Turning Around a Rough Teaching Experience
Today, I'm sharing a bit of my own story - how my first year of teaching went (spoiler: it wasn't good), what I learned, how I turned things around, and how I think that story will be helpful for you.
My Teaching Dream- High hopes
If you've been a part of the Teach4theHeart community for long, you've heard me share bits and pieces of my own story, but I've never actually shared the whole thing. I'm really excited to share that with you today.
As far back as I can remember, I really wanted to be a teacher. This came into clear focus as I got older in high school and was always tutoring my friends and my classmates. I loved it when they came to me and said, "Hey, can you help me with my math homework?" And I would walk them through the steps and they would say, "Oh, I get it now." I just loved it.
As a high school senior, I finally made the decision that I was going to be a teacher. I was so excited and passionate about it. It was really my dream to be a teacher. I remember going to college and as soon as I got into those education classes, the more excited I got to be a teacher. I just couldn't wait.
Student Teaching-what i didn't learn
I did my student teaching internship at a school that was associated with the college and it was so exciting to finally be in the classroom- to get my feet wet and get a little bit of experience. I even got the award for teaching assistant of the year.
Why am I sharing this? I want you to get a picture for how excited I was, how amped I was, and how much passion and preparation came into my first year. But despite all that, as you’ll see later in my story, everything wasn’t easy. Now that I look back, I can see the warning signs, but I didn't really notice them at the time.
One of the warning signs was when I was doing my internship, I really struggled to deal with discipline issues. When I say I struggled, I mean I kind of avoided it. The school that I did my internship at was incredibly strict. It was so strict that if a student even said one thing to a classmate next to them, it was supposed to be an automatic detention. I really felt like it was over the top, so I struggled to enforce that policy.
So because it was so strict and because the teacher was normally in the room during the internship, I didn't really have to deal with a lot. The students were pretty good the majority of the time. And when I did have to deal with something, a little bit went a long way. I remember this one incident where the teacher was not in the room and it was just us. I was teaching the class by myself and one of the kids went to the board and brought the chalk back and was messing around with it, writing on another student.
I remember being so proud of myself that I noticed what was happening and I went over there and I held out my hand, saying, "Give me the chalk." He gave me the chalk and I was mentally patting myself on the back like I dealt with the discipline issue. Now I look back and think, “Oh my goodness.” I did not get enough experience dealing with issues. I was not prepared and that really, really carried over when I started my first classroom.
My first job- it all goes sideways
Then I got my first teaching job at a Christian school in Ohio teaching middle school math. I was so excited. When I started, I was super prepared in some areas. I was really organized and had every minute planned. I was really good at teaching the content. I think my preparedness in those areas made me a little overconfident because I did not have a plan for how I was going to deal with misbehavior. I just completely neglected to prepare for that area.
The other part of the reason that this happened was that the school where I did my internship was so strict. I knew I didn't want to be like that, but I neglected to think through what I wanted to do instead. I think it was a combination of busyness, inexperience, not realizing the importance, and also my personality. I hate disciplining and correcting. So by nature of my personality, I think I just avoided it and hoped that my organization and preparedness would be enough. I didn't think through it or realize how important it was.
So anyway, the first couple of days actually went really smoothly. Not a lot went wrong. When kids were a little bit disruptive, I just kind of gave them a look. I think that was my plan- to just give looks. But a “teacher look” will only get you so far if there's nothing backing it up and the students figured that out pretty quickly.
It was probably about a few days in and those small misbehaviors started creeping in and I just figured, “They’re not a big deal, right?” Remember, I didn't want to hand out a detention for every little incident of talking. So I didn't do a lot. I gave some looks or I ignored little things. Honestly, I wish we could just ignore stuff. I wish we could just ignore students not paying attention, wandering around the room, or talking to their neighbor, but it didn't work out that way for me. As I said, I didn't know what to do.
