Teaching was Awful!

I'm sure you've heard plenty of teaching horror stories. And I'm sure they were mostly about how awful the students and parents were.

That ain't me. I loved my students--even that one girl who tried her best to prove I was incompetent. It was all worth it when she bragged to me about her perfect scores on my quizzes, and when she completed with pizzazz a special assignment I had given her to plan out her college and career path. Yes, I loved all those adult wannabe's, clear-headed and confused alike. Well, I can't say I loved that other kid who only removed the bored look on his face long enough to deny he was cheating on a test. Actually, I didn't even like him. Everyone else was great.

And their parents were my partners. We were a team. Well, except that one lady who called the school board on me for saying her daughter's bad grades were due to frequent absences. And even that was all worth it when her daughter's eyes glowed and she said, "That's cool!" during one of her make-up labs. Other than that one lady, I got so much gratitude, praise, and teamwork from parents that I wish THEY wrote my evaluations.

No, the students and parents were not the problem. The administration wasn't even the problem, as five minutes in the teachers lounge would have you believe. The problem was the system, which I never learned to navigate. Using business sense in public education got me nowhere. Actually, it got me in a mess. You see, I've always excelled in business because I can learn anything fast, and I work my butt off to achieve excellence. Here's how that backfired on me:

"Do you think you could help out our Science teachers?"

That was my first job offer. Of course, I had asked to teach English, which had been the focus of my degree, my teacher training, my previous 20-year career, and the 20 years of teaching ideas I had compiled in a notebook. None of that impressed the administrators who interviewed me because I had no classroom experience. Instead, they asked me to teach science. Not just science, mind you, but honors level Chemistry and Physics. Why on earth?! you might ask. I asked that.

Apparently each principal I interviewed with (6 of them) all had ample choices for English teachers with classroom experience I lacked. And three of them had a gaping hole in their science department with slim pickins for teacher candidates.

"Do you think you could help our science teachers?" they asked. Well, much of my early college and marketing work was science-based. And I knew I could learn at a fast clip and be the best darn helper those science teachers ever saw. My ego and eagerness to help students in any capacity landed me a first-year position as Associate Teacher.

'Associate Teacher' was St. Johns County's way of meeting the new class-size-limit legislation. They hired certified teachers to join their regular teachers in oversized classes. It paid 2/3 the salary but offered full benefits. The first principal sweetened the deal.

"We're going to groom you into a full teacher."

Cool! A great paid internship for me. I accepted the job thinking I'd be a darn good teacher assistant while I learned the subjects ahead of the students. All five subjects. I sure had wild confidence. Well, the best laid plans...

Turns out, there was no plan for me. There was a plan for the other Associate Teachers who were assigned to classes in their own subject area. They were there to help students with their work.

I tried that. Then a student asked me for help with a Physics problem that required recall of sin-cos-tan and I had to admit I was not qualified to help her.

To avoid ever having to endure such awkwardness again, I rushed home that night and tried to do the Physics homework. And the Chemistry homework. And the Honors Chemistry homework. And the Earth-Space homework. And the World History homework. I had started the job one month into the school year, so I was already way behind. I barely got through an intro to Physics before falling asleep at 2:00 am.

So the next day looked like the first. I was expected to help kids, and I was no help at all. Each night, I rushed home to learn what my students were learning and get ahead of them, but I didn't catch up to them until halfway through the school year.

Actually, I only caught up in Chemistry. My contract required me to obtain certification in at least one of the subjects I was "teaching." This was a odd because it allowed 12 months to comply, longer than the school year I was contracted for! Nevertheless, I got right on it. One of my Lead Teachers persuaded me to choose Chemistry since three of my six classes were a form of Chemistry, and because

"you'll never want for a job."

I love to brag that in four months of online cramming, I learned four years's worth of Chemistry well enough to pass the certification exam. It's proof that I really can learn fast. But between you and me, I have no idea how I passed that thing. It looked like a foreign language peppered with hieroglyphics. I guessed my way through it, and somehow the computer said, "Congratulations." I left the test center and called my mom in a brain-fried stupor. Mom said,

"Well, they must have been educated guesses."

I have to say, I was able to help the Chemistry students after that. I still felt like an idiot in the other subjects. My Lead Teachers tried to keep me busy, but they voiced their predicament:

"I can't change my system for the one class you're in here. It would throw me off in my other classes."

