trauma on the brain more, I understand how wrong I was. Sometimes students just need a break from the classroom. They need to take a walk to calm down. They need to focus their attention elsewhere and step away from stressors. At the time though, I didn’t want to send students out of my classroom because it felt punitive and as though I was admitting I couldn’t teach them. Therefore, I kept some wild kids in my class as they were misbehaving. There was disrespect, yelling, bullying, swearing, throwing stuff across the room–there was no end to the misbehavior.

I specifically and vividly remember my freshmen class that year. I have no idea whose idea it was to give 31 energetic freshmen an English class as their last hour of the day, but I would love to explain to them just how wrong they were. These kids were literally bouncing off the walls. Besides the chatter, the cell phones, the yelling, the graffiti, and the pushing and shoving; this class also broke my sink and opened up a fire extinguisher. I once shooed a crowd of them away from lining up at my door at the end of the day, and one little 14 year old boy tried to tell me I couldn’t tell them what to do because three of them “got records”–luckily by that point I wasn’t intimidated and didn’t care. But these kids were wild, and my class room management was basically non-existent. 

Oddly enough, the things that finally won those freshmen students over to my side was Romeo and Juliet and the power paragraph. More on the power paragraph later, but I was shocked at how much they loved Shakespeare. Something about how he starts Romeo and Juliet off with a bunch of innuendos about male genitalia, and inappropriate jokes managed to finally convince my freshmen to pay attention to English. This was also during our second semester, so by then I think they trusted that I was at least going to stick around for a while longer.

Those first couple months though, were miserable. I would get to work between 6:30 and 6:45 each morning. And I would leave work sometime after 4:30 each day. I’d get home and take a break to make myself some dinner (honestly some nights dinner was a bowl of cereal), and then I would work on my computer making assignments and writing tests and quizzes until around 8:00 or so. Everything I was using I was making from scratch. I checked out TeachersPayTeachers, but honestly, I couldn’t afford to pay for assignments that I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to use. I was so grateful to the random teacher blogs who had full lessons and assignments that I could download and modify. But a lot of what I used I made. If I could head to bed with a plan for what I was doing for just the next day in each of my classes, I would be good. I was drowning.

There was one day in particular that I remember. It must have been early October. I legitimately did not think I could keep going. I didn’t really know how to quit, but I was wondering if I should maybe figure it out. I had met with my principal that day for an observation or something, and I had tried to explain the strain I was under. He’d been pretty unhelpful, something along the lines of “you can’t burn out if you’ve never been on fire”. I’m not sure what constituted being “on fire”, but I was pretty sure I had passed that point long ago. Taking deep breaths, I had to concentrate so hard to make sure I wouldn’t start crying (it was only my plan period and there was no way I was heading back to teach kids with a blotchy face from crying. I was convinced I couldn’t show weakness). I powered through the day, feeling a little like I had nowhere to turn for help.

I had also scheduled a dinner that evening with a friend who was in the area from out of town. This was the first time I had scheduled anything for a school night and I was already feeling overwhelmed and guilty that I was taking time away from my evening prep time. Before heading to dinner, I was venting to one of my roommates explaining that I didn’t think I could do it. I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something along the lines of a kinder way of saying, “Suck it up. You can figure this out.” I found myself again blinking back tears, but I am super grateful for those words.

At dinner, my friend asked me how I was doing. She encouraged me, knowing that I was capable of doing the work, but also suggesting that I consider looking for a different position. Overall, she made it clear that I had her love and support. After dinner, I got home a little late and was feeling guilty and overwhelmed, and like I finally had to give up. I remember sitting on our staircase and calling my mom. I don’t remember all of the conversation but I remember telling her how hard everything was. She told me that it was up to me what I did, but that if I needed to, I could come home and figure it out. She reminded me that I always had a place to live with them and that my parents always had my back. This was the first (and only) time I cried during my first year of teaching.

It was that day that I realized the admin at my school really had no clue what I was doing in high school English. I realized that professionally, I was on my own. But I also realized that I had roommates who were there to remind me that I could take on anything. I realized I had friends who maybe didn’t live around me, but who loved me and were only a phone call away. And maybe most importantly, I realized that I had parents who would do whatever they could to support me. Later on, I found out that my mom was actually so worried after that phone call that she had her Bible study friends start praying for me. I’m super grateful because I’m pretty sure those prayers kept me going.

That was my turning point. Moving forward, I kept the same ridiculous workload. But in my mind something shifted. Quitting was no longer an option. I was going to at least finish out the year. So I dove in and got super invested. 

I started by helping chaperone homecoming. Then, I learned that we had literally no extra curriculars to offer kids for their resumes and college applications, so I applied for an NHS charter and held our first inductions. Students began to trust me and their behaviors changed–well, a little bit. My lessons got better; I started building more appropriate scaffolds for my lessons. I even took a group of kids to a leadership conference. Let me tell you, when you are only 23 years old and suddenly the sole chaperon responsible for taking 15 teenagers on a bus 20 minutes away from school for a conference, you are absolutely terrified! I was looking around for the adult in charge and realized I was the adult. I was the only adult in charge of my group, some of them not even five years younger than me. I just put on my game face and pretended I wasn’t constantly counting my kids making sure I didn’t lose anyone–I didn’t, we returned safe and sound. Later on that year, I was able to even organize a field trip for the entire junior class to Detroit to visit the Holocaust museum.

By the end of the year, I loved my kids. I was definitely still overworking, but I realized how much need there was in my school and I wanted to meet those needs. I had also learned so much about my students, about teaching, and about myself. I ended up helping plan and chaperone prom, and then since the counselor had a vacation with his family planned, I was asked to plan graduation–that’s a lot of trust placed on a first year teacher to not mess anything up. I was honored, a little intimidated, and super determined to make it happen.

It was actually while I was picking up flowers, cake, and lemonade for graduation for the Class of 2015 that I received a phone call from my alma mater. The local high school in Hillsdale was looking for an English teacher, and I would be interested in the position? Eight months earlier, I would have jumped at the chance. But at that moment, when I was about to celebrate a group of my students with their families and friends looking on, I could confidently tell my previous Dean that, “thanks anyways, but I loved my students and I was invested in my school.”

Years two and three were much better for me. And leaving that school is probably still one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. More on that in my next post because this one has already gotten a little long. 

Until next time!


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