Teaching in America

This is obvious, and probably doesn’t need to be said, but I have not been posting much on this blog lately. The primary reason is that I do not have a ton of positive topics to discuss with my work.

I am not going to be the teacher to post lesson plans, photos of my classroom, or talk about grading techniques. To be frank, I don’t enjoy that. It feels like additional work. I also collaborate in lesson planning with other teachers, and it doesn’t feel like fully my material to be displayed out in the digital world, so I won’t post that type of material. I originally made this blog for two primary purposes: to process my own personal experiences, and to relay to others outside of the profession what it’s really like to teach in America.

I have tried to rewrite this half a dozen times, but the truth is: teaching is obnoxiously difficult. It is draining. It is thankless. It is grossly misunderstood. My first year of teaching was one of the most difficult years of my life and this year, my second year, is only marginally better.

People don’t want to hear that. When I attempt to talk about this, the reactions I receive in return range between ignorance of the profession and patronizing. I’ve been told I’m too negative. I’ve been told that I didn’t understand what “real work” is like, and that I’m adjusting to adulthood. I’ve been told that I have it easy, with summers off and work ending at 3pm.

I work somewhere between 50-70 hours a week, depending on the time of the school year and what I am teaching. I wake up at 4:30 in the morning to exercise, because I’m so emotionally exhausted by the end of the day that there are about five people I can stand to be around after work. I am attempting to manage anxiety attacks, which surfaced sometime after my student died last year, and which I’ve never suffered in my life prior to teaching. I work with students who live in areas of high poverty, high abuse, high neglect, high drug use, high illegal immigration and deportation. That stress on the students transfers to me every single day in their behavior and in the relationships I build with them; I cannot do anything to help these kids, realistically, outside of legal mandatory reports, so I often watch kids go through the entire school year in traumatic situations. All of this, and more, yet I get paid so little that over half of my monthly paycheck goes to bills.

In college, I worked full-time while taking a full set of classes. In high school, I worked part-time immediately after school let out. I understand work. I understand stress. This is not normal, and this is not healthy.

Last year, during my first year, one of my friends went through her first year of teaching at the high school in my district. She is no longer a teacher. The school gave her 200 freshmen, with all classes holding 40 or more students. She saw the same trauma in her students that I did, saw the same student behavior that I did. Her department did not help her with lesson plans; she would stay up until around 1:00a.m. on weeknights, planning lessons and grading papers. She did not have mentors to talk about what she saw in the classroom. She had a department head tell her that students were misbehaving because she was pretty, not because there were forty of them. She left the profession. I have a friend who is in her first year of teaching, and experiencing largely the same issues. She may leave the profession, too.

While I recognize that my position at my current school represents and extreme end of the public school system in regards to abuse and trauma, every new teacher goes through the same mental and psychological stressors that I do. The system is built this way. The training for teachers in minimal compared to what the job actually demands; you’re expected to do everything fully and effectively, immediately, but you have no real emotional preparation for the exhaustion that comes in the first few years of teaching. And so there is this strange, distorted process that feels almost like hazing: “oh, your first four or five years are really tough, but it gets so much better after that! You won’t like your first few years but you’ll enjoy it after those tough first years!”

So people quit. Why wouldn’t they quit? Because of our culture and because of the public education system’s structure, teachers are expected to be teachers, parents, social workers, therapists, and police officers to all of their students. That is an impossible burden. There is barely enough training for teaching, the act of instruction and transferral of knowledge, let alone training for any other aspect of what I do every day. People aren’t prepared, and people are expected to do the impossible, so people quit.

Over the last two years, my mental health has suffered incredibly. I am exhausted. I am increasingly resentful.  There are about a thousand different ways this post could end, but I don’t have a clear ending. I’m just exhausted.

October: Or, Mile 5 of the Marathon

Year: 2

Last year, when I first began teaching, I didn’t understand why everyone kept hinting at October like it was a monster lurking around the corner. August and September felt pretty considerably difficult to me already, so I didn’t understand how October could be much worse. After my first October, I understood why teachers spoke about October the way they did. It is the first truly difficult month of teaching.

