Teaching is an incredibly taxing job, so much so that I’m opening myself to the possibility of leaving it behind before I break–physically, cognitively and emotionally. And, while I try to keep a professional demeanor and positive attitude (no easy task!) at work, sometimes a guy just has to get things off his chest!
The posts that follow are my thoughts (and musings) on what my life as an English teacher has been like, and why I’m ready to take my life in a different direction.
I don’t intend to speak for all teachers, nor will I pretend that my experience is necessarily the norm in public schools throughout the nation. This is simply the portrait of an individual who had the best of intentions, but isn’t quite making it in education.
For many of us, the sound of the Monday morning alarm unleashes an avalanche of to-dos, should haves, if onlys, and what ifs, accompanied by a painful desire to hug our pillows and take comfort under our blankets–pretending that we are suspended in space and time and nothing matters. (Please tell me it’s not just me!) We quickly realize, however, that we must take action. We spring out of bed in a desperate, “it’s now or never,” and dash through our morning routines; we rush to get coffee, rush through breakfast, rush to the car, rush to work.
Here are some of the ways that I (attempt) to deal with Monday. Maybe they’ll help you, too.
1. Get in the car. Play this playlist. (Try to) Relax.
Anyone who doesn’t feel anxiety on their way to work, please tell me your secrets! In the meantime, I use this playlist (Thanks, Spotify!) to get me through.
2. Begin with gratitude. (This one requires a little more explanation)
On my morning commute, traffic on the highways is slow and I have a lot of time to think. I think about my lessons for the day and meetings with guidance counselors. I remind myself to remind students that their compositions are due in a few days. I pray that the copier is free, because I forgot to copy a handout the day before. I dread the faces of some of my first-period students, whose faces seem to have been sculpted in a permanent scowl.
But, in the middle of all this, I remember to give thanks. It’s the one thing that keeps be grounded, and it’s the one thing that gives me hope. Maybe, I don’t love my job. Maybe there are other passions I could pursue if teaching didn’t take up so much of my time, or if I didn’t need to hold other part-time jobs because my teaching income doesn’t go very far. Nevertheless, I am reminded that no matter how dissatisfied I may feel, things aren’t that bad in the grand scheme of things–much less in comparison to other people (those who are unemployed, those who suffer from illness or abuse, those who don’t have the freedom to choose their own destinies). And so, I take some time to give thanks.
I give thanks for my family, whose unconditional love and support have helped me to overcome difficult circumstances and to feel that I am a good person. I give thanks for my partner, who believes in me, unconditionally. I give thanks for the opportunities that have afforded me a quality education. I give thanks for my health, for my friends and colleagues, for my ability to make enough money (from varied sources) to pay the bills. And, I give thanks for my students–especially those who remember to say “Good morning!” or “Have a great day!” (More on this below).
When I get to school, I’ll probably forget to feel grateful. I’ll focus too much on all of the things that I wish were different. I’ll complain about all of the things I feel powerless to change. I’ll chastise myself for not having been more productive on the weekend. But, starting the morning with gratitude gives me hope. I may feel like I’m drowning sometimes, but I haven’t drowned yet, which is more than many people (too many people!) can say.
3. Remind yourself that you know what you’re doing.
The first period of the day is always an experiment (sorry kids!). No matter how much planning I’ve done, I always feel insecure when I’m teaching something for the first time. What if I can’t explain this well enough, I ask myself? What if I’m not energetic enough? I’m only on my first cup of coffee! What if I can’t answer a student’s question? What if this lesson just sucks?
My mind scrolls endlessly this way as I stand at the whiteboard, updating the agenda for the week. And then, I remind myself: You’ve got this. You’re smart! You know what you’re doing, and if your lesson doesn’t work as well as you’d hoped, you’ve got enough wits to modify it before the next period.
4. When students come in, smile and say good morning even if you’re dying inside.
I’ve never been a morning person. That’s part of what makes Mondays so difficult. I wake up at 5:30 AM (!!!) and by 7:30, I’m expected to be in full-on teacher mode. Thirty students will depend on me to tell them what to do and how to do it, and to give them a good enough reason to follow along. Honestly, I just want to hide under my desk, hug myself, and sneak a quick nap.
But, I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. If I want my students to show me respect and enthusiasm, and I need to teach them how it’s done. So, I smile and say, “Good morning!,” as they enter my classroom. Then, I greet the whole class the same way when the bell rings. I repeat myself several times until they greet me, in return. I’m trying to teach them that, while we ALL would love to be curled up under our blankets on a Monday morning, we can and SHOULD do our best to enjoy each other’s company.
5. Be glad you didn’t assign homework
Students don’t do homework on the weekend. If you’ve taught for a while, you’ve surely been witness to an array of interesting reactions when you say, “Everyone, take out your homework,” on a Monday morning.
They usually look like this:
Or, like this:
Or, like this:
If you’ve based your lesson on students having completed a task over the weekend, you’ve sabotaged yourself. I’ve learned this the hard way, so nothing is due on Monday–ever!
Go ahead and judge me. You can thank me later.
6. Don’t let go of that coffee mug until at least 10 AM.
Pretty self explanatory.
7. Bring your headphones or avoid common teacher areas.
On most days, your colleagues can be a source of joy, comfort, and friendship. In fact, my colleagues are my favorite part of the job. But, on Mondays, they can also be the source of a great deal of negativity, and while commiserating comes with its fair share of satisfaction, it also sets the tone for our interactions with our students.
So, because Monday is difficult enough on its own, I hide in empty classrooms or computer labs and work, or if I must sit in a common teacher area, I bring my headphones and listen to the playlist above.