My Lead Teacher in Physics took a $700 stipend to be my first-year Mentor. He was also a football coach and was usually drawing X and O football diagrams during our joint planning period. I misinterpreted his sketching by thinking it was a good time for my Physics and teaching questions. My bad. Marker in hand, he said,

"Listen, I don't have time to babysit you every day."

The Earth-Space teacher had the struggling students, the type of kids who had drawn me into public education in the first place. The kids who tried to dodge the truent officer and quit school. The kids I wanted to help. When I tried to brainstorm with the 30-year veteran Lead Teacher on how to inspire our joint students, he said,

"I'm not the one to ask. I'm so burnt out. They give me the dregs hoping I'll quit."

Gotcha. Well, here I am to save the day. I want the dregs. "Let me take over," I offered. "I don't think so," he said. "Then they'd be able to fire me."

He really was a brilliant teacher. I was fascinated with his lessons. It was like watching Discovery Channel. Well, often we were watching Discovery Channel. The students were decently interested in the movies, but hardly interested in his lectures. It drove him crazy that those kids didn't care how the earth and moon worked. He grumbled at them about their laziness and then gave them worksheets to fill out using their textbook. I am amazed that none of them ever challenged him. They all just sat there looking despondent.

I thought God sent a savior in the person of Larry Bell, a motivational speaker for public education. Larry Bell came to our school and put on a lively performance just for teachers. He had us chant in unison,

"Kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Mr. burnt-out Earth-Space sat beside me. I was delighted. It answered his question of "Why don't they care?" But he didn't chant. He didn't change. He continued to show no interest in his students other than annoyance.

A small handful of students in that class did try to stay afloat. One of them suddenly stopped doing any work at all. I took her aside to find out the problem, and she relayed a gorey recurring nightmare she was having. I mentioned it to my lead teacher. He said,

"I wouldn't worry too much about it. That girl is dumb as a box of rocks."

I was beside myself. These were the very kids I wanted to teach and I was not free to teach them. I imposed on my mentor's football planning time to ask,

"Why would they put the burnt-out students with a burnt-out teacher?"

The 25-year-old sage that was my mentor said,

"Amy, there is a dark side to education that you don't know about."

"What is it?" I pleaded. "What do you mean?"

"It's not my place to say." He dismissed the subject.

Roger. I went one step up the chain of command, to the principal who hired me and said she was going to groom me.

"Mr. Earth-Space said he was burnt out. Why are burnt-out students put with a burnt-out teacher? Can I have them? Please?"

She didn't answer. In fact, she never spoke to me again beyond formalities. The grooming never happened. The full teaching positions were given to others. I couldn't figure out how to get answers. I think I asked too many questions, but that sounds cliche, doesn't it?

Maybe my ignorance of public education was plastered across my forehead. I certainly felt ignorant. I accepted the Associate Teacher position for a second year at a different school, determined to become an expert before taking on my own classes. The second year went a little better than the first, but I still couldn't get into the English department, and I still managed to ruffle feathers. This time, I think it was my silence that did it.

When Miss Chemistry snapped at her classes,

"Shut up. Grow up!"

...I was silent. She asked me to help keep them quiet, but they were almost always asking about the subject. When I tried to quiet them, I was either rejecting their request for help, or becoming one of the side-talkers. I avoided that predicament by modeling how to silently listen to a lecture. Was I really earning my paycheck that way? When that teacher got her lower classes' test scores back from the county, she was pissed.

"These kids REFUSE to learn," she whined, looking to me for feedback.

What do you say to that? I didn't agree, but I'm sure she didn't want to hear that. I was silent when I was supposed to be supportive, and it was awkward. I think I might have a touch of Asperger's, because I really did not know how to communicate with people who see kids differently than I did.

In my third year, I declined the Associate Teacher position to hold out for my own classes. All summer, I applied for all open high school positions, and all I got was one principal pleading with me to get certified to teach math for him.

"Your pedagogy would do wonders for my struggling students," he said, "but all I have is a math position."

He offered to hire me on the spot with the stipulation that I add Mathematics 6-12 to my teaching certificate. I bought the exam prep booklet and was lost on the first page. No thanks. I was tired of pretending to be an expert.

I never imagined it would be hard to get a teaching job. Two weeks before school started, it finally came. Wouldn't you know, the word "Chemistry" on my teaching certificate drowned out the word "English." I was offered a fabulous classroom at a fabulous school by a fabulous principal who said my ability to make Chemistry fun for his students was more important than my expertise in the subject. I was flattered and enamored with the student-centered mentality he exuded.