October came, and cleared my head of all doubts.

It is the month that first tests your mental endurance as a teacher. You’ve finished two months of teaching, and you won’t get a full break to rest until the end of December; while the first two months may be overwhelming, you complete them quickly (and largely on adrenaline). I’ve been told this is the honeymoon period, when you’re still getting to know your students and you’re still mentally adjusting to the school year that it doesn’t quite feel like it’s really happening yet. That feeling vanishes in October. When October rolls around, you become unavoidably aware of how long there is before you’re able to take a break. Consider this mile 5 or 6 of a marathon that you’re running: you’re not tired yet, but you just finished the first few miles – which went by so smoothly and quickly that it didn’t even really feel like you’ve been running – and, although you’re not to the exhaustion phase yet, now you’re very aware of how many miles you have to run before you finish.

It is also around the time of the school year that you begin to see students feel comfortable in their classes. This means that you know your students better, which can be great, but it also means that your students feel comfortable enough to act out. So, at the same time that you’re beginning to understand the mental endurance you’ll need to reach even the halfway point of your year, you’re just now reaching the difficult stage of teaching.

This was my first week of October, and I felt the shift immediately. I spent the week pulling a student or two aside with every class of almost every day to discuss their behavior. Nothing terrible happened – it’s still been notably easier than last year, partly, I think, because my students this year are just a calmer bunch – but it felt like a more tiring week than what I’ve seen so far. I’ve had to micromanage just a little bit more. I’ve had to shift to be just a little more strict. In a job like this, when it requires such energy and such attention just to do the bare minimum, small shifts like this can feel significant.

Going into this year’s second quarter and some of the more difficult months of teaching, I’m making it a goal to focus on self-care. I’m meditating regularly, exercising several times a week and (hopefully) sticking to a serious training schedule, balancing my time with friends and my time with myself. It’s so shockingly easy to forget to take care of yourself as a teacher, and I don’t want to forget this year.

The Call Home

Year: 1

My mom is a teacher. For much of her career, she taught special ed preschool, but she’s also taught several other grades at the elementary level. She’s currently finishing her PhD so that she can teach college students how to become teachers. She is the picturesque preschool teacher: incredibly kind, optimistic, enthusiastic, and patient as a saint. She always knew that she wanted to be a teacher; my mom has always been one of the teachers to consider her profession a calling.

By October, I didn’t know how to tell her that I hated my job.

I refrained from calling my family and talking honestly about teaching. It always seemed too difficult to discuss without crying, and after the help they’d given me to get through college and become a teacher, I didn’t want them to feel like their help had gone to waste. I also didn’t know if they would understand how difficult this particular job was. Even though we already had a teacher in the family before I graduate, I couldn’t remember hearing stories from my mom about the experiences I was seeing in my classroom. I especially didn’t want to disappoint my mom, who had been so supportive of me and so excited when I expressed the desire to become a teacher.

One day, during lunch, I called my mom. In the silence of my classroom, hoping that no teachers or students would walk in, I broke down in tears. I told my mom about my students’ lives, how their behavior had only worsened throughout the year, how I didn’t feel effective, how I didn’t like my job, how I was afraid I’d chosen the wrong profession. Every part of this job seemed impossibly hard. Being the wonderful person she is, my mom listened and gave me advice I’d needed to hear.

“I’d been worried to tell you, because of how you feel about teaching,” I confessed to her, trying to quiet my tearful breathing. My mom laughed a bit before responding: “Oh, Torey, I didn’t enjoy teaching until at least year three.”

Oh wow. Pitiful as it is, I had never considered how my mom may have struggled during her first few years of teaching. She went on to remind me that every teacher has been in my position, crying in frustration at his or her desk. If a teacher acts like that hasn’t happened, my mom told me, that teacher lied. That conversation was a small but important turning point for me; I didn’t yet have solid relationships with my colleagues, my friends were still struggling with their first years of teaching, and I still had a difficult and stressful job to do, but I had the important reminder that I was not alone or abnormal or weak in my stress.