I was so scared to give consequences that there came a time where I had to give my first detention. It really needed to happen. I had avoided it as long as I could. I literally had to call my new husband and say, "Tim, I have to give this kid a detention. I need you to help me think through this." I don't even know what I was expecting him to say, but I just needed to get up my courage to hand this kid his detention. I just really struggled to deal with stuff when I first started.
In this environment where I'm really hesitant to deal with stuff, it shouldn't have shocked me when in October, my principal (who is a wonderful mentor) called me into his office. He said, "Do you realize what's happening behind your back?" I remember thinking, "Well, stuff shouldn't be happening behind my back. I'm pretty good at writing on the board and looking at the same time." I wouldn't turn my back completely to the class. I would only half-turn it and I'd keep an eye out.
But I guess there was a lot happening behind my back and stories were filtering into him of things happening right in front of me. Every day it was getting a little bit worse, and it was starting to hit a really bad point where my principal had gotten complaints or he'd noticed. It had gotten back to him. I remember him telling me, "You have to muster every ounce of authority that you can and reign this in."
I think I probably had tears welling up in my eyes, but I held it together until I got to my car and then, all bets were off. I just was bawling, thinking, "I don't know what to do. This is so hard."
Maybe you're resonating like, “This is exactly the same struggle I have.” Or maybe you're like, "I'm good. I can correct students. No problem. But I am so unorganized or I have trouble with the content or I have trouble with parents." I don't know. We all have different struggles. It's really interesting how God has given each of us strengths, areas we are naturally good at. And in other areas, it is just really, really hard. My worst area was in dealing with issues with classroom management.
Those classes in that first year were just so bad. Just a year or two ago, 10 years away from my first year of teaching, we were in our life group at our church and in walks someone and I knew I knew here. When I finally I placed her, I thought, "She is one of my students from my worst class, my first year of teaching." She was in the eighth grade class, so I had her that first year and I never had her again. I was just so embarrassed. I was thinking, "I was a horrible teacher when you were in my class." It was not pretty. I remember I even had to say something to her like, "Yeah, that was a really rough year," because it was just so embarrassing.
what i learned from it and how i fixed it
But I’m really thankful that my principal talked to me. It was a really hard thing to hear, but that was the wake up call that I needed to realize, “Okay, I can't just continue the way it is.” We need those wake up calls sometimes. That moment to say, "Okay, something has to change."
So I talked to one of my mentors and she shared an idea with me that I've shared before. She's the one that gave me the idea- “If students are talking, put their name on the board and then if they keep talking, you give them a consequence.” And we came up with the consequence that made sense in our school. And she said, "If you walk in the class and there are 10 students talking, you just start writing names on the board and they'll see and they'll get it under control."
I used that system and it really helped me, even though it was hard to implement. It was not a sudden improvement. Not at all. When your students are used to acting a certain way and then you're trying to change it in the middle of the year, it's like trying to turn the Titanic. It is a slow turn. It is like fighting tooth and nail for every little change. That's exactly what it was like. It was really hard. I had major pushback. I remember students arguing and debating with me and I was ignorant and let them argue with me.
I remember letting three or four sixth grade boys stay after class on a regular basis and tell me all the reasons why they thought I wasn't being fair. I would try to reason with them and explain to them why I was doing what I was doing and why it mattered. Looking back, this was such a bad idea. I didn't owe them that explanation. I shouldn't have let them stay there and argue with me. That was crazy. My point is that I was learning. I had to learn the hard way that I shouldn't let them stay back and argue. I had to learn by experience.
But slowly, I gained experience and things started to turn around a little bit. Having the names on the board was a plan. And honestly, almost any plan is better than no plan because you're taking action. You're seeing if it works for you and then you're tweaking it and editing it. And it was making a difference. Slowly by slowly, I was making progress. The students were starting to be more controlled. It was getting slightly better and I was getting more confident. I wasn't so scared to address issues. When something happened, I was starting to deal with it more consistently. Not perfectly, but I was getting better. I wasn't so scared. I was becoming more consistent. And so that was really valuable.
