At the Start of the Year
I thought I was ready. Student teaching had been everything I’d dreamed it would be. I’d spent countless hours studying, training, and volunteering to be just the kind of teacher I had hoped to be. My teaching program prepped me with content and pedagogy and everything else I’d need. When I landed my first teaching job, I felt ready.
No one had described the butterflies I’d feel as I entered that room on day one. I’d arranged the desks in little collaborative pods and projected the seating chart on the wall. I had the Pandora Station “Pop Music” playing as the students came in.
They giggled nervously, seeing a young new teacher listening to “their music.” Many approached me right away and I started to feel good about the morning. The bell rang and I introduced myself and asked students to find their seats. I left the music on as they wandered around.
Fast forward to present day: I’m in my sixth year of teaching, and I made it to the semi-finals as 2018 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. I can honestly, unreservedly say I love my work and being a teacher. But if you had asked me two months into that first year if I liked my job, I would’ve lied and said I did. If you’d asked me halfway through it, I would’ve cried. And if you had asked again right before the end of third quarter, I would’ve told you I quit.
I returned to the classroom in the same school year, having spent the previous three in middle management hell as a TOSA—Teacher on Special Assignment—for my district. TOSA-ing, I’d thought, would be a delightful career move, an opportunity to apply my newly-earned Ph.D., and the chance to make a positive impact on a wider range of people. It actually just made me miserable. The TOSA role meant I spent most of my time with adults, with whom there is far less laughter and joy in one’s day-to-day. I was unprepared for the troubling and difficult challenges the grown-ups’ issues presented. And I was stuck in a position of having no power to actually effect any change, though the people I worked for believed I had such power. Only those at administrative levels above me could actually change anything, yet I was consistently expected to be someone who could. Or should.
So when I saw the opportunity to quit the TOSA position and return to the classroom, and to the same building in which I had already spent the majority of my teaching career, I seized it. This was an unexpected move that had its own negative repercussions, but I didn’t care: anything had to be better than what I’d just gone through.
“At last,” I thought with relief, “I can get back to my roots, do the work I know best, spend more time with kids, laugh again.” I felt positive and confident, eager to return to the familiar. It was going to be a great year.
Kari and Lisa:
We first met in a foundational class for teacher candidates that Lisa instructed as an adjunct for Kari’s teacher preparation program. We met again a year or so later when Kari took her first teaching job out of graduate school in the same district—and the same school—Lisa had taught in for most of her career up to that point. As it turned out, we even ended up across the hall from one another. Though we were literally just steps away, our paths rarely crossed, since we taught different students, subjects, and grade levels in that building.
Ours was a combined middle and high school in a large Minnesota city. The school district served nearly 40,000 students that year, and our building had over 1,000 of those. As urban schools go, it wasn’t that badly off. Paint and carpeting were added as our Principal could spare the funds, many of us had high-quality technology in our classrooms, and though it wasn’t perfect, it compared satisfactorily to other schools in the district and even around the state.
Nevertheless, we both left that school and district that academic year. We remained in touch in other ways, including co-authoring a book chapter about Kari’s preparation program (as yet unpublished, though the project is still in progress). In our collaboration, and as Kari shared more of her stories, Lisa recognized how instructional, emotionally engaging, and funny they were; it was refreshing to see this familiar school and district through the eyes of someone new. At the same time, it was difficult, extremely difficult, to read what Kari was enduring so silently there across the hall, to have had no idea what Kari was experiencing, and to have learned it well after the fact, after we both had left that district for other teaching ventures.
Now, Lisa finds the isolation and separation both shocking and unacceptable; she feels shame she did not recognize what Kari was going through—didn’t know she should reach out and offer support. Kari acknowledges she “felt bad” asking for anything from veteran teachers, who she could see were also swamped and struggling. At the time, immersed in the culture and chaos of the school, the fact that we rarely interacted with a known colleague teaching right across the hall didn’t seem all that strange.
