Nothing Compares to Being a First-Year Teacher
“A student urinated on my floor when I was out in the hallway. On a day I was absent, students jettisoned textbooks and graded papers out my second-story classroom window. A computer monitor was smashed on my floor after a rage-filled overhead toss. I witnessed a basketball player punch another student in the face before school, stay in class all day, and then suit up for the afternoon’s game. No consequences.”
When I reread the following essay I wrote over eight years ago about my first-year teaching in 2004-2005, I’m still shocked.
I’m shocked I stayed in the teaching profession after resigning from this job. I’m shocked that somebody thought it’d be reasonable for a first-year teacher to endure and persist working in an absurdly stressful and, at times, dangerous environment. I’m shocked–even angry–that there are schools like this across the country, where populations of highly troubled and needy students are corralled into schools staffed with mostly inexperienced teachers. Right now, we don’t have the political will to treat certain groups of students differently in order to give them reasonable hope for adult and career success.
Regardless of where you teach, the first-year on the job will inevitably be one of the toughest undertakings of your life.
Standing in front of the 8th grade class, my heart palpitated to near panic-attack speed as I watched the molasses-slow second hand of the clock. Please bell—ring early, I prayed. It was my second day of teaching middle school, and the boys were putting me to the test.
In the span of three minutes, the boys had gone from contained to out of control. Two students were shooting dice in the back of the room, and while I told them to put their crumpled dollar bills away, several others took off their shiny new basketball shoes. They began tossing them around like ill-shaped footballs. Before I could react, one boy successfully broke into my supply closet. He snatched handfuls of No. 2 pencils and yellow highlighters and sprinted out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
The bell soon bailed me out, and I survived the last periods of the school day—somehow—and eventually staggered out a back entrance and across the faculty parking lot to my car. I fumbled for my keys, started the Honda up, and headed toward the freeway to return to my sparsely furnished apartment. I should have screamed in frustration or cried tears of self-pity while on the expressway. But I did neither—I suspect I was too numb from the day to have any emotional response.
Just three months prior, I had been enjoying a care-free senior spring of college in the bucolic hills of Vermont, taking advantage of local swimming holes, hiking trails, and barbecue opportunities with friends. To say I was content would be an understatement. Life was wonderful. Plans were set to move to Kentucky and teach middle school for at least two years. I was eager to face the challenges of urban public education.
By the beginning of summer, I had resettled in Louisville and was enrolled in an alternative teacher certification program. I had roughly two months to prepare to teach 8th grade boys’ language arts. While I was well-versed content wise, I had no experience with classroom management.
Things got slightly better for a while after I toiled through the opening days. I gained the respect of some students, learning on the fly that conventional means of educating wouldn’t work with this group of belligerent kids. Operating within a school culture that tolerated extreme student misconduct, I had to battle fire with fire. At one point, I challenged a student to fight me in front of the class.
If I had to be unethical to reach the point where I could actually teach, I’d do it—let the ends justify the means, I told myself repeatedly. I wanted to “leave no child behind,” and was determined to overcome a nearly impossible situation. I stepped outside myself one morning to shatter a wooden paddle across a desk, sending splinters flying everywhere, then delivered a passionate 20-minute tirade to my most unruly class. Controlled explosions didn’t become routine, but they were one of many reluctant strategies I employed to try to get the job done. I started to make some progress, but was often derailed from potentially engaging lessons by a number of frustrations.
When I did gain control of the classroom, external forces almost always seeped into my room, seriously disrupting student learning. Roaming students might barge in unannounced to taunt boys in my class. Students would daily come to my room after spending two hours with a substitute teacher, hardly in a good frame of mind to sit down and focus. Some days, I was hardly teaching but 25% of the time; I was babysitting, containing mini-riots, and policing. A steady occurrence of shocking behavior further inhibited my ability to instruct.
A student urinated on my floor when I was out in the hallway. On a day I was absent, students jettisoned textbooks and graded papers out my second-story classroom window. A computer monitor was smashed on my floor after a rage-filled overhead toss. I witnessed a basketball player punch another student in the face before school, stay in class all day, and then suit up for the afternoon’s game. No consequences.
Not one horrific event got me thinking about resigning, but after about three months the reality of the situation started to take a significant mental and physical toll. I felt constantly in a daze, and my neck and shoulders were knotted up with immense stress. I was at a crossroads—do I stay, or move on to something more manageable? It had come to the point where, even if I was able to make measurable progress in the classroom, the little gains came at too great a cost to my mental and physical well-being.
What ensued was the two absolute toughest weeks of my life. I endured some near-sleepless nights and a constant preoccupation in my brain—I just couldn’t tune out the question of resignation. I consulted family, friends, and colleagues, letting them know how I was feeling and seeking out advice. What I needed to do soon became clear. I resigned the day before Thanksgiving.
Making the decision to leave the job was the toughest choice I’ve ever had to make, but I know it was the right one. Not succeeding wasn’t my fault, and it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. I had been tossed around by negative forces way out of my control.
Substantial systemic change is necessary if we, as a nation, are truly committed to providing quality education for those who need it most. I haven’t given up the commitment to help others, but am unsure if I will resurface in urban public education. What I do know is that if I teach again, I hope I won’t feel like every child is being left behind.