After my worst day of teaching my first year, I wrote the piece below:
During my first (and only) job interview for teaching, the interviewer, the principal of an alternative high school in New Orleans, told me a teaching strategy for these difficult schools: you need to find something, no matter how minute and seemingly unimportant, to keep you going. She was not the first person to tell me this theory, but she was the first to frame it as a teaching strategy instead of just a life lesson. Every person needs to search for the good in life in order to keep going. With every bad day, you need to find something to hold on to till the next day, to make it through the night. For some reason, though, this idea is a necessary component in the teaching profession.
If you have a terrible lesson, if your students treat you like crap, if you feel like you are not accomplishing anything with your life, as a teacher you need to find a student from second period who finally understood the topic or the student in the hall who you do not know who said, “Good morning Ms. Carroll,” or even the encouraging words from your co workers, to make you return the next day.
As a first year teacher, these moments were few and far between. During the first semester, the kind words of “Is there anything I can do for you, Ms. Carroll,” from a co-worker are what got me by. It was the after school happy hours and respect for my colleagues that made me return to school day after day. Their jobs would be harder if I was not there and so I stayed. As the day to day got more difficult and the students drove me crazier, it was the two students in my last period who always completed their work, the projects completed by my second period and the struggling student who finally completed his work on his own in my 4th period. And then there was my fourth period.
By far my largest class for Algebra 1, my 4th period had students from every possible grade level and every possible skill level. I had seniors who needed this course as “Katrina Credit” because they were unable to take the course their freshman year, during the storm. I had special needs students who could not complete multiplication tables. I had students who were repeating this course for the 2nd, 3rd or 4th time who could not master the Algebra concepts. And I had first time Algebra 1 students who were very quick to catch on to concepts and always completed their work. This mixture of students proved to be lethal. The high achieving students were bored, hated the fact that they had to take this class and constantly acted up. The behavior problems caused me to spend more time calming them down then teaching the class. They did not care about the class. They were disrespectful in more ways then I ever thought possible – refusing to move their seat so I could walk by, constantly playing with their cell phones, walking out of my class, ignoring all directives from me and arguing with me about every classroom procedure I tried to put in place. I could not take it. This class was shredding my education beliefs and breaking my spirit every single day. They loved to mess with me. As I complained to other teachers and listened to their stories, I learned that I did have one thing going for me. No matter how rude these students were to me or how much they wanted to make me mad, they never stole form me. Other teachers had gradebooks, calculators, crayons, cell phones, iPods, keys, cars, etc. stolen from them but my students had never tried to take anything of mine (save for the occasional pencil). I thought, “Well, I must be doing something right. They must have some modicum of respect for me.”
When you find this item that keeps you going, you hold onto it so tightly. You constantly reaffirm yourself with it and congratulate yourself on this tiny success, not matter how tiny or insignificant this success is. It becomes a part of you, your daily ritual. You walk out of school and say to yourself, “Well, they didn’t steal from me today.” You never think about what will happen when this something, this insignificant detail about your day that has become as essential as the keys to your classroom, disappears.
If I lost the keys to my classroom, my entire day would be interrupted. I would have to get each of my classrooms opened by an administrator, I would have to rely on others to let me into the teachers lounge and bathroom. I would become more dependent and restless all day, praying that my students do not close the door on me while I step outside to speak with a student, because they would have the power not to let me back inside. Losing my spirit was worse.
On the last day of class before GEE testing, I decided to sway a little to my students’ demands. Every day they yell at me for giving too much work and trying to speak over them. They all walked into class already complaining, saying, “I am not doing any work today Ms. Carroll. You can’t give us work we have testing tomorrow.” I reminded all of them that I had, in fact, not handed out one piece of work yet and they should wait until they get the work to complain. The period was the same length as a regular class period, but the first half hour was supposed to be advisory period. I had not received anything that I needed to present for advisory, so I told students they could chill for half an hour until class began. And the students did. When I started handing out work, the students revolted, but most of them completed their power up. Then I told them the plan, while most students were still speaking and not listening. “Listen, all you have to do today for people taking the GEE is complete this packet with review on reading graphs, a very important part of the GEE. People who do not need to take the GEE in math, please complete your projects.” Then, I sat down and let students do their work, occasionally walking around to see if there were any questions. Not one student did their work. They spoke loudly, jumping around the classroom, pretending to steal items off Mr. Huegen’s desk. When the bell rang 20 minutes early, they students all leaped up trying to leave. I had to stop them by standing in front of the door. One students thought it would be funny to turn on the television in the room. Another sat at the computer and more tried to press past me. I looked up to see two female students filming the mess, laughing at my yelling at the students. I told everyone they had to sit down and she had to hand me the video camera to delete the movie or else no one would leave. SO everyone sat and I spoke to the student and deleted the movie. Then, I told students I had an announcement and no one would leave until I completed it. One student decided that she had had enough, since it was about 5 minutes into their lunch period, and she ran towards the door saying get out of my way ms. Carroll. I told her she could not leave and she pushed and shoved me out of her way until she made it out of the classroom door. Then, I turned to the rest of the students and told them the class is going to change drastically after testing. Then I released them.