We don’t often read stories of what happens to different teachers in the same school, during the same year, but during different stages of an educator’s career. We offer these glimpses into our 2013-14 academic year both to entertain and to instruct: how can we improve the quality of professional life for teachers in both their first and fifteenth years in the classroom, and what might have happened that would have kept us teaching there?
Improving Teacher Quality of Life, One Field Trip at a Time … or Not
If there is any story I can tell that best epitomizes my first year of teaching, and embodies the reasons I left before the end of the school year, it’s this one about our all-school field trip.
Eighth graders are not what I expected; they can turn on you at any moment. Yes, they like and respect you, but they may also need to prove something to a peer or do something totally wild to gain respect. Those needs are more powerful than any relationship I had built so far. This understanding was cemented for me on an all-school field trip during the second week of school. Each grade headed somewhere different, and my eighth grade team was assigned to the zoo. As a first-year teacher, I was nervous and wondered how it would go. I didn’t know my students well enough to know how they’d act outside the school, but if my first week was any indication, it didn’t seem like it could go well. I tried to squelch my fears, trusting that this was what the building always did in the second week of school, and it would go fine. So, with my advisory class list in hand, we headed out to the bus.
We were only an hour into the field trip when zoo security asked all staff to make sure every eighth grader had an adult next to them. They were no longer allowed to walk around the zoo unattended. My group was surprised; what could their peers have done? We had been having such a great time! I walked around and found more eighth graders and welcomed them to my group. The students I started out with were helpful, pointing out other eighth graders that didn’t have an adult walking with them. I approached those students and asked them to join our posse, which was then about twenty students. Some wanted to stop and get ice cream. Some wanted to sit down. Most of them whined about the walking. I had to tell them to keep moving as one unit until we found another teacher. I found some of the kids who were in trouble for throwing food in the monkey cages. They weren’t throwing food for the monkeys to eat, but throwing food at the monkeys. The group was getting larger and more difficult to manage.
Seriously, why couldn’t I find another teacher?
I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Ms. E., I don’t feel too good.”
“What do you mean? Are you dizzy, hungry—”
Before I could finish my question, I saw Harmony (pseudonym) start to flutter her eyes and fall backwards. I tried to stop her fall, but she had fifty pounds on me, and we both went crashing to the ground. My posse of eighth graders started to panic. I yelled to one of them to go get another adult.
I tapped her on the shoulder. “Harmony, can you hear me? Are you OK?”
Shit. Was I going to have to administer CPR?
“Harmony, let me know if you’re ok, otherwise I’m going to feel for your pulse.”
Maybe that will let her know, if she is just faking it, that I am very serious.
Still nothing. I started to feel for a pulse.
Thank god, I can feel it. But, what the hell do I do now? Why couldn’t I remember my CPR training? What do you do if a student collapses to the ground and has a pulse? And where was another adult?
I heard breath coming out of her lips, but she was still not answering me.
Finally, I saw the zoo First Aid Responder come running. I have never been so relieved in my life. I told him everything I knew. When he asked for her last name, I felt really dumb that I didn’t know. This was just another reason why we shouldn’t take a field trip on the ninth day of school. There were about 200 eighth graders on that trip. I saw about 170 of them in my classes. At that point, I was proud to have their first names down!
I ran over to my students and asked if any of them knew Harmony’s last name.
No one did.
Finally, another teacher showed up and I explained the situation again. He didn’t know her last name either. Thankfully, he did have important numbers in his phone like the school’s number and the teacher’s number who had Harmony in her advisory. He started making phone calls. After that day, I would buy a smartphone.
The ambulance arrived and Harmony still had not stirred.
They loaded her up on the stretcher. By then, about 100 eighth graders were watching. The only useful thing I did at that point was remind them to back up and give the EMTs some space.
The EMTs had some questions that were directed at me. I had to explain the situation again. I was so embarrassed that I tried to catch her and failed. Somehow the fact that I also fell didn’t justify that I didn’t catch her. The EMT tried to make me feel better by saying they don’t think she hit her head because her backpack was on and I helped slow her fall. Thank goodness.