What that statement says about teaching as a profession is up to interpretation, and also up to how optimistic or pessimistic you are as a person. I feel distinctly better this year compared to last year, though I’m not yet in the dreaded October (cue horror movie music), so it’s difficult to say for certain right now.

But, I think, it’s important for teachers (like me) to remember that this is a difficult job because it’s a job for humans, and humans are messy and difficult. It is far more stressful than a “normal” job, and if you’re not stressed during your first year of teaching, you’re either lying to me or you’re superhuman. (No offense, but you’re probably not superhuman, so you might as well be honest here.) That first confession that someone makes about how extremely ridiculously insanely difficult the first year of teaching is – to your mom, friend, girlfriend, colleague, whoever – is an important confession. It is the first step to leaning on other people for support and help, which is absolutely necessary in a job like this. First year teachers, don’t be like me. Don’t wait until October to admit that it’s hard. Make that phone call home.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

I just finished my first day of professional development for the year, and woah. I didn’t realize exactly how into “summer mode” I had burrowed myself into. I am not ready to leave summer mode. Helpful as the professional development was, it did send tiny sirens of panic into my head. Questions about classroom management, discipline, teaching effectively, and all that other good stuff left tiny stressful voices sprinting across my brain within the first few hours of the workshop. So this post is about stress, and dealing with stress.

This isn’t just for teaching, but it’s especially important, I think, for teachers. So much of the profession demands your attention and energy that it’s easy to forget that you need to keep a little energy and attention on yourself. I’m sure that this will become easier as I continue to teach, but for a new teacher, I need regular check-ins with myself to make sure I’m taking care of myself and not just taking care of my job. Consider it a mental garden: sometimes, you just gotta go in and pull some weeds. These are my favorite weed-pulling or weed-prevention strategies for that mental garden.

1. Learn when to say no and when to say yes in your personal life. I had friends who, during their first year teaching, all but disappeared from my life. They were and are wonderful friends, but one side effect of teaching was that it felt so draining to them that they almost forgot how to socialize. If you say no too often in your personal life, whether it’s seeing friends or talking to family or strengthening other relationships, you’re going to eventually feel isolated and even more stressed. Doing the opposite, though, can be just as damaging: I tried to overdo my social life when I began teaching. I had this stubborn mindset that I could have everything I had before I began teaching (why not try to socialize every day, train for a marathon, start three or four new hobbies, all while starting a new career? This is actually not an exaggeration for me). I had to learn when to say no to friends during the week. Other people I know had to learn when to say yes. This is going to be a learning process: if you’re feeling absolutely drained that day, tell your friends no. If you’re feeling that way for a month, maybe grit your teeth and go to yoga. You may feel better. Pay attention to your patterns of behavior and reflect on whether you’re overdoing the yes’s or the no’s.

2. Start paying attention to your body and what it needs. Nobody wants to hear “eat healthy and exercise,” but dammit, eat healthy and exercise. There’s no need to overdo it – balance it everything, of course – and sometimes you’re going to need that bag of chips and a good, long evening with your butt on the couch watching your favorite movie. But if you exercise regularly, and you avoid the junk food, you will feel better. You will handle the stress better. Exercise and eating healthy won’t be the one-size fits all, only way possible of dealing with stress, but it will help. (My personal favorites for relaxing after work: rock climbing/bouldering, yoga, running, hiking, biking.)

3. Meditate. When I was so stressed last year that I could barely see from November to December, I was trying everything I could find to help lower my stress level. I stumbled upon meditation. There’s a lot of “woo-woo” out there about meditation, and I’m sure I’ll write a separate post specifically on meditating at some point, but suffice it to say (for now) that there is a surprising amount of legitimate research out there to support the theory that meditation is really good for you. I now meditate for about 5 minutes in the morning every day, and I’ve personally noticed a difference. For stressed-out first year teachers, I’d suggest meditating right after getting home from work; I did that last year and it helped me separate work and home mentally and more quickly get out of “teacher mind.”

