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Someone just like you

I stumbled into my first teaching job by accident. I had been working at a camp for years and one summer day the year before graduating a person who had been bringing his kids there for years walked up to me and asked me if I wanted a job for the following year. He said he had been watching me for years and thought I would make a great addition to the school system he worked in. This was in 1990. Now I don’t know what it was like in the rest of the country, but teaching jobs around here were getting 600+ applicants. It was impossible to get a job, and I was offered one the summer before my senior year. Pretty cool eh? So while everyone else was worried and sending out applications I just sat back and smiled. Early in the spring of 1991 I called the person I was supposed to contact that would officially interview me and get the ball rolling. I went in and was shuffled to a back cubicle where I sat down, was looked over and offered a job in a new program that combined the “tough” kids, education, and the outdoors–my dream job. Looking back I realize how naive I was. I never realized I was being ushered in through a series of political connections, totally avoiding the normal channels.
The summer came and went, a couple calls in told me to just hold on. A week before school started I was told the program was axed. Tough job market, one week before school….started looking for that miracle opening to appear. While I was preparing my resumes I called the original school system every day asking if a position had opened. Two weeks into school, I was told yes. Little did I know that yes led to me being the first person in my family to go gray. I showed up in what ended up being the toughest middle school in the state by almost any stat you could examine: test scores, crime, or number of parents beaten with 2x4s in the hallways. I walked in to replace another person who was not a teacher, but another town employee who was placed there so that he could continue collecting a salary. I walked in to a place in which I was the white guy. Almost every kid was African American, with a few Hispanic students mixed in. Did I mention I grew up in a town that was, and is still considered and mocked in editorials as the most racist town around? A couple weeks ago I was cleaning out my closet. I went deeper than I had ever gone before. I pulled out some loose sheets of paper out of a box that turned out to be 10 “journal” entries that I kept during my first month of teaching–I had totally forgotten that I had ever had one. What follows is some excerpts from those entries. A reminder to us all that it’s tough to be a beginner. It is even tougher if you are in one of “those schools.” For those of you in private schools, or the suburbs, the pain and agony of the inner city teacher is unfathomable unless you experienced it first hand. You just simply can’t imagine how different it is.
I am not going to go into all the hidden messages about why I am posting things. I think if you have read this blog before, you will pick up on many reasons why these would be posted. I do want to be clear about one reason. Everyone knows a teacher who might do or say things that they disagree with and therefore write-off the teacher as one of “those” teachers. As you read these entries, You will recognize one of “those” teachers. I wasn’t though…I just simply did not know of any alternative methods. If someone had walked up to me offered up an alternative, or if there had been someone I could have reached out to, I wonder how different my first years would have been. I would like to challenge everyone walk up to a first year teacher offer them an alternative way of doing things. It took me ten years to start considering true alternatives to traditional schooling. I didn’t have anyone who could have walked up to me to offer an alternative. If you have the chance, don’t waste it. Someone just like me could be waiting for your advice.

September 12, 1991
Teaching is more difficult than I ever imagined. I’m experiencing failure for one of the first times…everyone that makes the rules for schools should stand in the shoes of a teacher for one day. One girl already mumbled under her breath that she “hates white teachers.” Tomorrow I have to bang on them from the moment they step into the classroom. Tomorrow is my biggest day yet.
September 16, 1991
I have so many big ideas, but I am afraid they won’t listen. They don’t even come close to understanding that if they listen now, we could do great things later. They don’t care. There seems to be nothing in their life to reinforce school….I believe if there was homogeneous grouping I would be able to do so much more, assuming the lower classes were smaller. I feel that if the classes were half the size they are now, I could achieve my goals, but now just worry about discipline. The word I hate is coming back to haunt me. That is my only goal this week, not to teach but to discipline, how sad. The only thing that keeps me going is looking forward to the days off. I can’t wait to see Aimee, I am really in love!
September 17, 1991
I keep asking myself how I will make it through the year. I’m just too fresh, too young, too white. I’m being taken advantage of so much. The damn $^(^% girls are the worst. They are practically oblivious to me. Today I yelled at one girl and she just yelled back. So humiliating…can’t wait for the year to end.
September 19, 1991
Today I’m going home feeling much better. Why? I don’t exactly know. I think every class learned something new. The old saying you only remember the last thing is true. Two kids stayed for detention and we did some school stuff and they learned. Then we played some “educational” basketball. They asked to come back for detention tomorrow. I have no luck!!
Sunday 22, 1991
Went to the Red Sox/Yankee game up at Fenway. It was th e best game I ever saw, except I couldn’t pay attention because all I was thinking about was school.
September 23, 1991
Today I am leaving practically stress free and whistling. It’s true you can’t smile until Christmas. 4th and 7th period is getting better. They’re the only classes I have gotten anything out of yet. Someday I hope I’ll be great, but right now I am just an average Joe. Now I am off to sign my first contract ever.
September 24, 1991
Today is not a stress free day. Everyday is a bigger war. The 7th graders are better but I have to crack down on the 8th graders. Tomorrow are the mastery tests and out of control. I really have to crack down on the 8th grade. I’m getting angrier and angrier so it’ll be easier hopefully!
September 25, 1991
Another day bites the dust!! Today I’m going home feeling alright. I’m finally starting to realize I have to be mean to start to do anything with the kids. I loved being mean today, because then I felt much better. The kids stayed quiet and everything goes alright. I gotta get a mean streak. I have to start getting respect. 169 days left!!
September 26, 1991
Today is great, because tomorrow is Friday.
September 27, 1991
“Fear cannot be without hope, nor hope without fear.”

