Saturday, June 14, 2014

First Year of Teaching-Emotional Version

There I was, sitting in my last class, working on my year-end stack of grading. I had given this class a test the day before and made the last day a mandatory study hall for any who had outstanding work.

"Hey, was I supposed to put my name on this or not?" Cory stood at my desk, looking down at me from his six-foot vantage point.

I glanced at the sheet, it was the teacher evalutation sheet I had given them to fill out for me, "No, that's supposed to be anonymous."

"Ok." Cory's eyes shifted down to the sheet, then back up to mine with a steady gaze that spoke a thousand words. Slowly, deliberately, he placed the paper on my desk and emphatically pounded it with his finger several times. "This is mine!!"

I picked it up with a bemused smile, curious to know what this boy had said that he was so eager for me to read.

A glance was all it took to see that he had given me the highest score in every area. "Hey!" I remonstrated, "That's not a valid assessment! I want to know what I can improve on!"

His eyes met mine, "I did it that way to even out the score from the last one..." The meaning of his words hung heavy. "You remember the last one, don't you?"

I did.

I suspect that even if I should go on to teach 40 years of successful classes I would never forget that.

You see, this class challenged me like none other. I had come to teach them with scarcely an arrow in my teaching quiver. I had never taught English, had no idea what materials I wanted to use, no clue what the students already knew, and frankly, no clue what I was doing. I love writing, and passed every english course I ever took with a straight A (except for one and that was a long story that doesn't need telling.) But any teacher will tell you that having skill in a subject doesn't mean you can teach it. I had no clue how to explain the things that came naturally to me.

So armed with a smile and a prayer, I started out the school year with the previous teacher's materials and a will to try even if I failed. And WOW did I fail!

It didn't take me two weeks to know that I could NEVER use the previous teachers materials. She was a lecturer who knew the subject matter better than a textbook. I knew next to nothing about the subject and can't give a good lecture to win a million dollars.

With my ninth and tenth graders it was fine. I turned to Spencer Kagan's cooperative learning techniques and got them doing projects and things that I knew well. They liked me and we had a great time together.

With the seniors it was a bit of a different scenario. This class seemed chock full of Ivy-league bound scholars. They had been students of the previous English teacher for all of their days in high school. They had never known anything else. They were used to lecture and frankly thought that anything else was quite beneath them. They wanted everything super organized. And they were outspoken about everything.

They intimidated me. They were my Jericho-- my promised land-- and, like Israel of old, all I could see were the giants and the great walled cities looming above me. My heart was like water and I murmured and complained to my dear, stalwart boyfriend many times about how I was sure I could not "go up and possess the land."

I made a quick switch from a heavy focus on English to a stronger focus on Bible (the class is a combination of English and Daniel/Revelation) hoping to regain some lost ground, but ground was not easily gained. I contemplated developing a disease that would strike me with crippling paralysis at 10:30 every morning, right before I had to teach them. I psyched myself out, canvasser style, telling myself and everybody else that it was a little rough but overall everything was great and I was doing ok and we'd pull through it.

And then one day, the previous English teacher (now holding a different position at the school) grabbed my arm confidentially as I went to get some copies for class. For her sake, I have chosen to forget the words she told me, but in a conversation that greatly strengthened me in the long run, I discovered that the kids hated the class, they felt it wasn't meeting their needs, they didn't respect me, and they wished that the school would get a different teacher. I was cut to the quick.

And then, just as we finished this conversation, the bell rang, and it was time to go face them.

I don't remember how I got through that day. What I do remember is supervising study hall the next period in a mess of tears. It was all I could do to keep the sobs inside where they couldn't be heard and hold the happy teacher smile on my face while the tears flowed and flowed.

I have never wanted so badly to run away from something. I'm not a quitter, and generally the thought of not going through to the bitter end doesn't cross my mind. But it did that day. I was through, through, through.

As soon as the last bell rang, I ran to my house and screamed a sobbing tirade of frustration at my mirror.  I had come to be a friend to these kids, to help them, to mentor them, to teach them, and I couldn't. I was failing and falling flat on my face.

I began to clean my house. (My old never-fail emotional fix trick.) Education chapter 26 Methods of Teaching played in a steady, soothing tone from my iPad as I worked. Point after point in the chapter identified everything I was doing wrong, and exactly what I needed in order to do it right.

I saw myself through Jesus eyes. I had been so focused on trying to win their friendship that I had lost their respect. I needed to just focus on giving them good material to learn using methods that I knew would work and expect them to come up to meet me.

Armed with a feedback evaluation form, and a few carefully chosen words, I walked into class the next day with a confidence that was not my own. I addressed them frankly; apologized genuinely to them for the specific ways I had failed them as a class; admitted that I had made mistakes as a first year teacher and told them I valued their feedback. I told them what a blessing the feedback I had received third-party had been, and let them know that I would appreciate it if that feedback could come to me directly. I gave them the feedback sheet which offered them a place to genuinely express their frustrations anonymously, and prompted them to think of and express my teaching strengths as well.

Now Cory was smiling at me as the memory floated through each of our thoughts. "You remember that one right?"

Yes, Cory, I remember it. His downcast eyes during my apology had easily branded him as the sole student who had complained to the administration about me. His feedback sheet, though anonymous, bore enough characteristic personality that it was impossible to miss that he had been the one to give me lower ratings than any other in the class.

I looked down now at his current feedback sheet with the highest score checked in every category and  could only shake my head.

"You've come a long ways," he said simply. "I'm sorry we gave you such a bad time."

Graduation day, as I made my way down the "cry line" hugging each of my amazing kids and congratulating them on their new status as OA alumni, I heard over and over again, "English class was my best class." "I learned so much." "I never read EGW like that until I had to for your worksheets. I can't believe how interesting it is!" "A lot of things clicked for me that never had before."

And I'm just so thankful that Jesus put me back on the proverbial horse when I wanted to quit. The last few months of school were incredible. I'm still not a great teacher, and I made organizational mistakes that caused innocent people frustration, and I tried to do too much at the last minute and couldn't keep up with the grading, and I lost an entire stack of homework the week I got engaged. (Found it in my laundry basket...have mercy, I'm glad I'm only getting engaged once in my life!!) But I learned a wealth of information this year, and they learned one or two things too and that's what's important.

So here's just throwing this out there to any first-year teachers, or first-year nurses, or first-year moms, or first-year whatever you are. Hang in there! Get back on the horse when you've fallen off. Go to the Word of God and drink in that strength. You're going to get through and you'll be glad you did.