The other teacher called the office and informed them that Harmony was being rushed to the hospital, and to tell her parents to meet her there. The EMTs needed to know whether we had a policy about a teacher needing to ride in the ambulance with a student. We had no idea. We called the school again. We did not have that kind of policy, so they rushed off to the hospital.
We gathered the rest of our students. There were still many kids wandering in the zoo who had no idea what was happening. A few teachers thought we should load the bus forty minutes early and head back to school after the incident of throwing food at the monkeys and now this. Almost all of our students were ready to go anyway. I rushed back into the zoo to make sure the other groups knew we were about to leave.
I started to count my students; I only had 25 of my 30. A couple other teachers were missing students as well. We even had a few teachers missing.
Another teacher ran back into the zoo. Apparently, a group of my students were playing in the elevator in the zoo lobby and got it stuck. Could the day get any worse?
Everyone was pissed. It was hot out. The zoo was “boring” and they knew they were in trouble. The ride back to school was silent.
We arrived with fifteen minutes left in the school day. My students told me that the administration would probably never let them go on a field trip again. I couldn’t disagree. The bell rang and I had never been so happy for a weekend in my life.
It was only my second week of teaching.
My experience of those all-school field trips is so different from Kari’s I can barely breathe. Their purpose was to highlight the school’s newer “environmental” focus. Because we served so many grades (six through twelve) and had such large classes, multiple field trips were dispatched to a variety of “environmental in some way” destinations. I didn’t really care which trip I took; I just knew how eager I was to get out of my classroom, a small one in the middle of the building with no windows and an average daily temperature of 88ºF that fall. Chewing gum melted in there, so I was looking forward to cool respite, courtesy of the environment.
Somehow I drew the long field trips straw and got to cruise a local waterway on a paddleboat with the senior class. I spent that day in breezy, seated comfort, taking multiple photos of scenic beauty, floating lazily down the river on a gorgeous autumn Friday. I was with students who by now totally knew how to do school and therefore had no conduct issues—who were, in fact, a delight to talk to as the day passed in easy fun. “They pay us to be here!” I exclaimed gleefully to my fellow educators on board. “What a wonderful day to be a teacher!”
By now I’ve read Kari’s zoo story over two dozen times, and on every reading, I see something new, something to question, problems to resolve with the comfort and ease of hindsight. Her story perfectly captures what that school culture always felt like—though it had been invisible to me, so I could never articulate as well as Kari does—and it tells me a great deal about the questions we asked earlier that frame our narratives here: what could have enhanced the professional quality of our lives on this field trip day, and what might have kept us teaching there?
Kari and Lisa:
Kari still thinks of that day with horror anytime someone says the word “zoo,” and probably will for the rest of her life. Lisa genuinely wonders whether the residual effects of traumatic teaching experiences like this could be something teachers carry with them forever. Thankfully, in her more recent years of teaching, Kari has not chaperoned a trip quite like it. She now realizes that that particular field trip was a bizarre and unusual occurrence.
We both agree that, nine days into the school year, Kari should never have been left to handle a large group of unfamiliar eighth graders on her own. Support in the form of veteran adults who knew the students should have been a given for any teacher new to the school (not just those new to teaching) that day.
Underlying this, and most everything in our stories (particularly Kari’s), is something we see all the time: teachers constantly thrown into untenable situations and expected to swim; sinking is not an option. They are given the loud and clear message that they are professional adults, entrusted with the care of children, and therefore must be responsible people—which, of course, they are. But why, particularly in the induction years, do we not also remember how much we relied on mentors in the early stages of our own careers? How we appreciated when someone understood and foresaw our challenges and provided support without our having to ask (because we didn’t yet know what would challenge us, did not realize what we didn’t already know, so therefore had no idea what to ask)? Why don’t we send them into the waters of their new profession with a co-captain and reliable ways to stay afloat?