It was a terrible class period. I was frustrated at all the students in the classroom, surprised by most of their actions. Yes, I had had problems with these students before, but today they were just off the wall. I began to write up the student who pushed me while Mr. Heugen came over to see who I was writing up. After I wrote the form, on the verge, I said, “I don’t even know why I waste my time because nothing is going to happen,” and threw the form on the floor before leaving to go to the restroom. I sat on the toilet and let myself cry for a few seconds. I thought to myself, “I am going to write up a few students and tell the principal if nothing happens to these students, I quit.” Then, I got up to call the parents of the students so I could tell the administration I did so. I went back to the class, pulled up the info on one of the students and reached into my bag to get my cell phone out of my wallet. But there was no wallet to be found.
When your something is lost, the thing getting you through every day, you go through a few steps. While mourning the loss of your spirit, you go through denial, anger, sadness and acceptance. You something had been getting you through work for months. It was true every single day. There was no way this something could disappear now. Now that you have taught for months, know more, understand more, your something cannot just leave you. Then comes the anger. Why was this happening now? You want to get every single student back into that room and yell at all of them until the situation is fixed. You want to arrest all of them, kill all of them, make sure you get your repercussions. Then, you realize what this action means in the greater sense. Your spirit has been taken, and you cry, you freak out and cry until your spirit was oozed out of your eyes and you have stomped it to death beneath your shoes. Then you accept it. You realize this was always going to happen and you need to just move on with your life. You realize the something that was holding you was stupid and weak and not enough to make or break your spirit.
My eyes grew wide and my heart began to race. I took every single item possible out of my bag and threw it all on the floor. I searched the floor around the classroom, hoping maybe it was a practical joke. The students were just messing with me, they didn’t actually steal from me. After a few more futile, but desperate searches in my bag, I got angry. I didn’t believe they would do that to me. “I am going to get those fuckers right now,” I thought to myself and whipped out a pen and my pad. I wrote down the names of every student in the classroom at the time, starting with the ones who pissed me off the most. About half-way down the list, I felt the anger leaving my hands and heart. It moved through my veins, up through my throat. It ventured deep into the back of my head and slowly made it to right behind my eyes. As my eyes began to swell, I knew I could not go to the Public Safety Officers (PSOs) like this. I grabbed my list, slammed the door behind me, busted into the teachers lounge and said, “My students stole my wallet, what should I do?” It wasn’t until my co-workers responded that the anger made its appearance. I bent over with no control over my knees, squatted with one hand holding onto a chair and the other covering my face. I wailed. I cried and heaved, unable to speak. My co-workers jumped up to comfort me. The older black women teachers came immediately to my rescue. One went to get me a drink, another put her arm around me and a third went downstairs to get DOC, a teacher who knows how to handle these situations. The next few minutes were a blur, while I tried to stop crying while administrators, PSOs and fellow teachers asked me questions.
They walked me down to the office. A few students asked what was wrong, saying, “That’s my teacher! What happened, Ms. Carroll?” One student said they had “Down Bad” for that. I was still out of control. There was no way I was going to be able to stop crying anytime soon.
Doc found my purse in a trash can, with nothing missing except for my cell phone. I was relieved that I did not have to worry about getting new keys, new credit cards and a new purse, but then it really hit me. The students care so little about me that they will steal something from me and throw it away. All the teachers tried to make me feel better. They made jokes about me drinking and needing to get a beer after work. The nurse spoke to me, trying to make me realize where the students were coming from. The whole time my body was quivering, my crying would not stop. The security officers and I watched a video trying to see if we could spot anything while they brought some reliable students to their office to question them. They all said they saw nothing. No one ever wants to be a rat.
After that, I was broken. I left school early, unable to stop crying enough to say one sentence, let alone a full class period. My entire face was swollen and red from the pent up tears I had been holding in. My one thing, my spirit that took me through each day, was only a cover on the volcano of tears that I held within. The cap had blown and Old Faithful was flowing for good. While one of my coworkers gathered my belongings, I made my way to my car, only after convincing my Vice Principal that I did not need anyone to drive me. I enjoyed a brief intermission during my 10-minute drive, then collapsed in my bed, crying hysterically, harder than I ever remember crying. My thing was gone. And I cannot think of a new one.
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