It was not a straight line though. That's another thing to keep in mind is progress is not a straight line. It's not like you're getting better every day and you never have any backslides. Picture a stock market graph. It's up and down. Two steps forward, one step back, three steps forward, two steps back. It's not linear, right? I do remember another rock bottom moment for me happened in the spring. I don't want to get into the whole long story, but basically I was really frustrated. Students were not completing their work and we thought we'd come up with a solution for how to adjust this and then I found out last minute that solution wasn't going to work. And I was just so frustrated again. I can't get these students to do their work. And I was still dealing with all the arguing.
I remember at one point in the spring of the year, I was so frustrated and I didn't feel like I could face my class. I was supposed to be monitoring devotions before 1st period and I was hiding in this bathroom hallway just bawling my eyes. I felt like I needed a minute to just cry and release the feelings. I freaked out a little bit, and then I got up. I went back into that class and I was there. I'm sure it was not the best version of me that there ever was, but I kept trying.
And as I said, I slowly got used to dealing with problems. I got used to ignoring arguing, and my students started getting gradually better. The biggest key though was that I was building my skills. I was getting better. I was figuring out what worked and what didn't. And that was so important. I'm so glad that I didn't give up. Just an encouragement for those of you out there. Hopefully you can learn from my lessons and avoid some things. But if you're remembering this story in the middle of the year, struggling to kind of turn things around, don't give up. You are learning, you are growing. Even if your class this year isn't exactly what you want it to be, it is making a difference.
The "Aha" moment- from horror to hope
The real “aha moment” came the next year. On the start of my second year, I started day one with my plan. I had tweaked my warning system and I was ready. I was prepared to catch the very first problems and deal with them kindly, but consistently right away. I was terrified, but I did it. I had learned from my mistakes. I did it and I stayed pretty consistent. Not perfect by any means, but fairly consistent. What was really amazing is that I even had some of the same classes. My first year I had, if I'm oversimplifying this, basically three easy classes and three hard classes. I taught two sections of sixth, two sections of seventh, two sections of eighth. And I had one easier and one harder in each of them.
So I taught sixth, seventh, and eighth grade again the next year. The sixth graders became the seventh graders and the seventh graders became the eighth graders. So two of my really challenging classes I had again the next year. And even with the exact same or mostly same students in those classes, it was still a night and day difference because the beginning of school is this beautiful, natural reset, even if you have the same students. When I started off right on day one and I was consistent and I dealt with those first issues, they realized pretty quickly, “Okay, this is going to be different. This is how things are going to be.” All of that work and toil and sweat and tears that I had put into that first year, it just clicked that first week of my second year coming back and restarting. It was a wonderful thing.
I'm not going to say that from then on, everything was a breeze. Of course not. There are always new challenges that come up in teaching, but I was able to really have the type of classroom that I wanted to have. I was able to build the relationships and we were able to do more fun activities. And honestly, in a lot of my classes, by a few months into the year, I didn't need the warning system anymore. I didn't need as much structure. I kept it for my more challenging classes, but I was able to let go of it for some of the others. And it really only got better from there.
So what about you?
I hope that this story was helpful for you in hearing my experience and what I went through. I'm sure your story is not exactly the same as mine, but maybe you can find some parallels and see some of the lessons that came out of it and apply them to your situation as well.
Having to learn so many things the hard way through my own trial and error and realizing the value of a mentor that came in at just the right time and gave me the piece of advice that I really needed- those are some of the reasons why at Teach 4 the Heart, we've created a mentorship program that we are so excited to share with you and invite you to.
In the mentorship, our goal is to cut off that learning curve and help you out of that place of struggling to that place of thriving. So we have a free training where we'll share some more lessons and some help with you and explain a little bit more about how the mentorship works.
Now, we'd love to hear your story and how you've learned and grown as a teacher. You can hop over to our Facebook group to share your story and talk and collaborate with other Christian teachers there.
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