What Ultimately Led to Our Leaving
There were several things we didn’t cover in my teaching program—things that, as a new educator, I had to learn by living them. One such topic was a teacher’s prep hour. In my entire first year of teaching, I’m not sure I actually planned a single lesson during my prep hour. The first quarter of the year, I shared my room with the French teacher. So on my prep, I had to leave; I spent a lot of time organizing bins of papers to grade in a colleague’s room. I climbed a flight of stairs every day with those bins, praying I wouldn’t drop anything. Huge chunks of my time were spent just trying to decide which papers should go into which bins, and which I’d need for the big trek that hour.
Thankfully, by second quarter, I had my room back and could use my full prep hour, but I still didn’t manage to prep lessons. Instead, I spent more time cleaning my room after the day’s activities, or chasing down students who were so loud in the hall I couldn’t focus. Seriously, why were there so many kids in the hallway?
It seemed that the administration had bigger problems to worry about than why none of the kids were in class. And so, by week two of me asking where all these kids were supposed to be that hour, I devised a plan and informed them, “Any student left in the hallway in the next minute will be cleaning desks in my room.”
A few scattered back to their classes, but the majority wrongly thought that cleaning desks in the new teacher’s room would be fun. We got real cleaning supplies from the janitor’s closet. Every last piece of “Fuck you,” “Fuck this class,” “THOT,” and “Princess was here” was removed. The fumes were getting a little strong. Sadly, they joked about getting high. One student told me he wished he had gone to class on time, instead of this. I told him the best part: you still get to go to class.
Why was it that I, Ms. First Year Teacher, was the one who organized this plan of getting students out of the hallway? It seemed to work better than any phone call home or write-up ever did.
Once that problem was “solved,” I still managed to find something other than my lessons to work on during my prep hour. I started to use the time to connect with students who were at in-school suspension (ISS), making an affirming connection with them so they could get back on track in my class. I decided that I’d find a student who was in ISS and we’d apologize to each other for this morning when she swore at me and I kicked her out (a school policy I should’ve ignored), and then I’d make a positive call home. Great idea in theory, and I do thank my teaching program for that. I really believe it would’ve been a great moment if she had been in ISS. But, when I arrived at the room, she was not there.
I went to the office to let them know Tanya (pseudonym) was not in ISS.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I just checked.”
“Well, it says she was sent there 2nd hour.”
“Yes, I know. I was the teacher who sent her there 2nd hour.”
“Well, where is she?”
Deep breath. “That’s what I was wondering.”
I was directed to the IEP room. I’m not sure the secretary understood that the IEP room was for students on an IEP, which Tanya was not. But I went to check, and she was not there either. I reported back to the office and saw the usual ISS teacher. He had been in a meeting and there’d been a sub in ISS, which explained how Tanya disappeared.
Thankfully, he seemed to care just as much as I did that a student was gone. We joined forces and went to look for the missing Tanya.
The end of the school day quickly arrived, and I had just spent my entire prep hour looking for a student no one knew was missing. Right as the bell rang, we saw Tanya emerge with her friends. I called out her name and she turned her head back. After she saw me, she ran away. Literally ran down the hall. I looked at the ISS teacher. He only said, “Well, looks like that phone call home isn’t going to be a good one anymore.”
This moment stands out as one of the reasons I left this school. I felt like I cared too much. I don’t mean this in an “I’m good at everything, I just care too much” way. I just got so worked up about things other teachers had managed to put up blinders to. I cared so much that I’d spend a whole prep hour searching for a student who didn’t want to be found, and who knew no one else was looking for her. I think I could’ve survived the year had I kept to myself and just planned my lessons on my prep. But, as my teaching program taught me, simply planning your lessons is not what makes a good teacher. To be the kind of teacher I was trained (and wanted) to be meant connecting with students would always come before lesson planning; that’s what makes a good teacher.
