It’s been over a year since I’ve written about my foray into education, so I’m well overdue. Quick synopsis: overconfident first year teacher + weak classroom management + poor support = failure. Want the full details? Read on.
In the fall of 2010, I began my first year teaching 7th and 8th grade math at a charter school in the Bronx. I taught all three sections of 8th grade and one section of 7th grade 5 days / week, and I also was assigned the advanced 7th grade section that met 2 days / week. There wasn’t any curriculum in place; the 8th grade teachers from the previous two years had left binders of little more than problem sets pulled from past state tests. But Teach for America (TFA) had taught me strong backwards planning skills for designing curriculum, and I double majored in math in college. The freedom to design my class from scratch was thrilling. The literature about math education suggested students were frequently taught by people who themselves had limited understanding of the subject. In the search for better test scores teachers would give students tricks and formulas to memorize. I was eager to teach students to think critically and reason.
I still remember the night before the first day of school, too excited and nervous to sleep. The last time I had the problem was Christmas Eve half a lifetime ago. We spent the first week solving interesting problems and getting to know each other. I introduced our Big Goal–80% mastery on standards–and followed the TFA guidebook on an investment plan. The problem was that my students certainly didn’t care about the assortment of NY standards that would be tested on the state test. And my personal goals were to change lives, have meaningful discussions, and rekindle curiosity.
Classroom management was a challenge once the newness of school wore off. I conflated my early success with students’ timidity as they test boundaries and learn the lay of the land. When push came to shove, I didn’t do enough to manage the disruptive students and hold the class to high standards. My desire to keep everyone in class rather than send them to the Dean’s office–a technique other first year teachers routinely employed–left me looking soft. In the end, all my strong rapport meant was that students saw me as more of a friend than an authority figure. If I were still teaching in that school today, I feel confident I could manage the students and teach them twice as much.
I guess what frustrates me the most is that new teachers must be seen as an investment. Rare is the first year teacher who outperforms veteran teachers his or her first year. Instead, schools should see neophytes as a precious resource that must be refined to realize their full value. They must receive support and mentoring that focuses on what that teacher needs most. In return, new teachers bring enthusiasm and a fresh perspective.
From my point of view, I worked incredibly hard my first year, to the detriment of every other aspect of my life. I designed two curricula from scratch, provided extra help during preps and after school, volunteered for optional retreats, and strove to build parent involvement. I sought to be a role model for my students. That my charter school and TFA would dismiss me–a career changer who left a higher paying job to teach–shows a lack of good faith. I will become a master teacher without their support. I will do what I set out to do in spite of their short-sighted decision.
On Monday morning my unabashed confidence was finally met with validation. I was offered at job teaching middle school math at a charter school up in the South Bronx. My first contact with the school was a phone interview in the middle of May, followed by an on-site interview and demo lesson in June, and finally a meeting with the principal last week. Each step of the way I felt more confident that I would really fit in at the school and that I had impressed my interviewer. In fact, after the demo lesson I felt so good about my chances that I told three of my friends I would give them $100 each if I didn’t get the job! So you can bet that I brought my A-game for the final meeting with the principal.
More than the money on the line–which definitely would sting in my zero-income state–was my growing belief that this school was exactly where I needed and wanted to be. Their commitment to character development and strong conviction in community building really struck a chord. I increasingly realize that people do not operate in a vacuum, and it is the rare individual who can swim against the surging currents of circumstances. There is no immutable self that exists outside of context, no ideal identity that acts autonomously.
So this fall I anticipate being surrounded by a group of novice and seasoned educators whom I can know and be known by. And so, here are the three big things I hope to find in my peers this fall:
1. Emotional healthiness, beyond that, a love of love and a capability to love and be loved effectively and fully, and platonically, and the ability to be platonically affectionate as well. Base and typically communally present emotions like jealousy need to be recognized, addressed, and battled.
2. A desire, a hunger to grow and improve. A desire and hunger for life, other people, and improved experience.
3. An open mind.
But, for now, back to lesson planning.