4. Use a notebook to record your days and reflect on everything. During my first year of teaching, I had a problem that I called the hamster wheel problem: I’d get on this hamster wheel of thought patterns and just go, go, go, around the wheel. I’d continue this thought pattern, whatever it was – I’m not sure if teaching is for me, I’m worried about this student, I’m so stressed out, etc. – and I would feel worse as I stayed on the mental wheel. When I began writing regularly about a problem, or about teaching in general, I found it easier to stay off the hamster wheel. I don’t have a strict rule about writing, just a few times a week, sometimes specifically choosing a topic to write about and sometimes writing with no plan in mind. It helps to write it all down (bonus: you’ll want to look back and remember all that crazy stuff that happened your first year and laugh later).

5. Get outside. This will definitely be something I write about in the future (hello, modern hippie here), but I think people drastically underestimate the effect that nature has on their bodies. We like pretending that we are above and beyond the outdoors; we’ve evolved past it; nature is just for those weirdo hikers and snowboarders and other fitness hippies (I am in all categories and hope you are, too). We aren’t above and beyond it. Our bodies recognize the deficiency and it does affect us. Please note that I am not saying you need to climb a mountain every other day to relax. Nope. Just walk around your neighborhood if that’s all you’ve got or all you want. Get home, walk around for fifteen minutes and stare at the trees (my case: cactus), stare at the sky, feel the sun and the breeze on you. I promise, I promise, you will feel less stressed.

Remember that no one solution is perfect forever. Vary how you process and deal with the stress of teaching, and know that tomorrow is a new day. Know that, however you’re dealing with the stress (in a healthy way!), you’re taking care of yourself and that is critical for not just this job, but for life.

The Report

Year: 1

My first mandatory report came sometime in early October. As my students for my fifth period class walked into class to take their seats, one of my students, Elizabeth, walked by looking as if she were crying. When I settled everyone down and ensured they were quietly working, I took Elizabeth off to the side and asked her what was wrong.

It’s always a bit of a coin toss when you ask a middle school student what’s wrong: either something is really wrong, or something on the “middle school” level of pain (breakup, friend troubles, etc.) is happening. When I pulled Elizabeth aside, I realized it was serious.

“I’m just worried about Bella,” she said, another girl in her class. I glanced over at Bella, who was writing down her homework for the day. “She told me something bad before we came into class.”

I was on high alert. I’d heard enough stories, had enough conversations with students and colleagues, to race ahead to the worst possible conclusions. I tried to speak calmly while I explained to Elizabeth that I could only help Bella if she told me what Bella told her; a delicate balance, to try and persuade a young student to betray her friend’s loyalty to a teacher. Elizabeth told me that Bella had begun cutting herself again, explaining that it hadn’t happened for some time but that she had restarted the practice last night.

I thanked Elizabeth for her honesty and sent her back to her desk, silently frantic about how to proceed next. I couldn’t let Bella leave my classroom and go home, on the chance that she hurt herself again, but I couldn’t bank on the possibility that a principal would be in the front office when the bell rang.

This class was my largest, worst-behaved class, always a bit rowdier because it was in the afternoons when students were ready to go home. I went to the librarian and asked her quietly if she could cover my class while I took a student to the front office, and she agreed. After the class began working on the assignment, I called Bella over to me, thanked the librarian again, and took Bella to the front office. We went to the front desk and were taken into my principal’s office to wait for him.

It was a painful few seconds of silence. Bella clearly knew why we were here, after having seen me talk to Elizabeth and then quickly taken her to the front office. She didn’t speak, looking at the desk in front of her. I didn’t know how to communicate to her how concerned I was; I didn’t know if it was professionally appropriate to tell her that, while in school, I had friends who had suffered with depression and self-harm. While we waited for the principal to arrive, I spoke to her quietly, trying to convey how much I cared about her and that she was not in trouble. 