I never used my prep hour to actually prep, either. Something more urgent always took precedence over teaching’s essential work like lesson planning. Often these related to following up on student issues or misbehaviors, as Kari describes above. There were always emails to answer, new (and, generally, reactive rather than proactive) building or district initiatives to be learned and implemented, and endless paperwork required of me as a SpEd teacher/IEP manager.
I also spent a good deal of time trying to convince my administrators that my teaching load was not making the best use of my training or experience. In an eight-period schedule, where one period was my prep, I taught a single class that actually utilized my knowledge and skills as an educator. The other six class periods were a mix of things, but the most galling was that I spent two of them commandeering the IEP room Kari mentioned above, which means I spent 90 minutes every day supervising kids with IEPs who were sent to the room because they weren’t meeting expectations in the class they were scheduled for that hour. The room was usually empty, too; in those days kids were rarely sent there. Now that I think back on it, I got more prep, grading, and paperwork done in those excruciatingly long and boring minutes every day than I ever did on my assigned prep.
As the year went on, and my pleas to actually be given classes to teach continued to be ignored, I realized that TOSA work wasn’t the only thing making me unhappy in that district. Rather, it was the impossible, demoralizing, and disempowering circumstances in which we were expected to work. Why wasn’t anyone listening to me? Why didn’t anyone care that I, an over-educated, mid-career teacher with 15 years of classroom experience, was languishing, sitting alone in an empty room for a large part of her day?
I finally acknowledged this was not what I had bargained for when I signed on as a teacher. My beloved job had been wrenched from my hands and mangled into something I no longer recognized. I also had to accept this truth: I was leaving that school and district at the end of the year. I actually had enough sick days accrued that I could have left sometime in January. I still don’t know why I didn’t just cash them in and walk away. I somehow felt a loyalty and a responsibility to my students that no one else even cared that I had. I could have saved myself so many sleepless nights, though, so many unpleasant thoughts and experiences, so many dreams of doing something—anything—except this.
When I realized that no one was going to change my situation in that building, I promised myself that, doctorate be damned, I’d rather open a tiki bar on a beach someplace than deal with this shit anymore. I was that burned out, that overcome. As comforting and restful as “tiki bar on a beach” may sound, I still knew it was not the best fit for me and my strengths, would not make a difference in this world that I so want to contribute to in positive ways.
My light at the end of the tunnel came in the form of the opportunity I am now in. By the end of that school year, somehow, all the planets aligned to bring me into my current role—teacher educator at a small liberal arts college—which I thoroughly enjoy. I do this new work in a community I love, and in systems and circumstances that more often than not include me when decisions are made about my professional work and expectations. I won’t lie to you, though: this new gig is still fraught with guilt, particularly my worry that I’m simply preparing lambs for slaughter as I train and send new teachers out into the world. I know the world I’m sending them into, because I left it the second I had the chance.
What Would Have Kept Us There
I am so thankful now to be part of a district and building that is more able to support teachers. In my first year at my next school, I had an official mentor teacher. Her job on every Wednesday was to be available to all teachers, specifically new teachers. She was there to watch my class if I needed to run to the bathroom, make more copies when the printer was broken, and, best of all, just listen to me on my prep hour and talk through ideas I had for my students and lessons. More importantly, I also consider my principal a mentor. I know she is there for me, to support me in any way I need, which is an amazing feeling I wish all teachers could experience.
Now, I am able use my prep hour to plan lessons and grade assignments. Our building has enough staff that teachers aren’t responsible for hall monitoring, lunch duties, and any other issue that pops up. I know that my job is to teach students, and I don’t feel that I’m spread too thin.
Nothing. Nothing would have kept me there. It was tiki bar or bust.
I’ll admit that the (significant) pay cut moving to my new job has been a challenge, and I do miss working with younger students sometimes. However, I am so much happier and feel much more professionally rewarded now. I know I made the right decision; this move was a good one for me.
Kari and Lisa:
In the stories and comparisons above, we made several points critical to our experiences teaching in that school and juxtaposing those with what we’re doing now. We tried to illustrate what would have felt more supportive to us and our work, what might have kept us there. We parse out our key ideas more deliberately in the next sections.