I thought hard about it. I wanted to teach English, but I had yet to have any experience in an English classroom. And after spending my Christmas break grading 150 science fair reports at 45 minutes each, I wondered how I would ever keep up with grading 150 weekly English essay assignments. By then, I was pretty well-versed in Chemistry and ready to show my students the fun side of that intimidating subject. I accepted the offer.

It was a blast for the first half of the year.

Kids said, "I love Chemistry!"

I mean, how often do you hear that?

Then my colleague warned me that I was too far behind in the curriculum calendar. Then the Assistant Principal instructed me to rush through content until I caught up with the pacing guide, then stay caught up.

"When 70% of them have got it, move on" she ordered.

Ouch! Seventy percent? That means 30% left behind! The very kids I wanted to reach! In fact, I was one of the few teachers who knew the percentage of students who "got it" at any given moment. I used clicker handsets for quick comprehension checks every day, and the percentage correct was broadcast to the class after every question. We kept going until we got 100%, then someone jumped up to hit the gong to celebrate. In obedience to my administrator, I actually had to announce to my students that we were moving on when we reached 70% comprehension. We could not hit the gong knowing 30% of the room wasn't with us.

I also had to announce that our method of figuring things out had to change. Instead of asking kids to think and guess and talk about atomic behavior, I was telling them to stop talking and listen because we had too much content to cover.

Luckily, I never got to the point of screaming "Shut up. Grow up!" But I did get to the point of not being prepared. I taught topics I barely knew myself. Kids asked questions I didn't have answers to. I made the mistake of using the bends disease as an example of nitrogen gas expansion in our blood. The conversation quickly went over my head and a student flashed his red and white diver certification to resolve a discepancy in our explanation of the bends.

Bump that. I'm just going to say, "I don't know." Which I did, including one time when my Assistant Principal was doing an observation of my teaching skills. During our feedback session, she said,

"Never say you don't know."

"But sometimes I don't know. How can a teacher know everything that comes up in an inquisitive conversation? Especially me, a non-Chemistry major?"

"Say, 'Good question. I'll find out and get back to you on that.'" She gave me a stack of Post-It's and told me to hand one to every student who had a question I couldn't answer. They were to write their question down and put them in a "parking lot" on the bulletin board for me to research and report back to the class. What a brilliant solution!

But the questions I didn't know were usually not in the curriculum, and I couldn't even keep up with the curriculum. I never had time to research their medical and metaphysics questions. In the split second I was supposed to say, "I'll find out," I mentally scanned my impossibly overleaded calendar and knew I could not follow through. Instead of lying, I stood there stumped and flustered, and the whole class felt awkward, especially the poor kid who should have gotten praise for asking a higher level question. Now that I look back, I wonder if they didn't want answers so much as recognition for asking good questions. Oh, if I could do it over again, the things I'd change.

It happened again when I said polarized sunglasses block the vertical waves of electromagnetic radiation that bounce off of water. A student with a smug, sea-savvy look on his face asked, "Isn't it the horizontal waves?" In that split second of strategizing my response, my Assistant Principal's voice rang in my ears. "Never say you don't know." Meanwhile, I imagined the scene of he and I discussing sunglasses while half the class was barely clinging to comprehension of the real topic already. So what came out of my mouth?

"No, it's vertical." As I returned the conversation to the real subject I was supposed to be teaching, I heard that kid say,

"She doesn't know what she's talking about."

More awful than not being free to say, "I don't know" to off-topic questions was getting caught not knowing the answers to required questions. One of my best students gave me a few attempts at trying to figure out a problem, then said,

"Never mind. I'll ask my dad."

The dad was a forensic chemist. He was legit. I was not.

Bless their hearts, most of my students had empathy for my out-of-field teaching position. They mostly appreciated how much I cared about them, and how much fun stuff I injected into our lessons, labs, and routines. And despite my incompetence, their test scores were higher than the county average, and higher than their pre-Med counterparts at another magnet school. I even had more fun than my students did because I got to see the fun multiplied by the antics and learning excitement of six classes and 150 students.

I feel incredibly blessed to have had that experience with them. But I feel equally blessed that that marathon is over for me as well as them. I would do it again in a heartbeat, if I didn't have a family that needed me on nights and weekends.