My principal began asking questions as soon as he arrived. He made it clear that Bella wasn’t in trouble, like I had, and told her that we just wanted to make sure she was safe. Through that conversation, we learned that her mother was currently detained in a jail a few towns away from us. Her mother and stepfather had been driving, and were pulled over by the police; although her mom wasn’t driving, she was asked for identification and, having none, the officer eventually learned that she was an illegal immigrant. She was being held in the jail to learn whether she was going to be deported. Bella, in the meantime, was living with her stepfather. She and her stepfather, at that time, had only known each other for a few months.

I remember keeping Bella in class after the bell rang, sometime in late spring, to talk to her about focusing on schoolwork while in class. At the end of the conversation, I asked how her mother was doing, and she told me that her mother hadn’t yet been deported but was still in jail. In 7th grade, when kids should be worried about fitting in and figuring out who they are, Bella spent the school year worried that her mother was going to be deported and taken away from her.

How do you respond to a twelve-year-old who tells you she hasn’t seen her mom in over seven months because she may be deported?

This may not be the average 7th grade experience, but it is not an entirely unique one. Add other traumatic experiences – death of a family member, abuse, neglect – and the list of students goes up substantially. I never felt prepared for situations like these during my first year. Throughout the year, I became better at handling the situations in the moment and better at processing them outside of work, but I never became better at conveying to my friends and family what it was like to deal with that (or worry about that) regularly in my work.

Dear First Year Teacher,

Welcome to teaching.

This year is going to be different from any year you’ve had before this. Whether you’re fresh out of college or switching careers, I can basically promise that this is going to feel like something entirely separate from almost every other major life experience. Teaching is just different.

You’re going to be challenged, and that’s okay. Sometimes that challenge will overwhelm you and threaten to push you down into deeply stressful places. For better or worse, that’s normal. I promise you, though, you will make it through those periods. Teaching is a career that demands an immense amount of energy, dedication, and focus: few other jobs are quite as intense, and it can be a stressful transition into a job like this. You’ll be okay.

There will be long, difficult days and sometimes those days will turn into long, difficult weeks.  You will be tired. A lot. There will be chunks of the school year that seem impossible to break through (i.e., all of November), but you will break through eventually. This is not a normal profession; it is stressful and draining, taking a lot more of your “daily human interaction quota” than you expect. Please remember that. Remember that this is a difficult, stressful, and at times draining career, because if you forget, you may be tempted to think it is just you. It is not just you. Every teacher has felt what you will feel this year. Every teacher has doubted his or her ability to teach and to enjoy teaching. They have made it through their first year, and so will you.

Remember to take care of yourself. Don’t let it be an option. As you go through the year, pay attention to your inner self and know that different days will need different types of self-care. Some days, you should probably go on a run and work out the stress and irritation of a bad day. Some days, you should probably go home, pour a glass of wine, and watch your favorite movie with some friends. Some days, it will feel best to just cry on the phone to your mom or dad. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) Please know that one of these types of decompression is not better or worse than another type; it just may be what you need that day.

Enjoy the good moments. Teaching is not like a normal job: the highs are really high, and the lows are really low. I hope you don’t have too many low moments, but you will learn from them. It is easy, too easy, to focus on the difficult parts of this job and not spend enough time feeling good or proud about the parts of the job that made you want to be a teacher. Focus on the good parts, and you will be better for it.

Think about teaching, but don’t live in teaching. Think about what you did well, and what you need to work on; doing that will improve your skills as a teacher and it is important to strive for improvement. But when you go home, do everything you can to be home. Relax. When you leave that school campus, however you do it, you should be mentally and emotionally focused on your home life. This is going to be hard to do: after all, you care about your students and your job, so you want to do the best you can. But if you are living in the “teacher mind,” which is to say, you’re thinking about teaching every moment of the day, you’ll burn out. Leave some time for you to still be you.

