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Throwback Thursday — “Someone like you”

It has really been hard to find time to write a new post.  So desperate to put up new content, I was thinking about doing a Throwback Thursday.  Each Thursday I would post an old favorite post.  As of this past September I have been blogging for seven years, so there are a few hundred posts that I can go through to find a favorite.

As I was looking through my list of posts I found one with a title that did not ring any bells.  It was from almost exactly five years ago, I opened it, read it, it made me cringe.  I simply could not believe what I posted, what I shared.  I was teaching at an incredibly tough school.  It took me over five years before I was able to sleep at night…I actually remember that it was 5 years and 5 months into my sixth year of teaching when I went to bed and simply fell asleep and had a full nights rest!  The post reminded me of how far I have come…and how I might have completely forgotten what it is like to be a first year teacher.  But most of all it reminded me to reach out to other teachers and to not judge people based on where they are currently in their teaching journey.

Here is the post I wrote November 24, 2009 — “Someone 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 into a place in which I was the white guy. Almost every kid was African American, with a few Hispanic students also attending. 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.

Teaching at that school made me the teacher I am today.  At some point after those entries I quickly realized that getting “angry” did not help.  I realized that my traditional methods were doomed to fail.  I realized that trying to get every kid to do the same thing at the same time was doomed to fail.  This forced me to experiment relentlessly.  I read about this thing called Project Based Learning, and kept messing with it year after year.   About a year later after the journal entries I decided to give some newfangled thing called America Online a try.  There I was able to find my posse.  Yes, before twitter there were internet forums where you could talk and discuss ideas in more than 140 characters.  I found many other people who were  also desperate to talk to someone…they were just like me, and we grew stronger together sharing ideas, sharing sources, and finding comfort in the fact that not all teachers start off being great.    

If you are a new teacher and someone suggests that you should join twitter, get hooked into blogs, and build your PLN, I simply offer up the journal entries above, and where I am now, as a reason why you should.

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