November 24, 2009
I really wish now that I had continued writing that first year. As I look back I can’t even imagine having written those words. I spent ten years at that school and left with a truck load of guilt. When I left I was in many ways a master of behavior management, but still a first year teacher when it came to planning engaging lesson. The very “worst” kid in my current school would have been the valedictorian at my old school. I have now realized that I did what it took to survive. My lessons were laced with behavior management tricks and treats. I planned everything with discipline in mind. After leaving that school I actually had space and time to actually think. Things were actually so stressful at my old school that I stopped reading because it reminded me of work. After switching jobs I started to read again. I started to think. My imagination came back. I started to dream.
Most readers of this blog are also dreamers. You are probably a progressive teacher. You are probably one heck of an asset to your system but might feel alone. Just remember that one of those teachers that you..we…write off as being a person who doesn’t want to change could be someone just like me. Someone one who is just lost. Someone who is just desperate to talk to someone, who is just like you.

16 comments

  1. “I stumbled into my first teaching job by accident”

    I don’t think there really are any accidents ~ and many a blog post could be written about the light you shone in that dark place, lives touched and changed – yours included; and while I will never *truly* know how difficult it was having only been on the sidelines, failure is not the word I would use to describe those 10 years.

    Your experiences there brought you here and you continue to allow yourself to learn and grow from them – and in turn you are a positive influence on so many others, students and teachers.

    And, I agree, a little encouragement to try things differently can go a long way.

    I do wonder if your path had been smooth from the start would you be the force you are now, the dad you are now, the man you are now….hmmmm, something to ponder…

    Keep working it Paul ~

    ~A

      1. ‘The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.’ ~ Elizabeth Kubler Ross
        (Take that!~Aimee)

  2. I don’t know if I believe in accidents or coincidences, but I believe that some things are just meant to be. I left a stressful career behind to train to become a teacher (which I am now) and I’ve started dreaming again too. As I read and dream, I wonder if I will be able to sustain the hope and optimism when I have to face a class every day.

    But you clearly haven’t Paul, and if you can do it after all these years of teaching, there’s hope for us ‘newbies’ too! 🙂

  3. This is my fifth year teaching, and some days I feel like your journal entries! This is by far the most challenging group of kids—I have a handful that just seem to have no self-control, are defiant, steal, lie, and cheat…and they’re 8! I have always thought of myself as being a loving and compassionate teacher but I just feel like I have to “bang on them from the moment they step into the classroom.” It is frustrating (and tiring) for me to micro-manage their entire day and push out some of the more creative activities to try and keep order.

    Also, I have been watching some Todd Whitiker videos on “What Great Teachers Do Differently” and something he says rings true. Teachers spend too much time focusing on the kids that don’t matter. That is, the ones you have to run after and “keep in line.” He says, “In my mind, the kid writing on the stall door is the least important in the school.” Of course, all students matter, but those types of kids are unfairly sucking all of a teacher’s energy.

    It makes me feel better to read your journal entries and be able to put this year into perspective. This is just one year in a career full of great years to come. So, thank you for sharing your frustrations and humiliations, it gave me hope. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I’m not going down without a fight!