This year, you will experience more than you expect. Don’t beat yourself up too much for mistakes you may make, and remember that you will get better with each day if you try. As you go through the year, remember to enjoy it as much as you can, even if you’re stressed. I’ll be rooting for you.

Good luck.

Dealing with Trauma

Year: 1

I would find out later that, during the week Angel ran out of my classroom, he had been taken away from his father by Child Protective Services (CPS). At that time, he was moved in with an aunt. Throughout the year, he would be pushed from his father’s house to his aunt’s house to his brother’s house to a series of group homes, all within the nine months of that school year. I would learn that he was taken away from his father because there was evidence of sexual abuse. I still do not know if his father was the abuser or if it simply happened in his father’s house. He was put into his aunt’s house, but due to an incident unknown to me, he had to leave that house within a month or so. What I do know is this: Angel was taken away from his dad because he was abused, and his dad may or may not have been the one to abuse him; he moved from place to place at least four times within a school year, living in constant upheaval while dealing with PTSD basically on his own. And, at the end of the school year, after a few papers were signed and a few procedural processes completed, Angel moved back in with his father. I could do nothing but watch as Angel went through this painful year, hoping that my classroom would give him some sort of safety.

As teachers, we sometimes become witnesses to terrible events. It is painful because we of course care about our students. It is painful because we can do little to nothing in many cases. Unfortunately, it is also painful because we are often underprepared for dealing with trauma in our students.

Angel was one of the worst instances of trauma I saw in my students during my first year, but he was by no means the only student. I was not prepared for the amount of trauma for which I would become a witness; that was surely one reason why August and September were so emotionally exhausting. Students would tell me story after story within the first few months, as they got to know me and grew to trust me. One student’s mom had stage-three cancer. Another student’s father abused her mother and killed himself when she was a baby. Yet another mom, as she told me on the phone during a call home, also had cancer. It seemed increasingly that every student I had experienced some sort of severe pain in their lives: after September, the best I hoped for in my students was that they were poor, and at least, hopefully, not abused or neglected or under severe stress from a parent dealing with a disease.

Now, I will say that I worked in one of the poorest areas of my city during my first year of teaching. Not all teachers witness this much trauma in their students. But I am willing to guess that there are also many teachers who have seen far worse than me.

In Arizona, teachers are taught how to report abuse and threats to their students. It’s referred to as a mandatory report. Teachers are taught, basically, that if a student tells them about an instance of abuse (or serious self-harm), they are legally obligated to report that to the police. Aside from the details of the mandatory reporting procedures, teachers are taught very little else. Nobody teaches us how to process trauma in our students. There is not a class on how it may affect us emotionally, mentally, or psychologically. Few people warn us that at two in the morning, we’ll wake up thinking about the student who may be experiencing abuse while we lay in our safe beds, and few warn us that we may feel guilty sitting at our desks in the evening stress-drinking wine, aware that some of our students don’t have dinner tonight. It is a painful, painful learning curve to become a witness to abuse and trauma. And teachers are not prepared for it. At least, I wasn’t.

I cannot say what the average experience is as it relates to teachers witnessing trauma among their students. I can’t compare my experiences to that of a teacher in Nevada, or New York, or a teacher in a charter school or private school. I can say that all teachers see at least one student go through something terrible, because the odds are far against not seeing that; when you have over 100 students a year, you’re going to meet one student who has felt serious pain. 

My experiences are obviously anecdotal, at least so far with my career: I have only taught at one public school and can only relay my friends’ and colleagues’ experiences in different schools, having not taught at those types of schools myself. Not all teachers will be a witness to as much trauma as I have been, and some will be a witness to more than me. It is important to remember this part of teaching, though: it will impact teachers in a powerful way, and it is one of the most difficult parts of the job. 

All students’ names have been changed for privacy.