I have removed identifiers from the email, but otherwise have copied it here.
Sorry this took a while to write. It's finally here.
It is your daily reflect that I admire. I have always felt introspection/reflection is what has allowed me to grow to become a teacher, and from there grow to become a better teacher little by little. When I shared your blog earlier today afterI discovered it, I likened it to how photographers do 360 photo-a-day blog projects to rekindle their creativity. It's not everyday that someone can be so honest about themselves--even more so in a public way--it takes a lot of bravery and the willpower of someone who genuinely wants to improve. Needless to say, I was inspired.
Onto my story--earlier this year, I had been hired for my first full-time teaching position to teach all subjects to 8th graders. I had a self-contained class of 35 students who stayed with me all day as I taught them all topics like elementary school classrooms do. I had everything you could wish for in your dream school: an enormous classroom maybe the size of 2 regular classes, a copier machine outside my “door” (I had no door), cabinets full of card-stock to use for printing at will, etc.
I liked 8th grade because I got to teach US history and algebra--and most importantly, leadership. Having the oldest students in the school meant I could give them a sense of responsibility as role-models for all the others. That was my classroom management strategy: inspire leadership and students will manage themselves. That went hand in hand with just having a well-planned lesson would keep everyone engaged in learning. With so much riding in my favor, like fully stocked supplies, I thought nothing could ruin the experience.
Yet it was before I taught students anything, or even had an icebreaker with them did things already begin to sour. My school had a tradition of having a day where students could meet their teachers before the first day of school. Each teacher had a booth where they had goodies to give out as they spoke with each prospective student. It was only after the event that I learned from my fellow 8th grade teacher that students wanted to move out of my classroom--or rather, it was their parents who made the call. They complained that they did not want to have a first year teacher for their children.
It didn't bother me too much since it turned out that many parents wanted to move their children into my class since I made a pretty good impression to many. The big idea is that parents wanted to have control over these decisions, yet in doing so, it undermined the authority of the school and furthermore, it painted a picture of me as ineffective and novice.
My administrators blocked all requests to move and my students got along with me for the first week or two. I had break-throughs in getting kids excited about physical science. Yet more parents continued to make requests to get their child out of my class. I sat in on a meeting with one of them. They cited things like how their child learned best with competition and rewards and how he was more of a bodily kinesthetic learner. I was able to cite many examples of how active we were in reviewing integers with physical movement, yet could not agree with them on using competition and rewards since that was like suggesting to me how I should teach. I solved this “PR” mess by inviting the parents to stay after the meeting to observe my teaching. All went well and I didn't hear anymore complaints from those parents.
Then my principal started visiting my classroom every day for observation. I’m very comfortable with visitors, and he offered good feedback that he liked what he saw. It was around this time, a few weeks into school that my students impression of me started to change. They didn't stand in straight lines (we walk students back to class), they took longer to recognize my attention cues, and they would pass around notes in class. My vice-principal suggested that I should take some time from instruction to do more icebreakers, just to get to know them more. This seemed out of place since given the timing. She gave me some questionnaires to use for gathering information I could integrate into lessons. I thought to myself, that there are some things that I could change about myself to make learning happen.
Yet spending that time on those activities pushed some other subjects off my planning. My students would talk to the students in the other 8th grade classroom and learn that we were “behind.” This inevitably spread to the parents who, again, took action to complain. This vicious cycle looks like this: parents had low expectations of me -> they complain -> I implement changes -> unintended consequences -> students start to have low expectations -> respect is lost -> classroom management is a nightmare.
In one incident, a boy had taken a red ribbon from Red Ribbon Week and put it in his hair. I asked him to remove it because it was distracting to those around him. He responded by asking why it's not okay. I repeated that it was distracting. It went in circles like this similar to one of your blog posts in a back-and-forth you had with a girl in your class. It was a mistake to go back and forth on such a ludicrous issue that should have been a simple situation. It just reinforced the defiance. I felt so angry at being disrespected, having an argument with a student. Then slowing down, I realized kids keep asking the same question because they just disagree with your reason. Only when I brought up that the ribbon symbolized something important and that much time had been wasted in the moment did he then remove it. The easy way out would have been to send him up to the principal right away, but I felt I “lost” no matter what.
In another incident, some girls were caught passing around notes in my classroom. I had a small conference with them after class, and before I uttered a word, the girl in question said “why are you singling me out?” as if I was the culprit and that she was the victim. I was reminded of an incident like this in your blog when it seems like students don't understand how harmful they can be to the learning time of other students. She proceeded to tell me that “other students were passing notes too,” and did not give away names. I was not happy with this and so I told her I would notify her parents. Unfortunately for me, the apple did not fall too far from the tree as her mom defended her daughter, asking, “you do know that you have students texting in your classroom?” I learned later that her mom was very vocal in a ring of daily emails between parents that nitpicked on everything that happened in class.
I started to feel that students didn't like me, that when parents complained, it started to bother me. I tried to take action to get on everyone's good side. I reorganized my classroom, got new furniture, set up classroom stations, even going so far as to seat more friends beside one another (that was a huge mistake). My principal explained that I was what he would call a “people-pleaser” since he was one too. A people-pleaser is someone who teaches or works best when everyone gets along or when everyone likes you. It really started getting to me that I could not manage my classroom because students had lost their respect for me. I had exhausted everything I felt I could do to please them.
That's how I burned out.
When I read your blog about the things you do in class, it seems like you, too, might be somewhat of a people-pleaser--which is not necessarily a bad thing. You've got fun cartoons on your white boards, you try new ways of learning/teaching, etc. I visited my university supervisor and shared all this with her and she said it was a cultural phenomenon. Depending on where you live and work, some places give more respect to the teacher, and others “worship” children. I happened to be working in a place that placed children on pedestals--such that it made me feel like if something was wrong, that it was a problem with me and that I had to change myself to fix it. By being too much of a people-pleaser with all my actions, it subverted my own self-respect. So not only did parents and students not have respect, but I too was contributing to my own demise by giving in to them.
I had received anonymous hate mail. My principal was not around to investigate and administrators from above him started visiting the schools, asking, “have you seen what they have been saying about our school on greatschools.org?” subtly communicating that I was the cause of it all. In trying to find out who was the sender, I started being suspicious of my students. It made me feel uneasy that I had to find out who hated me that much--that I too might not like my students. Then inside me, I started to hate teaching: I set up such a great learning environment, why don't they like it, and why don't they learn? How could my first job teaching be so malignant?
I phoned in a day-off just like you mention in your latest post. I thought taking one day off work would help me get myself together. Then I took another. It still wasn't enough, so I took one more. On that last day, I scheduled to meet with one of my administrators. At the time, I was distraught, telling him to “please find a good teacher for them” as I had lost confidence in my own ability to teach. I submitted my letter of resignation thereafter.
Since then, I went back to substitute teaching, which is where I originally fell in love with teaching and others discovered my talent. It has helped me regain my confidence and, most importantly, my love for students and teaching. Gone are the days of suspecting students of hate mail and being the gossip of bitter parents. I have concluded that somewhere out there is a school that can really appreciate the thoughtfulness I bring to the classroom. Resilience in the face of all those pressures is important, but you need to know your limits and how to uphold your dignity.
When you said you were feeling ineffective and helpless, that's like how I was when I thought I had done everything I could, yet it wasn't reciprocated or appreciated. I don't have much in terms of wisdom or advice, but I want to let you know that our stories might take different paths, but they seem to have that similarity. I guess, if I do have anything to share, it would be to take steps that make it so you like teaching, and that you're happy. For me that was taking a few days off and ultimately resigning. That might not be for everyone.