I’ve been thinking on this post for a bit, and as much as it pains me, I think that it’s important to talk to beginning teachers about the realities that they might face in the profession.
If you’re not familiar with #Teach2Teach, the wonderful Amy Lenord started it to help pre-service teachers answer real, pressing questions that they have.
Question 3 happens to be: “What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you handle it?”
My most troubling teaching experience, like with Sara-Elizabeth over at Musicuentos, comes from a direct run-in with higher-ups. I’m actually very nervous about someone coming across this post and how it might directly affect my job, but I think there’s a much higher need to share what happened.
So last year, during my first year of teaching, I was having a hard time. With four preps, one being AP, I was spending lots of time at school, neglecting my (brand-spanking new) husband, and not getting any recognition for the work I was putting in. It was my first year at this school, and I thought I was doing well maintaining rapport with my students, despite all of the hardships. I thought students were responding well, even though I was new, young, and replaced a teacher who had been in the building for a long time – the only French teacher most of these students ever had. But at my school, you can’t share your hardships, because that means you’re not a good teacher.
After scheduling in the spring, I was alerted by my department head to a meeting that we’d be having with someone (I’m deliberately going to be vague here.) In this meeting, I was blamed for the lack of students I had moving on to the AP level (about 40% of students). As background, in my school, you need 3 years of a language to be able to get an honors diploma. A lot of students don’t want to continue to AP if they’re taking other AP level classes. I also get the feeling that my school isn’t very excited about offering French as a language choice.
In this meeting, my choices in the classroom (choices this person had never witnessed first hand) were questioned by what were called “anonymous complaints.” The correlation between the students I had moving onto the next level was based entirely on my “rapport” with students, again something that this person had never seen, and that other teachers had commended me on before.
During the most painful parts of the meeting, it was made clear that because of this supposedly awful rapport that I had with my students, my job could be cut to part time, eventually phasing me out and replacing my program with another language, like Chinese, Japanese, or Arabic that students “would have more interest in.” I had to come up with a plan, immediately, to move more students onto the next level. When looking at my level 1 numbers (there is no French at our middle schools), this person remarked that “[the] level one numbers are the highest, and I can only assume that this is because these students haven’t met you yet.”
I was crushed, and there was nothing that could keep the tears from streaming down my face. This remark haunts me to this day; I remember not being able to think about anything else all day (the meeting took place at 7AM), and I spent a lot of time overanalyzing every choice that I had made, every time that I’d spoken to a student, and a lot of time just crying. This kind of meeting was not what I’d signed up for.
I had lots of teachers tell me to move, to find some other job, to get out of here as fast as I could. I had older teachers tell me to make my class easier, to bake brownies, and to give students bonus points for outlandish things, like bringing in tissues or for coloring. I eventually got a few more students to sign up for AP, but I wasn’t feeling great about the situation.
Over the summer, I changed a lot about my teaching style, thanks in full to #langchat, and some amazing educators, like Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, Amy Lenord, Cristy Vogel, Martina Bex, Elizabeth Dentlinger, and Bethanie Drew. I had a support team of teachers I’d never spoken to face-to-face, never met in person, but teachers who believed in me, and believed in language education.
And I had to keep in the back of my mind that this might be it. That this year might be my last at this school, that I would be judged for this year forever. And after changing my teaching style, building (even) better rapport with students, and having a year of experience under my belt, I had over 85% of students sign up for AP next year. I’ve had about 75% move on to level III, and another 75% move on to level II.
I will never forget the hurt that I went through to get to this place, and I think that it’s my resilience and my hard-working nature that got me here. I’m thankful for the resistance that I met, the plans I made to get more students on board with French, though the way it was conveyed to me was not in the realm of “ideal.”
I still believe with all my heart that the “meeting” that I was involved in was one of the most unprofessional meetings that I’ll ever have in my career. I believe that, while the person in question wanted to use scare tactics to turn things around, that my ability as a teacher had nothing to do with the meeting. This meeting was based on saving money, or cutting programs, or getting me to leave on my own because they don’t appreciate French. I still feel that I was attacked by this person, and the flat-out rude things that were said to me still bring tears to my eyes.
But I’ve become a better teacher for it, no matter my personal feelings on the issue.
And as much as new teachers don’t want to hear these kinds of things, I think it’s necessary. You are going to meet resistance out there. The standards and beliefs about education are the most flawed they’ve ever been, and there are probably colleagues or higher-ups that will make you feel like you should have chosen any other profession in the world. But you cannot come out of the gate perfect. You cannot be your best in your first year. But you can give your best. You can walk into work every day with your head held high, with your student’s best interests in mind, and your lesson plans that might fail. You can be a positive influence in the lives of your students, no matter what other people tell you. If you walk into each class, giving even 90% of what you have in you, that’s amazing.
There will be days you feel discouraged – and hopefully not in the same ways I felt discouraged, but there is always hope. You’ve decided to be an educator for a reason, and don’t let anyone else talk you out of it.