I should have taken a few years off after college and done some traveling, exploring, and growing up,
but instead, I landed my first teaching job.
I thought that getting a job was the next logical step in the whole new world of adulting, so I took the first offer that came to me. I was to be one of four teachers on a freshmen “team” teaching high needs students and providing the wraparound support they needed. These students hated school, weren’t accustomed to success, and just wanted to get through the day. Fresh off my student teaching experience with college-bound juniors and a short gig teaching motivated ski-racers, I was sorely unprepared for this first real gig.
In short, they ate me alive. But let me back up a minute and tell you a couple of things about myself: first, I’m 5’2″ (on a good day–maybe with my clogs on), have the nasally voice of a prepubescent teen, and have a pixie-like face. I blend easily with a crew of high school students. But at 22, I didn’t want to blend. I wanted to differentiate myself from my students, because I thought that teachers had to be separate if they were to be respected, and how could one teach in a class without some semblance of a line between teacher and student?
So I trucked myself to Barbara Moss (I’m dating myself, and also admitting my poor fashion sense…I’ve improved, I swear) and bought as many dresses as my meager salary would allow, bought my first of many pairs of clogs, and refreshed my make-up supply (minimal is an ample description). I wore my long, blonde hair in a tight bun at the base of my neck and tried to act professionally, which at the time meant following the lessons of my mentors and establishing strict ground rules with my students.
I wasn’t fooling anyone. Those students knew that I was in over my head, and much to my surprise, many of them tolerated it. They endured my vocabulary lists, listened to me “go over” the readings from the homework they didn’t do, and failed test after test that I gave them. In our team meetings (teachers, not students–we hadn’t figured that out yet), I defended my grading policies of creating a system that rewarded only the hardest worker (read: student who completes all required tasks) and penalized those who didn’t. I asserted that I had high expectations.
Really, I didn’t have a clue about education, learning, or what those students needed. So hung up on my own need to establish authority, I failed to see my greatest strength–I was only seven years older than my students. I could relate to them in ways that my mentors could not. I could leverage the small gap in our age to help them learn. The adversity they dealt with in their everyday lives (broken families, homelessness, drug issues, teen pregnancy, etc.) couldn’t hold a candle to what I was trying to teach them about literature, and I missed the boat. I wasn’t even in the same sea.
To those students, I want to say I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
It took a while for me to loosen up in the classroom, but I did begin to get a clue the following year. Assigned another challenging group of sophomores, I started to let down my guard ever so slightly. I took the time to talk with each student; I showed films that took me out of my comfort zone but engaged them; I started a mountain bike club to share one of my passions.
Through these small risks, I built relationships.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized the importance of doing so, but I did see improvements each time I invested in them.
Adversity is a teacher in and of itself. The situations that new teachers face–isolation, unmotivated students, cluelessness about school culture–seem to be the norm. How I wish I could go back to those days and help those students in my classes–help them see that their opinions matter, that there is more to life than homework (but reading a good book is one of life’s pleasures), that they could learn to be better communicators without writing the standard five-paragraph essay multiple times in a semester. I wish I could go back to my former self and give permission to lighten up. But I can’t. What I can do, however, is do right by the students I have the good fortune to teach now. I invest in relationships with them. I blur the line between us–recognizing that it’s not sacrificing respect but building it. I take risks in an attempt to reach them, to challenge their thinking, and to lead them to new learning. I get it now. I’m pretty sure.