What Would Have Made Things Better
The Right Kind of Mentoring
We both believe that a more consistent, responsive, and accessible mentor would have made a world of difference for Kari that year. Her official mentor was a representative in the district with whom Kari had to schedule time to meet. Kari would rather have had someone in the building who could come in to her room before, during, and after school, unannounced, and not have to arrange a time that worked with busy schedules to swing by and help with a problem that had likely turned into a different problem by the time they could meet.
Kari’s unofficial mentors were teachers she got to know and like, but if she asked them to help (and often she didn’t, because she could see it wasn’t just first-year teachers struggling), more often than not their response was the unhelpful, “You’re doing great, just keep going, it’s a tough job!” Resources, including the precious resource of trained and effective colleague and administrator time, must be a regular part of a student-centered/teacher-supportive school.
Realistic and Reliable Structures That Permit Teachers to Focus on Essential Tasks
We understand that teacher prep time, as well as the other, seemingly-infinite duties of the profession, are simply a part of one’s work, and that all jobs have these. We acknowledge the support that was there for us to do those tasks, in the form of allocated non-student-contact time built into our schedules each week.
Nevertheless, the time there for us “on paper” rarely translated to reality. Instead, that time was regularly on-contact with students—like chasing down a kid who wasn’t where she was supposed to be—and did not serve us for planning or other tasks essential to the actual pedagogical work we were there to do. The focus of teaching and learning was almost always subsumed into a much less urgent place in our daily hierarchies, and planning was usually something done on our own time, at home, on evenings, weekends, and even holidays.
We advocate that the focus of teachers’ school and work time be first and foremost on those essential teaching tasks. Relegate the extraneous, time-consuming demands that are unrelated to our work as professional pedagogues to a much lower and less important rung on our attention ladder, and let us use the school day for what we’re there to do: teach. While we’re at it, let us also devote our work day to the guts of good teaching: lesson planning and delivery, classroom management strategy development, relationship-building, providing effective feedback to students to support their learning, devising ways to better reach struggling learners, building our repertoires of inclusive teaching practices, and allowing us as educators to focus on why we’re there: to connect with students, facilitate their learning, and impart academic content to them.
Teacher Voice and Agency
We also craved a voice: the chance to see people trust our professional judgment, listen to our ideas for solutions to ongoing challenges, and utilize our strengths. It still baffles us that teaching is one of the few professions that is legislated and administered by everyone except teachers. Unquestionably, Lisa’s time was wasted supervising that IEP room, which these days is staffed by a paraprofessional—an aggravating fact given that Lisa had championed that exact change back when she was begging to be given students and classes to teach.
In the End
We could be here all day. Kari, in particular, has such vivid, descriptive memories and stories of her time in that school that she could simultaneously entertain and horrify you for hours. We imagine that this could be said for most teachers. We know what it’s like out there, day in and day out. We know the contexts in which we are expected to teach and how rarely those are determined by actual educators. We’ve had the joyous experiences, and the ones that pushed us beyond our limits or left us with scars that won’t ever fully heal. In the end, the outrageous challenges dominated, and we moved.
We didn’t go far, however, and we both currently find our career trajectories in education enormously fulfilling and, for the most part, positive. We feel healthy and stronger because of our trials by fire. We also know this: teachers should be allocated more time, more resources (human and otherwise), and more trust than they are given currently. We, as professionals, should be granted far more power and leadership opportunities that impact our careers and the teaching profession overall. We should be making the decisions that influence our work, because we understand the issues and have legitimate solutions that, if heard and implemented, would probably work. We need that chance, the opportunity to—at last!—be in charge of our own field, and to lead our profession into the future with the knowledge, expertise, and talents we all possess. The time is long overdue: teaching should belong to teachers.
Learn more about Lisa M. Dembouski & Kari Eloranta on our Contributors page