  4. Paul,
    Thank you for your honest look at your beginning teaching days…..I think a lot of educators can remember the feeling of newness and the desperate wanting to both succeed and to make a difference. There is tremendous disparity between teaching in the suburbs or in private schools v. the inner city school. Discipline almost has to come before real teaching can occur, although what you model as a teacher will always be an example no matter the tone of the classroom. Yes, there will always be those students who are “time suckers” and waste everyone’s energy and creative resources – the trick is finding ways to teach those who have the willingness and capacity to learn, while not expending all your energy on the ones who aren’t willing. It’s a tricky balance, and sometimes hard to find. Because, in all reality, and especially for new teachers, can you really differentiate between those who refuse to learn and those who have been hardened by reality and their home life and who just need need LOTS of love and encouragement? I was reminded of the movie “Freedom Writers” and that class’ daily struggle with the reality of their lives……it’s worth it to really dig into who they are and figure out who is worth wading through the outer layers. And a question……do teachers have an obligation to teach EVERYONE who comes into their classroom, even those who blatantly refuse to learn and who daily flount the rules? Is there a point where you give up and just try to make it through the year?

    1. “do teachers have an obligation to teach EVERYONE who comes into their classroom?
      I think burnout and gray hairs come from answering yes…
      I can still name each kid that I have given up on. It is a short list, but I had to make the decision to let them go, or not have any energy left for the other 99 students. The problem is I know that I am a more effective teacher for the other 99 kids when I give up on one. I probably spend 80% of my time on the bottom 20% of the kids. I always wonder what would happen if I spent 80% of the time on the top 20%.

      “…the trick is finding ways to teach those who have the willingness and capacity to learn, while not expending all your energy on the ones who aren’t willing. ” I think the hardest trick is finding out why certain ones are unwilling.
      Today I had two students do things that were awesome. Both students have taken a lot of time and energy out of me, both students have been written off by others. I wonder if the energy they gave back to me by doing what I honestly did not think they were capable of at this point in the year is the energy that actually keeps me going. Getting bright kids to do “bright” things is great–anybody could do that. But doing what others have said is impossible…well…I don’t know if that is what will keep me going, or burn me out.

      1. This is the common problem. Like you, I have a list of the students that I’ve given up on. And it’s a short list, like yours. And like you, I feel I’m a more effective teacher to the 80-95% who come in my classroom door when I recognize that I can’t help everyone.

        A student of mine once had a shirt that said, “I can only please one person a day. Today is not your day. Tomorrow doesn’t look likely, either.” Every time he wore it into my class it felt like a slap in the face; which maybe was the point.

        From time to time I think on, and re-read, the opening chapter of Marcus Aurelius’s MEDITATIONS, where he lists and thanks all his teachers. I can only imagine the patience and power such men had, and I wonder what our profession has lost by not celebrating the lessons they taught a world leader, so long ago.

  5. Well-said.

    My first year journal is so laced with unprintables that it will likely never see the light of day. And I taught in one of those private schools which are so unlike the inner city schools you cut your teeth in.

    First year teaching is so dangerously hard and difficult. You’re quite brave to publish them here. Maybe I’ll get up the gumption one of these days to dig out my early journal entries and show them around.

  6. Paul, your article brought back many memories for me and my first years of teaching. I replaced a man who had taught in a one man program for 12 years and greatly loved by the town and the students. It was an incredible hard experience to follow in his shoes. The town and the students for more than 3 years compared him to me and found that I wasn’t like him. It was very difficult but I found one student in one class that was always engaged in the lessons and class material. I focused on her and taught to her. I gave it my best and I began to notice that over time more and more students became engaged and learned from the experience, although I think I learned the most. Did I ever give-up on students? Yes, I did, which was very hard, but as one great educator said(and I’m para-phasing) that we must have order and if one or two students will not be disciplined after all we can do to help them, then we must let them go for the benefit of the class.

  7. You may not believe this, but I am almost 100% sure you did not leave there a failure. Those kids may not have said ‘Thank you’ for sticking around and showing-up everyday, but they appreciated you. I bet some of them still think about you/remember you today. They just dont/didnt know how to tell you! I agree with the poster who said teaching is not accident. If you are ever at a baseball game/some other event and you are thinking about your kids, you are EXACTLY where God intended you to be!

    Great post!

    BTW, I am catching-up on your older posts!

    Monise
    (EducationCEO on Twitter)

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