Something happened this week. One young lady I know and love experienced her first week in front of a classroom full of students. She was hired on Sunday evening and drove two hours out-of-town for her first teachers’ meeting which was to take place at 8:00 on Monday morning, the very next day. Her new students arrived Wednesday. She had never even seen the school before her first day. How did this happen? Who knows? But embarrassingly it happens all the time in our profession. My young friend was tired of the endless interviews for teaching positions. It was the last week in August and she was determined to take any job offered. The good news is…she has her start. Even better news…she’ll be a good teacher.
What was her email comment on Friday after her first week of school?
I used to think I looked forward to and appreciated Fridays. Turns out I was way under appreciating them all these years.
I laughed when I read her comment. It took me back to the toughest year I ever had as a teacher. It was a year I’ll never forget, like a bad nightmare that stays in your psyche and haunts you forever. I was luckier than my young fledgling teacher. My toughest year came after I had already been teaching for more than 20 years. By then I was a confident and experienced professional who didn’t think anything a student could conjure would knock me off my game. I was competent. I was prepared. I was wrong.
In one week I went from teaching primary aged students to high school seniors! I went from teaching in a private school that I owned to a high school with students considered “at risk.” I had teen moms, many pregnant students, and kids with parents in jail. On the first day of school when I asked them to introduce themselves with 3 descriptive words, several of them announced they had “an attitude.” They saw this as a positive attribute. They were proud of their attitudes. I went from suburban type students to predominantly urban kids who came from different neighborhoods who didn’t like each other. The only thing that united them was their dislike for me. They all agreed on one thing. I had to go. Those kids reared up and took a bite right out of my backside when I wasn’t looking.
I only made it to the second day of school at 11:00 am when I knew I was going to cry in front of the class. They were passing a basket around the classroom and asking their peers to contribute money to buy me a ticket out-of-town. No, I’m not making this up. I was used to children who loved me. I knew I was going to cry and worse…I knew they would love to see my tears. Not crying in front of them became my number one goal. But I could feel the tears just ready to spill over. What was I going to do?
I was so new in this building I couldn’t even decipher when the bells were ringing. All day long you would hear bings, buzzes and bells coming into your classroom. I later learned that there were a certain numbers of bings and buzzes to call each administrator. The kids knew when the change class tone sounded, but I didn’t. One of those buzzes started to sound. Maybe they were going to leave for lunch but I wasn’t certain. I spotted the closet door. I decided I would walk through that door and act like I was looking for something in the closet so they wouldn’t see my tears. I tried not to run. I tried to look like a woman who was just going to the closet to look for something. I opened the door and walked through. It turned out not to be a closet after all. I was right in the middle of another classroom, not the closet, but I burst into tears anyway.
I got lucky. It did happen to be the lunch bell. My students vacated the room and I had a half an hour to pull myself together before the torture began anew. At the end of my first week I called the friend who had recommended me for the position and apologized to her, but told her I was going to quit. I called my mom and told her I was going to quit. But I didn’t. I hung in there. If I told you all the things my students did to me that year, you would never believe me. You would also stop reading my blog because I would sound like an ineffective nincompoop. I made many mistakes that year. But I grew more as a teacher than during any other year of my teaching career.
What My Students Taught Me
Hearts that have been rejected will reject others in self-defense. They think, “I’ll reject you first so you can’t hurt me.” It has very little to do with you. The rejection isn’t personal, but it sure feels that way until you understand that truth.
- Once students know you really care about them, they will be your staunchest champion. But you have to prove you care about them first. And in an environment like this you have to prove it every year.
- I’ve learned you can’t talk to high school students the same way you talk to third graders. It doesn’t work. I was used to saying things like “Oh I like the way Megan has started her assignment.” That is how clueless I was. Believe me that strategy doesn’t work in a tough high school environment.
- I learned to cuss. I’m not saying that was a good thing. And I never used profanity in front of my students but I was so surrounded by it, I found it peppering my personal conversation when I wasn’t on the job. I was in my forties and had never sworn. I still don’t use the really offensive words, but It makes some of my conversations a lot more humorous, because it astounds people who know me well.
- Other than cussing with my friends, I stayed true to myself. I didn’t get pulled into the drama that surrounded me. I didn’t yell. I didn’t meet sarcasm with sarcasm. I stayed calm and was able to be a positive role model. Most of these students had lives steeped in drama. They needed positive role models more than they needed anything else.
- That old adage, “The more you put into something, the more you get out of it,” is 100% true. I have never worked so hard in my life, but I also never changed lives so dramatically as I did in that environment. When kids don’t have other positive role models, you can make the most profound difference in their lives.
Teachers measure their worth by the lives that they change.
– Dauna Easley
- That first really tough year helped me grow immensely as a teacher. It groomed me to teach future teachers. If you want to be an effective teacher for future teachers you need a wide variety of experiences. It helped me begin writing books. I had a message. I had stories to tell. I spent 12 years at that job I thought I would quit at the end of the first week. I learned I could persevere through challenging circumstances. That alone is an important life lesson.
- Those kids groomed me, chiseled me and sometimes even sandblasted me, until I became a true teacher.
TEACH…To Change Lives
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