8. Work through every available second between classes–grade!
A teacher’s job is never done. English teachers, especially, must contend with mountains of grading and paperwork. For every task I cross off my to-do list, three more stand in its place. It’s a problem I’ve never learned to solve, and it’s a large part of the reason why I don’t enjoy teaching anymore.
One day, I hope to enjoy a career that actually allows me to have a life beyond work. In the meantime, I grade between classes. I grade through lunch. I grade before I get in my car, after student dismissal. I grade when I get home, before dinner. I grade in bed before I go to sleep. I even grade in my dreams.
9. Close your eyes when you feel a rant coming on–breathe.
Sometimes, students mess up. They’re chatty. They refuse to do the work. Way too often, they are downright rude! After a while, the well of emotions begins to overflow and then: word vomit (What?! You haven’t seen “Mean Girls”?).
You might be tempted to tell your students why their behavior is unacceptable. Why they won’t get away with this in “the real world” (which is a lie), or why a college professor would never stand for this.
I’ve done my fair share of ranting, mostly while feeling guilty because I’m subjecting the entire class to my tirade, even though the message is really intended for a few knuckle heads. This is what I’ve learned: My rant won’t improve my students’ behavior, because it doesn’t solve the problem: a lack of motivation to learn (more on this in a later post). If ranting does have any effect, it only serves to upset those students who were not misbehaving in the first place. It sets a negative tone. It puts them in a bad mood. It puts ME in a bad mood. So now, I just swallow my words. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I tell the guilty parties, “I’ll speak to you after class,” and I move on with my lesson.
10. Thank the Stephanies and Yousefs, who actually treated you like a human being.
After a tough day of teaching, I feel exhausted. Sometimes I feel accomplished. Most of the time, I feel demoralized and overcome with a sense of despair.
But then, I remember: Stephanie said good morning to me, when I saw her in the hallway! (Most students pretend not to see me). Yousef stayed behind (AFTER THE BELL RANG!) to talk about the last chapter of Animal Farm! Carlos wished me a good afternoon, before he walked out of the classroom!
Sadly, this doesn’t fix the disappointment I feel most of the time, as a teacher, but it certainly does help! I make a point to thank these students for their kindness the next time I see them. I want them to know that their actions make a difference and, even if they are not great students, being good people goes a long way.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a teacher. Truthfully, I hadn’t even thought about becoming a teacher until I was already halfway through my degree as an English major, and I realized I had no idea what I would do once I graduated.
But, once the idea took root in my mind and I began to take the necessary steps to enter the education program at my university, I was excited. I knew that I had something to offer students. I knew I would be good.
I thought about the difference I would make in the lives of students who couldn’t read and write well. As their English teacher, I would spark students’ curiosity and wonder–help them see how literature is life, how literature feeds the soul. I imagined students returning to my 10th grade classroom, telling me that because of me, they had learned to love books–that I was THE REASON To Kill a Mockingbird was their favorite book.
At the time, I thought teaching would be the most rewarding profession I could ever have, and I was lucky. I would matter to my students, I thought. People would respect me and my work, because I wasn’t going to be a just good teacher; I would work to be the best.
That confidence and that insatiable desire to do well–to be the best–propelled me through my teaching certification coursework, student teaching (OMG! I almost died from exhaustion. It was SOOOOO hard!), and my first years as a novice teacher. But it only took me so far.
Student teaching presented the first indication that my reality as a teacher would be a far departure from the fantasy my imagination had once indulged. The majority of my students were good people, as individuals, but they were lousy students: unmotivated, lazy, chatty, defiant–sometimes aggressive– and SO far behind in reading development, vocabulary acquisition, and basic writing and grammar skills.
When I found it difficult, sometimes impossible, to reach some of my students, I coached myself through it. You’re a novice, I told myself. Everything gets better with experience. Once you’ve taught for a few years, you won’t have these problems anymore. Just keep working. Forgive yourself when you fall short. Get better. Be the best. Work hard. Sleep later.
And then, students didn’t read. They didn’t do their homework. They didn’t study for their tests and quizzes. They didn’t participate in class. They stared blankly at me when I asked basic questions about a chapter that I had assigned a week earlier.
They didn’t follow the dress code. They broke the rules and became angry (hostile, even) when they were held accountable for it. They texted or Snapchatted their friends, even when you were talking to them. Many abandoned decency, unapologetically painting expletives and vulgarities in the air like works of art.
None of that mattered, not to the administration, not to the parents–at least, not enough. It was MY JOB to ensure that these kids learned. My job to make them care. My job to make them behave or deal with their behavior. My job to make them pass. I did what I could.
Of course, not ALL of the the students were lazy, defiant and rude. Some were perfect examples of temerity, human decency, and kindness. These students regarded me with desperate eyes, as if to say, “I’m sorry my classmates are being rude. I’m sorry our class has let you down.” I can always count on at least one of these students per class. They give me hope, but they’re the minority.
Still, most students could be convinced that doing at least SOME work for the class was worthwhile. Some really did want to learn–they just didn’t want to have to work for it. They turned in papers with their names on them replete with plagiarized nonsense, sloppy handwriting, and made-up answers. They turned in essays written during their 40-minute lunch period on the due date, laden with spelling errors and flimsy and unsubstantiated arguments. Meanwhile, I agonized for hours, correcting errors and making suggestions for improvement that would never be acknowledged.
Why It’s a No Go
Now in my sixth year as a teacher, I wake up to the same reality every day, and it’s killing my soul.
I love my students, even the difficult ones, and I wish them well. Why else would I work as hard as I do for even the smallest ounce of progress on their part? However, I don’t have much left to give. My energy, my patience, and my enthusiasm have all waned.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I know what it’s like to walk in a teacher’s shoes. Now, I’m ready for a different pair.